The use of a “front” prepares the audience for what is about to happen in the performance. For example, a policeman wears a smart uniform and uses stern facial expressions which conforms to the conventional image of policemen. Goffman (1959 cited in Manning, 1992) also points out that performances are both dramatically realised and dramatically idealised. The realisation refers to the extras added to the performance to ensure the performers are able to present the best version of themselves to the audience, whereas the latter allows us to adapt our performance to conform to the ideal norms and values of the audience. For example, when talking to relatives or professionals, we act in a more formal way to what we would when socialising with our friends. We are able to change the way we act and talk to meet the needs of those we are speaking to.
Even though performers can operate on their own, Goffman (1959 cited in Manning, 1992) argues that performances are more successful when staged by teams, not just individuals, teams operate like a secret society. Furthermore, teams perform in “front regions” which are settings where performances are seen by the public which usually means we act in a polite manner, adhering to social norms and values, in real life this refers to being out in the public sphere. However, teams rehearse and socialise in “back regions” away from an audience, this allows the performers to step out of character, be themselves and to not be judged by the audience. The “back region” could refer to the way we act in our homes, the private conversations we have and the outfits we choose to wear when not in character. A “guarded passageway” connects the two regions. However, there are people with “discrepant roles” who attempt to gain access to “back regions” when they have knowledge that performers are keeping secrets and want to uncover these. Yet information can be gained from the team when they slip up and perform out of character. Sometimes performers accidentally reveal things by either ‘maligning the absent’, ‘staging talk’, ‘team collusion’ or ‘realigning actions’. Due to the fear of revealing disreputable information, performers are encouraged to practice “impression management”, where performers learn to stay in character (Goffman 1959, cited in Manning, 1992). Goffman’s work agrees with the idea that the ‘self’ is shaped by society as we are constantly trying to act in a certain way to impress people. Also, we change our behaviours in the “front and “back” regions, which indicates we act in different ways in front of different people. If the self was not influenced by society why would we act differently in different situations?
Although Goffman’s work on the dramaturgical perspective is very useful in highlighting how the ‘self’ is shaped by society, some writers are critical of it. (Ryan, 1978 cited in Manning, 1992) is critical of Goffman as he tells us not to take theatrical analysis too seriously, but this leaves us wondering “how seriously is too seriously?”. If we are constantly putting on a front for an audience, what happens when we take the front down? Another criticism is given by Sheldon Messinger et al. (1962, cited in Manning, 1992). They argue that there are many different experiences of “being on stage”, the examples used are the mentally ill and celebrities. They argue that the mentally ill are obliged to put on a performance to the world that doesn’t reflect their true self. Similarly, celebrities are forced to maintain a front which makes us ask the question “where does this leave the dramaturgical perspective”. Messinger et al. (1962, cited in Manning, 1992) argue that Goffman’s dramaturgical perspective is still valuable even though some people are made to put on a performance every day to maintain their public image whereas others can make a conscious decision.
It is important to note Giddens (1991) work is outdated now with his books being written in the early 1990’s, there are other contemporary sociologists that provide updated explanations of the creation of self identity.
To conclude, this essay gives us an insight into how different theorists describe how the ‘self’ is shaped. In my opinion, because we are in high modernity, the ‘self’ can now be shaped both by ourselves and society. With new technologies available to us that can help change how we present ourselves to the world, alongside the pressure of society to act in a certain way, there
exists a balanced influence. Not to forget media influences which compound people’s desire to change to ‘fit in’ to society. However, living in a fast changing society, it is difficult to predict what new arguments can be added to the debate in the future.