Friday, July 22, 2011

Reading :: The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life

The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life
By Erving Goffman

I haven't read this book for years. It was assigned to one of my MA classes, long ago, but I think I either gave it away or lost it in a move at the end of my Ph.D. work. In any case, I picked up another copy and took a look. And although it's not fieldwork per se, it's full of interesting things. I won't attempt to justice to it in this short review, but I'll point out some of the interesting parts - particularly in terms of team performances, which interest me the most.

Using a dramaturgical metaphor, Goffman argues that people are constantly tailoring the images that they project to others around them. Although individuals constantly do this sort of performance management, so do teams: “any set of individuals who co-operate in staging a single routine” (p.79).

Goffman’s examples are as disparate as family dinners, filling stations, and prostitution syndicates, but across all these team performances, Goffman identifies two basic components of the team relationship. First, “while a team-performance is in progress, any member of the team has the power to give the show away or disrupt it by inappropriate conduct” and consequently there is “a bond of reciprocal dependence linking teammates to each other” (p.82). Second, “if members of a team must co-operate to maintain a given definition of the situation before their audience, they will hardly be in a position to maintain that particular impression before one another” (pp.82-83). That is, teammates develop both a reciprocal dependence and a reciprocal familiarity with each other (p.83).

Team members engage in defensive practices to allow them to “save their own show” by maintaining their team performance. Goffman identifies three defensive attributes and practices.

  • Dramaturgical loyalty, in which teammates “act as if they have accepted certain moral obligations” such as not betraying team secrets (p.212), not trying to steal the show (p.214), and not forming attachments with the audience that will compromise team performance (p.214). 
  • Dramaturgical discipline, in which each teammate “remembers his part and does not commit unmeant gestures or faux pas in performing it” (p.216). The disciplined team member avoids unintentionally giving away team secrets and covers up the inappropriate or disruptive behavior of teammates (p.216). 
  • Dramaturgical circumspection, in which teammates “exercise prudence and circumspection in staging the show, preparing in advance for likely contingencies and exploiting the opportunities that remain” (p.218). One technique for assembling such a team is to “choose members who are loyal and disciplined”; another is to determine “how much loyalty and discipline [the team] can rely on from the membership as a whole” (p.218); a third is to “select the kind of audience that will give a minimum of trouble in terms of the show the performer wants to put on” (pp.218-219). 

Goffman recognizes that team performances are difficult since they rely on a high degree of coordinated improvisation in the face of contingencies as well as a high degree of trust among team members. He lists several ways to limit the risk of disruptions in team performances, including getting the team’s story straight ahead of time (p.88); punishing teammates for mistakes after the performance (p.89); excluding teammates who cannot perform properly (p.91); controlling the information to which the audience has access (p.141); and limiting team size (p.220).

Goffman also notes another tactic. “In those interactions where the individual presents a product to others, he will tend to show them only the end product, and they will be led into judging him on the basis of something that has been finished, polished, and packaged. In some cases, if very little effort was actually required to complete the object, this fact will be concealed. In other cases, it will be the long, tedious hours of lonely labor that will be hidden” (p.44).

There's much, much more to the book. In fact, one disappointment is that although Goffman alludes to and occasionally uses examples from fieldwork he did on Shetland Island, he doesn't focus the book on that project or even discuss it enough for us to understand the project. Rather, he casts widely - and frequently draws on the unpublished dissertations of U-Chicago doctoral candidates as well as works of fiction - to illustrate the different dramaturgical moves he identifies. Although that choice gives Goffman a wide range of illustrations and serves to emphasize how broadly this phenomenon is distributed, it also makes the framework seem too generally grounded and universalized.

Nevertheless, it's a solid book, and its examples generally stand, even more than 50 years later. And it's a fast read. If you haven't taken a look, do.

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