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Goffman’s Theory of Symbolic Interaction and Dramaturgy


Erving Goffman was a sociologist who developed and presented the symbolic interaction theory alongside dramaturgy ideology. The dramaturgy principle is a social psychological viewpoint that studies the behavior of human beings and social interaction through its correspondence with the theatre. This perspective is also related to symbolic interactionism, a concept that is based on relations and communication, assisted by diverse words, signs, and symbols that have attained different connotations.

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Symbolic Interaction Perspective

Symbolic interactionism refers to a micro-level perspective that seeks to fathom individuals’ relations in a society. George Herbert Mead developed this approach and presented it to American sociology in the early 1920s (Crossman, 2020). The idea of this theory is based on human actions and interactions, understood via communication and altercation of important signs. The perspective is rooted in phenomenology, where the subjective meaning of reality is emphasized. It champions the ‘self’ social ideology and has three main principles that guide the theory, namely, language, meaning, and thought.

The symbolic interaction perspective acknowledges meaning as the center of the behavior of humans. It suggests that people’s actions and behavior towards other people depend on the meaning they have given to them. Language as the second tenet of this theory is responsible for making the symbols and interactions coherent to the mind (Carter & Fuller, 2016). It is through language that human beings express their senses of the symbols. Thinking or thought, on the other hand, is the principle that entails the interpretations of the meanings given to symbols. Language, for this matter, is the basis of thought, where mental conversations about names and symbols occur.

Using known knowledge, thinking through imagination makes it possible to get the idea of an unknown phenomenon. Mead’s work which was influenced by sociologists Dewey and Cooley was drawn on evolution and realism, suggesting that people self-define their realms. Thus, language thought, and meaning are the cornerstones of symbolic interaction ideology.

To solve their mutual problems, people need to know and consider each other’s feelings. They have to take individuals into account, by deliberating on their roles and attitudes to expect responses which, according to Mead, coordinate both of their behaviors (Crossman, 2020). There are two different phases of the ‘self’ as argued by Mead; the ‘me’ and the ‘I’ (Crossman, 2020). The ‘me’ describes the attitudes and behaviors that are learned, which are otherwise the individual’s social characteristics that society generally expects.

In other words, ‘me’ is the consequence of societal interaction, and is also called the ‘generalized other’ and is the phase of the self’s past. On the other hand, the ‘I’ represents the present and future sides of self. It is the phase of self that constitutes an individual’s identity regarding the ‘me’. The ‘I’ part of self is considered as an impulse that prompted creativity which was important to the experience of humans. From the perspective of sociologist Goffman, the ‘self’ is studied using an analogy to the theatre.

The Components of Symbolic Interaction Perspective

The symbolic interaction perspective is one of many sociological theories which concentrate on relationships between people in a society. In his theory, sociologist Erving Goffman proposed the idea that a person equates to an actor on the stage, which he coined dramaturgy. Goffman suggested that human beings employ impression management as a method of presenting themselves the way they intend to be perceived by others (Shamus, 2020). According to Shamus (2020), each situation represents a new scene, where individuals perform different roles. A person’s behavior will vary depending on the environment or the people around this individual. For example, the way a teenager behaves in school in the presence of their teacher is entirely different from how they behave with their friends or their parents.

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The dramaturgy perspective by Goffman resonates the same way with the looking glass-self concept by sociologist Cooley. According to this perspective, human beings portray their image based on what they think the society sees (Siljanovska & Stojcevska, 2018). In other terms, individuals envisage how they are supposed to appear or behave, then react. For instance, the way a person grooms, how they express and themselves, and their general presentation affect the community’s opinion about them. Therefore, the development of a person’s sense of self is dependent on the imagination of people’s perception of them.

Goffman did a study of the front stages and backstage of a person’s actions and interactions. According to him, the front part defines an individual’s daily life where these people make efforts to manage their impressions in a society. Goffman called this ‘impression management’, which means an individual sees to it that the appearance they intend to express corresponds to the image they portray (Shamus, 2020). Examples of the front stage components include the speech of a person, sex, how they look, attitude, and the way they dress.

The backstage, also called ‘behind the scenes’, is where impression management is practiced by actors. However, the individuals in the back region are not needed to manage their impressions since the public is not there. This ideology is similar to that of Mead’s where he suggests that humans have the ability to analyze and critic their actions and think of how society might think about these actions. Although Mead concentrated on self-dialogue, Goffman stressed people’s interactions and management of these relations.

The Changing Self

Going from Goffman’s theory, it is sensible to state that people have a changing, mutable self. This reasoning has its basis on Mead’s theory, that the self has two distinct phases; the ‘me’ and the ‘I’ (Crossman, 2020). Mead’s theory describes ‘me’ as the person’s socialized character that consists of learned behaviors and attitudes. The ‘I’ on the other hand describes an individual’s identity with a response to the ‘me’. He imagined self’s two phases as in an ongoing and conflicting correlation; me as a product of the society while I consistently reacting to the societal shaping. The other reason as to why a person’s self is not unchangeable is that society keeps on changing; it is not a fixed entity.

Mead’s idea of the ‘self’ backs the argument that no person has a constant self that is unchangeable. Another concept that supports this notion is Goffman’s theory, where he viewed social life as a collective performance that individuals execute, just the way actors do in a theatrical setting (Shamus, 2020). Through the dramaturgy approach, Goffman suggested that a person can manage their impressions to execute whichever image they desire the society to perceive. Every circumstance signifies a distinct setting, where individuals perform different roles. For instance, if one invites their classmate over for dinner, they automatically play the role of the host where he/she bears all responsibilities such as food provision. The classmate enacts the guest role, where they ought to abide by all rules set by the host.

The behavior of individuals in different situations illustrates distinct parts of self. A person’s behavior around friends is dissimilar from how they behave around their parents or teachers. In Goffman’s perspective, these are the new roles played in another scene and a new setting, which symbolizes many situations during diverse stages in people’s lives. The changing of actions to fit non-identical settings is referred to as role performance (Shamus, 2020).

It is, therefore, the actions that change, and not the individuals’ personality. Cooley’s looking glass-self theory also supports the argument that individuals have a variable self. According to Siljanovska and Stojcevska (2018), Cooley suggests that a person’s image is determined by what they think society perceives they are. The perception of the community, which always changes, shapes an individual’s trait.

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In conclusion, the society is always on the change, and as a consequence, the self also revamps. Human beings react to the assumption of how they imagine they are supposed to appear to others, a phenomenon that often alters self. The above explained concepts from various sociologists support the argument that human beings have a changing, mutable self, which vary from time to time depending on the situation at hand.


Carter, M. J., & Fuller, C. (2016). Symbols, meaning, and action: The past, present, and future of symbolic interactionism. Current Sociology, 64(6), 931–961. 

Crossman, A. (2020). What is symbolic interactionism? ThoughtCo. 

Shamus, K. (2020). Erving Goffman, The presentation of self in everyday life (1959). Duke University Press, 32(2), 397-404. Web.

Siljanovska, L., & Stojcevska, S. (2018). A Critical Analysis of Interpersonal Communication in Modern Times of the Concept “Looking Glass Self (1902)” By Charles Horton Cooley. SEEU Review, 13(1), 62-74. Web.

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