Social interactions in our day-to-day lives are what give society, and the people within it, meaning; this meaning helps us establish the manner in which we interact with others. These meanings are therefore contextual and situational and rely on the individual we interact with, and therefore vary in exact meaning, but are usually already objectified, and socially constructed pre-interaction. We undergo a correspondence between our different meanings until reaching some sort of consensus.
These interactions tell us how to respond to our current situation, and more importantly, how to behave in future interactions with a specific individual, or any individual that has similar characteristics; this however becomes riskier due to assumptions being made. In other words, an interaction is an opportunity for us to present ourselves in the way that we want to be perceived. It’s a two-way performance with social scripts that are constantly being revised to fit the current interaction.
Over the course of this paper I will support the idea of “Dramaturgy” (a term coined by Erving Goffman used to depict Social Life as a theatrical act) using three main ideas established in our recent readings; these being “The Social Construction Of Reality”, “Symbolic Interactionism”, and “The Presentation Of Self In Everyday Life”. The basis for how and why we present ourselves in social interactions lies primarily in the constructs of reality in our social surroundings.
In studying social interactions on a macro level, as Emile Durkheim has, it would be useful to look at the actual process of the social construction of reality, however as my focus – as well as Goffman’s – is on a micro level, the actual structure and way we perceive our current reality is significantly more important in explaining our personal social interactions. We grow up in a world where nearly all of the possible rules in our societies have been institutionalized, and are therefore ‘common knowledge’.
These are the rules that tell us how to react to situations within our expected reality, and how to interact with different types of people within it. We are rarely ever told of these institutionalized rules, and therefore we have to negotiate (refine) the rules of our reality during our face-to-face interactions. This is our way of sharing the here and now, which constantly helps us make sense of reality, whether physical or abstract, through how individuals perceive situations and respond emotionally to them.
We learn about the different categories of people (Schema), through our typification of them, based on their behavior, and categorized based on our sedimented interpretation of their behavior. 3 The way that we, as a society, perceive characteristics to form different ‘Schema’ allows us to form our own individual characteristics in order to be perceived by society in the way that we want to be.
Our social interactions may enable us to create this negotiated reality that we are to base our future interactions (performances) on, but they also rely on the early, unrefined presentations of ourselves to exist, which occur at the times when we have fewer interactions to base our performance on. So, in a way, our early interactions are stuck in a slowly unwinding – flawed – cycle between following social rules, and breaking them. This is perhaps why as we grow up we are constantly changing the manner in which we present ourselves as we gradually get a grasp on the way others in our social reality behave.
Interactions “with others in face-to-face situations are highly flexible” and shouldn’t have rigid patterns assigned to them. Even when they display recognizable characteristic defining signs, we will be constantly modifying our interpretation of their presentation due to their inimitable behavior. The flawed aspect of the cycle, that enables us to break out of it, is simply derived from the fact that we, as humans, have the ability to – when making a mistake/incorrect assumption – observe, learn and adapt.
The term for this ability that we instill in nearly all of our social interactions is “Symbolic Interactionism”. Our interactions with people help us define the societal meaning of three different types of objects in the world around us: Physical, Social and Abstract. These objects are important in understanding the presentation of others through the analysis of how they perceive objects, as well as forming our own presentation of how we perceive objects.
From a macro inter-societal viewpoint, physical objects generally have fixed meanings, with few exceptions. From a personal, micro viewpoint, the same object can mean many different things for different people. A prison, for example, is a different object to a prisoner, a prison guard, a member of the general public, and a government official, even though each individual has the same idea of what it is and why it exists. However, the values that each and every one of us embeds in physical objects vary undeniably from person to person.
During our symbolic interactions we observe other peoples’ reaction to physical objects and how they treat them, to learn about how they value said physical object. Depending on what impression of ourselves we want to give them, we will adapt and modify the apparent value that we give to said physical object. Social objects (the roles that people play in society) together with abstract objects (ideas and beliefs) vary in meaning and value from person to person, as well as between societies. Here’s an example that encompasses all three of the above object types.
If I stayed with a family in Senegal without knowing anything about the country’s culture, I would have to be constantly symbolically interacting to get a grip on their values in order to fit in as much as possible, and as a result, co-exist respectfully. The natives present themselves and their unspoken social rules to guide me by example. Say I’m having my first meal with this family and it gets to the point where I’m somewhat full; I stop eating even with some food still left on my plate and proceed to wait for them to finish.
This is because I grew up in a society where food has some value, but you stop eating when you feel ready to. I then observe that they, however, make sure that their plates are completely clear of food, and then begin waiting for me. It’s at this point that I learn that their value that they give to food is much higher than that which I give to food. So I adapt and finish the rest of my meal and every other one that I have in my time in my time there, whether pleasurable or not. After spending a few months there and gaining their respect, I become very sick.
The family insists on taking me to a shaman-healer, and in my sick state I rudely refuse and demand a ‘real’ doctor. This is because in my society, the reality is that shamanism is seen as a cult that uses fictional “chaos magic”. Therefore the social role of a shaman-healer is given very little value in my reality. But through the bewilderment that the family presents me with, I come to learn that it is a highly respected position in their society. So I adapt and give it a chance; the result of which is irrelevant.
Whilst shaman-healers are social objects, the idea of shamanism and belief in it is and abstract object. The family and the people within their socially constructed reality defend their belief in shamanism because it’s an idea that has been engraved in their lives. I observe and learn this through the way that they passionately talk about it. My improved understanding of how they value shamanism is a result of their presentation in my interactions with them. While I may go home still not believing in it, the idea of shamanism as an abstract object will have a modified meaning to me.
Objects in all categories can undergo change in their meaning”, especially when we experience objects in a different society that’s objects have had a different ‘social process’ than that we’re familiar with. Life is a performance; we are constantly presenting ourselves to an audience to be perceived the way that we want to be. Whether as a polite member of one society that’s open to a new one – shown in the example above – or as a dumb, unambitious ‘bimbo’ – as shown in parts of “Mean Girls” – we are incessantly modifying our presentation to attain the image of ourselves that we want.
We often misrepresent ourselves, or create a ‘front’. Some would say that you lose yourself in doing this, but as Erving Goffman believes, the ‘self’ is made up of nothing more than “Self Presentations” and “Role Performances”. Who you try to make yourself out to be to your audience is as much apart of the ‘self’ as whom you make yourself out to be when the only audience member is you. Since we are often pre-occupied with the impression that we make on others, a common outcome is that our supposed ‘front’ can easily overlap into our ‘zone of transition’ between the front and back stage of our social performance.
Regardless of whether what we are presenting is our calculated front stage activity, or is our ‘real’ back stage self, when we present ourselves in social situations – play a part in the theatrical performance that is social life (Dramaturgy) – we request our observers to believe the impression that we present them with. As Goffman believes, we create our ‘self’ from our interactions between us (actor) and them (audience) essentially in our performance. We may modify our performance in the front based on the audience to support our intended presentation, which in turn will have an effect on us overall.
Our ability to put on a ‘front’ relies heavily on our understanding of the reality that is institutionalized in our society; the first theory that I presented. We need to be aware of what the unwritten rules are, and in what way the sedimentation of different characteristics leads to the way we typify people, because when performing we want to show specific characteristics in order to be typified in a specific way. This understanding has similar importance in social presentation (Dramaturgy) as our ability to symbolically interact with people.
Dramaturgy stems much more directly from this ability, but our power to interact in that way is reliant on our understanding of our social reality. A unique ‘self’-less presentation that we occasionally give requires the performer to act with “expressive responsibility”. I say ‘self’-less because the “expressive responsibility” of the performer is to consciously choose the way that they present themselves to the audience, with them knowing that the performer is “acting” a part that isn’t him/her ‘self’. A common example of this is when we make an impression of someone else, maybe when quoting him or her.
Another crucial idea that Goffman seems to apply to his analysis of our everyday presentation (interpersonal relations) is the Durkheimian’s “theory of rituals”. Durkheim uses rituals to explain the macro level of societal coercion towards establishing ‘norms’. His ideas touch upon those of Goffman and Berger & Luckmann – even though he died more than fifty years before their works were published – when establishing what the ‘norm’ is in our reality, how we attain it, and subsequently present it or base our presentation on it.
However Durkheim does so from a societal standpoint, treating the objective society as sacred in his arguments, whilst Goffman goes more into the micro level of our social presentation, through his allocation of the ‘self’ as “a sacred object, which must be treated with proper ritual care”. While George Herbert Mead validly interprets our social interactions – being the actor or audience – as an opportunity “to grasp what each other is doing or plans to do” for the sole purpose directing our own acts accordingly, I feel that he misses Goffman’s point.
We do indeed modify how we present ourselves – or as Mead puts it, “act” – when interacting, however we do so for a purpose that is vastly more important than the act itself. This is “to create and sustain” the “personal impression” – or front – that we insist on presenting. 7+ Whilst all the ideas that I’ve incorporated in my argument are from different authors and at different times, I get the impression that they all worked a ot off each other when developing their own ideas. They do at points clash, but they rarely refute one another. For the most part, for the later ideas to exist, they needs the basis of earlier ones; for example, Blumer’s theory of “Symbolic Interactionism” is built upon Berger & Luckmann’s ideas on “The Social Construction Of Reality”, because Symbolic Interactionism revolves around people interacting in order to understand and refine their own thoughts on their social reality.
In the case of Goffman, his ideas on “The Presentation Of Self In Everyday Life” was published a decade before the others mentioned above. He laid a lot of the groundwork for those to follow, as he introduces the idea of ‘self’ performance with the purpose of modifying your reality, within the socially constructed roles, in the eyes of an audience, your audience.