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Dramaturgy is a sociological perspective stemming from symbolic interactionism. The term was first coined by Erving Goffman, who developed most of the related terminology and ideas in his 1959 book, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Kenneth Burke, whom Goffman would later acknowledge as an influence,[1] had earlier presented his notions of dramatism in 1945.

In dramaturgical sociology it is argued that human actions are dependent upon time, place, and audience. In other words, to Goffman, the self is a sense of who one is, a dramatic effect emerging from the immediate scene being presented.[2] Goffman forms a theatrical metaphor in defining the method in which one human being presents itself to another based on cultural values, norms, and expectations. Performances can have disruptions (actors are aware of such) but most are successful. The goal of this presentation of self is acceptance from the audience through manipulation. If the actor succeeds, the audience will view the actor as he or she wants to be viewed.[3] This makes it an intimate form of communication, highlighting it as a micro-level sociological theory.

Dramaturgical perspective

Dramaturgical perspective is one of several sociological paradigms separated from other sociological theories because it does not examine the cause of human behavior but the context. In this sense, dramaturgy is a process which is determined by consensus between individuals. Because of this dependence on consensus to define social situations, the perspective argues that there is no concrete meaning to any interaction that could not be redefined. Dramaturgy emphasizes expressiveness as the main component of interactions. It is termed a "fully two-sided view of human interaction".

Dramaturgical theory suggests that a person's identity is not a stable and independent psychological entity; it is constantly remade as the person interacts with others.

In a dramaturgical model, social interaction is analyzed as if it were part of a theatrical performance. People are actors who must convey their personal characteristics and their intentions to others through performances. As on the stage, people in their everyday lives manage settings, clothing, words, and nonverbal actions to give a particular impression to others. This is called "impression management". Goffman makes an important distinction between "front stage" and "back stage" behavior. As the term implies, "front stage" actions are visible to the audience and are part of the performance. People engage in "back stage" behaviors when no audience is present. For example, a server in a restaurant is likely to perform one way in front of customers but might be much more casual in the kitchen. It is likely that he or she does things in the kitchen that might seem unseemly in front of customers.

Before an interaction with another, an individual typically prepares a role, or impression, that he or she wants to make on the other. These roles are subject to what is in theater termed "breaking character." Inopportune intrusions may occur, in which a backstage performance is interrupted by someone not meant to see it. In addition, there are examples of how the audience for any personal performance plays a part in determining the course it takes: how typically we ignore many performance flaws out of tact, such as if someone trips or spits as they speak.

Goffman first brought dramaturgy into the language of social psychology and sociology with his publication The Presentation of Self In Everyday Life. The book explores a multitude of interactions whereby we in everyday life engage in performances of the self in a way similar to an actor portraying a character.


There are seven important elements Goffman identifies with respect to the performance.

Belief in the part one is playing is important, although it is nearly impossible for others to judge. The performer may be sincere or cynical, and while the audience can try to guess at the performer's real inner state of mind, it can only objectively analyze the other elements of the performance.[4]

The front or 'the mask' is a standarized, generalizable and transferable way for the performer to control the manner in which the audience perceives him. The performer projects character traits that have normative meanings. Three important elements of the front include appearance (how the performer looks), setting (where the performer is acting - scenery, props, location), and behaviour (what the performer does).[4]

Dramatic realization is a portrayal of aspects of the performer that he wants the audience to know. When the performer wants to stress something, he will carry on the dramatic realization.[4]

Idealization. A performance often presents an idealized view of the situation to avoid confusion (misrepresentation) and strengthen other elements (fronts, dramatic realization). Audiences often have an 'idea' of what a given situation (performance) should look like and performers will try to carry out the performance according to that idea.[4]

Maintenance of expressive control, as the name implies, refers to the need to stay 'in character'. The performer has to make sure that he sends out the correct signals and quiets the occasional compulsion to convey misleading ones that might detract from the performance.[4]

Misrepresentation refers to the danger of conveying the wrong message. The audience tends to think of a performance as genuine or false, and performers generally wish to avoid having an audience disbelieve them (whether they are being truly genuine or not).[4]

Mystification refers to the concealment of certain information from the audience, whether to increase the audience's interest in the user or to avoid divulging information which could be damaging to the performer.[4]


Teams are groups of individuals who cooperate with each other, although teams of one person (performing solo) do exist in Goffman's terminology. Team members must cooperate and share the 'party line'. Team members must share information. Any mistake reflects on everyone. Trust is critical. Roles don't have to be equal. Team members also have inside knowledge and are not fooled by one another's performances.[4]


Stages or regions refer to the three distinct areas where different individuals with different roles and information can be found. There are three stages: front, back and outside.[4]

Front stage

Front stage is where the performance takes place and the performers and the audience are present. It is a part of the dramaturgical performance that is consistent and contains generalized ways to explain the situation or role the actor is playing to the audience that observes it. This is a fixed presentation. Goffman says that the front stage involves a differentiation between setting and personal front. These two concepts are necessary for the actor to have a successful performance. it could also inadequately misinterpret it.Setting is the scene that must be present in order for the actor to perform; if it is gone, the actor cannot perform. For example, using the metaphor of ice skating, in order for an ice skater to perform, an ice rink must be present.

Personal front consists of items or equipment needed in order to perform. These items are usually identifiable by the audience as a constant representation of the performance and actor. Sticking with the metaphor of ice skating, an example of a personal front would be the ice skates the skater must wear in order to perform. The personal front is divided into two different aspects, appearance and manners. Appearance refers to the items of the personal front that are a reflection of the actor's social status. Manner refers to the way an actor conducts himself. The actor's manner tells the audience what to expect from his performance.[2]

Back stage

Back stage is where performers are present but audience is not, and the performers can step out of character without fear of disrupting the performance. It is where facts suppressed in the front stage or various kinds of informal actions may appear. The back stage is completely separate from the front stage. No members of the audience can appear in the back. The actor takes many methods to ensure this. It is difficult to perform once a member of the audience is in the back stage. Using the metaphor of an ice skating competition, the skater would not want the judges to see her at practice where she is sloppy and falls. Her practice time would be seen as the backstage and the performance time as the front.[2]

When performers are in the back region, they are nonetheless in another performance: that of a loyal team member. Back region is a relative term, it exists only in regards to a specific audience: where two or more people are present, there will almost never be a true 'back region'.


Outside, or off-stage, is the place where individuals are not involved in the performance (although they may be aware of it).


Borders or boundaries are important as they prevent or restrict movement of individuals between various regions. Performers need to control boundaries to control who has the access to the performance.

Discrepant roles

Many performances need to prevent the audience from getting some information (secrets). For that, several specialized roles are created.


There are different types of secrets:

  1. "Dark" secrets: facts about a team which it knows and conceals and which are incompatible with the image of self that the team tries to present to the audience[4]
  2. "Strategic secrets": intentions and capacities of the team which it conceals from its audience to prevent them from adapting effectively to the state-of-affairs the team is trying to create[4]
  3. "Inside secrets": possession marks a member as a member of the group. They give an objective content to the subjective felt distance with others. Note that strategic and dark secrets serve well as inside secrets. This is part of the reason that to gain control of someone, you bind them w. a secret.[4]
  4. The knowledge one has of other's secrets provides two sub-types:
    1. "Entrusted secrets": the kind which the possessor is obliged to keep because of his relation to the team to which the secret refers[4]
    2. "Free secrets": somebody else's secret known to oneself that one could disclose without discrediting the image one was presenting of oneself.[4]


There are 3 basic roles in Goffman's scheme, each dealing with different types of information. Performers found in both the front and back regions are aware of the impression they foster and possess destructive information about the show. Audiences found only in the front regions know what they have been allowed to know, along with what they can gather from close observation. Finally, outsiders know neither the secrets of the performance nor the appearance of reality fostered by it, and are found only in the outside region.[4]

In general, these roles are never clear cut (as there are no ideal types). The most common and important subroles can be divided into three groups and include:

Roles dealing with manipulation information and team borders

  1. The "informer": someone who pretends to the performers to be a member of their team, is allowed backstage, but then sells out to the audience. These can be spies or traitors, depending on how they start.[4]
  2. The "Shill": someone who acts as though he were and ordinary member of the audience but is in fact in league with the performers. His role is to guide, manipulate, and/or direct the audience reactions.[4]
  3. The "Spotter": someone who is an impostor in the audience, but acts for the benefit of the audience, not the performers. He plays the role of checking up on the performers and may reveal destructive information to the audience. Example: food critic in a restaurant.[4]

Roles dealing with facilitating interactions between 2 other teams

  1. The "go-between" or "mediator": He learns the secrets of each side usually with the permission of both sides and acts as a mediator or messenger, facilitating communication. He may or may not be neutral.[4]

Roles that mix front and back region up:

  1. The "non-person": those who play this role are present during the interaction in the back stage but in do not take the role either of performer or of audience, nor do they pretend to be what they are not. They are not part of the team and are usually ignored. Example: a waiter, cleaning lady.[4]
  2. The "service specialist": people who know something about the setting. They are present in the back region and are invited there by the team members to help with their special skills required for the performance. Example: hairdresser, plumbers, bankers with tax knowledge.[4]
  3. The "colleague": persons who present the same routine to the same kind of audience but who do not participate together, as teammates do. Example: coworkers.[4]
  4. The "confidant": persons to whom the performer confesses his sins, freely detailing the sense in which the impression given during a performance was merely an impression.[4]

Communication out of character

Performers may act out of character on purpose (usually in the back stage) or by aciddent (if in front stage).

Common backstage communications out of character include:

  1. Treatment of the absent: derogatory discussion of the absent audience or performers affecting team cohesion.[4]
  2. Staging talk: discussion of technical aspects of the performance, gossip.[4]

Common frontstage communications out of character include:

  1. Team collusion: between team members. For example, whispers with other team members giving away the game, secret team signals, and "staging cues." Example: kicking a friend under a table.[4]
  2. Realigning actions: between members of opposing teams. For example, unofficial grumbling, guarded disclosure, and double-talk.[4]

Impression management

Impression management refers to work on maintaining the desired impression. It is composed of defensive and protective techniques. Defensive techniques are employed before an interaction starts and involve:

  1. Dramaturgical loyalty: work to keep the team members loyal to the team members and to the performance itself.
  2. Dramaturgical discipline: dedicating oneself to the performance but without loosing oneself in it. Self-control, making sure one can play the part properly, rehearsal.
  3. Dramaturgical circumspection: minimizing risk by preparing for expected problems. Being careful to avoid situations where a mistake or a potential problem can occur, choosing the right audience, length and venue of performance.

Protective techniques are used once the interaction begins in order to cover mistakes. For example, relying on audience to use tact and overlook mistakes of the performers.[4]


It has been argued that dramaturgy should only be applied in instances that involve people associated with a total institution. The theory was designed for total institutions and some believe that theories should not be applied where they have not been tested.[5]

In addition to this, it also has been said that dramaturgy does not contribute to sociology's goal of understanding the legitimacy of society. It is claimed to be drafting on positivism, which does not offer an interest in both reason and rationality; John Welsh called it a "commodity".[6]

Dramaturgy applied

Research on this is best done through fieldwork such as participant observation.

For one, dramaturgy has been used to depict how social movements communicate power. Robert D. Benford and Scott A. Hunt argued that "social movements can be described as dramas in which protagonists and antagonists compete to affect audiences' interpretations of power relations in a variety of domains".[7] The people seeking power present their front stage self in order to captivate attention. However, the back stage self is still present, though undetectable. This is a competition of power, a prime example of dramaturgy.

A useful, and everyday way of understanding dramaturgy (specifically front stage and back stage) is to think of a waiter or waitress at a restaurant. Their main avenue of concern for him or her is "customer service". Even if a customer is rude, waiters and/or waitresses are expected to be polite ("the customer is always right") as part of their job responsibilities. That same waiter or waitress speaks differently when going out to their break room. They may complain, mimic and discuss with their fellow peers how irritating and rude the customer is. In this example, the waiter/waitress acts a certain way when dealing with customers and acts a completely different way when with their fellow employees.

See also

External links

Further reading

  • Brissett, Dennis and Edgley, Charles (1990)Life as Theater: A Dramaturgical Source Book.:Second (2nd ed). ed. New York: Walter de Gruyter .
  • Goffman, E.(1959)The Presentation of the Self In Everyday Life. New York: Doubleday .


  1. Mitchell, J. N. (1978). Social Exchange, Dramaturgy and Ethnomethodology: Toward a Paradigmatic Synthesis. New York: Elsevier.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 George Ritzer (2007) Contemporary Sociological Theory and Its Classical Roots: The Basics. New York, New York. McGraw-Hill.
  3. Adler, P., Adler, P. (1987) Everyday Life Sociology. Ann Rev Sociol, 13, 217-35.
  4. 4.00 4.01 4.02 4.03 4.04 4.05 4.06 4.07 4.08 4.09 4.10 4.11 4.12 4.13 4.14 4.15 4.16 4.17 4.18 4.19 4.20 4.21 4.22 4.23 4.24 4.25 4.26 4.27 Goffman: The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life - an analysis. Last accessed on 25 February 2007.
  5. (2001) Contemporary Sociological Theory New York, New York. Peter Lang Publishing Inc.
  6. Welsh, J. (1990) Dramaturgical Analysis and Societal Critique Piscataway, New Jersey. Transaction Publishers.
  7. Benford, S., Hunt, S. (1992) Dramaturgy and Social Movements: The Social Construction and Communication of Power. Sociological Inquiry Vol. 2. No. 1.
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