Erving Goffman, Dramaturgy, and On-Line Relationships

Nikki Sannicolas

© 23 September 1997

Erving Goffman is a 20th Century Sociologist. He was born in Canada in 1922. Before his death, he was a professor of Sociology at UC Berkley. He received his B.A. at the University of Toronto in 1945, and later received a Ph.D. at the University of Chicago in 1953. His professional career has included serving as a visiting scientist at the National Institute of Mental Health in Washington, D.C., and he has written many articles and several books including The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, which was first published in 1956.

Goffman has faced much criticism of his work, as his research methods have been somewhat controversial, not following the more traditional and accepted forms of research conducted by classic theorists. Goffman himself did not consider himself as a theorist or a theoretical sociologist. What he did was to "borrow", "adapt", and "modify" different theories and use them to organize his own observations. Goffman's own "claim to fame" was that he was able to observe others, and make sense of those observations.2

Goffman's main contribution to Sociology has been his treatment of the interaction order as a distinct unit of analysis. In the Interaction Order, interaction occurs when two or more individuals are "physically in one another's presence". As a species, human beings need "face-to-face" interactions, and according to G offman, those interactions are displayed in such a way they are dependent upon situational expectations that effect conduct of the individual "actors" participating in the communicative exchange.3 Thus, in every situation involving communication with others, we all assume roles. There are the roles that we play, and the stage that we act out these roles. There is also an audience. Goffman sees this as how we all interact with one another; social interaction is then a performance. The study and theory behind this concept is referred to as dramaturgy. It is measured by observation and frame analysis. When we look at a transcript of what was said during a social interaction, coupled with behaviors or non-verbal communication, it is like looking at the script of a play, act by act. This concept and its methodology can easily be studied when looking at the communication of individuals and groups in an on-line environment, which I will address later in this paper.

Goffman also concludes that there are social rules and rituals practiced by people, and that there is often a background, or given understanding of such rules and rituals. An example of this would be his studies of a pedestrian walking down the street. The pedestrian sees two people engaged in a conversation, and the accepted ritual would be to walk around the two people conversing rather than walking in between them, therefore disrupting their conversation. If the pedestrian violates this ritual and does walk in between them s/he is expected to engage in some sort of "corrective ritual" in the form of an apology, or by saying "Excuse Me". Members of society understand such rules and rituals, and there is a background expectation that such "rules" be followed.

When a person conducts himself or herself in a way that is not consistent with societal expectations, s/he often does it secretly if this behavior is satisfying to the individual. So, when giving a performance, people are able to conceal things about themselves that may not be consistent with the rituals or unspoken rules of the audience one is performing to. Given that, it can be assumed that many rehearse or tailor their performances, giving them the ability to correct any flaws in their performance before it is actually given.5

It is here that we can start to look at gender roles in communication in terms of scripting, symbols, and the implication of the male being in a higher position of power over the female. In a study conducted by West and Garcia in 1988, it was found that men and women engage in different topics of conversation. When in mixed company, if men are uncomfortable with the topic being discussed, there is a great tendency for the man to interrupt the conversation and change the topic, suggesting that men are more in power to control a situation, in this case, the situation being conversation.6

One can look at how gender roles are portrayed in the media on television, in magazine advertisements and even in the music industry. From these, individual members of a culture or society are not only entertained, but also in some ways programmed to display certain traits congruent with appropriate gender behavior(s). When people display behaviors that are not consistent with these "accepted gender roles", they are often labeled as deviant, or perhaps even homosexual, confusing gender roles with sexual orientation. And, with continued intolerance of homosexuality within society, a person may be covertly persuaded to change their gender role behavior to something more in line with what is the more typical gender role in order to escape the (unfortunate) bias after being labeled as gay or lesbian based on their non-conformity to gender role scripting alone.

With the emergence of technology and computer-mediated communication, one can see dramaturgy demonstrated every day within the on-line chat networks. Several scripts for the "stage" itself, being internet chat, have been written by the media, attracting different audiences and performers. One script that has been written is that the "stage" which I will refer to as the "puter" is a platform for sexual deviancy. It is fairly easy to download pornographic materials from the World Wide Web. This has filtered down into the chat networks, with many topics of conversation being sexual in nature. Most of the major servers (such as MSN and AOL) have sexuality forums in which individuals can go to discuss issues relating to sexuality. However, these are "registered' chat rooms, and therefore are moderated or "hosted". In a "hosted chat" an individual or individuals are present to attempt to assure that members present in the chat do not engage in graphic explicit conversation, as that may reflect upon the Service Provider itself as being a place for members to gather for on-line display of graphic sexual behavior. If such a reputation were to be gained, then the Service Provider would open itself up for legal and moral scrutiny. However, with advances in technology, users can create their own chat rooms, and assign them titles and topics as they wish. These created chat rooms often have titles and topics that imply that they are rooms in which such behavior takes place.

Over a 2-week period, I looked at what rooms were "open" on the Microsoft Network at 7pm PDT every evening. Subjecting the titles of the private rooms to content analysis, it was found that there was an average of 187 "registered" rooms open (that had at least one user present). Within those rooms, 7 (3.7%) were listed as having a discussion on sexuality. When looking into the "non registered" rooms, there was an average of 462 rooms per night, and of those rooms an average of 98 (21.2%) listed sexual topics. This small sample suggests that computer conferencing systems have become a stage for "actors" to act out (and communicate about sexual behavior and attitudes) in sexual ways. Although the researcher did not go in to these rooms to observe the content of conversation, the names and topics listed in and of themselves imply this, "defining the situation" one should expect when entering the room. What is disturbing and has many legal, political and moral implications is that 40% of the rooms identified as having themes of sexuality, they additionally contained the word "teen". In viewing several teen bulletin boards (AKA Newsgroups) as well as doing on line interviews with 4 adolescents ranging in age from 13 16; the implication is that teenagers see the "puter" as a way to explore their curiosity and sexuality. It is a way to be promiscuous without the associated health risks of this kind of behavior in real life. That in and of itself could invoke interest in a long-term study on how these teenagers will view intimate relationships as adults; but since we are talking about "roles" and how people portray themselves, and add the actual anonymity if on line identities, these rooms may actually be created for the purposes of child pornography. An adult can easily engage in sexual acts with a minor in this environment, and although it may be viewed as only text based content, it is still viewed as a felony and immoral by society, and one may theorize that such communicative behavior may effect the development, socialization , and sexual behavior of the children or adolescents involved in such conversations. Since the most effective way to study this would be a long term process involving surveys, interviews, and participant observation, this is an area that many are not willing to research.

In order to observe this practice, one would have to make oneself present in the room itself (a form of on-line anthropology or participant observation), thus opening the door for legal and moral scrutiny of the observer / researcher him or her self. This problem is not uncommon in social science research. Social psychologists call it "the contagion of stigma"; that is, for researchers who study child abuse, domestic violence, or other forms of devalued social identities they run the risk of being labeled themselves.So this is something that is likely to be studied on the platform of theory and subjective interviews.

Another "script" that has been written by the media is that the "puter" is a way to meet people, not only develop friendships, but also to form intimate romantic relationships. The media has learned from telephone advertising that it is "socialness" that sells. Thus the computer is portrayed as a consumer item that increases the number of friends and social contacts one hasÖ line the telephone -This is perhaps a result of the history of the emergence of technology and the basic human desire to be social and "coupled" with someone else. In the 1970's such television shows as "The Dating Game" emerged and became popular, in which people met others in an environment where they normally would not, choosing one another based on the performance given on the show. The Dating Game now has its CMC equivalent, where anonymous couples are judged by an on-line computer audience for their compatibility. Then came the popularity of the newspaper classified "personal ads", then computer dating services in which the agency tried to find "matches" for those looking for the perfect mate. This was picked up on by the television industry (in the U.S.) in the late 1980's with the emergence of "Love Connection" which combined the services of computer dating agencies with performances. In the 1990's, as more and more people are getting computer access, and technology has made the computer more "user-friendly" more and more people have entered the world of cyber socialization, and a good number have formed relationships.

Over the past 3 years, the issue of romantic relationships that have formed "on-line" has been a popular topic on yet another television forum, the "Talk-Show". This has written yet another script for the "puter" stage. There are those who enter into on-line chats in order to meet that special someone. These performers usually enter via the various Special Interest Groups (SIG's), going right to the source of finding people with similar interests.

Of course performance definitely comes into play here. People cruising the chat rooms searching for relationships often times portray themselves in a way that will make them attractive to others. There are the obvious "millionaires", but mostly people come on portraying themselves, not necessarily as themselves as they truly are, but as they would like to be, or at least how they would like others to see them. Theory (the presentation of self) suggests that in this environment individuals have the opportunity to present their "idealized self". This of course creates a problem when the two people actually arrange to meet in real life, and neither is anything like the character they portray on line. However, when this happens, something interesting usually occurs.
Within the chat network SIG's there are "regular" members, who frequent these rooms often over an extended period of time. Although it is unspoken knowledge that many people portray themselves not as how they are in real life, when someone is "found out" as doing this, the group often ostracizes them. In Real Life (RL) there are formal and informal social controls that encourage (reward) individuals to present a consistent image of themselves to others. Deviance from such "public identities" is punished through the informal social controls of gossip, ostracism, and shunning. Deviant social identities are typically hidden "in the closet" so to speak backstage performances. Being "outed", the process of redefining ones social identity can be traumatic. In these instances, the view of on line relationships can be viewed as negative experiences. And in fact, in the year that this researcher has spent visiting SIG's I have seen approximately 50 relationships form on-line. In many of those instances, one party has moved a great distance to be with the other person, without giving much time to spend time together face to face getting to know one another. All of the knowledge about the other person has come from their interactions over the "puter". Thus, it is not surprising that out of these approximately 50 relationships, only a very small number (3) have worked out to last more than 6 months. If one or both of the characters has not been playing their "real" selves, then the other finds that they have actually "fallen in love" with an icon, an ideal type - the character created by that person.

Aside from on-line love relationship formation, another fascinating thing occurs. These SIG chat rooms become social support networks for many, similar in many ways to the social science concept of protective communities. Although this is often viewed as deviant by society, it can in fact be a very positive experience. There are people within these SIG's who for whatever reason do not interact much with people in real life. This may be because of the hours they work (i.e. someone working the night shift who sleeps during the day), a physical disability that leaves them home-bound, extreme shyness in social situations, a lack of social skills, or even mental disorders such as agoraphobia.

For these people, participation in an on-line SIG chat network can be a positive life changing experience. They can choose whether or not to disclose their disability (if they have one) and they also have the advantage of anonymity in this unique social situation. For one who may have a low-self image because of their physical appearance, or one who is extremely shy in social situations, this becomes almost a non-issue on-line. The others cannot see what a person looks like, nor can they "see" th e uncomfortable body posturing or hesitant speech of someone who is extremely shy. This is a unique new social situation and the lack of a synchronous Face To Face (FTF) presence gives the actor far greater control over the developing "definition of the situation". They have an opportunity to present the "ideal self" and sustain that presentation throughout the interaction. The kinds of barriers to communication discussed above are not present when sitting behind the "puter". In these kinds of situations, people have the opportunity to "practice" t alking to others, portraying themselves with more confidence than they may actually have in a real life "face-to-face" situation. This can be a good thing, as this can be a system of positive re-enforcement of social behavior, learned in an on-line environment, which they can then carry out into their real lives.

The use of drama in psychotherapy has been shown as useful in the mental health community. In 1991, Margaret Dickinson and Sirkku Sky Hiltunen founded the Art and Drama Therapy Institute (ADTI) in Washington, D.C. This is a medically supervised day treatment program for developmentally disabled adults. It combines unconventional behavior management techniques with art-based activities such as drama. Clients are referred to the institute from various community agencies and group homes. Clients put on "plays" for friends and families, but it is stressed that the success is not in the outcome (the performance of the play), but in the process. Using the technique of Japanese Noh Theater, clients make masks that they wear during performances. The masks enable them to hide their true identities. However, before the mask is worn, clients must engage in a regular morning ritual of looking in the mirror and stating his or her name. This is necessary as the clients must first be sure of their own identity before assuming another.

Such a practice can be a real key in development and portrayals of roles played out on various "stages" of life in which we all have to perform. This is similar to on-line communication. All of the characters participating in chat have created their own "masks". This is not done in the literal sense as it is in Japanese Noh Theater, but the masks are created by the individuals by the very nature of the technology that defines the situation. When one uses the computer, one is given a mask in their portrayal of their on-line characters. Some take the roles to the extreme of portraying themselves as a different gender, or as someone completely different than themselves, and some wear different "masks" on different "stages" in the varied chat rooms available. But, if you look at various Bulletin Board postings, or do interviews with those who have spent a period of time within these social networks over the "puter", it is often said that the users who get the most out of participation are the ones that perform with a transparent mask, portraying themselves, and using the mask only as a boundary of how much to disclose to selected other characters.

We are given many scripts to read throughout life. Some of those scripts are about what our roles should be, some of the scripts are written about the stages or theaters themselves, both dictate to us how we should behave, or what the expectations are in various social situations. As a social species that has an inherent need for acceptance, we tend to follow those scripts. We can see different scripts written for different cultures, for different gender roles, our professional roles, etc. And we are expected to follow those scripts. Goffman himself has been criticized for not following the traditional script of a social theorist. However, in order to maintain some individuality, we need to do some of life's script writing ourselves freeing us from the social constraints of our gender, class, or social status. Computer mediated communication has created just a social environment.


Goffman, Erving. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Doubleday and Anchor Books, New York: 1959

Psathas, George. "Theoretical Perspectives on Goffman: Critique and Commentary". Sociological Perspectives (Fall 1996) : 383

Colomy, J. and Brown, David. "Goffman and Interactional Citizenship". Sociological Perspectives (Fall 1996) : 371

Crossley, Nick. "Body Techniques, Agency, and Intercorporeality: On Goffman's `Relations In Public". Sociology, (Feb 1995) : 133

West, Candace. "Goffman on Feminist Perspective". Sociological Perspectives (Fall 1996) : 353

Green, Michelle. "When Art Imitates Life: A Look at Art and Drama Therapy". Public Welfare (Spring 1995) : 34

Written By: Nikki Sannicolas
Social and Behavioral Sciences Major
California State University, Monterey Bay
23 September 1997

with editing and input by: Dr. George Baldwin, Ph.D.
Professor Social and Behavioral Sciences
Sociology of Cyber Communities
California State University, Monterey Bay

1 Goffman, Erving, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Doubleday and Anchor Books, New York, 1959, pp. (preface)
2 Psathas, George, Theoretical Perspectives on Goffman: Critique and Commentary, Sociological Perspectives, Fall 1996 pp. 383
3 Colomy, J. and David Brown, Goffman and Interactional Citizenship, Sociological Perspectives, Fall 1996 pp. 371
4 Crossley, Nick, Body Techniques, Agency, and Intercorporeality: On Goffman's `Relations In Public', Sociology, Feb 1995 pp. 133
5 Goffman, Erving, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Doubleday and Anchor Books, New York, 1959, pp. 34- 44
6 West, Candace, Goffman on Feminist Perspective, Sociological Perspectives, Fall 1996 pp. 353
7 Green, Michelle, When Art Imitates Life: A Look at Art and Drama Therapy, Public Welfare, Spring 1995 pp. 3

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