The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life – Extended Summary

An ‘extended summary’ of Erving Goffman’s ‘Presentation of Self in Daily Life’ including his concepts of front and backstage, performers and audiences,  impression management, idealisation, dramatic realisation, manipulation, discrepant roles and tact. 

CHAPTER ONE – PERFORMANCES

Belief in the part one is playing

Goffman distinguishes between two approaches to acting out social roles – sincerity and cynicism. Sincere individuals really believe their act is an expression of their own identity, and truly want others to believe this too (the ‘typical’ case), while cynical individuals do not invest ‘themselves’ in their roles, they are acting with a means to another end, which can either be for self-gain (like a conman) or for the benefit of the people around them (a teacher who acts strict but is not necessarily like this in real life).

To quote Goffman:

‘At one extreme, one finds that the performer can be fully taken in by his own act; and he can be sincerely convinced that the impression of reality which he stages is the real reality. When the audience is also convinced in this way about the show he put one – and this seems to be the typical case – then for the moment at least, only the sociologist or the socially disgruntled will have any doubts about the ‘realness’ of what is presented.

At the other extreme, we find that the performer may not be taken in at all by his own routine… the performer may be moved to guide the conviction of the audience only a means to other ends, having no ultimate concern in the conception they have of him or of the situation.’

Goffman goes on to say that people can oscillate between these two extremes as they move through different stages of their lives. He gives the example of a new recruit to the army who first of all acts out the disciplined training routine and hates it but must go along with it in order to avoid punishment, but after time comes to feel that a disciplined life has real meaning for him personally.

Front

Goffman uses the term ‘performance’ to refer to ‘all the activity of an individual which occurs during a period marked by his continuous presence before a particular set of observers and which has some influence on observers. ‘Front’ is ‘that part of the individuals performance which regularly functions in a general and fixed fashion to define the situation for those who observe the performance’.

There are three things an individual can use to establish a ‘social front‘ – Setting, Appearance and Manner (the final two Goffman calls ‘personal front’)

‘Setting’ refers to the fixed elements of front – the physical layout of a room and associated background props – someone’s work space or living room is a good example of a ‘setting’.

‘Appearance’ consists of those things we most closely associate with the person themselves – the things which ‘follow them around’ and consists of fixed attributes such as one’s racial background or age, as well as things like clothes and the items one chooses to carry around.

‘Manner’ is the attitude to one’s setting one displays – confidence, humility, authority etc.

We generally expect there to be consistency between setting, appearance and manner, but these don’t always match up.

Goffman also notes that we are constrained by society in terms of the front we can put on. If we adopt certain roles in society, we don’t actually have that much choice over the front which we can adopt – we are required by social norms to put on a certain front, and there is little room for manoeuvre.

He further suggests that the same sorts of front are required in many different roles – so if we successfully learn to project one front in one setting, we can apply that front to many others.

Dramatic Realisation

‘While in the presence of others, the individual typically infuses his activity with signs which dramatically highlight and portray confirmatory facts which might otherwise remain hidden.’

Many social roles and ‘status positions’ require a certain amount of energy to be invested in the performance of the activities associated with them, energy that is in excess to actually performing the tasks associated with the roles themselves.

One of the best illustrations of this is the Aristocracy – who spend an enormous amount of intentional energy on performing day to day tasks with excess decorum in order to distinguish themselves from others. There are rituals associated with dress codes, greetings, eating, body language, speech and so on….

To give a more mundane example, many jobs require people do certain things to convince the customer or client that they are competent.

A problem in social life is that ‘those who have the time and the talent to perform a task well may not, because of this, have the time or talent to make it apparent that they are performing well.’

There are many roles which we are required to fill in social life, and so one finds that people must choose which performances to invest their egos in – some social roles and some routines are deemed to be more important than others.

Idealisation

‘When the individual presents himself before others his performance will tend to incorporate and exemplify officially accredited values of the society, more so, in fact, than does his behaviour as a whole.

To the degree that the performance highlights the common official values, we may look upon it as an expressive reaffirmation of the moral values of the community’ (in a nod to Durkheim).

To go out in the world is to attend a wedding, a celebration, to stay in one’s room is to miss out on the party.

People play up or down their actual status according to how they think others perceive them (without actually buying into it)…. Social Mobility requires a good performance – often conceived of as making sacrifices in order to maintain ‘front’,

People also engage in negative idealisation, which involves concealment – people will, for example, ‘play down’ when they are interacting with people they believe to be of lower status, in order to fit in with them (although this may not be appreciated by that particular audience)

‘a performer tends to conceal or under-play those activities, facts and motives, which are incompatible with an idealized version of himself and his products.’ There are a number of discrepancies between appearance and overall reality:

  1. Hiding the profit which is made from a performance

  2. Hiding the mistakes made during a performance

  3. Hiding the effort that goes into preparing a performance (the back-stage work)

  4. Hiding any illegal activities

  5. Hiding double standards – this happens because we are often expected to maintain multiple values/ standards which are cannot all be maintained – for example a team at a restaurant may have to sacrifice quality for speed of service, but keep quite about the decline in quality and hope this isn’t picked up on by the audience.

  6. Hiding of origins – people tend to hide the fact they were something else before their performance, giving off the impression that they have always been this way.

In addition, a performer often engenders in his audience the belief that he is related to them in a more ideal way than is always the case.’

An important part of keeping aspects a performance hidden involves practising audience segregation – different performances associated with different roles are often meant for different audiences, who ideally won’t see the actor in any of his other performances. This is especially important because something actors do is to make any particular audience feel as if they are special, the most important audience, when in reality they are just one audience amongst many.

Maintenance of expressive control

Performers can reasonably expect minor cues to be read by their audience as signs of something significant. Unfortunately, the opposite is also the case – minor cues which were not intended to be read by the audience may also be taken to be of significance and these may undermine the image the performer is trying to present.

These accidents and unmet gestures are very common and there are three general types:

  1. Losing muscular control – tripping, yawning, belching

  2. Showing too little or too much concern with the interaction

  3. Lacking dramaturgical direction – the setting may be sloppy, or the timing of aspects of a performance wrong.

‘The expressive coherence that is required in performances points out a crucial discrepancy between out all-too-human selves and our socialised selves. As human beings we are presumably creatures of variable impulse with moods and energies that change from one moment to the next. As characters for an audience, however, we must not be subject to ups and downs. A certain bureaucratisation of the spirit expected so that we can be relied upon to give a perfectly homogeneous performance at any given time’.

Misrepresentation

The same tendency of the audience to accept the importance of signs (even if they are not meant to give off any meaning) which leads to the need for expressive control also opens up the opportunity for the performer to manipulate the audience through using signs to signify things which have no basis in reality.

Not all misrepresentation is the same. For example we tend to think more harshly of someone acting up to a higher status than acting down to a lower status. Also, some statuses are ambiguous. We can prove easily that someone is not a legal professional, but it is not so easy to prove someone is not a ‘true friend’.

Most misrepresentation is not about blatant lying, it is about not putting on display everything one has to do fulfil one’s social roles, and there are hardly any roles in society where everyone can be completely open about everything the do without losing face in some way.

Mystification

One of the easiest ways to maintain an idealised image of oneself is to maintain a distance between oneself and one’s audience – The more distance a performer can keep between them and their audience, the more elbow room they have to maintain an idealised image of themselves (Kings should not mix with ordinary people).

Reality and Contrivance

We generally tend to think of performances as being of one or two types – the sincere and the contrived. The former are not acted, they come from the unconscious ‘pure self’ of the individual who really believes in what they are doing, the later is the cynic, acting out a role without really believing in it.

But most performances on the social stage fall somewhere between these two realities. What is required in social life is that the individual learn enough about role-playing to fulfil the basic social roles that are required of him during his life – most of us ‘buy into this’ and act out what is expected of us, so we invest an element of ourselves into our roles, but at the same time we don’t necessarily get into our roles in a gung-ho sort of way…. So most acting is neither fully ‘sincere’ or fully ‘contrived’.

CHAPTER TWO – TEAMS

People don’t just engage in the presentation of the self as single actors, performances (or attempts to define the situation) are often conducted in teams – Goffman uses the term ‘performance team’ to refer to a group of people who collaborate in staging a single performance.

Goffman notes two features of teams engaging in dramaturgical cooperation.

  • Firstly, anyone can one of the team members can mess up a performance, and everyone is dependent on the good conduct of everyone else.

  • Secondly, team members have a degree of ‘familiarity’ with one another – which means that they share a back-stage where they will drop their collective performance.

Teams have to conceal certain aspects of their activity to make their collective performance effective – for example the fact that they have engineered, or practised a ‘party line’ is hidden because a collective front seems more sincere if the audience thinks all the members agreed on the performance independently.

In large organisations the party line can become rather thin because it is difficult to keep everyone happy.

Also in order to be sincere, teams need to hold a united front, and so corrective sanctioning tends to be done backstage.

Teams have a division of labour – they have directors, they have those who are more dramatically dominant than others, and they have those that actually do the tasks (rather than the performance) which the team is expected to do.

CHAPTER THREE – REGIONS AND REGION BEHAVIOUR

‘In our Anglo-American society, a relatively indoor one, when a performance is given it is usually given in a highly bounded region, to which boundaries with respect to time are often added. The impression and understanding fostered by the performance will tend to saturate the region and time span, so that any individual located in this space-time manifold will be in a position to observe the performance and be guided by the definition of the situation which the performance fosters’.

During a performance in a front region, the performer tries to convince the audience that that his activities in the region maintain and embody certain standards. To do this he engages in ‘talk’ with the audience – actual verbal and non-verbal gestural interchanges, and also practices ‘decorum’ – maintaining moral standards and manners but where he just visible to the audience rather than interacting with them gesturally.

One form of decorum is called ‘make work’ – people acting like they are busy even when there is not work to be done when in the presence of a superior. Everyone knows what’s going on but to not act this out would be to show disrespect to one’s superiors.

A backstage region is where the impression fostered by a performance is contradicted as a matter of course. Here a performer can relax, and step out of character.

Backstage is a place where the performer expects the audience not to go, and they are necessary if the worker is to buffer himself from the deterministic demands that go along with a performance.

NB – The ability to control both front and backstage is a fundamental power distinction in society. Some have more power to control both than others.

Some regions are permanently front regions — such as churches or schoolrooms, so much so that people act in them with a certain deference even if they are not members of their congregations. Similarly some other regions are notably backstage. Such areas set the tone for the interaction.

In other regions, they can sometimes be backstage and front stage at different times – the household for example on Sunday morning or while entertaining.

Goffman now provides some examples of where some groups of people lack control over backstage or where the ‘walls’ between front and backstage are too thin to maintain effective boundaries.

He also notes that the boundary between back and front stage is a great place to observe transformation of character.

Where teams are concerned, familiarity backstage may not be total. Three things put paid to this – firstly team members still need to convince other team members that they are worthy players, secondly, they may need to maintain morale for the forthcoming performance, thirdly, where there are differences in age and gender, acts may be put on to differentiate these – it is very rare in cultures that men and women will fully relax backstage with each other for example.

‘In saying that performers act in a relatively informal, familiar, relaxed way while backstage and are on their guard while giving a performance, it should not be assumed that the pleasant interpersonal things of life – courtesy, warmth, generosity are reserved for those backstage and that suspiciousness, snobbishness, and a show of authority are reserved for front region activity.

Often it seems that whatever enthusiasm and lively interest we have at our disposal we reserve for those before whom we are putting on a show and the surest sign of backstage solidarity is to feel that it is safe to lapse into an associable mood of sullen, silent irritability.’

A third area for consideration is the outside, and outsiders – those who are not supposed to witness the performance. Embarrassment can occur when outsiders unexpectedly stumble across a performance meant for others only. Strategies can be employed to overcome this (such as loudly welcoming them or shunning them) but these rarely work to avoid embarrassment.

CHAPTER FOUR – DISCREPANT ROLES

One overall objective of any team is to sustain the definition of the situation that its performance fosters. Given the fragility and the required expressive coherence of the reality that is dramatized by a performance, there are usually facts which, if attention is drawn to them during the performance, would discredit, disrupt, or make useless the impression that the performance fosters. These facts may be said to provide ‘destructive information’. (in order for performances to work) the audience must not require destructive information about the situation that is being defined for them… A team must be able to keep its secrets, and have its secrets kept’.

There are three general types of secret:

  • Dark secrets – these are things which the team would want no one to know because their disclosure would fundamentally undermine the team’s credibility – The fact that Barclay’s Bankers regularly engage in Fraud for example

  • Strategic secrets – These are secrets which give a team a competitive advantage over another team – so their disclosure would harm the team but not discredit them

  • Insider secrets – basically ‘tricks of the trade’ – knowledge which allows teams to put on a good performance but the disclosure of which would not really harm the team in the eyes of the audience.

Goffman also distinguishes between entrusted and free secrets – which are to do with the kind of secrets an individual has in relation to his team. the former are those which if not kept by an individual would discredit both himself and his team if not kept, the later would discredit the team but not the individual if not kept.

Secrets are not the only sources of destructive information – there are also ‘latent secrets’ (harmful facts about which there is no hard evidence about) and unintended gestures – basically accidents and unmeant gestures.

There are three general roles involved in any social situation –

  • The performers who define the situation and have destructive information about the performance

  • The audience who largely accept the definition of the situation but do not have destructive information

  • Outsiders who no little of either of the above.

There, are however, a number of ‘discrepant roles’ which occur on top of the above three major roles:

  • The informer

  • The shill

  • The spotter

  • The shopper

  • The mediator

  • the non person – e.g. the servant, the very young and the very old.

There are also four additional discrepant roles – who are not present in a performance but have information about it (who may be present in our minds of performers while they are acting out roles).

  • The service specialist

  • Confidants

  • Colleagues

  • Renegades

CHAPTER FIVE – COMMUNICATION OUT OF CHARACTER

Discrepant sentiment is nearly always found when we study institutions. There are nearly always occasions when team members make it clear to each other that they are just playing a role, and they communicate with each other out of character – there are four types of communication in which the performer engages which are incompatible with the impression trying to be collectively portrayed to an audience – treatment of the absent, staging talk, team collusion and realigning action

Treatment of the absent – When backstage it is especially common for team members to speak in a derogatory way about the audience, and ritual profanations of the performance are part of this.

Staging talk – refers to discussion about the front stage apparatus and their suitability for impression management.

Team collusion – Performers often use secret signs to signal to each other during a performance. These may be secret messages pertaining to what they think of certain audience members, this may just be ‘catching the eye’ of another member of the team and a sly glance. One notable form of this is ‘derisive collusion’, an example of which is school children in class passing notes to each-other.

Realigning action – these are guarded exchanges between teams which send out feelers and set the tone for interaction where the boundaries are not clear

‘each of these four types of conduct directs attention to the same point: the performance given by a team is not a spontaneous, immediate response to the situation absorbing all of the team’s energy; the performance is something the team members can stand back from, back far enough to imagine or play out simultaneously other kinds of performances attesting to other realities.’

CHAPTER SIX – THE ARTS OF IMPRESSION MANAGEMENT

Unmeant gestures, inopportune interruptions and the like are sources of dissonance and embarrassment, but both performers and audience alike tend to have strategies for ‘saving the show’ and to prevent masks falling off in many performance situations.

Performers engage in defensive attributes and practices

Dramaturgical loyalty – attempts to achieve high levels of in-group solidarity to prevent some members of the team becoming too close to the audience and giving away dark or strategic secrets; regularly changing audience may also be another strategy.

Dramaturgical discipline – simply where each member of the team learns to better control aspects of their performance

Dramaturgical circumspection – basically trying to select the audience that is likely to be the kindest – teachers prefer middle class schools, salesmen prefer to sell to one rather than two people.

Audience members engage in protective practices

Goffman gives various examples – individuals voluntarily stay away from backstage areas, and audiences are careful to pay attention to the right aspects of a performance – when performances go wrong they practice tactful inattention for example.

Goffman finishing off by noting that performers and audiences need to be ‘tactful about tact’ – they need to be sensitive to when each is employing tact lest masks fall off and embarrassment is the result.

CHAPTER SIX – CONCLUSION

It’s worth quoting the first page at length, because it basically summarises the whole book:

‘…. any social establishment may be studied from the perspective of impression management. Within the walls of a social establishment we find a team of performers who cooperate to present to an audience a given definition of the situation. This will will include the conception of own team and of audience and assumptions concerning the ethos that is to be maintained by rules of politeness and decorum. We often find division into back region, where the routine is prepared and front region, where the performance is presented. Access to backstage is controlled to prevent the audience and outsiders from seeing preparations. Among members of the team, we tend to find solidarity, familiarity and secrets being kept.

A tacit agreement is maintained between performers and audience to act as if a given degree of opposition and of accord existed between them. Typically, but not always, agreement is stressed and opposition is underplayed. The resulting working consensus tends to be contradicted by the attitude towards the audience which the performers express backstage and through communication out of character while ‘on stage’. We find that discrepant roles develop which complicate the problems of putting on a show. Sometimes disruptions occur which threaten the definition of the situation which is being maintained. Performers and Audience all utilise techniques for saving the show – teams are careful to select loyal and circumspect members and prefer to play to audiences who are tactful.’

The analytical context

Goffman sees his ‘dramaturgical perspective’ as the fifth perspective among four already existing ones for viewing a social system (technical, political, structural, cultural)

‘The dramaturgical perspective can be employed, like any other, as a final way of ordering facts. This would lead us to describe the techniques of impression management employed in a given establishment, the principal problems of impression management, and the identity and inter-relationships of the several performance teams within the establishment.

Goffman also suggests that we can look at any of the above in relation to technical, cultural aspects of a social system as well.

He further suggests that we can look of all of the above in relation to their impact on the individual personality, the social interactions themselves and the wider society.

MORAL NOTE: THE ROLE OF EXPRESSION IS CONVEYING IMPRESSIONS OF SELF

To uncover fully the factual nature of the situation, it would be necessary for the individual to know all the relevant social data about others. Full information is rarely available; in its absence appearances must be relied upon instead.

The information off is treated as having a moral character – we tend to assume that people shouldn’t mislead us with the information they give off – even though we know full well that this is what we do, and that we also know that much information given off is not done so intentionally.

There is a basic dialectic – ‘In their capacity as performers, individuals will be concerned with maintaining the impression that they are living up to the many standards by which they and their products are judged. Because these standards are so numerous and pervasive, the individuals who are performers dwell more than we might think in a moral world. But, qua performers, individuals are concerned not with the moral issue of realising these standards but with the amoral issue of engineering a convincing impression that these standards are being realised.’… The dialectic is that the more effort we put into managing the impression of being a moral actor, the more distant we come to feel from the standards we are acting out, and the more and higher the standards, the more effort, so the more distant we feel!

‘the key factor in this structure is the maintenance of a single definition of the situation, this definition having to be expressed, and this expression sustained in the face of a multitude of potential disruption. (These are the interactional tasks which all of us share)

Staging and the self

Goffman splits the individual into two –

The character (or characters) – this is what the performer presents to the audience, the social self – which is constructed with the use of various props, a stage as setting and a team as collaborators. THE INDIVIDUAL CANNOT CONSTRUCT A SELF WITHOUT ALL OF THE SOCIAL STAGING THAT GOES ALONG WITH IT.

The performer – the harried actor who is putting on a performance – The performer’s own psychological well-being is fundamentally linked to his social-self.

The Functionalist Perspective – Class Notes for A Level Sociology (Year 2)

These class notes on Functionalist Theory should be all you need to revise this topic for your A level sociology exam

The key ideas of Functionalist perspective are as follows –

  1. There is such a thing as a social structure that exists independently from individuals. This social structure consists of norms values passed on through institutions which shape the individual –
  2. We should study society scientifically and at the macro level – looking for the general laws that explain human action.
  3. Socialisation is important – individuals need to be regulated for the benefit of everyone. The integration and regulation of individuals is a good thing.
  4. We should analyse society as a system – look at each bit by looking at the contribution it makes to the whole
  5. Social institutions generally perform positive functions – value consensus social integration; social regulation; preventing anomie and so on
  6. Advanced Industrial society is better than primitive society – one of the main reasons social order is so important is so we don’t go backwards – (ties into the idea of progress)

You would do well to be able to distinguish between the ideas of Emile Durkheim – one of the founding fathers of Sociology and Talcott Parsons – who developed Functionalism in the 1940s and 50s.

Durkheim and Functionalism

Durkheim is one of the founding fathers of Sociology. He basically believed that social structure and social order were important because they constrained individual selfishness. However, he realized that as societies evolved, so people became more individualistic – more free – and so maintaining social order became more of a problem for society. The question of how social order was to be achieved in complex societies was one of his chief concerns.

 Emile Durkheim 1858-1917: The first ever ‘Professor of Sociology’ Durkheim: The Historical Context In order to understand Durkheim’s work you need to understand the historical context in which he was writing. Emile Durkheim (1858 – 1917) was a student of the Positivist Auguste Comte. Durkheim and the first ever professor of Sociology. Durkheim’s major works were published between 1893 and 1912 – so he was writing in the middle of modernity and experiencing the industrialisation and urbanisation of France. Durkheim believed that the social changes ushered in by modernity threatened social order and his sociology is a response to this. His social research had two main concerns

  • He wanted to ensure that modern societies were harmonious and orderly  
  • He wanted to create a science of society so that we could generate clear knowledge about how to bring about social order

1.    There is such a thing as a ‘Social Structure’

Durkheim believed that there was such a thing as a social structure – made up of norms and values. He argued that this structure existed above the level of the individual because norms and values precede the individual – they already exist in society when we are born into it. Durkheim believed that people’s behaviour was shaped by the system of norms and values that they were born into.

Durkheim believed that the social structure consisted of ‘social facts‘ – phenomena which were external to the individual and constrained their ways of acting…

Durkheim

2.     Sociologists should use scientific methods to uncover the basic laws that govern human behaviour

Much of Durkheim’s work was aimed at demonstrating the importance of organic solidarity and also trying to find out what societies must do in order to achieve organic solidarity. In order to do this he argued that we needed to use objective, social scientific methods to find out the general laws that govern societies.. You should refer to the section on Durkheim’s scientific methods and his study of suicide in the Positivism/ sociology and science handout.

3 Individuals need to be restrained

Durkheim believed that individuals had a biological tendency to be naturally selfish and look out for themselves and that it was up to society to regulate these naturally selfish desires ultimately for the benefit of all. Too much freedom is bad for both the individual and society. This is quite an obvious idea really – all Durkheim believed is that greater levels of human happiness and ‘progress’ could be achieved if people cooperated together rather than competing like animals in a war of all against all over scarce resources.

Societies somehow have to ensure that individual’s naturally selfish tendencies are restrained and in order to do this societies need to create a sense of social solidarity – which is making individuals feel as if they part of something bigger and teaching them the standards of acceptable behaviour – a process Durkheim called Moral regulation.

Both Social Solidarity and Moral Regulation rely on the effective socialisation of individuals into the wider society. Socialisation is the process whereby individuals learn the norms and values of a society.

Key Term – Social Solidarity Where there is a sense of feeling part of something greater. A shared feeling of working together to achieved the collectively agreed on goals of society.

Achieving solidarity in advanced industrial society is difficult

Durhkeim argued that solidarity and moral regulation were achieved in different ways in primitive and advanced industrial societies. In the former, solidarity happens automatically, while in the later it is more difficult to achieve.

In Primitive society, for Example: Feudal Britain, before industrializati were small scale and locally based, with people living in the same area all their lives. There was also very little role differentiation and no complex division of labour. Generally speaking, people have shared experiences of the same village, the same activities and the same people all there lives. Durkheim argued that when people share the same reality and the same goals, and are closely reliant on one another, moral regulation and social solidarity are easily achieved. People also shared one religion which provided a shared set of moral codes to all people. Durkheim referred to this situation as mechanical solidarity: Solidarity based on similarity.

In advanced Industrial society the number of specialised tasks increase and the Division of Labour becomes more complex. Individuals become more interdependent as people become less self-sufficient and more dependent on a larger number of people that they do not know. As a result, the ability of religion to provide the same moral codes to all individuals declines. The problem is that people no longer lead the same lives, they are different to each other, and modern societies need to find a way of achieving solidarity based on difference rather than solidarity based on similarity.

Because of these differences, Modern societies run the risk of excessive individualism and face a ‘crisis of moral regulation’, a condition which Durkheim called ‘anomie’  and Durkheim thus argued that achieve moral regulation and regulating individuals was the primary problem facing advanced industrial societies. The problem was one of achieving  ‘organic solidarity’: ‘social solidarity based on difference

Durkehim argued that, given the decline of religion, labour organizations and education would provide society with the necessary moral regulation in advanced industrial societies. Focussing on education, Durkheim argued that what education does is simultaneously teach us the diverse skills required for an advanced division of labour and provide us with shared norms and values through the teaching of subjects such as history and with there being shared assemblies.

Key Term – Anomie Where modern social systems encourage excessive individualism – as a consequence there is a general lack of agreement around norms and values – some commentators describe anomie as a state of normlessness.

 

Talcott Parson’s Functionalism

Writing in the 1940s and 1950s Talcott Parsons built on Durkheim’s work

4.    The Organic Analogy[1] – we should see society as a system

Talcott Parsons saw society as working like a human body, arguing that that institutions in society were like organs in the body – each performing specific functions that were necessary to the maintenance of the whole. Parsons argued that parts of society should be understood in terms of what they contribute to the maintenance of the whole.

The body The Organic Analogy Institutions
Each Organ has a unique function Institutions have a unique function
All the bits essentially work together harmoniously All institutions work together harmoniously
Organs are interdependent Organs are interdependent
Has an identifiable boundary Has an identifiable boundary
The sum is greater than its parts The sum is greater than its parts.
Normal: healthy Normal: low rates social problems.

5.    Institutions perform positive functions

Following the organic analogy, Parsons sought to understand institutions by analyzing the positive functions they played in the maintenance of social order. Some of the positive functions Parsons identified include those below

  • Institutions generally promote Value Consensus – One of the most important functions of social institutions is the creation of value consensus – which is agreement around shared values. Parsons argued that commitment to common values is the basis for order in society. Two of the most important shared values include a belief in the work ethic and a belief in meritocracy. Parsons argued these were both vital to modern society because a work ethic ensures people value working rather than lazing about and meritocracy means people believe that hard work should be rewarded.
  • The Family is responsible for passing on the basic norms and values of our society – it provides early socialization; the stabilization of adult personalities and also somewhere for people to escape from the pressures of modern life – acting as a release valve.
  • Education integrates individuals into wider society – providing individuals with a sense of belonging and identity to the wider society. Parsons argued, for example, that education does this through teaching us a shared history and language.
  • Other institutions regulate individual behavior through social sanctions, preventing crime and deviance escalating out of control.

The Idea of Functional Pre-requisites

Parsons believed that societies had certain functional prerequisites. Functional pre-requisites are things that societies need in order to survive. Just like human beings need certain things to survive, so every society has to have certain things in order to function properly. For example, a society must produce and distribute resources such as food and shelter; there has to be some kind of organization that resolves conflicts, and others that socialize the young.

According to Parsons a social system has four needs which must be met for continued survival – These are adaptation, goal attainment, integration and latency.  In advanced industrial society, these needs are met through specialized sub systems

Parson’s name for each function (AGIL) This means…. Performed by what institutions?
Adaptation Adapt to the environment and the production of goods and services
Goal Attainment Decide what goals society as a whole should aim to achieve
Integration Achieve social cohesion
Latency (Pattern Maintenance) Socialise the young into shared values

Parsons argued that society’s needs must come before the needs of the individual. This is why he is so keen to stress the importance of the family and education passing on particular norms and values that bind people together in value consensus.

Stretch and Challenge – find out more about Functional- Prerequisites
Functionalist theory about what ‘needs’ societies have is far from perfect. Their theories about what needs societies have come from the following two sources -Sociologists and Anthropologists have studies thousands of different societies and cultures to discover if there are any institutions which appear in all of them. George Peter Murdock in the 1940s argued that the family exists in every society while Davis and Moore (1960s) argued that there is some form of stratification system in every society. Functionalists thus concluded that at the very least societies need some form of family and some form of stratification system in order to survive.Marion J Levy (1952) reflected on what kinds of conditions would lead to the collapse of society. She argued that this  would happen if members became extinct, if they became totally apathetic, involved in a war of all against all, or if they were absorbed into another society. Thus she argued that all societies needed mechanisms to ensure that these things did not happen. It follows that societies needed some kind of mechanism for reproducing new members.

 

6. Social change and social evolution

Parsons viewed social change as a process of ‘social evolution’ from simple hunter-gatherer societies to more complex forms of advanced industrial society. More complex forms of society are better because they are more adaptive – more able to respond to changes in the environment, more innovative, and more able to harness the talents of a wider range of individuals (because they are meritocratic). They are thus more able to survive. (This is actually quite Darwinian – human beings thrive more than monkeys because they are more able to adapt their environment to suit them – advanced industrial societies thrive because they are more able to adapt their environment compared to hunter- gatherer societies.)

Parsons argued that initially economic and technological changes lead to societies evolving, but increasingly values become the driving force behind social progress. He argued that the values of advanced industrial societies were superior to those of traditional societies because modern values allow a society to be more adaptive, whereas traditional values are more likely to prevent change and keep things the way they are.Now reflecting back to Parson’s analysis of the family and education, we can see that the reason he stresses the importance of these is because they are keeping together the most advanced society – the best – if the family etc. collapse, we may regress back to a more primitive form of social organisation.

Crticisms of the Functionalist Perspective

1.    Is there really a ‘structure’ that exists independently of individuals? 

 2.    It is difficult to assess the effects of institutions – In order to establish whether an institution has positive functions, one would need to accurately measure all of the effects an institution actually had on all individuals and all other institutions. This is extremely difficult to do because it is impossible to isolate the effects of an institution on other things.

3.Functionalism exaggerates the extent of Value consensus and Social Order – Parsons is criticized for assuming value consensus exists rather than actually proving it

4.Michael Mann argues that social stability might be because of lack of consensus rather than because of it. If everyone really believed in the value of achievement then disorder might result because not everyone can get the highest reward. It follows that social stability is more likely if the people at the bottom of society – the majority are tuned out.

5.Functionalism is a deterministic theory – Human behavior is portrayed as being shaped by the social system, as if individuals are programmed b social institutions.

 6.Functionalism ignores conflict and coercion  – Marxists argue that mainstream social values – like those in pattern variable B, are actually the values of elite groups, and thus social order is imposed on the majority by a relatively small group of elite actors.

7.    Functionalism is Ideological  – Functionalism is a conservative social theory. By arguing that certain institutions are necessary – such as the family, religion and stratification systems – they are actually justifying the existence of the social order as it is, also by focussing on the positive functions

So is Functionalism still relevant today?

Despite the flaws mentioned above perhaps Functionalism should not be rejected out of hand –

The idea that we can usefully look at society as a system and that the parts are interdependent is an assumption made by governments who inject money into education or welfare in order to achieve a desired end.

Similarly the idea that we can help countries develop from primitive to advanced by giving aid is still a very common idea, and many in the developing world aspire to become like countries in the West.

Finally, statistics still reveal some interesting correlations between someone’s position in the social structure and their chances of something happening to them. For example….

Related Posts

The Functionalist Perspective on The Family

The Functionalist Perspective on Education

Modernisation Theory (kind of Functionalist applied to Global Development)

Find out More: Basic info

This History Learning Site post has a very basic overview of Functionalism

Find out More: Extension sources

This video from the School of Life provides a useful non-A Level version of Durkheim’s thought – A level Sociology really oversimplifies Durkheim to the point of mis-teaching him (sorry folks!) so this video might be a better starting point than all of the material above…

 

The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life – A Summary

A summary of The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life by Erving Goffman, and a brief discussion of its relevance to A level Sociology. 

Executive Summary

The best way to understand human action is by seeing people as actors on a ‘social stage’ who actively create an impression of themselves for the benefit of an audience (and, ultimately themselves).

When we act in the social world, we put on a ‘front’ in order to project a certain image of ourselves (call this part of our ‘social identity’ if you like) – we create a front by manipulating the setting in which we perform (e.g. our living room), our appearance (e.g. our clothes) and our manner (our emotional demeanour).

In the social world we are called upon to put on various fronts depending on the social stage on which we find ourselves and the teams of actors with whom we are performing – the work-place or the school are typical examples of social stages which require us to put on a front. On these social stages we take on roles, in relation to other team-members and carefully manage the impressions we give-off in order to ‘fit in’ to society and/ or achieve our own personal goals

Impression management involves projecting an ‘idealised image’ of ourselves, which involves concealing a number of aspects of a performance – such as the effort which goes into putting on a front, and typically hiding any personal profit we will gain from a performance/ interaction.

Unfortunately because audiences are constantly on the look-out for the signs we give off (so that they can know who we are) ‘performers can stop giving expressions, but they cannot stop giving them off’. This means that we must be constantly on our guard to practice ‘expressive control’ when on the social stage. There are plenty of things that can go wrong with our performance which might betray the fact that we are not really the person who our act suggests that we are – we might lose bodily control (slouch), or make mistakes with our clothing (a scruffy appearance) for example.

Acting out social roles is quite demanding and so in addition to the front-stage aspect of our lives, we also have back-stage areas where we can drop our front and be more relaxed, closer to our ‘true-selves’, and where we can prepare for our acting in the world.

We generally tend to think of performances as being of one or two types – the sincere and the contrived. Some people sincerely believe in the parts they are playing, they invest their true selves in the impression they give off, this is the typical case. However, other people act out their roles more cynically – they do not believe the parts they are playing are a reflection of their ‘true selves’ but instead only play their part in order to achieve another end.

However, most performances on the social stage fall somewhere between these two realities. What is required in social life is that the individual learn enough about role-playing to fulfil the basic social roles that are required of him during his life – most of us ‘buy into this’ and act out what is expected of us, so we invest an element of ourselves into our roles, but at the same time we don’t necessarily get into our roles in a gung-ho sort of way…. So most acting is neither fully ‘sincere’ or fully ‘contrived’ and most people oscillate between sincerity and cynicism throughout the day and throughout the role they are playing.

Some of the roles we play contradict each other – and so we need to keep audiences separate – some performances are only meant for certain audience members – For example a student might act studiously while at school but more care-free while amongst his friends outside of school.

Thankfully most audience members are tactful and voluntarily stay away from back-stage areas where we prepare for our social roles, and if we ever ‘fall out of character’ they tend to engage in ‘tactful inattention’ in order to save the situation.

The significance of Goffman’s work for A level Sociology

From a theoretical point of view Goffman criticises structuralist (Functionalist and Marxist) theories of socialisation – Marxism for example argues that school socialises children to passively accept authority and hierarchy thus preparing them for exploitation in later life. What Goffman’s theory suggests is that many children might just be acting out this acceptance of hierarchy in order to get through school with as little hassle as possible, while backstage they may think school is not particularly important, and they may not accept authority.

From a research methods point of view the significance of Goffman lies in the fact that f we really want to understand people, we would need to engage in participant-observation in order to get back-stage with them, because we only get to see peoples true feelings when they stop performing.

If a researcher merely gave people a questionnaire to fill out, or even if they did an in-depth interview with them – they could be perceived by the respondent as a member of an audience – and the results we get could just be a performance put on for the benefit of the researcher.

Ultimately from this Interactionist/ dramaturgical perspective human interaction is so intricately complex that the correct way to study human action is to look at either individuals or small groups and focus on the efforts they make to maintain their identities in public, and how these social identities differ from their more relaxed selves when they are back-stage.

Is Marxism Still Relevant Today?

Eight possible ways in which some aspects of Marxist Theory and concepts might still be relevant today… Relevant to A2 Sociology Theory and Methods (details to follow)

  1. A class based analysis of global society is still relevant if you look at things globally.
  2. Exploitation still lies at the heart of the Capitalist system if you look at the practices of many Transnational Corporations.
  3. If you look at the recent bank bail outs it appears that those with economic power still have disproportionate influence over the superstructure.
  4. If you look at how individualised we have become it appears that many people are still under ideological control – but we don’t realise it.
  5. Work is still Alienating for many people.
  6. Economic crises are still inherent to the capitalist system and that in recent years these crises have become more severe and more frequent.
  7. Capitalist exploitation is so bad in some parts of the world that there is vehement resistance to it.
  8. In Britain there are tens of thousands of people who call themselves Communists and who sympathise with Marxism and the wider anti-capitalist movement. Left Wing criticisms and the anti-capitalist movement is still very much alive today.

 

Positivism and Interpretivism in Social Research

Positivists believe society shapes the individual and use quantitative methods, intepretivists believe individuals shape society and use qualitative methods.

Positivism and Interpretivism are the two basic approaches to research methods in Sociology. Positivist prefer scientific quantitative methods, while Interpretivists prefer humanistic qualitative methods. This post provides a very brief overview of the two.

positivism-interpretivism

Positivism

  • Positivists prefer quantitative methods such as social surveys, structured questionnaires and official statistics because these have good reliability and representativeness.
  • Positivists see society as shaping the individual and believe that ‘social facts’ shape individual action.
  • The positivist tradition stresses the importance of doing quantitative research such as large scale surveys in order to get an overview of society as a whole and to uncover social trends, such as the relationship between educational achievement and social class. This type of sociology is more interested in trends and patterns rather than individuals.
  • Positivists also believe that sociology can and should use the same methods and approaches to study the social world that “natural” sciences such as biology and physics use to investigate the physical world. By adopting “scientific” techniques sociologists should be able, eventually, to uncover the laws that govern societies just as scientists have discovered the laws that govern the physical world.
  • In positivist research, sociologists tend to look for relationships, or ‘correlations’ between two or more variables. This is known as the comparative method.

Interpretivism

  • An Interpretivist approach to social research would be much more qualitative, using methods such as unstructured interviews or participant observation
  • Interpretivists, or anti-positivists argue that individuals are not just puppets who react to external social forces as Positivists believe.
  • According to Interpretivists individuals are intricate and complex and different people experience and understand the same ‘objective reality’ in very different ways and have their own, often very different, reasons for acting in the world, thus scientific methods are not appropriate.
  • Intepretivist research methods derive from ‘social action theory
  • Intereptivists actually criticise ‘scientific sociology’ (Positivism) because many of the statistics it relies on are themselves socially constructed.
  • Interpretivists argue that in order to understand human action we need to achieve ‘Verstehen‘, or empathetic understanding – we need to see the world through the eyes of the actors doing the acting.

Positivism and Interpretivism Summary Grid 

Positivism and Interpretivism

Theory and Methods A Level Sociology Revision Bundle

Theory Methods Revision Cover

If you like this sort of thing, then you might like my Theory and Methods Revision Bundle – specifically designed to get students through the theory and methods sections of  A level sociology papers 1 and 3.

Contents include:

  • 74 pages of revision notes
  • 15 mind maps on various topics within theory and methods
  • Five theory and methods essays
  • ‘How to write methods in context essays’.

Related Posts 

Links to more detailed posts on Positivism and Social Action Theory are embedded in the text above. Other posts you might like include:

Positivism in Social Research 

Max Weber’s Social Action Theory

The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life, A Summary

Links to all of my research methods posts can be found at my main research methods page.