Sociology BA LLB for Sociology Notes

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Erving Goffman: Symbolic interactionism

Theory One: Basic Requirements for Social Interactions

Goffman argued that a normal person required to have four basic skills to have a normal interaction in society. These four rules are :

One. Situational Propriety
Goffman argued that for a normal interaction to take place a person should have knowledge on how to act and react spontaneously in different social situations. They must know how to perform appropriate action. For example Mr. J was dancing in a club and laughing but suddenly his not very close friend came to him and told him ‘you know J my uncle pass away 10 minutes ago due to heart attack’. After this if Mr .J reacts by saying ‘that is so bad’ and if he keeps on dancing then this is his absence of ‘situational propriety’. Due to it his relationship with his friend could be permanently damaged.

Two. Involvement
While in interaction the people involved in it must show that they are fully involved in the interaction. If they project that they are not fully involved in the interaction then this could prevent a development of a good social relationship. For example while in conversation if a person constantly uses mobile phone and constantly cuts short the talk then such behavior project the lack of involvement. For example.

Mrs. A: Hi W, how are you ? Do know I got a job in World Bank

Mrs. C : Really ? Please wait I need to pick up this call (she talks in mobile for 5 minutes then she looks at Mrs. A and says) which bank ?

Mrs. A: Its world bank.

Mrs. C: So your husband got job in world bank?

Mr. A: No its me.

Mrs. C : You should start working to. By the way do you know where to find a cab. Oh look there is a cab. I need to go. Bye and please make sure that you look for a job. I can help you in that.

In the above conversation Mr.s C failed to show her full involvement in the social interaction and as result will not develop a good relationship with Mrs. A in the future.

Three. Civil inattention

Sometimes during social interaction there are situations in which we need to act in such way that it looks like as if we didn’t see/hear/touch what we saw/heard/touched. For example in a party a guest accidently drops a wine glass and breaks it. In such situation a host will act as if he didn’t see it or if he sees it then he will act as if it didn’t matter to him. This action of not paying attention to the event so that social relationship is maintained is called ‘civil-inattention’. Civil inattention is also used while interacting with strangers. For example when strangers comes and talk to Mrs. L then she will give full attention to him and give him her phone number, email, home address and ask him to take care and so on. What she will do is to politely listen to the stranger and pay as little attention to him as possible.

Four. Accessible

To have a good social relationship the people involved in the interaction must be accessible. That means they must not be difficult to contact. If they become difficult to contact and get involved in conversation then there is very little possibility for the development of a good social relationship.

Five: Felicity Condition

‘Felicity Condition’ is a verbal or bodily gestures or both that makes other people feel that they are not having a conversation with ‘strangers’ but with a person they can trust and rely on. For example if a Mr. X. comes to Mr. Y. and tells him that ‘I couldn’t get admission in HHH college because I was ten minutes late’. Hearing this if Mr. Y. replies that ‘We know each other for only two days but you seem to be a hardworking person. I will get you in HHH college. Don’t worry about how I am going to do this. My father owns this college’. This gesture of Mr. Y will help to build a good relationship with Mr. X.

Theory Two: Dramaturgy

For Erving Goffman (1922–1982), the metaphor of life as theater is rich in meaning. He sees all human interaction as, in some ways, very much like a drama on stage. The brilliant insight that makes Goffman’s book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959) so significant is that this process, which he believes lies concealed deepwithin every interaction, is familiar to all of us in the form of the theater. In a play, actors try to convey to an audience a particular impression of the world around them. Through the use of scripted dialogue, gestures, props, costumes, and so on, actors create a new reality for the audience to consider. It is Goffman’s claim that if we understand how a contemporary American actor can convey an impression of a vampire in a horror movie then we can also understand how a businessman / banker / policeman / teacher / students tries to act like a professional operating with a combination of expert knowledge and goodwill. If we can understand how two paid actors convince us that they are madly in love in Romeoand Juliet, we can understand how flight attendants manage and use their emotions for commercial gain.

The role

The role is the particular image that a single actor wants to convey. It is the sense of self, that the individual wants to project to the world. For example, to effectively sell car, one must adopt the role of the dedicated and knowledgeable professional who knows a lot about car and who is trustworthy to sell people these expensive commodities (car). Being perceived as a “professional” is an ideal way to provide car agents with the credibility they so desperately need. The aspiring car agent must understand that his ‘role’ as a car agent involves not only selling car but also to maintain a ‘reliable’ character so that people not only like and trust him but also ‘recommend’ others to buy from him.


Theater as we know it relies on scripts. Goffman claims that scripts are imnportant to interpersonal interaction but are more so in formal interaction (office for example) . Most interpersonal communication is reasonably improvisational—we make it up as we go along. In everyday life, however, some elements of conversation are pretty well scripted. If a person asks a us how we are, we are most likely to answer “Fine, and what about you?” rather than a sincere ,well-thought-out description of what he or she is really thinking or feeling at the moment. This is a script based (preplanned) conversation that we are so used to employing that it feels automatic. Thus, scripts can allow us a great deal of convenience.

Business houses often make use of increasingly formalized scripts, which can provide distinct advantages to all parties. Often, store managers write scripts that are passed down to the store keeper who must actually go about making sales. One extreme example of this is provided by the Disney company, which, as Kraft (1994) discovered in her research, gives staffers (or “Cast Members,” in their words) a set of rigidly prescribed scripts:

These scripts offer verbatim responses Disney Store executives would like to hear used by Cast Members. . . . Frequently, a Cast Member becomes dependent on the scripts and mindlessly repeats the same message to every guest he or she encounters. The greeting traditionally offered at the front of the store is an example of how closely the scripts are followed.When a Cast Member was trained in 1991, he or she received a handout [which included the statement] “When you are greeting, the exact script is ‘Hi! Welcome to the Disney Store!’There are to be no variations of this script used . . . ever.”

In this case, a script is used to control and limit employee autonomy. The management has a particular role that it wants employees to adopt: friendly, cheerful, and helpful, but somewhat aloof, like a cartoon character. Disney corporate officials have concluded that the best way to ensure that employees actually adopt this role is to force it on them. It should also be noted that the scripts sometimes have advantages for the clerks. Kraft noted that Cast Members frequently become reliant on the scripts, using them as convenient crutches. Similarly, many telephone solicitors use obviously scripted messages when they call people; reading scripts is a simple process that requires little training or thought and thus makes the solicitor’s job much easier. Script use in direct sales is in no way limited to controlling employees or providing a convenience in place of more sophisticated kinds of training. Frequently, scripts are used to control customers, to compel them to buy a given product.


common in many social interactions is the division between front and back stages. The front stage is what confronts the audience—what they see. The back stage, by contrast, is a place where all the support activities necessary

for maintaining the performance on the main stage will go on. In theater, the back stage is where actors who are not involved in the scene going on at the moment mill about; where props that will be used at other times are stored; and where the counterbalances, lights, and so on that make the scenery convincing to the audience are hidden. Goffman (1959) points out that the crucial element that allows the back stage to be useful for these purposes is that “the back region will be the place where the performer can reliably expect that no member of the audience will intrude”. Thus, most back regions are clearly divided from the public fronts so that only team members have access.

Goffman claims that houses are divided along these front stage/backstage lines as well: guests are frequently confined to living and dining rooms and rarely invited to see bedrooms or bathrooms or kitchen. Similarly, many houses have front doors that are used primarily for more formal situations; family members often use back or side doors for day-to-day admission.

Backstage regions have two major purposes, both related to the maintenance of the proper persona or atmosphere on the front stage. They must serve as a storing ground for physical items that cannot be on the front stage, and they must also provide employees a place to regroup, a place where they take care of their emotional needs. The physical requirements of backstage may not be particularly surprising. Most retail shops, for instance, try not to clutter the stage with too much stuff. A storeroom, then, is crucial. Shoe stores offer perhaps the best example of this; most of them leave one pair of each style of shoe on display, but because they need several pairs of each size of shoe in each style to satisfy customers, they have a need for a well-organized back stage, where piles of shoe boxes can sit without being observed.

Back regions are also helpful for storing things not sold by the business but that are vital to the maintenance of the proper atmosphere on stage. Retail stores are almost uniformly clean; this means that vacuum cleaners, mops, glass cleaners, and so on must be kept where they can be accessed regularly, but because cleanliness usually mandates a lack of visible cleaning supplies, the equipment must be hidden from public scrutiny.


Before directly reviewing Goffman’s dramaturgical analysis of social interaction, we must briefly consider his rather unique conception of selfhood because it is crucial to his method of analysis. Goffman does not believe in a “self” in the traditional sense; he does not think that we can discuss people’s selves abstracted from their social situations. He writes, “This self itself does not derive from its possessor, but from the whole scene of his action . . . this self is a product of a scene that comes off, and not a cause of it”. Goffman is arguing here that the self is something that arises in the very process of performance.

Goffman argued that the self is a product of human interaction which means that only during social interaction with others can the self be created.

Because self can only be created during human interaction hence there is always a possibility that during social interaction the type of self Mr. X wants to project may not be fully able to express itself. For example Mr. X wants to project himself as very intelligent by quoting a text from Max Weber’s book but Mr. Y is not letting him speak. In this situation the ‘self’ of Mt. X is disrupted.

Impression management:

  • Every individual wants to project to others a type of ‘self’ or identity which is acceptable in the eyes of the other. For example Mr. X wants to present himself as intelligent in the eyes of Mr. Y.
  • Mr. X wants to present himself as intelligent because MR. Y is his boss. If Mr. X can present himself as intelligent then he will get a job promotion.
  • The process in which an actor presents the ‘self’ in such a way that the ‘others’ might do(give job promotion) as they want they to do is in Goffman’s word ‘Impression management’.
  • If a married man acts as a bachelor to win friendship with a beautiful girl then this is also impression management. If a shop keeper speaks politely to his customers so as to sell his goods then this is also impression management. Social actors wants to prevent any unintended gestures or conversations that may offend their audience. This is called impression management.

Many people are involved in different ways to maintain impression management:

  • Fostering high in-group loyalty
  • Not getting too involved or attached with audience
  • Changing audience often so as not to mistakenly reveal one’s own weaknesses.
  • Maintain facial, bodily and verbal gesture to sympathize with the audience.
  • How to perform in emergencies.
  • The degree of alertness that is required for each authors.
  • Preventing oneself from being too emotional so as not to let audience have access to personal secrets.

Front stage

  • Front stage is a social interaction that is fixed . For example for a student the school is a front stage where he interacts with his teacher, friends etc.

  • Setting: Within the ‘Front stage’ the ‘Setting’ is a place where the performer/actor must be present. For example for a student a classroom is a setting where he acts. For a taxi driver it is a cab. For a priest it is a temple.

  • Appearance: Those equipment’s and items that tell us about the social-actor-performers’ social status and role. For example a school dress helps us to know that the actor we are dealing with are school children/students. Doctors’ white robe indicates that the personal I am dealing with his a medical doctor or a person with long hair and a beard helps me recognize that the person I am dealing with is someone who enjoys music.

  • Manner: The actions that a social actor performance which makes the audience guess/assume the social role he her she may play is known as manner. For example if a person wearing a doctors’ robe starts talking that HIV-AIDS spreads through overdrinking of coca-cola then such manner helps us to identify that he is not a doctor but a imposter. Or if a man with a long hair, long beard, dirty pants and torn jackets is seen in seminar halls where major physicists of the world are present then we would judge him to be a scientists from his manner rather than from his appearance.

Hiding of facts

The process of ‘Hiding’ in front stage performance/social acting:

  1. Hide what gives them pleasure. When a boy B while talking with his girlfriend may hide the fact that he enjoys life when he is in conversation with other beautiful girls
  2. Concealment of errors committed during social acting/ performance. Boy B might mistakenly keep staring at a beautiful girl in front of him while talking with his teacher. He may try to hide this fact by looking at other places when he comes to realize that his teacher is aware of his error.
  3. Reveal the end product but hide the process. A person may have made the report for his boss working for 17 hours a day but he will try to hide this fact so that his boss might think that he is a intelligent person who could do his task easily
  4. Concealment of ‘dirty-work’ involved in making the end product. A person may hide the things that may have involved physically dirty or morally unacceptable acts. For example when a boy D brought a gift for his girlfriend with the money from which he was supposed to buy medicine for his father then he will hide this face.
  5. Performance that compromised other standards. A Prime Minister of a country might hide the fact that he was once working in a company that was involved in cheating people by selling them fake products.
  6. Hide ‘insults, deals and compromises that the social actor made to perform that act. A good new police chief may have got the current position by telling the Home Minister that he would not arrest criminals affiliated with his political party. He would like to hide this fact.

The social actors have a vested interest in hiding such information.

Closer to audience

The Social Actor wants to interact in such a way that their interaction should be thought as important and sincere. Even saying hello/good morning or Namaste to a normal friend the performer wants to give a impression that they have complete good will towards the audience. If this performance fail then then even the normal good morning will carry no emotional weight was it once did. In this sense in every interaction the social actor wants to project themselves in such a way that their audience feel that the social actor is indeed a well-wisher.


To create some type of awe in audience the social actor tries her/his best to reduce as much social interaction as possible. This is because the frequency of interaction could involve serious question answer where the mysterious environment the actor created may be demystified. For example a boss may try to show that he is a very rational and unemotional person. By projecting himself as such the office runs efficiently because the staffs fear the boss. However if the boss becomes to close with the subordinates then the subordinates may find out that the boss is not as unemotional as they think he is. This process of demystification will cause discipline problem in the office. In that sense the mystification is in the interest of the social actor and to protect the mystification the social actor will reduce social interaction process.


A team involves several social actors who have a common interest but who sees other team members as audience. This is a very tough situation because in this the mystification of social actors are risked.

Role Distance

Goffman argued that every social actors are involved in a ‘role’ in society. For example a doctor’s role is to identify illness are cure it. Goffman however identified that people who are not comfortable with their ‘role’ in society often exhibited their distaste for the ‘role’ they were involved in. For example a toilet clear may perform his work in a very uninterested manner to show to his audience that he is superior to his work. This is ‘role distance’. It is usually the people who are not happy with their work that show role distance. On the other hand a person who is happy with his work will not show the role distance. For example a CEO of DM BANK will not hide the fact that he is a CEO. Even in conversations in which he is not required to present himself as a CEO he somehow finds a way to tell his audience that he is a CEO of a bank(Low role distance). However if the same bank is in news for default or tax evasion then this very CEO will do his best to hide his work in the bank or show his extreme displeasure in his work(high role distance).


What a person should /ought to be is ‘virtual social identity’. What a personal actually is defined by Goffman as ‘actual social identity’. The person having the difference between ‘virtual social identity’ and ‘actual social identity’ are labeled as ‘stigma’ or ‘stigmatized’ by Goffman.

Discredited stigma: In this situation a person who is different from the ‘virtual social identity’ is clearly seen by the audience. For example a Asian person in a predominantly white neighborhood. A person without a leg in a party where the rest have both legs. The social actor with discredited stigma is aware that they are different than the audience. This difference causes a tension in their interaction hence their challenge is to reduce the tension.

Discreditable stigma: In this situation a person who is different from the ‘virtual social identity’ is not perceived or known by the audience. The difference is hidden. For example a person who is homosexual is not identified as such by the audience unless he/she expresses the orientation of his sexuality. Or a Hindu in a Muslim majority country or a Christian in a Hindu majority city or a Jew in a Christian majority town. In all these cases the audience are not aware that the social actor is different from ‘virtual social identity’. In this discreditable stigma the person’s challenge is to hide the information that shows that she/he/actor is different from the audience so as to maintain a healthy social interaction.

Frame Analysis

Goffman published a book Frame Analysis in 1974. The core argument of this book is that through social dialogues and interactions people create a certain rules which he called as ‘frame’. This ‘frame’ according to him were created by people but after being established then these very ‘frames’ start to influence people’s action. For example people created the ‘frame’ in which younger people do Namaste to elder ones. However this frame has dominated people’s life so much that whenever a young person forgets to do Namaste to his elders then he is tagged as rude. This is because according to the frame the process of Namaste is an action that shows respect.

Sometimes an action can have a conflict between different frames. For example when a westerner without knowledge of other religion invites a Hindu guest and offers her a beef stake then from that Hindu’s frame this is an act of insulting a Hindu but from the frame of that westerner it is a gesture of hospitality he showed to an Asian guest.

Goffman believed that to understand society it was important to understand how frames were created and how it was reshaped and resisted.

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