“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances, and one man in his time plays many parts, his acts being seven ages. ” This familiar exert from Shakespeare’s AsYou Like It, captures the essence of dramaturgy, a model of society which depicts social interactions as those of actors in a theatrical presentation before an audience in a given setting(Ferrante 2011).
Goffman’s theory, which expanded on Kenneth Burke’s dramatistic approach, may be divided into six themes: the performance, the region, the team, discrepant roles, communication out of character, and impression management (Manning 1992). Firstly, Goffman identifies seven elements of performance: belief in the role that is being played, the front or ‘mask’, dramatic realization, idealization, maintenance of expressive control, misrepresentation, and mystification. For instance, let us consider the example of a young man going for a job interview.
As he seeks to assume the role of an ideal employee (idealization), he tries (in his performance) to convey a certain image about himself through his dress, his speech, and his expressions (his front), emphasizing those things that he wants the interviewers to know (dramatic realization). He has to maintain control over these expressions throughout the interview (maintenance of expressive control). Any lapse in his performance in that role (misrepresentation) may lead to him revealing those things that he has been trying to conceal (mystification).
Secondly, Goffman describes that there are different stages or ‘regions’ in society. In the same example of the young man going through the interview, the room where he is before the interviewers would be the ‘front stage’, where both actors and audience are present and where actors, engaged in their performance, take care to maintain their images and behavior (Ferrante 2011). When the same young man is at home in his home clothes, engaging in informal conversation with his friends or playing football, this is would ‘back stage’.
Thirdly, Goffman speaks of the ‘team’ in his writings, defining them as ‘any set of individuals who co-operate in staging a single routine’ . An example can be seen as how many Barbadian adults try to create an impression of their socio-economic status around Christmas time to try to fool their visiting relatives. The adults in some families may work together, through obtaining furniture for two weeks on hire purchase, wearing expensive clothes, and visiting expensive restaurants.
The ‘team’ has to be consistent in their performance, and a mistake by any one persons in the presence of the audience (relative from overseas) can lead to the whole performance failing. Fourthly, Goffman describes how persons may play different roles in concealing the secrets in the performance or in revealing themii. An example of oneof the discrepant roles which Goffman discusses is the ‘Shill’ who represents someone who behaves as though they were a member of the audience, but actually is in league with the performers .
For example, in the case of the young interviewee, if he had a relative among the interviewers who was trying to tactfully coerce his fellow colleagues that this young man was all that he portrayed himself to be, he would be performing the role of the Shill. Other discrepant roles are the ‘informer’, the ‘spotter’ and the ‘go-between’ii. Fifthly, when we speak of ‘communication out of character’, this may be intentional or unintentional. When it is intentional, this would usually occur backstage where the actors ‘let their hair down’ and stop ‘performing’.
On the other hand it may be unintentional, where the actors slip up and do or say something out of character while on front stage. This may ruin their performance. To illustrate communication out of character, Goffman uses the example of the behavior of waiters in a restaurant. Their actions, behavior and attitude towards the customers when they are serving them may be totally different when they are ‘backstage’ in the kitchen (Ferrante 2011). Lastly, one of the most important elements of dramaturgy is impression management.
This refers to the process by which people in situations of social interaction use their clothes, setting, words, gestures to communicate the image that they are trying to convey to the persons around them (Ferrante 2011). Goffman describes how individuals seek to manipulate their manners, words and even facial expressions to convey the image they want to convey of themselves to their audience. Goffman describes the use of ‘sign-vehicles’ or ‘carriers’, which would be the props (such as clothes, accessories or accent) used by the actors to create the desired impression.
When the family above purchased the furniture on hire purchase to convey to their relatives that they were wealthy, they were practising impression management using the furniture as a sign-vehicle. In conclusion, Goffman’s theory of dramaturgy provides a creative insight into the face-to-face interaction of humans. While Blumer is credited for symbolic interactionism, Goffman’smicrosociological view of society could be termed‘strategic interactionism’(Manning 1992). Though the theory may accurately represent human interaction, one should still note that honesty is always the best policy.
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