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Erving Goffman Response to Criticism of his Dramaturgical Model

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Published: 4th Oct 2021

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Tagged: Sociology

Erving Goffman’s dramaturgical model of society and nature of social interaction was first proposed by Goffman in his 1956 book “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life” (Goffman, 1956). It is based upon a wide range of ideas from previous sociologists and other scholars, drawing together concepts and presenting them within a framework that became to be called dramaturgy and which includes many metaphors of a theatre performance. Dramaturgy, in common with other sociological thought has invoked criticism, both on account of the theory itself but also because it has been described as being controversial within sociology due to the place it occupies in the debate between those of the structuralism viewpoint and those who believe in the predominance of agency or free will.


This essay will briefly describe the nature of the dramaturgical framework and then explore some of the criticisms that have been levelled at the theory. It will show how Goffman typically responded to criticism and how by the publication of later works he answered his critics by developing and enhancing his concepts. In conclusion it will re-state that dramaturgy, although not an all-encompassing theory has continued importance as a sociological concept in the modern world and that Goffman has adequately answered his critics.

Prior to examining the theory, it is important to understand the context in which it emerged and the influences that played a part in establishing Goffman’s views. Goffman, a Canadian graduated from Toronto University in 1945 and from there went on to post graduate study at the University of Chicago where he studied under and was influenced amongst others by Herbert Blumer and Everett Hughes whilst embracing the views of social theorists such as Emil Durkheim, George Herbert Mead and Georg Simmel (Fine et al., 2003, p,34).

It was in his doctoral dissertation in 1956 that Goffman proposed his dramaturgical theory (Goffman, 1956). The framework of Goffman’s thesis as outlined in the book, uses the metaphors of a theatrical performance to describe and interpret social interaction. Goffman was not so much concerned with the macro relationship between humans and society but on a micro level, focussing upon the day to day interactions between individuals, He likened this to the performance of a play and he used such terms as “front stage” and “backstage” to describe areas of interaction and in this theatrical analogy he used other theatrical terms such as roles, props and production to describe other aspects of the performance.


Frontstage describes the area where day to day interaction takes place between actors and an audience who give a performance performing their roles utilising props and controlling their presentation through using “impression management” to effectively stage manage their performance. Such performances are designed to give the audience impressions about ourselves and if necessary are modified to fit the social interaction currently taking place. This less than absolute embracing of a role, Goffman termed ‘role distancing’ (Ritzer, 2010, p.379) and is an example where criticism was addressed by Goffman. The concept of role distance was not detailed by Goffman in “The Presentation of Self” (Goffman, 1956) but was more fully described  by him in a paper in 1961 as an answer to criticism (Chriss, J.J in Smith, 2002,  pp:64-80) .


Back stage refers to the area where an actor abandons all the pretence associated with their front stage performance and relaxes from being in character (Goffman, 1956, pp:68-9). It is also where all support activities take place (Kivisto, 2011, pp:306-8) and where you prepare your presentation for front stage performance. An example of this would be a staff common room in a university where a lecturer drops the role as portrayed to students and adopts the role of colleague. In the back stage we plan our performance, decide upon how we would like to see by others and rehearse our performance. Impression management is the term used to stage manage the whole performance, ensuring that the audience do not see the back stage and that the performance and behaviours are consistent with the roles presented and thus are viewed as authentic. This example also demonstrates that an individual has multiple roles.

The Dramaturgical Model

The Dramaturgical model revolves around Goffman’s idea of what constitutes self which he states “is a dramatic effect arising . . . from a scene that is presented”  (Goffman, 1959, p.253). The self  exists as a construct created by the performance of a scene (Kivisto, 2011, p.299) in a role (Ditton, 1980, p.39). This interpretation of self has invoked much criticism. If you are acting in every encounter then there is a deceitfulness and lack of morality in every front stage performance (Wilshire, 1982, p.291). This is in contrast to Mead’s sense of self being composed of two parts, the ‘I’ which is the impulsive self and the ‘Me’ which is the social self, responsible for moderating behaviour of the ‘I’ (Mead and Morris, 1934, pp:173-178). Goffman, although influenced by Mead’s views did not concur with them (Verhoeven, 1993, p.19).

Roles in the Dramaturgical Model

Roles are central to dramaturgy and an individual may have many roles. These roles comprise sets of behaviours, obligations and privileges that are connected to a status. According to Ditton, “selves reside in roles”  and he further states that much of Goffman’s work was concerned with the ways in which the self can become disrupted (Ditton, 1980, pp:40-42). These can be through role-conflict where for example a person is bound by their terms of employment to be pleasant to obnoxious customers resulting in tension  (Kivisto, 2011, p.312) or role strain in the case of a student with children whose role as a student may suffer strain.

Even when backstage an individual is playing a role so that the real self is masked and is always unknowable or only rarely glimpsed when the role slips (Wilshire, 1982, p.291) giving a look of one engaged in a difficult treacherous task (Goffman, 1956, p.151). This view has been criticised as being false and representing human life as being composed merely of appearances. (Wilshire, 1982, p.293). Probably cognisant of the fact that more elaboration needed to be given to the matter of identity Goffman addressed many issues of self  and matters of identity in his 1963 book  “Stigma” (Goffman, 1963) in which identity is explored. The interaction between identity and impression management  and also information management and control is defined and explored (Goffman, 1963, p.14).

Criticisms of Goffman's Dramaturgical Model

As mentioned in the introduction, numerous criticisms have been made of Goffman’s dramaturgical theory. He was known for seemingly ignoring his critics and just carrying on with his work, despite the fact that his work developed in ways which were responsive to those criticisms (Psathas, 1996, p.386). An example of this is mentioned above regarding role distancing. However this depiction of self by Goffman leaves his whole model open to criticism which amongst others was exploited by Gouldner (Gouldner, 1971, pp:378-390). This will be expanded later in this essay.

A prime criticism of dramaturgy as a theory is that it is not a theory at all and does not adequately address human behaviour. Furthermore no testable hypotheses can be made from it nor can it be held up to provide overarching statements about human behaviour (Reynolds and Herman-Kinney, 2003, p.150). The term theory regarding dramaturgy was never one which Goffman used. Indeed Goffman in his 1980 interview with the sociologist Jef C. Verhoeven said the word ‘dramaturgy’ was partly “just a name that people just applied”  (Verhoeven, 1993, p.5). Although not a theory, dramaturgy is a way of describing human behaviour that is linked to many other sociological perspectives (Reynolds and Herman-Kinney, 2003, p.150) due in part to the influences of Louis Wirth, Emile Durkheim and others (Verhoeven, 1993, p.5). There are elements within the dramaturgical perspective that are rooted in Shakespeare and also the works of  the literary critic Kenneth Burke whom Goffman acknowledged as an influence (Verhoeven, 1993, p.5).

Whether the dramaturgical model is viewed as a theory or not is dwarfed when one considers the fact that it invoked much criticism between those sociologists known as structural functionalists and those who believed that it is agency that shapes society rather than the belief that it is the structure of society that is the dominant factor in shaping individual behaviour (Kivisto, 2011, p.346). Goffman was undoubtedly a micro perspective theorist and the view of society that is contained within dramaturgy is that it is the interaction between individuals that forms the basis of how society exists in contrast to the functionalist approach. Goffman refused to be labelled and his theories do not completely belong to any particular school of thought.

As previously stated Gouldner was highly critical of Goffman’s dramaturgy in particular and the interactionist approach generally, likening Goffman’s sociology to “The sociology of fraud” and claiming that morality had been sidestepped and was to Goffman a game (Gouldner, 1971, pp:378-390). True to form, Goffman did not directly reply to this criticism but published in 1971 his book “Relations in Public” which expanded his social interactionist views on societal structure (Goffman, 1971). Further works expanded the dramaturgical theme and simultaneously answered some of his critics. This included ‘Frame Analysis’ (Goffman, 1974) which as well as enhancing dramaturgical concepts through the use of ‘frames’ it explored the meanings of reality in the everyday world (Lemert and Branaman, 1997, pp:150-8).

Interaction Order

Goffman in his final paper “Interaction order”, delivered when he was on his death- bed, as his presidential address to the American Sociological Society reiterated his position that society is created through interaction and that we are all “socially  situated” (Goffman, 1983, p.2). Furthermore much of what we have assumed to be a result of our relations with macro social structures are in fact dependent upon face to face encounters or micro interaction. (Goffman, 1983). This radical answer to criticism follows Goffman’s derogatory remarks about European sociologists treating the writings of scholars such as Marx or Weber as the “ultimate data of social life” and not getting out into the world and observing society (Verhoeven, 1993, p.25). Goffman himself attached much importance to the value of fieldwork and although he never published any papers on the subject, a recording exists of his views on his methodology of ethnographic research (Goffman, 1989, p:123-132) to highlight that he was not a “book sociologist”.

The work of Goffman continues to be used by many scholars to give meaning to an understanding of present day social interaction. This has included papers about Impression management in Social Media (Paliszkiewicz and MĄDRA-SAWICKA, 2016) which fits in very well with Goffman’s impression management and the presentation of self. The online world is stereotypical an example of Goffman’s front stage.


In the final analysis, it has been over sixty years since Goffman wrote ‘The Presentation of Self’ and in that time it has been the subject of much interest and also much criticism. The very fact that in order to use today’s social media to project a persona that in most cases differs from the backstage life of an individual answers much of the criticism of the sociological framework.

This essay briefly described what is meant by dramaturgy and explained its key concepts. It then explained how Goffman did not reply directly to criticism but answered his critics in later works which developed his interactionist theories. Some key criticisms of Dramaturgy were detailed and how Goffman’s later publications expanded his descriptions of social interaction to accommodate these negative views. In conclusion it determined that Goffman’s work remains as an important contribution to sociological thought and that it has stood the test of time.


Ditton, J. (1980) The view from Goffman. London: Macmillan.

Fine, G., Manning, P. and Ritzer, G. (2003) ‘The Blackwell Companion to Major Contemporary Social Theorists’, The Blackwell Companion to major comtemporary social theorists.

Goffman, E. (1956) The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh Social Sciences Research Centre.

Goffman, E. (1959) Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. New York: Anchor.

Goffman, E. (1963) ‘Stigma: notes on the management of spoiled identity’.

Goffman, E. (1971) Relations in public. new York: Basic Books.

Goffman, E. (1974) Frame analysis: An essay on the organization of experience. Cambridge, MA, US: Harvard University Press.

Goffman, E. (1983) ‘The interaction order: American Sociological Association, 1982 presidential address’, American sociological review, 48(1), pp. 1-17.

Goffman, E. (1989) ‘On fieldwork’, Journal of contemporary ethnography, 18(2), pp. 123-132.

Gouldner, A. W. (1971) The Coming Crisis of Western Sociology. London: Heinemann. Reprint, 1971.

Kivisto, P. (2011) Illuminating social life: Classical and contemporary theory revisited. Pine Forge Press.

Lemert, C. and Branaman, A. (1997) The Goffman Reader. Wiley-Blackwell.

Mead, G. H. and Morris, C. W. (1934) Mind, Self, and Society from the Standpoint of a Social Behaviorist. London: THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. Reprint, 1972.

Paliszkiewicz, J. and MĄDRA-SAWICKA, M. (2016) ‘Impression Management in Social Media: The Example of LinkedIn’, Management (18544223), 11(3).

Psathas, G. (1996) ‘Theoretical Perspectives on Goffman: Critique and Commentary’, Sociological Perspectives, 39(3), pp. 383-391.

Reynolds, L. T. and Herman-Kinney, N. J. (2003) Handbook of symbolic interactionism. Rowman Altamira.

Ritzer, G. (2010) Sociological Theory Eighth Edition. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Smith, G. (2002) Goffman and social organization: Studies of a sociological legacy. Routledge.

Verhoeven, J. C. (1993) ‘An interview with Erving Goffman, 1980’, Research on Language and Social Interaction, 26(3), pp. 317-348.

Wilshire, B. (1982) ‘The Dramaturgical Model of Behavior: Its Strengths and Weaknesses’, Symbolic Interaction, 5(2), pp. 287-298.

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