39 pages 1 hour read

Erving Goffman

The Presentation Of Self In Everyday Life

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 1959

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life is a sociological study of the ways individuals encounter each other. Published in 1956 by Erving Goffman, it focuses on the relationship between an individual carrying out a particular role in society (what Goffman calls a “performance”) and those who are present but not participant (whom he calls “observers”) in the activity. While the text begins with a general introduction to Goffman’s methodology, with Chapter 1 solely an analysis of the individual performer, Goffman’s larger aim is to outline the various ways groups of performers (what he calls “performance teams” or “teams”) interact with themselves and with observers, with the aim of fostering a specific and clear impression on the viewers.

By focusing on the larger group dynamics within a given social setting, Goffman successfully accounts for various phenomena that are largely taken for granted or seen as unworthy of rigorous academic study: the economic, racial, and gendered relations between workers and their boss; the role played by architecture and space in the staging of a performance; the various techniques and habits cultivated by performers to avoid any disruption to the situation; and so forth. Moreover, Goffman classifies the more marginal actors and observers that one may come across in everyday social settings (or what he calls “discrepant roles”). Additionally, by focusing on the interaction within and between performance teams and their audience, Goffman provides a detailed description of the various ways any given performer is continuously shifting between different modes of communication, such as formal in the presence of an audience and informal in the presence of fellow performers.

This discrepancy between communication styles allows Goffman to engage in an ethnography of the ways any given social interaction always contains more than what the audience simply experiences. Thus, we hear stories of kitchen staff who dry their clothes over the stoves, or stories of how workers gossip behind the back of a customer who frequents their place of business. It is only by focusing on every possible position within a social situation that one can account for all of these interactions that, from the vantage point of the audience or a customer, are kept largely out of view.

However, Goffman’s main point is how we should understand this notion of the “self.” For Goffman, we should remember that among the various social interactions we have only a daily basis, the performances we encounter are not identical to the individuals carrying out those roles. Rather, the self that is given by a performer is always the image of an individual who is better or worse than the ideal person for their role. Thus, Goffman concludes with two implications. First, we should be careful not to treat someone’s performance as a reflection of their moral character or as a summation of the whole of their being. Second, we should remind ourselves that the self is merely a product of everything that goes into sustaining and carrying out a performance. As Goffman writes, “The self is a product of all of these arrangements, and in all of its parts bears the marks of this genesis” (253).

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