In this essay I will be critically analyzing a traditional theory of the self; the theory of Erving Goffman. I will start by describing this theory, by applying it to some of Goffman’s studies of the Island situated in Scotland, that individuals are social “actors”. I will further consider the strengths and weaknesses of Goffman’s idea. For instance, I will argue that Goffman’s micro-sociological approach would be best suited to studying society because he considers individual interactions and how we portray ourselves to others even though he fails to recognize wider social factors such as class inequality highlighted by other theorists such as Marx.
The traditional theory relating to Erving Goffman, a micro-sociologist is considered to be one of “the most influential of twentieth-century micro-sociologists” (Macionis P, Plummer K, 2007, p.205). Goffman’s work was heavily based on our social interactions and how we manage our impressions leading to the development of ourselves. Also, Goffman’s dramaturgical model describes how we actively construct our ‘self’ by manipulating other people’s impressions of us (Wood, 2004). The idea is that in our front region, we display the part we want the world to see and in the back region is the part we want to keep to ourselves thus, we are seen as social 'actors'. A possible example of Goffman's dramaturgical model is the idea of social media, many influencers and bloggers often post what they want their audiences to visualize for example, frequently when influencers post they are happy, but in the back region, they are potentially not. And according to an article, these influencers are 'virtual humans' (Medium, n.d.), this means that in contemporary society, who people regard as influencers, celebrities, and role models are in fact socially constructed by society itself. Additionally, according to Goffman as individuals, we aim to portray a particular image of ourselves to our audiences. To achieve this, we must ensure that we control the impression that our performance extracts. This is induced through the constant study of our bystanders to visualize how they respond to us and thus, by monitoring our performances we are able to persuade them to accept the image that we sought to illustrate. This is emphasized by a contemporary study using Goffman’s theory, which is titled, 'Dating Deception'. In this study, psychologists analyzed how individuals displayed themselves in the context of dating. At the end of the study, researchers found 'male participants emphasized their positive characteristics more if the potential date was less salient' That is they put on a positive 'act' if the meeting was through an email rather than face-to-face (Guadagno et al, 2012). This suggests that the self-presentation is almost deceptive, as Goffman had illustrated that as social ‘actors’ we perform in a certain perspective for our audience to watch and accept that portrayal. Thus, the study illustrates how the male participants attributed their positive characteristics knowing that the date is not interactive.
Similarly, Goffman's ideas do build off Mead's work of the self, who was also a micro-sociologist. Mead like Goffman challenges the idea that we are different because of our biological self. Mead's concept of the 'self' and society are seen as inseparable as how we become 'us' is widely linked to our communication with others. To support this includes Mead's words, 'actions are spontaneous yet guided by how others respond to us' (Macionis P, Plummer K, 2007, p.109). This is best encapsulated through Mead's famous work of 'taking the role of the other'. The idea is that we interpret other people's meanings by taking the role of the other through imitative play, which we start doing during our early childhood and later we come to see ourselves from the view of the wider community, which makes us reflective. Therefore, as a concluding point referring back to Goffman who argues that, without our interactions, we cannot leave an impression of the self without ‘acting’ in a certain way so that others view us in that perspective, through the way we interact with them.
To critically analyze Goffman’s micro-sociological approach, firstly advantages of his dramaturgical model to studying society include some ideas such as, Goffman explores how we interact with different people individually and his work is useful in studying organizations, institutions as well as individuals. For example, this is emphasized in his book, “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959). Observing life closely on those islands… seeing social life as a kind of drama” (Macionis and Plummer, 2007), this suggests that Goffman's work applies to different societies. However, Goffman’s micro approach fails to recognize emotional factors that may assert people to act in a certain way. Additionally, Goffman’s dramaturgical model fails to acknowledge that as social ‘actors’ people play the part of both the audience and the actor, this is because interactions are usually unpremeditated. Thus, a macro-sociological approach “allows observation of large-scale patterns and trends” (The Sociological Approach, n.d), this is because sociologists are able to look at social groups which are less time-consuming to study, in juxtapose to the micro-sociological approach which assesses individual interactions in understanding society. An example of a theoretical macro-sociological approach is the view of Anthony Giddens, who studied society through the way our self-identities have changed from post-modern society to modern and contemporary society, one key idea is industrialization, for instance, Giddens stated, “There is a social structure… established ways of doing things… people start to ignore them, replace them or reproduce them differently” (Giddens, 1991, p.103). This suggests that our self-identities have transferred to new ways of production and consumerism such as the way the media now advertise certain products, through the focus on popular culture, for instance, popular products such as an iPhone are advertised to the appropriate target audience through its utilization of music and color.
However, it could be argued that whilst both micro and macro-sociological approaches may have advantages to studying and acknowledging society, it may be that each approach depends on the type of society sociologists are studying. For example, if sociologists study suicide rates it may differ in one society because of discourses such as various faiths. For instance, in Durkheim’s study of suicide (1897), he found that Protestants had a higher suicide rate than Catholics because of the lack of integration within Catholicism in comparison to Protestantism (K,n.d), which are social factors rather than psychological causes.
In addition, perhaps another method of studying society using the suited method regardless of the usefulness of both micro and macro-sociological approaches is the method of triangulation. This method ensures validity as it combines various methods of research to find the suited one for the same study, in this case, the study of society. Therefore, to some extent, both micro and macro-sociological approaches may not be suited to studying a society as it depends on the phenomena that sociologists are analyzing.
To conclude, the most useful approach in studying contemporary society is the micro-sociological approach. This is because micro-sociologists study individual interactions which is applicable to contemporary society as society now is complex, where there is a plethora of choices in the type of clothes people want to wear to the type of class they choose to belong to. As, Goffman had revealed that people may choose to portray themselves in a certain way, in contrast to macro-sociological approaches which fail to ignore the study of individuals in society. An example of this is Marxism (Chappelow, 2019), Marx believed that there are two classes in society, the bourgeoisie who own the means of production, and the proletariat whose labor is exploited for profit. Thus, the bourgeoise maintains capitalism as they are able to control and create ideologies through institutions such as the family, the education system, religion as well as the mass media. This macro-sociological approach is criticized for ignoring the smaller picture as with other macro-approaches, the idea that every individual may not be undergoing class conflict, it could be other social issues. This, therefore, refers back to Goffman and his micro-sociological approach that the study of individuals is significant because each person puts on their own 'act', leading to the idea that micro approaches are useful in studying society, in comparison to macro approaches.
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