Erving Goffman's Theories: Impression Management, Dramaturgy & Symbolic Interaction

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  • 0:05 Symbolic Interaction…
  • 2:13 Symbols
  • 3:24 The 'Presentation of Self'
  • 5:10 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Bethany Johnson
This lesson introduces the work of Erving Goffman, a sociologist who helped to explain society through the everyday interactions of people. You will learn what he meant by saying that people are all actors playing a part - and that our behavior is dictated by symbols and whether we are in public or private.

Symbolic Interaction Perspective

Have you ever asked yourself why people behave the way they do? Well, so did Erving Goffman, a Canadian-American sociologist, who is known most for his study and analysis of everyday human interactions. He did not rely on any formal type of scientific method to gather his data; instead, he used the act of simple observation to explain society. Goffman's research is fundamental in understanding society's ideas, values, and beliefs through the behavior of the individual. It is through his findings that we can better understand situational behavior.

The ideas, values, and beliefs of a society can be understood through the behavior of individuals.
Individual Behavior

Goffman was a sociologist who viewed society through the symbolic interaction perspective; this perspective looks at the everyday behavior and interactions between people to help explain society. Some examples of everyday interaction would be meeting various people in the grocery store, workers interacting on the job, meetings of a small group (such as a PTA), or children playing in a park. These interactions catch the attention of an interactionist, and through these interactions, Goffman and other sociologists learn why people behave as they do in given situations.

Interactionism views society as a framework of people living in a world full of meaningful objects. These objects may be physical, tangible objects, actions, relationships, or symbols. Interactionists believe that humans place a meaning on all things to understand it.

For example, if you were shown an object that you have never seen before, you would not know what to do with it, what it does, if it would hurt you or even how to interact with it. It wouldn't be until someone explained to you the meaning of the object (what it is used for, how to use it, and what to expect from it) that you would know how to interact with it.


Human culture creates symbols to stand for certain elements within the culture. Symbols are a representation of a society's ideas, thoughts, and beliefs and can be physical objects, hand gestures, non-verbal communications, pictures, and much more.

Symbols represent many aspects of a society and include physical objects, hand gestures and pictures.

Symbols have a meaning attached that all members of the same society understand. In the United States, placing your hand over your heart during the national anthem would be a symbol of respect, whereas a frown on someone's face would be a symbol of unhappiness, anger, or sadness. When we learn the symbols and the meanings attached to each, we are taught (or have been previously taught) an appropriate behavior that goes along with the symbol. Thus, the symbol, with the meaning attached, dictates our behavior.

For example, you are driving faster than the posted speed limit, and you see a police car. Immediately you slow down (but do not stop), for the police car represents a ticket if caught speeding over the posted speed limit. However, given the same scenario, you are speeding and you see a police car behind you with flashing lights on, you pull over because the flashing lights mean to stop.

The 'Presentation of Self'

Erving Goffman introduced a popular thinking within the symbolic-interaction perspective called the dramaturgical approach (sometimes referred to as dramaturgical analysis). Dramaturgical analysis is defined as the study of social interaction in terms of theatrical performance.

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