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The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life

Presentation of Self in Everyday Life Free Essay


The present work investigates the idea of self from the sociological perspective. To this end, the paper reviews introduction to E. Goffman’s book “Presentation of Self in Everyday Life.” In this book, the author explores social behavior of people when they meet face to face, and represents “dramatic” approach to the sociology. The essay aims to review the works of famous sociologists, such as William James, George H. Mead, Charles Cooley, Herbert Blumer, Harold Garfinkel etc., which greatly influenced Goffman’s research in this field. In addition to that, the author traces further development of the theory of self. The article provides possible directions for perspective sociological research.

Theory of Self in “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life” by Erving Goffman

In the modern world, it is impossible to overestimate the importance and the role of human communicative behavior for successful social performance. With the globalization and the intensification of cross-cultural communication, the issues of the efficient self-presentation in situations of social interaction and formation of self-presentation competence are of particular social importance.

People face the phenomenon of self-presentation every day not even knowing that in the subconscious mind, they have already formed their self-image. This kind of presentation is called involuntary self-presentation. However, this is not the only way to make a claim about oneself. There is also a planned, deliberate tactic of positioning the person, which is called artificial self-presentation.

Mark R. Leary (2012) suggests five understandings of self, namely, self as the total person, self as personality, self as experiencing subject, self as beliefs about oneself, and self as executive agent (p. 4-5).

One of the most important roles in the development of the theory of self and self-presentation is played by E. Goffman. In his work “Presentation of Self in Everyday Life,” Goffman reveals the principle ideas of human communicative behavior and its expression. This widely known work for years has been the paradigmatic basis for analysis of the phenomenon of self-presentation, so it receives special attention in the present essay.

As the purpose of the essay is to investigate the concept of self interpreted by E. Goffman, to this end, it is necessary to review the works of famous sociologists, which greatly influenced Goffman’s research in this field. In addition, it is expedient to trace further development and perspective directions in the investigation of self.

Self-Presentation According to Goffman

The works of Goffman had a significant impact on the global sociology of 1970s-1980s. In introduction to his famous book “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life” (1956), Erving Goffman states that an individual’s ability to self-expression contains two completely different types of sign activity: an expression, which gives information about oneself, and involuntary expression, which gives off information about oneself (p. 2). The first one is manifested mainly in verbal symbols or their substitutes, which are understood as communication in traditional and narrow sense. The second includes a vast area of human actions that others may regard as symptoms of the actor (p. 2).

Goffman believes that whatever the purpose of communication is, the communicating person is interested in controlling the behavior of others, especially their response to his or her actions. Society is organized according to the principle that any individual with a certain set of social characteristics has a moral right to expect from the other corresponding treatment and appraisal. The second principle states that the person who implicitly or explicitly signals about his or her certain social characteristics shall indeed be what he or she declares him- or herself. The person implicitly waives all claims to act as a person he or she really is not.

In the performance of roles, people support social expectations regarding them to gain the approval. Through examples, E. Goffman shows that sometimes, social expectations require the artist to express him- or herself not in the best way. As one and the same person stands in front of different audiences in different roles, then it is useful not to mix these audiences (Goffman, 1956, p. 5, 8). For example, the students should not see the teacher at home where the latter looks not so respectable.

Goffman notes that in the performance of the role, the actor sometimes requires the assistance of other participants of the situation. Sometimes, they act as a team, a group of people involved in a real setting (Goffman, 1956, p. 3). For example, housing a party, all the family members and their assistants are a team that is responsible for the success of a holiday.

In social performance, it is possible to distinguish three groups of people: performer with his co-performers, audience and observers (Goffman, 1956, p. 8). Only performers own secrets, audience knows only what performers allow them to know, observers are not aware of what is happening. Sometimes, a person appears to be in a situation where his or her roles are contradictory. Audience and strangers must also fulfill some of the conditions for performance to be smooth.

Goffman’s Major Influences

Given the fact that Goffmann developed his ideas on the basis of already pledged concepts and statements, it seems appropriate to consider the development of the theory of self. Ideas of symbolic interactionism, self-presentation, self-expression, etc. were reflected in the works by William James, George H. Mead, Charles Cooley, Herbert Blumer, Harold Garfinkel and others.

Mead and Cooley

Developments of Cooley and Mead are based on the works of William James. However, it seems inappropriate to pay much attention to his works in the present research because he considered the phenomenon of self from psychological rather than sociological point of view.

George H. Mead and Charles Cooley belong to symbolic interactionists. They treat the person as a social product revealing the mechanism of its formation in the interaction. The researchers believe that, despite the fact that the subject is active in the choice of ends and means, it does not realize the process of self-presentation.

Charles Cooley assumes that everyone builds him- or herself based on their perceived reactions of other people with whom he/she comes in contact. In addition to the simple internal perception of self, the person also perceives him- or herself as his or her reflection in others. That is, a huge role for the individual plays not only what the person thinks of him- or herself but also what others think of him. People look at others’ perception of themselves as in the mirror and judge themselves based on this reflection. This is the phenomenon, which Cooley called looking-glass self (Cooley, 1998, p. 15).

Exactly through relationships with others and through their assessments, each person finds out whether he/she is clever or stupid, attractive or ugly, worthy or worthless. However, such an assessment may not reflect reality. As a reflection in a mirror provides image of the physical self, the perception of other people’s reactions to one’s behavior or appearance gives the image of the social self.

Mead was the first to formulate a number of ideas that became the theoretical base for his disciples and followers. One of the main ideas of Mead is the dual nature of a person’s identity. He described two aspects of self: “I” – impulsive, active, creative origin of personality, subjective view of self; “me” is the way person sees himself through the eyes of the people around him (Mead, 2009, p. 175).

Mead (2009) argues that self-consciousness must be understood as a stream of thought that arises in the dynamic relationship between individual and his social setting (p. 163). Experience is not firstly individual and then social: each individual is continuously involved in a sequence of joint activities with others, which forms his mind. Consciousness is not given, it is emergent (Mead, 2009, p. 135).

Among the most significant achievements of Mead, there is his explanation of the genesis of consciousness through the gradual development of children’s ability to take the role of the other and visualize their own behavior in terms of others. Very young children are yet unable to use meaningful symbols. As children grow, they gradually learn to take the role of others through the game. Thus, the children cultivate the significant ability to take the place of anyone else. As they get older, they become able not only to take these roles through their play but also to comprehend them in imagination.

Being Mead’s disciple, Goffman in some ways adopted and developed the ideas of both scholars. From Cooley, he took the idea of necessity to shape self-perception by impressing others. One of the ideas adopted by Mead is symbolism and its dual nature in the process of communication. This Goffman’s point of view was totally supported by another follower of Mead – Herbert Blumer.


Developing Mead’s ideas, Herbert Blumer paid special attention to social interaction as a symbolic interaction. Therefore, the scholar draws the conclusion that the central problem of sociology is the study of social interaction and collective behavior as symbolic constructions.

Blumer believes that the term “symbolic interaction” refers to a very specific interaction, which is carried out by people. The peculiarity of this interaction is that people interpret or predetermine the actions of each other rather than simply respond to them. Their reactions are not caused directly by actions of others but are based on the meaning of such actions. In addition, Blumer (1986) sees interpretation as a two-phased process, including indication of things that have meaning and handling of this meaning (p. 5).


In his works, Harold Garfinkel coined the term ethnomethodology and its central concepts as “indexicality” and “reflexivity”. The first concept – “indexicality” – means the representation of the social subject in the form of “rules” of actions (behavior, understanding, explanation, etc.). According to Garfinkel, actors create social reality according to accepted rules (standards, samples), but these rules are social “developments”, as well. Thus, the social reality creates and recreates itself being born from the same subjective acts. Reflexivity, the term used in the teaching of Garfinkel is the emergence of social structures in the course of their subjective interpretation (David and Sutton, 2004, p. 123).

Feature of ethnomethodological approach in sociology is identification of the social interaction with verbal communication. However, the attention here is paid not to semantic information but to the syntactic form, i.e. “rules of speaking”.

Given the aforementioned views of Garfinkel and comparing them to the ideas of Goffman, some concurrence can be observed. Both authors consider the establishment of some rulings in the process of communication and self-presentation (Goffman , 1956, p. 4). However, difference of scholars’ opinions is seen in the fact that Garfinkel sees social interaction only as verbal communication while Goffman includes non-verbal signs into this category, as well.


A a student and professor, Goffman brought up many future sociologists occupied in different fields of this science. For example, Charles Goodwin (2011) studying interaction of language and body in the material world turns to his teacher’s dramatic view of interaction (p. 5-6). Goffman’s analysis of face-to-face interaction found reflection in works of Marjorie Harness Goodwin (1990, p. 2). Students of the famous sociologists develop his ideas in works on the sociology of knowledge, rationalization and standardization of time in everyday life, the role of standards in cognition and communication.


To date, the phenomenon of self in psychological science is determined by a variety of concepts, terms, each of which focuses on a particular aspect of this phenomenon. In the analyzed literature, the scholars apply a wide variety of concepts and terms: self-presentation, self-image, self-assessment, self- management, self-awareness etc. This terminology can be regarded as a continuum, one pole of which is impression management, and others – self-disclosure. Self-presentation is viewed by researchers in various aspects of the system of specific semantic oppositions. Some emphasize the purposefulness of the process of impression management, others – the spontaneity of self-disclosure. An important but less explored is the problem of natural or artificial image of “I” in self-presentation. It is believed that self-disclosure gives true image of “I” and self-presentation – an artificial, but the problem still requires thorough study. An interesting issue is the degree of uniqueness or typicality of self-presentation, which can also become a fruitful field of sociological research.

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