Dramaturgical Analysis Research Paper Starter

Dramaturgical Analysis

This article will provide an overview of dramaturgical analysis. The article outlines the theory of Erving Goffman's analysis of social interaction in “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life”. A summary of the conceptual concepts of Goffman's work and a practical expression of these concepts within the dynamics of social interaction is also provided. This article also explores the significance of Goffman's ideas and writings. An explanation of the impact of Goffman's theories on the fields of sociology and psychology is included as well as a synopsis of subsequent research that confirmed many of Goffman's ideas and empirical critiques that questioned some of his conclusions. Specifically, this article explores some of the main criticisms that researchers have levied against Goffman's theories. These criticisms include the observation that Goffman's ideas do not account for the encounters an individual may have with subsets of their main audience wherein the individual assumes a partial "face" of the character or role normally played. This idea of fractional identities is a reality in daily life but is not covered in Goffman's writing. This article also summarizes the criticism that most individuals have a fluid concept of self that is constantly changing or is necessarily distinct from their authentic self because certain identities are assumed solely for a specific purpose or finite period of time. Lastly, this article explores the moral critique of Goffman's writings, which points out that not striving to live up to an authentic self is a morally inferior approach to life. Finally, this article discusses some of the applications of dramaturgical analysis. For instance, modern consumerism and simulated reality are both influenced by Goffman's theories.

Keywords Acting; Back Regions; Barriers to Perception; Character; Dark Secrets; Expressive Behavior; Front Regions; Given Acts; Given Off Acts; Impression Management; Inside Secrets; Performance Teams; Self; Social Self; Tact

Dramaturgical Analysis


Erving Goffman believed that individuals continually perform for each other during every day interactions. what others see is “rarely a person's "true self" but rather a contrived set of behaviors and props used to complete the performance” (1959, p. 22-24). Goffman termed this collection of behaviors and props the "front stage," which is what an individual continually shows to others. An individual's "backstage," is where the person can “relax, step out of character, and drop the act in an attempt to be more real” (p. 112), and is rarely seen by others. Goffman suggested that since the secret behavior of the person’s ‘performance’ is visible in the backstage where people behave out of character, the passages between backstage and front stage (which everyone can observe) must be kept closed to members of the audience. However, sometimes when an individual interacts with an audience member, he or she may unintentionally reveal a part of the backstage. Goffman calls this revelation a 'break in character.' These lapses “demonstrate that our interactions are in fact performances that occasionally suffer from spontaneous and unexpected peeks into our backstage areas” (Wosick-Correa and Joseph, 2008, p. 203).

The Presentation of Self

In Goffman's seminal work The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959), he describes the work that individuals do to project and maintain images of themselves during social interactions. This work, called impression management, is achieved through conscious, deliberate actions as well as through gestures and verbal and nonverbal communication. Many of the principles of Goffman's theory are patterned after dramatic and theatrical phrases and concepts. The following sections will describe Goffman's theory as well as its conceptual categories and practical expressions in more detail.


Although Goffman wrote broadly about the individual and social interactions, he is best known for his analysis of the ways in which individuals present and manage their identities and the impressions others have of them. In The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Goffman postulated that, depending on their audiences and desired objectives, individuals use impression management, or techniques to control and shape others' impressions of them, to fluidly shift in and out of various characters. Like an actor, individuals have an authentic self that is shielded from others and prepped for public performances in private (i.e. the "back stage"), and a public self that performs a character for audiences in the "front stage." In some instances, performers may move from one stage to another in a single environment. Goffman cited courtrooms, hospitals, and department stores as environments in which individuals may shift from back stage to front stage appearances by stepping into character to play out a role (Sarbin, 2003).

Goffman's work not only identified an individual's presentation of self as a social product but also suggested that while individuals are able to strategically manipulate their social situations and others' impressions of them, they are not entirely free to define their images of themselves. Rather, people's definitions of themselves are constrained by the statuses, roles, and relationships that the social order accords them. As a result, individuals can manage their own self and the impressions others have of them, but only within the social structures that they are accorded through birth, family, marriage, work, socioeconomic status, and other social constructs.

Conceptual Categories

Goffman (1959) coined a unique vocabulary to describe how people socially interact with one another. He drew many of his concepts from stagecraft. Impression management refers to the process through which an individual creates performances in which he or she becomes an actor within his or her own life. Through impression management, the individual carefully strives to present a convincing image of him or her self to dialogue partners and other audiences. In Goffman's view, men and women are less “individuals trying to enact conventional roles” than they are actors trying to be someone or something. Thus, behavior is often assumed rather than reflexive, and is used to further the impression the individual desires to convey to his or her audience.

Further, Goffman believed that people shift between what he called the front stage, or front regions, and the back stage, or back regions. Each of these regions is defined by barriers to perception. Performances are acted out in the front regions, while, in the back regions, actors consciously contradict the performances they give in the front regions. Impression management occurs on in the front regions, while in the back regions actors shed their assumed roles. These two regions can be divided by different kinds of barriers to perception depending on the social situation. In a restaurant, for example, the kitchen door may be a barrier dividing the dining room, a front region, from the kitchen, a back region. A server's behavior in the dining room may be polite and courteous, while in the kitchen he or she may mock or complain about the customers.

In addition, some expressive acts of the performer are "given" while others are "given off." Given acts are deliberate verbal and gestural behaviors that the actor performs to create a particular impression of himself or herself. Given off acts are unintended or unwitting expressions, and are mainly nonverbal. Both types of acts are important cues to dialogue partners and other audience members. Some individuals are capable of finely tuned impression management skills and can simulate acts that appear to be given off. The ability to simulate apparently reflexive emotional expressions challenges the claims that most facial and bodily emotional displays are not under the individual's control but are instinctive and often unbeknownst to the individual (Sarbin, 2003).

Practical Expression

The presentation of self through impression management is not an isolated experience, according to Goffman. In fact, in most real-life situations, actors are parts of performance teams in which individuals collaborate with one another to perform a role or function. For instance, a performance team may be a doctor and nurse, teacher and student, supervisor and employee, or even husband and wife.

Although the concept of a performance team is suggestive of cooperative, consensual and apparent conduct, Goffman also alleges that performance teams may create and harbor secrets. For instance, to facilitate their performance team members necessarily share inside secrets. Meanwhile, dark secrets are secrets that would undermine the team's performance, and thus must be kept hidden. Additionally, strategic secrets are information or plans that may be used against an adversary (Sarbin, 2003).

Goffman pointed out that teams rarely keep their secrets perfectly because the individuals constituting the team all perform divergent roles. In addition, the team may be infiltrated by what Goffman calls an informer, or a person who, gaining access to the team's backstage region, reveals the team's secrets to the audience watching the front stage region (Sarbin, 2003).

However, groups acting as performance teams can be highly effective. Members of groups or performance teams may be fully aware of their participation in the performance team, and members may even discuss among themselves how to enhance their roles or further the performance team's objectives. Goffman used the term staging talk to describe a discussion in which performance team members confer about the problems of staging a performance. For instance, the members might talk about how their most recent performance, a practice that is often intentionally done by corporate employees or athletes. Staging talk strengthens the team's morale, and helps members recover from poor performances (Sarbin, 2003).

Performance teams may even adjust their performance while in front of an audience, yet without the audience's knowledge of the practice. Goffman termed this subtle technique team collusion, describing it as a strategy through which team members communicate backstage information to one another while still maintaining their front stage performance. Through it, they can express thoughts that might be objectionable to the audience and undermine their performance (Sarbin, 2003).

Significance of Goffman's Theory

Goffman's theory on the presentation of self had an immediate and significant effect upon his contemporaries' research and discourse. Not only were his theories read and analyzed widely, his objective, nonjudgmental writing style was groundbreaking and highly acclaimed.

Impact on the Field

Goffman's central work, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, had a substantial and sustained impact on the fields of sociology and psychology. The book sold hundreds of thousands of copies worldwide and attained the status of a modern classic (Sarbin, 2003). Published in 1959, the book struck a chord with its proposition that human behavior was significantly shaped by the nuances of social situations. Up...

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