Thoughts, writing & snippets

Marguerite Koole, PhD

Gergen’s Comments on Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life

mkoole, · Categories: Identity, PhD Studies, Research · Tags: , , , , , ,

Gergen, K. J. (2009). An Invitation to Social Construction (p. 200). Los Angeles, CA: Sage Publications. Retrieved from http://www.amazon.ca/gp/product/1412923018/ref=oss_product.

I’ll start at the end of Gergen’s comments: “. . . while fascinating in its implications, and deeply social in its perspective, this is scarcely an acceptable alternative to individualism” (p. 91). What is so disturbing about Goffman’s dramaturgical approach to identity, you ask?

In my own earlier work on identity, I used Goffman’s dramaturgical strategies extensively and found them very helpful in potentially understanding how people interact. See for example: http://www.lancs.ac.uk/fss/organisations/netlc/past/nlc2010/abstracts/Koole.html (Also, a book chapter on this should be coming out this year.)

Gergen correctly summarizes that “Goffman’s approach . . . paints a picture of social life as a stage, where we all perform for each other, knowing at the same time that what we seem is never quite who we are” (p. 91). But, I’m not in complete agreement when he writes “Goffman’s analysis suggests that we are much like con artists, trying to con others into believing we are who we present ourselves to be . . . sincerity itself is just like another con . . .” (p. 91).

In my reading of Goffman’s book, Goffman seems to take a more neutral stance with regard to performances, recognizing that the performers may choose to be honest or dishonest:

“A status, a position, a social place is not a material thing, to be possessed and then displayed; it is a pattern of appropriate conduct, coherent, embellished, and well articulated. Performed with ease or clumsiness, awareness or not, guile or good faith, it is nonetheless something that must be enacted and portrayed, something that must be realized” (Goffman, 1959, p. 75).

While Goffman acknowledged the possibility of performances being intentionally misleading, he also acknowledged how difficult it would be to do so. Overt performances, let alone duplicity, are difficult to accomplish and demand personal energy. Overt performances require interpretations of not only how people express themselves, but also interpretations of their actions, histories, and contexts:

Performance takes energy: “The problem of dramatizing one’s work involves more than merely making invisible costs visible. The work that must be done by those who will fill certain statuses is often so poorly designed as an expression of a desired meaning, that if the incumbent would dramatize the character of his role, he must divert an appreciable amount of his energy to do so” (Goffman, 1959, p. 32 ).

An example: “‘The attentive pupil who wishes to be attentive, his eyes riveted on the teacher, his ears open wide, so exhausts himself in playing the attentive role that he ends up by no longer hearing anything.’ And so individuals often find themselves with the dilemma of expression versus action” (Goffman, 1959, p. 33 ).

This quote is particularly poignant in expressing the seriousness of presentation mistakes: “When an individual appears before others, he knowingly and unwittingly projects a definition of the situation, of which a conception of himself is an important part. When an event occurs which is expressively incompatible with this fostered impression, significant consequences are simultaneously felt in three levels of social reality [personality, interaction, and society], each of which involves a different point of reference and a different order of fact” (Goffman, 1959, p. 242 ).

In my notes on Goffman’s book, a significant aspect of his dramaturgical approach is that duplicity is accomplished through the same relational acts as authentic portrayals:

“. . . a successful staging of either of these types of false figures involves the use of real techniques— the same techniques by which everyday persons sustain their real social situations. Those who conduct face to face interaction on a theater stage must meet the key requirements of real situations; they must expressively sustain a definition of the situation: but this they do in circumstances that have facilitated their developing an apt terminology for the interactional tasks that all of us share” (Goffman, 1959, p. 255).

I interpret this last sentence in the above quote to imply that even falsehood is based upon some premise of social “reality” (pardon the use of the word reality). So, the question is to what degree is a misleading performance an untrue performance? Is this not just another element of relationship?

 

References

Goffman, E. (1959). The presentation of self in everyday life. Garden City, NY: Doubleday Anchor Books.

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