Dramaturgical analysis is a descriptive method to analyze day-to-day human interactions in society. It compares real-life interactions to a stageplay.
The sociologist Erving Goffman (1922–1982) first used the metaphor of a theatrical performance.
He thought of social settings as the scene and people as actors deliberately presenting themselves in a certain way to impress others.
According to dramaturgical analysis, our self (or identity) comprises the different roles we play in our lives.
The primary goal of social actors (people) is to frame their multiple selves in ways that generate and maintain specific (mostly positive) impressions on their changing audiences.
Definition of Dramaturgical Analysis
The dramaturgical approach was introduced in sociology in Goffman’s book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959).
He studied human interactions in society at the micro-level (in day-to-day encounters).
The dramaturgical analysis describes:
“human interaction as analogous to behavior on a theatrical stage, in which “appropriate” lines are delivered, with “backstage” behavior being less scripted. (Adams and Sydie, 139)
Taking his cues from theater, Goffman proposed that people are actors interacting with each other on the “stage” of society.
1. Impression Management
Goffman claimed that individuals perform different acts and masks in front of different people (audiences). They do so because they want to fit in or impress others.
This process is known as impression management.
Our costumes, the objects we carry or use as props, our tone of voice and nods may all be part of our daily performances. People have a goal in mind with each performance and prepare to achieve it.
They might want to appear formal, informal, successful, or relatable—it depends on the setting (more on the examples that follow).
2. Frontstage and backstage
According to the dramaturgical approach, our personalities are not static. They change depending on the situation.
Goffman applied theater language to make this perspective more understandable. A key concept related to identity formation and performance is the “front” and “back” stage.
The frontstage self is the persona that we show to the world. In Goffman’s word, the front “functions in a general and fixed fashion” to “define the situation for those who observe the performance” (1959, 22).
The backstage is an environment where we feel comfortable and unobserved. We feel relaxed and don’t have to put on a mask. According to Goffman, the backstage is where “the performer can relax” and “can drop his front, forgo speaking in his lines, and step out of character” (1959, 112).
An example of the difference between the two is how a businessperson behaves in a professional meeting with potential investors and how they behave at home with their family.
Dramaturgical Analysis Examples
- The interview: When we prepare to attend an interview, we put on formal clothes (performance props) to appear formal to the hiring manager. Will also are on our best behavior.
- In the classroom: a professor lecturing high school students is dressed professionally and behaves in a composed manner. His aim, as an actor on stage, is to instill trust to his audience (the students) as a qualified instructor.
- Social media: Instagram and YouTube influencer for food strategically creates content and takes photos of the dishes served in the restaurants they visit. They want to increase and maintain their followers by crafting the person of a food connoisseurs (frontstage). At home (backstage), they may well be eating butter on toast.
- Customer service: Customer service agents need to please clients’ demands—even the most unjustified ones. They therefore appear empathetic and knowledgeable of the products/services. They are also kind to persuade clients their demands will be promptly and adequately addressed.
- Activists in a street riot behave differently than at home. In a street march they’re passionate about their cause, chant slogans and might even engage in acts of violence. At home, they might be very calm and affectionate.
- When someone meets their friends’ parents for the first time, they want them to think of them as ‘good company’ for their children. So they must be polite and follow the house rules.
- When we start a new job, we want to make a good first impression on our colleagues and supervisor. So, we’re eager to complete any work assigned to us and don’t procrastinate.
- A pediatrician is always following a script at work. They put various masks when they work. They speak in a calm and polite manner to children’s parents. But they are fun and use simple vocabulary when talking to children. When they’re with colleagues they’re formal and professional.
- Being at home with our family or trusted friends is a great example backstage. For this role, we don’t have to prepare. We’re off stage, feel accepted and we can chill out and be our “selves”.
- Code-switching refers to the ability of people to change how they speak depending on the context. The term was first used by black scholars to describe how people in African-American communities would change their language when around white teachers and employers.
1. The interview process
A job candidate will make use of the “backstage” to prepare their script for their interview with the hiring manager.
They are likely to practice answers to possible interview questions on their own. They might have a mock interview with a close friend.
They need to figure out what to say or not to say. They need to appear confident, professional, and knowledgeable in order to make a positive impression on the interviewer.
Their “frontstage” behaviour will differ from their practiced backstage behavior. This is because they want to make the hiring manager perceives them in a particular manner.
2. Simon de Beauvoir on women’s relationships backstage
Goffman (1957) uses Simone de Beauvoir’s thoughts on women’s interactions in the absence of men (the backstage) as an illustration of the dramaturgical approach.
According to Beauvoir:
“with other women, a woman is behind the scenes; she is polishing her equipment, but not in battle […] she is lingering in s dressing-gown and slippers in the wings before making her entrance on the stage.” (quoted in Goffman, 1959, p. 113).
The frontstage includes interactions with men when women try to fit into specific gender roles (e.g., the attractive or less intelligent woman).
A woman prepares backstage for her interactions with men. When she’s with her husband or lover, “every woman is more or less conscious of the thought: ‘I am not being myself'” (quoted in Goffman, 1959, p. 113).
3. Aces and Bombers: How students manage impressions after exams
In their study, Albas and Albas (1988) explored the strategies students use to manage the impressions they make on others after grades are awarded.
They found that after the professor returned examination papers to students, they reacted differently depending on whom they talked to and what grade they got on the exam.
For example, when speaking to students who received a low or failing grade (termed Bombers), students who scored a top grade (called Aces), felt they needed to minimize their grade.
Being considerate of their peers who did worse, they downplayed their achievements.
This was not the case in Ace-to-Ace encounters. In this case, students happily shared their grades and even bragged a little about how they “nailed” the test.
4. The classroom as a stage
School teachers are always reminded that they serve as role models for kids.
This makes them conceal or moderate some aspects of their personalities, opinions, and feelings when they’re in front of their classes.
In this way, their professional behavior is “acted out” in front of students (frontstage).
Even in the school setting, teachers wear many masks and rehearse different scripts, to borrow Goffman’s terminology.
In performance meetings with their superiors, they use technical jargon and behave professionally to show they follow the expectations set out by the contract.
By contrast, in front of their pupils, they speak accessibly to make themselves understood. Likewise, they’re authoritative with students but not with the head of school.
5. The separation between the frontstage and backstage
It is critical for impression management to keep the front and backstage areas separate. Let’s see what happens when the division falls apart.
Imagine you come across your boss when you’re a little tipsy in a pub with your friends.
At work, you dress professionally, behave in a courteous and formal manner. You want to seem respectful and trustworthy to your boss. So, when your boss notices you in a casual setting, you feel uncomfortable.
This embarrassment comes from the dissonance between this performance (in the pub) and the previous one (at work).
In other words, you feel that your behavior outside of the office might undermine the credibility of your performance in the workplace.
Criticisms of Dramaturgical Analysis
The main criticism raised against dramaturgical analysis is that it is not an explanatory but a descriptive theory.
For example, Reynolds and Herman-Kinney (2003, p.150) argue that this approach this approach cannot be used to generate testable hypotheses or to offer comprehensive conclusions about human behavior.
Simply put, critics of dramaturgical analysis argue it can’t help sociologists understand and interpret human interactions.
Strengths of Dramaturgical Analysis
These schools of thought are built on the premise that people construct their world based on the meanings they ascribe to things (words, situations, encounters).
As a result, they’re not after an overarching, objective explanation of the world—this doesn’t really exist, as far as they’re concerned.
Additionally, the theater metaphor underpinning dramaturgical analysis effectively illustrates the “structure of social encounters” occurring in all social interactions (Goffman, 1959:254).
It can uncover differences and nuances in human behavior across different social settings or even within the same context.
Developed by Erving Goffman, Dramaturgical analysis uses the imagery of the theatrical performance to reveal and explain the shades and importance of social interactions.
According to this theory, we play a wide range of roles in the various social contexts we find ourselves in, much like actors on a stage. Or social actions (personas) are intended to be seen by others (our audience) and improve our public self-image.
As a methodology, the dramaturgical approach includes drama-related terms such as impression management, backstage, frontstage, role, and mask. Although it remains a descriptive theory, its value is a close examination of day-to-day interactions.
Adams, S, & Sydie, R. A. (2002). Contemporary sociological theory. Thousand Oaks, Calif, London: Pine Forge.
Albas, D., & Albas, C. (1988). Aces and Bombers: The Post-Exam Impression Management Strategies of Students. Symbolic Interaction, 11(2), 289-302.
Goffman, E. (1959). The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Garden City, NY: Doubleday. Reynolds, L. T. and Herman-Kinney, N. J. (2003) Handbook of symbolic interactionism. Rowman Altamira.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]