The Social Art of Dramaturgy

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An article based on the concept of 'Dramaturgy', a theory coined by Erving Goffman in his book,'The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life which stated that we as individuals are all actors and we all have our parts to play in life and our status changes according to where we are and who we are with.

Submitted: December 30, 2013

A A A | A A A

Submitted: December 30, 2013



The Social Art of Dramaturgy



“All the worlds 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”


(William Shakespeare, As You Like It, 

Act 2, Scene 7)



Symbolic interaction is a framework used for building theory that views society as products of everyday interactions of individuals. Society is seen as nothing more than the reality that people construct for themselves as they interact with each other. Human beings live in a world made up of symbols; meaning is attached to virtually everything, so that we create our own reality. In doing so, we define our surroundings, decide what we think of others and shape our own identities.

Interpretive sociology is the study of society that focuses on meanings people attach to their social world, how people understand their actions and their surroundings. Reality is therefore considered to be subjective as it is constructed by people in the course of their everyday lives and involves how people understand and make sense of their world.

Out of this the Sociologist Erving Goffman developed his dramaturgical analysis whereby he described how human beings resemble actors performing on a stage as we go through life and play our various roles. Dramaturgical analysis is the study of social interaction in terms of theatrical performance. It concerns concepts of status and role. A status resembles a part in a play and a role is a script supplying dialogue and action for the characters. Goffman described each person's performance as 'the presentation of self' which is a person's efforts to create specific impressions in the minds of others, sometimes called 'impression management'.

As we present ourselves in everyday situations, it resembles a personal performance. We reveal information to others both consciously and unconsciously in the way we dress (our costume), the objects we carry (our props) and our tone of voice and the way in which we carry ourselves (our demeanour). We vary our performances accordingly to where we happen to be (the set), we may joke loudly at a sporting event or during a shopping trip however, we lower our voices when entering a library or religious venue. People design settings such has homes and offices in order to bring about the desired reactions of others.

Performing to an audience does not just include face to face behaviour; people use social networking websites to craft how they present themselves to others. Goffman talks about front and back regions, for example, we consider a school setting, the front region would be the classroom, where teachers interact with students throughout the day, it is a formal setting, the back region would be the staff room, where teachers retire to during lunchtime or before and after the school day, it is less formal, where teachers can talk about everyday things or discuss their students behaviour without being overheard. A teachers’ props could be their briefcase denoting they are in a professional occupation, text books, or marked homework, a teachers appearance might also differ as they may dress formally in a suit during the school day, but on a ‘teacher training’ day when no children are present, they may dress less formally in jeans and a sweatshirt. A teachers title may also differ, children would address teachers as ‘Sir’ or ‘Miss’ and when other children are around teachers would address each other as Miss or Mr X, however, in the staff room teachers would be on first name terms when addressing each other.

Goffman suggests that we construct performances to idealise our intentions and we try to convince others that our actions reflect ideal cultural standards rather than selfish motives. For example, a teacher may claim they are doing this particular job as they believe in educating the adults of tomorrow, helping them to gain employment with good career prospects, however, in reality, a teacher may be doing the job because the money is not bad and the holidays are good, which means they have more time to do what they want to do, when they want to do it. This suggests that some people idealise their chosen careers not for the greater good, but for less honourable motives.

Sometimes we have to ease our way through social interactions, such as telling little lies or smiling and making polite remarks to people whom we dislike. We are also acutely aware to avoid embarrassment.  Goffman describes embarrassment as ‘losing face’; this is seen as an ever present danger as idealized performances typically contain deception.  An audience often overlooks flaws in a performance allowing the actor to avoid embarrassment. Sometimes members of the audience help the performer recover from a flawed performance through using tact. Embarrassment creates discomfort not only for the actor but also for everyone else. Just as the audience feels uneasy when an actor forgets a line, people who observe the awkward behaviour of others are often reminded of how fragile their own performances are. Goffman showed that although behaviour is spontaneous, in some respects it is more considered than we like to think.

In essence, we all have our different roles to play as we navigate our way through life, mother, father, sister, brother, wife, husband, daughter, son, teacher, retail assistant, carer, friend. All are equally important roles at that moment in time, at a certain stage of the day. These roles are interchangeable and we revert to them without giving them much thought, they are part of being an actor and with the aid of props these roles become second nature once we have learned the script. Erving Goffman’s concept of dramaturgy became influential in how we as actors play our various parts in everyday life and our success depends on the props we use, how well we have learnt the script and how good a performance we give the audience.




Giddens, A. (2010) in Sutton, PW. (eds) Sociology Introductory Readings. Cambridge: Polity Press

Goffman, E. (1990) The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. London: Penguin

Macionis, JJ. (2005) Society the Basics. London: Pearson Education Ltd

Quinn, B. (2011) Social network users have twice as many friends online as in real life.

© Copyright 2019 Val Mansell. All rights reserved.

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