2.1. Goffman and the theater of impressions

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Notes on social identity
In a 1907 essay entitled “How is Society Possible”, Georg Simmel, one of the founders of the field of
sociology, discussed the question of how do we make sense of other people. [simmel quotes]
Why do we have concepts of people? Without concepts the world would make little sense. We use concepts
to help us understand what to expect from something or someone, to know how to behave towards it (or
them), to know whether or not we need to pay attention to this thing or person. Concepts allow us to
understand narratives and make predictions. Concepts of people let us bring a vast amount of knowledge
about types of people to our interactions with new people. We act differently towards and have different
expectations of children, clergymen, mothers, maiden aunts, transsexuals, accountants.
Much of the work in social cognition has focused on the nature of these concepts - e.g. do we process them
as abstractly defined categories (prototypes) or as specific instances (exemplars) - and how the observer
makes the classification, but assumes that the observations are reliable.
yet people can and do manipulate what others see of them in order control the impression that is formed of
them. We do this frequently and benignly: "try to make a good impression" is considered to be legitimate
encouragement rather than an exhortation to trickery. Yet certainly there are times when it is less benign,
when people consciously manipulate the cues others see in order to create a false impression of the type of
person they are. Defense awyers work hard to get their client to project a desireable image in court, one that
may be very different than their normal demeanor (Jackson article).
Goffman and the theater of impressions
Erving Goffman in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (Goffman 1959) uses the metaphor of theater
to describe the way people manage the impressions they make upon others – and the way people interpret
others’ unintended cues and signals. We can use signaling theory to look more precisely at the phenomena
that Goffman was describing. He distinguished between the impression given and the impression given off.
The impression given is the impression that the signaler intended to make, the belief about himself that he
hoped his audience would have. The impression given off is the unintended impression – what they see
that is not what he intended. But Goffman does not disambiguate the source of this disparity. Are people
unintentionally providing cues that they had not meant to – were they more competent or self-aware they
would not present these cues – or are there unintended interpretations of the intended performance?
An actor is given a character to play. He has a notion of this character’s personality, beliefs, motivations
etc. To portray this to the audience he imagines the character’s presence: how would this person move,
speak, look and gesture. In playing the role, he imitates this imagined behavior. If the actor is good – if he
has understood the character well and
Goffman, Erving. 1959. The presentation of self in everyday life. Garden City, New York: Doubleday
Anchor Books.
3/9/2016 4:11 AM