Tuesday, April 7, 2015

The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, by Erving Goffman

Staff Review by Chris Saliba

In this classic study sociologist Erving Goffman shows everyday life to be more theatrical and ceremonial than we realise.

Erving Goffman (1922-1982) was a Canadian born sociologist and author. His 1959 book, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, is considered a classic in the field of sociology.  Goffman takes the novel approach of deconstructing everyday life into an elaborate theatrical performance. He uses the language of dramaturgy to describe how we interact with others, use props to denote status and behave like an audience member when watching individuals in the act of self-presentation. Goffman breaks down our everyday behaviour into its component parts and finds that we are more actors on the stage of life than we realise. He maintains that life is deeply ceremonial and highly artificial, especially in the way we keep society stratified into lower, middle and higher classes. “The world, in truth, is a wedding,” Goffman asserts. To illustrate his arguments, Goffman skillfully employs literary examples, from Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Paul Sartre to Franz Kafka and Evelyn Waugh.

This is a undoubtedly a work of high originality. Goffman makes his arguments convincingly. The way he dismantles everyday life into its separate parts and functions shows great psychological accuracy. It’s the sort of book that will make you see the world in a new way and make you examine your own social behaviour. If the book has a literary twin, it’s probably in the works of Jean Genet, especially his highly wrought play The Maids (1947), which examines masks, class, status and the fine line between the public and private persona. That play opens with two maids, Clare and Solange, impersonating their employer, Madame, in a ritualised murder fantasy. Another writer whose work somewhat resembles Goffman’s and examines social life as spectacle and performance is the English novelist E.F. Benson. In novels like Mapp and Lucia and Mrs Ames, society queens bolster their preeminent positions with the use of props, conspicuous display and careful concealment of unflattering personal information.

The only criticism that can be levelled at The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life is that the language is at times unwieldy and old fashioned. Some of his examples and discussion of sex roles are certainly outdated. The problem with the book’s language, however, may be that Goffman was trying to invent a vocabulary all of his own to describe his unique vision of society. Despite this, the book is well worth the effort and rewards with its originality and insight.

The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, by Erving Goffman. Published by Penguin. ISBN: 9780140135718  RRP: $24.95

To sign up for our monthly newsletter, featuring new releases, book reviews and favourite articles from around the web, click here.