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Outline and Explain Two Reasons Why Interpretivists Prefer to Use Qualitative Research Methods (10)

A model answer to a possible 10 mark question which could appear on the AQA’s A-level papers 1 or 3.

If you’re a bit ‘all at sea’ with Intrepretivism, you might like to review your understanding of it first of all by reading this post: social action theory: a summary.

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A developed model answer…

NB Warning – this is total overkill and probably completely unrepresentative of what 95% of actual A-level students are capable of producing.

The first reason is that Interpretivists believe that social realities are complex, and that individual’s identities are the results of 1000s of unique micro-interactions.

For example, labelling theory believes that students fail because of low teacher expectations, and these expectations are communicated to students in subtle ways over many months or years, until a student ends up with a self-concept of themselves as ‘thick’.

There is simply no way that quantitative methods such as structured questionnaires can capture these complex (‘inter-subjective’) micro interactions. In order to assess whether labelling has taken place, and whether it’s had an effect, you would need to go into a school and ideally observe it happening over a long period, and talk to students about how their self-perceptions have changed, which would require qualitative methods such as unstructured interviews. Alternatively you could use diaries in which students document their changing self concept.

A further reason why qualitative methods would be good in the above example is that you could, as a researcher, check whether teachers do actually have negative perceptions of certain students (rather than it being all in the student’s minds) – again qualitative methods are vital here – you would have to probe them, ask them testing questions, and look for body-language clues and observe them interacting to really assess whether labelling is taking place.

It would be all too easy for a teacher to lie about ‘not labelling’ if they were just filling out a self-completion questionnaire.

A second reason Interpretivists prefer qualitative methods stems from Goffman’s Dramaturgical Theory – People are actors on a ‘social stage’ who actively create an impression of themselves.

Goffman distinguished between ‘front stage’ performances of social roles and the ‘back stage’ aspects of life (at home) where we are more ‘true to ourselves’.

Goffman argued that some people put on ‘genuine performances’ – e.g. one teacher might really believe in teaching, and genuinely care about their students – their professional role is who they ‘really are’. Others, however, put on what he calls ‘cynical performances’ – another teacher, for example, might act like they care, because their school tells them to, but behind the scenes they hate the job and want to do something else.

A Qualitative method such as participant observation would be pretty much the only way to uncover whether someone is genuinely or cynically acting our their social roles – because the flexibility of following the respondent from front stage to back stage would allow the researcher to see ‘the mask coming off’.

If you just used a questionnaire, even a cynical teacher would know what boxes to tick to ‘carry on the performance’, and thus would not give you valid results.

Related Posts 

A brief overview of the difference between Positivism and Interpretivsm

Theory and Methods A Level Sociology Revision Bundle 

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’.
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Social Action Theories for Second Year A Level Sociology – A Summary

We can divide sociological theories into two broad types: structural and action theories.

Functionalism, Marxism and Feminism are all structural theories, are interested in ‘society as a whole’ and ask ‘societal level questions’ such as ‘what functions does education perform for society and the individual’? (Functionalism) or ‘why does injustice exist’ (Marxism and Feminism)? They seek to understand the actions of individuals by looking at the structure of wider society and generally believe that ‘society shapes the individual’.

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Sociologists who adopt social action perspectives usually reject the view that society has a clear structure that directs individuals to behave in certain ways. Some social action theorists do not deny the existence of a social structure, but see this structure as rising out of the action of individual; others argue that there is no such thing as a social structure. For the purposes of Second Year sociology you need to know about four Action Theories – all of which have slightly different views on the relationship between social structure and social actions.

Max Weber is generally regarded as the founder of social action theory – he believed that we need to develop an empathetic understanding to uncover the personal meanings and motives individuals give to their own actions, and that this was crucial to understanding how social structures changed over time. However, he also believed that we could make generalisations about types of motive people had and that these general motivations were influenced by the wider society – thus he is half way between structure and action theory, rather than a pure ‘social action’ theorist.

George Herbert Mead developed ‘Symbolic Interactionism’, and he put more emphasis on the role of the active individual than Weber.

For Mead, there is still a society ‘out there’ which constrains human action, in the sense that there are a number of pre-existing social roles which people have to take on in order to get by in society. However, individuals have considerable freedom to shape their identities within and between these social roles.

Mead also argued that everything about society is open to multiple interpretations and meanings – the same institutions, social roles and individual-actions can mean very different things to different people. For Mead, individuals are constantly interpreting and re-interpreting each other’s ‘symbolic actions’ – and this is an ongoing, complex process – if we want to understand human action we need to understand the micro-details of how people interpret other people’s actions, and how their re-actions are in turn re-interpreted and so on.

In order to truly understand why people act in the way that they do, we need to understand people’s ‘self-concept’ – their identities, there ideas about the ‘generalised other’ (society) and micro-interpretations.

Erving Goffman’s developed Mead’s work in his Dramaturgical theory of social action – he argued that the most appropriate way to understand people is to view them as if they are actors on a stage – people use props (such as clothes and body-language) to project idealised images of themselves to a social audience – people have multiple identities which change according to the social setting and the audience they find themselves performing in front of. As well as the social world, the front stage, we all have backstage areas (mostly the home) where we prepare for our social performances, and reflect on how good or bad our performances have been, and plan to change them accordingly. For Goffman, individuals are very active and manipulative, and we may never actually get to see people’s real identities unless we spend considerable time with them during their day to day lives.

Labelling Theory focuses on how the definitions (meanings) people impose on situations or on other people can have real consequences (even if those definitions are not based in reality) – and argues that people in power generally have more ability to impose their definitions on situations than the powerless. For example, parents, teachers and the police generally have more power to make labels stick and make these labels have consequences compared to working class youths. Labelling theory criticises both Mead and Goffman, arguing that while we need to look at micro-level interactions and meanings to examine labelling, we still need to understand where people are located in the power-structure of society to fully understand the process of labeling and identity construction.

Sources

Most posts are adapted from standard degree and ‘A’ Level text books such as Haralambos and Holborn (2013) Sociology Themes and Perspectives

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Erving Goffman and Judith Butler’s Perspectives on Identity

A summary of one chapter from Steph Lawler’s Book – ‘Identity: Sociological Perspectives’ – Masquerading as ourselves: Self-Impersonation and Social Life

In this chapter Lawler deals with the work of Erving Goffman and Judith Butler – for both identity is always something that is done, it is achieved rather than innate – it is part of a collective endeavour, not an individual odyssey and it is not a matter of individual choice. The world of agency and interaction takes place in a wider social order than permits some actions and disallows others.

She deals with the differences between the two too, but more of that later.

Introduction: between semblance and substance

People in the west conventionally counter-pose being an (authentic) identity against doing an identity (performing). When contestants leave the big brother house for example, they often claim that the other contestants were acting, or wearing masks, rather than being themselves.

The distinction rests on the assumption that it is possible – and indeed desirable – for one’s true self to simply emerge – when a gap is seen to exist between doing and being – or semblance and substance – then the person is liable to be accused of pretension, inauthenticity, or acting a role.

We have a social and cultural preoccupation with authenticity – illustrated through the popularity of the Cinderella story – which is acted out today in various make-over programmes – here the fairy godmother is taken by a series of experts – who help the person to match their bodily appearance to the real person trapped inside. In other words the woman (typically) becomes who she is by changing her exterior self.

However, for Goffman this idea that there is a ‘true self’ which needs to be drawn out (if it’s a ‘nic’ self) or that can be hidden (with good or evil intent) is, in reality all there is is the performance.

(At this point Lawler also notes that what we should really be asking ourselves is why we are so concerned with authenticity, when in reality there is no such thing.)

Dramas and lives (Goffman)

For Goffman, to be a person is to perform being a person. To put it simply, it is no good doing something if no one recognises we are doing it – this is ‘dramatic realisation‘. This is not to say that we are being fraudulent, rather it indicates the importance of the social group – because so much of what we act out, we act out for their benefit.

Instead of focusing on authentic and inauthentic performances, Goffman suggests we should focus on what constitutes convincing and unconvincing performances.

For Goffman, there is no essence of the self waiting to be given expression to, the self is not the cause of a social situation, it is the result of the social situation. The self is not the mask, it is the mask, there is no aspect of the self which is not touched by the social world.

Even character – the background self or the ethical self reflecting backstage on what one does front stage is a performance.

Finally for Goffman the performances we give are fundamentally shaped by social norms – there are correct ways to act, and if someone acts out of character, we try and save them, and we feel horror or embarrassment when someone acts entirely inappropriately – social norms embedded deep within our psyche – also, where gender is concerned, so constraining are norms surrounding this that gender norms take on the hue of being natural – which is something Judith Butler picks up on…

Performative identities (Butler)

The idea that there is no essential or foundational identity also characterises Judith Butler’s work. Butler focus on gender and wants to go beyond Goffman to explore why the social world creates gendered identities at all.

Butler challenges the orthodox view that we have a physical, biological sex onto which a social gender is then added, arguing that there is no physical sexed-identity which precedes the social.

There is no natural sex onto which gender is added, because our bodies are so infused with sociality.

For Butler, identities are not just expressions of some inner nature, identities are performed – they are repeatedly ‘done’ and they bring into effect what they ‘name’.

It is not inevitable that sex distinctions should exist at all – but we live in a society where most people go along with idea that sex matters and invest a lot of time in it, this creates a dominant discourse surrounding sex and gender identity which it is hard to break free from – but Butler argues that all of this social stuff calls into being the idea that sex divisions exist, and these divisions do not have to be seen as significant.

Girling the Girl: The Performativity of Gender

Boys and girls are ‘boyed’ and ‘girled’ even while in the womb – and even though they have different sets of genitals, there is no necessary reason why we need to distinguish them along the lines of these genital differences.

As the child grows up this process of girling and boying occurs continuously, they are hailed by society to ‘become’ a boy or a girl, and by and large the child-subjects generally accept how they are hailed, and in doing so come to recognise themselves as a boy or a girl, and thus actively participate in the construction of their own sexed and gendered identity.

Moreover, this process of interpellation takes place in a wider institutionalised context of a sexed and gender divided society, and in this way sex differences come to be seen as natural, and derive much of their power because of this (mis) perception.

Along with the sex-divide, Adrienne Rich (1980) coined the term ‘compulsory heterosexuality’ to emphasise the way in which heterosexuality is also largely perceived as the norm.

Butler recognises the fact that interpellation does not always work – people can disrupt the process by not agreeing to go along with pre-existing categorisations.

Compelling Performance

The idea of the sex divide and heterosexuality reinforce each other to provide a discourse on sex/ gender.

To illustrate this discourse at work Butler draws on the example of ‘you make me feel like a natural woman’ by Aretha Franklin — in this song, the natural woman’ status is established through heterosexuality – the song is presumably directed at a heterosexual man, who is able to generate feelings of natural womanhood through his desirability and desire for the woman who is the subject of the song – ‘femininity and masculinity are consecrated in the heterosexual sexual encounter’.

However, the idea that a woman needs a man to feel natural at all proves the fact that all of this is a social construct. If something was natural, it would just be natural, you wouldn’t feel anything at all – and Butler also recognises that there is a possibility to re-imagine the song in order to subvert such traditional sex-gender norms.

We might also ask why, if gender is natural, people put so much effort into being masculine and feminine – through hair removal and the like.

So in short, normal masculinity and femininity work through normal heterosexuality.

Melancholy, Sexual Identification

‘there are no direct expressive of causal lines between sex, gender, gender presentation, sexual practice, fantasy and sexuality.

For Butler, heterosexual identification is a response to melancholic loss. Here she draws on Freud to explain how heterosexual identification emerges basically because we hate ourselves – the woman becomes the woman she never loved and the man becomes the man he never loved – and because we cannot love ourselves, we look to the opposite for love and companionship.

If we just learned to love ourselves, the men could love other men, and women could love other women.

Related Posts 

The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life – Extended Summary

Sociological Perspectives on Identity: Summary of Chapter on Focuault

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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.

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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.