Admirable Echoes: Intellectual Debts of Dramaturgical Sociology

By Tony N. Buell
2011, Vol. 3 No. 03 | pg. 1/1


Erving Goffman (June 11, 1922 – November 19, 1982) left an indelible imprint on contemporary sociological theory and research. Discourse on the intellectual roots of his dramaturgical approach tends to position Goffman within the school of symbolic interactionism. Textual analysis of Goffman and Herbert Blumer reveals both similar and contrasting intellectual debts. Exposition of the key concepts of “self,” “frame,” “situation,” “impression management,” “teams,” and “regions” reveals the error in situating Goffman squarely within the symbolic interactionist paradigm. American pragmatism and Durkheimian structuralism must be acknowledged as foundational building blocks of the dramaturgical perspective.


Goffman’s contribution to the sociological canon was the empirical establishment and conceptual expansion of the social facticity of face-to-face interaction. This level of phenomena is generally dissociated from psychological variables properly so-called, tending instead toward a sociology of the micro-order. An appropriate analogy for purposes of description and explanation is the oft-quoted line from Shakespeare’s As You Like It[i]. However, the implications of the theatrical analogy can be stretched only to a degree. Goffman’s work and its theoretical debts remain obscure. His oeuvre is too often mistakenly positioned within the school of symbolic interactionism. The core dramaturgical concepts of “impression management,” “teams” and “regions” must be understood in the intellectual context of a parallel but never equal lineage originating from Durkheimian structuralism and American pragmatism.

This essay contrasts the pivotal concept of self as employed by each Goffman and Blumer. The salient purpose of the section entitled “Self as Symbol” is to situate each conception within both convergent and divergent schools of thought. The proceeding section, entitled “The Show Must Go On,” is subdivided into Impression Management and Teams and Regions. The frames of reference used throughout this essay progress outward in social complexity from self and role to team and region.

Self as Symbol

The constructs and intellectual contexts of the micro-sociologies of symbolic interactionism and dramaturgical sociology contain much nuance and are not always clearly distinguished. For example, both Blumer and Goffman conceive of the self as a key variable in any situation. The self, as respectively either a symbolic object or effect, is neither properly objective nor located subjectively within the individual. It is instead for the former a intersubjective possession of the individual to be voluntarily indicated to, and for the latter a mask constructed by society. It is always something that, as individuals, we are continually orienting our behavior toward.

During any encounter of symbolic interaction, two or more social actors are involved in the voluntary achievement of a unique situation. This given situation has never existed before, and as result of the posited indeterminacy of human relations will never again occur with precisely the same dynamics. Neither psychological dispositions nor structural variables generate the intersubjectivity of the situation. The “me” interprets this idiosyncratic encounter and the “I” orients her or his behavior towards such an interpretation. Blumer’s theory and methodology is an extension of the pragmatic branch of philosophy. This empirically falsifiable American school is often attributed to William James, W.I. Thomas, John Dewey, and G.H. Mead among others.

By virtue of his graduate training at the University of Chicago, Goffman is indeed indebted to the pragmatic sociology of Mead and Cooley. Therefore, his theory does not represent as much of a wholly unique paradigm as some have argued[ii]. This statement is not intended to force Goffman into the symbolic interactionist framework, but rather to recognize and appreciate the parallels. For example, both Blumer and Goffman sought to counter the hegemonic method of deciphering face-to-face behavior through the psychological constitution of the actors, including such determinants as cognition, motivation and attitude.

The dramaturgical approach seeks nomological explanations, frames of analysis, as well as analogies between micro- and macro-structures. The self, or more accurately selves, is an institutionally constructed mask that is socially foisted upon individuals. Although a person can exert a degree of voluntarism, she or he overwhelmingly refrains from doing so in order to prevent embarrassment. An actor’s position or location in the social structure vis-à-vis status categories of race, class, gender and age generate the masks that are worn within the variety of social establishments in which we live our lives. The self is involved in a perpetual string of theatrical fronts in which appearance and manner function to maintain particular definitions of the situation. These dramaturgical productions serve as ceremonial bonds of etiquette that unite society[iii]. This role of the self in the cohesion of society is wholly absent from any symbolic interactionist interpretation and furthermore sets Goffman within a synthetically original paradigmatic approach to the study of human relations. Use of the term “original” is not meant to imply that this paradigm was formulated in a vacuum. Quite contrarily, the role of ceremony in social cohesion is a central tenet of structuralism, indicating such scholars as Durkheim, Radcliffe-Brown, Parsons and Merton. Goffman’s brilliant synthesis of pragmatic and structuralist conceptions of the self places him in the deserved rank as one of the most influential intellectuals in the history of sociology.

The Show Must Go On

Impression Management
As Goffman would have it, social actors play information games of expression and impression. Although actors express verbal signs indicating whom they are and how they are to be treated, the dramaturgical analysis is concerned with the nontraditional range of expressions that are given off. Expressions of an actor, such as acts of deference and demeanor, make impressions upon an audience regarding the range of conduct appropriate to a particular situation. Examples of demeanor include an actor’s clothing, muscular control and bodily posture, hygiene and grooming habits, as well as speech mannerisms, including dialect, intonation and elocution. Such components of appearance convey the type and degree of deference the actor expects in social interaction. Deference, as either presentation ritual or avoidance ritual, is a token of respect offered toward another actor’s self. For example, addressing a relatively higher status-categorized actor with a formal title falls under the latter ritual type; smiling at an equally status-categorized colleague in passing exemplifies the former.

Central to understanding information games is the Durkheimian distinction between the sacred and the profane, writ micro. According to Goffman (1967: 47), “[Durkheim] suggests that the individual’s personality can be seen as one apportionment of the collective mana.” In other words, modern Western society places the individual personality into the realm of the sacred. The gods of premodernity, themselves representations of the conscience collective, have devolved into Simmelian ideal spheres around each of us. To transgress the social distance apportioned to an individual commensurate upon social status is to profanate the cult of the individual. Proper demeanor signifies the social distance expected of others, while proper deference is respect for another’s ideal sphere. Social actors tend to express as sacred of a self as their status, the setting and situation allow. To “misrepresent” a more sacred self than these factors permit is generally thwarted by the impetus of preventing status degradation.

Teams and Regions
Thus far, this essay has focused wholly on individual actors with respect to roles, performances and impression management. It is necessary to proceed toward an analysis of teams and regions. Goffman himself may not appreciate this reverse approach, as he sought to work inward from the frame to the individual role. “The concept of frame leads Goffman to think of individuals as ‘supports’ for the continued existence of social structures” (Gonos 1977: 866). The current analysis aims to highlight Goffman’s divergence from the pragmatic roots of his thought. The theories of symbolic interactionism vis-à-vis Blumer tend to avoid making patterned generalizations from one situation to another[iv]. In contrast, Goffman divided patterned interaction into three regions: front stage, back stage and the outside region. Only the former two will be considered here.

Teams of actors co-operate in the front region to project a consensual working definition of the situation. Logically speaking a team may consist of as few as one actor, or in some cases a setting with no actors. However, generally speaking a team is composed of co-participants bonded by both reciprocal dependence and familiarity who strive, often though not always unconsciously, to cast creditable expressions toward the audience. The audience is also a team unto itself, defined as such through lack of control over the setting of the routine. Using the performance as the point of reference, an audience co-operates with the performing team to maintain the expressed definition of the situation. Preservation is accomplished through the impression management technique of tact. The performing team aides the audience’s tact through a protective process Goffman refers to as “tact regarding tact.” Such a dynamic process among actors, roles, teams and setting in the front stage functions to conserve a type of interactional equilibrium.

Comparable to actual theatrical performances, once the show concludes the actors proceed to the backstage and role relaxation commences. Within this phenomenologically bracketed region, “regressive behavior” makes a habitual appearance; roles are openly contradicted and mocked, audiences are ceremonially derogated, destructive information such as strategic and inside secrets are openly discussed. In reference to front stage behavior, actors ritually cast aside both politeness and decorum. However, Goffman fails to provide sufficient depth to the logical notion that the backstage in many ways also functions as an alternatively bracketed front stage. When the preceding assertion is followed to its logical extreme, it may be concluded that there really is no true backstage, no true relaxation of roles in all myriad forms, nor any region where a social actor can experience “real reality.” Regions are therefore always relative and relational. However, it is not the purpose of Goffman’s sociology to unveil the unsocialized self behind the mask, but rather to seek the objective techniques used to maintain impressions of reality, as well as how such realities can be cracked and shattered through disruption.


The conceptual scaffold that Erving Goffman constructs must be properly situated at the point of convergence between the adversarial schools of Durkheimian structuralism and the lineage traversing American pragmatism and symbolic interactionism. Dramaturgical concepts of “impression management,” “teams” and “regions” are often mistakenly positioned within a purely Blumerian symbolic interactionism. Reconceptualization of “frame” into “situation” results in obscurity and confusion. As Goffman (1959: 36) informs us: “The world, in truth, is a wedding.” Reality is a repertoire of pre-established roles, a ceremony to be orchestrated as if achieved, and a stage upon which we display to the world the ideal facts that others perceive we ought to perceive they should perceive of us.


---. 1969. Symbolic Interactionism: Perspective and Method. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc.

---. 1967. “The Nature of Deference and Demeanor.” Pp 47-95 in Interaction Ritual: Essays on Face-To-Face Behavior. NY: Anchor.

---. 1983. “The Interaction Order: American Sociological Association, 1982 Presidential Address.” American Sociological Review 48(1): 1-17.

Blumer, Herbert. 1958. “Race Prejudice as a Sense of Group Position.” The Pacific Sociological Review 1(1): 3-7.

Goffman, Erving. 1959. The Presentation Self in Everyday Life. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc.

Gonos, George. 1977. “‘Situation’ Versus ‘Frame’: The ‘Interactionist’ And The ‘Structuralist’ Analyses of Everyday Life.” American Sociological Review 42(6): 854-867.

Shakespeare, William. 2005. “As You Like It: Act 2, Scene 7.” The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, Retrieved February 7, 2010 (

[i] Act II, Scene VII: “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 man parts, His acts being seven ages.” (Shakespeare, 2005)

[ii] See Gonos’ discussion of “alternative paradigm.” (1977: 855)

[iii] Although Goffman often refuses to directly connect the micro-order to the cohesion of the macro-order (see “The Interaction Order” p. 8-9), he does often allude to this when discussing Durkheimian ceremony (see “Deference and Demeanor” p. 90-95).

[iv] For an insightful exception to this rule, see Blumer (1958).

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