a product of my interactions with society

Erving Goffman was a Canadian sociologist whose book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life proposed an illuminating theory on identity and the concept of the self, outlining how our day-to-day interactions are merely us performing a role, and from which we gather a sense of self. Of all the theories of selfhood I studied for a test I had today, his was certainly the one that struck me the most.

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(Photo credit: scatterkeir)

Whereas some theorists (George H. Mead; Herbert Blumer) thought that it was our concept of self that influenced our behaviours and the meaning of our interactions, Goffman’s theory suggests that it is our actions that result in our sense of self. He outlines this through the metaphor of the theatre, claiming that we each act out certain roles in situations (e.g. mother, student, friend, doctor), and that in performing these characters, we get the product of the self. But the self is not the cause.

Though, he also identifies the concept of role distance, whereby a student who waitresses is not necessarily identifying as a waitress; she is maintaining a distance from that role and would still maintain the student face even in that context. So the roles become important by what we put into them, and how meaningful they are to our lives.

And this means, that we must all continually monitor our self-identity, and be watchful over the most trivial aspects of social behaviours. And we remedy any lapses with ‘response cries’ – the example used in the book I’m using for this subject (Anthony Elliot’s Concepts of the Self) uses the example of a woman walking past a door way and muttering a small “Oops!”. Saying ‘oops’ has no purpose and is not automatic, but she says it so that those around her are aware the she acknowledges her lapse and that it was only a small error, and not a sign of dysfunction.

The theory then goes on to explain constraints to self-expression, such as those in prisons and asylums, but they aren’t what really fascinates me.

I just feel like this theory really captures the way you can be so many different things at once, and how some days we really do seem to be performing mere actions of our roles, instead of doing things as we wish. You know, those days when you still follow your script when serving someone at a cafe, you make their coffee, maybe engage in some small talk. But, at that time, it just feels like only one part of who you are. Because later that day, you become the waited on.

At least, this is what I get out of the theory. I always find it hard to determine whether my thoughts on it are what was initially intended or meant when it was written.


1 thought on “a product of my interactions with society

  1. jvchris

    I really like this post. I recall coming across Goffman’s “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life” for class a few months ago. It posits a very interesting paradigm by which we can look at others and ourselves 🙂


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