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Goffman Self Identity Essay

Essay on The Genesis of self and social control

The issue about the nature and role of individual identity has been widely discussed by sociologists. According to Robert Brym and John Lie (2009), the connection between the individual identity and the larger society is a “focus” for many sociologists, including George Herbert Mead and Erving Goffman (p. 13).  Both sociologists were focused on the study of individual identity, placing emphasis on the role of interaction with other people. The studies of George Herbert Mead and Erving Goffman contributed to the development of symbolic interactionism as their views have very much in common (Burkitt, 1991).  However, there are certain differences between George Herbert Mead’s and Erving Goffman’s interpretations of the constitution and reproduction of individual identity. From sociological perspective, the concept of individual identity refers to the study of the relationships between individual behaviors and collectivity. The ideas of George Herbert Mead and Erving Goffman regarding individual identity are influential in shaping the model of individual identity. According to Richard Jenkins (2014), “individual identity – embodied in selfhood – is not a meaningful proposition in isolation from the human world of other people”(p. 42). Both Mead and Goffman make efforts to interpret the constitution and reproduction of individual identity, but they do it in different ways.

The major goal of this paper is to compare and contrast George Herbert Mead’s and Erving Goffman’s interpretations of the constitution and reproduction of individual identity. Besides, it is necessary to define whether one of these approaches to individual identity superior to the other.

George Herbert Mead’s interpretations of the constitution

and reproduction of individual identity

George Herbert Mead’s interpretation of the constitution and reproduction of individual identity is based on psychological approach to the study of the role of interaction with other people. As the sociologist, Mead is interested in the study of identity, placing emphasis on its development in social context. He states that identity is part of the individual’s character (Mead, 1925; Goffman, 1971).

Actually, George Herbert Mead’s original and groundbreaking conception of the interrelationship of self and society is influential. Mead’s understanding of the self reflects the role of the intersubjective character of social action (Jenkins, 2014). He explores various issues regarding the construction of individual identity, including how an individual’s sense of identity can be derived from the relationship of the self to the other (Burkitt, 1991).  In other words, Mead believes that through an individual’s interaction, it is possible to arrive at a sense of identity (Mead, 1925; Brym & Lie, 2009). One’s own individual identity can be achieved through the application of general conception of society.

In addition, Mead introduces a number of different categories and dichotomies, which help to better understand the nature of self and society. Mead’s interpretation of intersubjectivity is one of the most important issues in the field. In his works, Mead’s ideas are connected with the desire to have an understanding of life “as a process and not a series of static physicochemical situations” (Mead, 1925, p. 251). Mead rejects the use of metaphysical explanations regarding life processes. He is focused on subjective explanation of life, placing emphasis on the understanding of self as the product of the so-called social act. According to Mead (1925), “selves exist only in relation to other selves”(p. 278). This fact means that selves depend on others, and they cannot exist without a community of other individuals. The major argument made by Mead is that the social refers to the form of generalization of others, influencing the development of one’s own individual identity, which implies that “the mind is itself intersubjectively constituted” (Mead, 1925).

According to Mead, individual identity can be described as the product of human communication that provides certain roles to individuals. Actually, the concept of the role forms the basis of his study of identity. Mead was a philosopher and psychologist; therefore, his view of individual identity is based on some philosophical thinking. He managed to create a “theory of the social origin of human selves” (Goffman, E.1971, p.28). According to Mead, it is impossible to separate the theory of human behavior from the theory of the mind. He developed the concept of social behaviorism to emphasize the role of individual identity and behavior in social interaction.

For Mead, the concept of “the self” is connected with symbolic experience of individuals (Mead, 1934). Mead believes that reality is established in the process of human interaction. He writes,

Symbolization constitutes objects not constituted before, objects that would not exist except for the context of social relationships wherein symbolization occurs. Language does not simply symbolize a situation or object which is already there in advance; it makes possible the existence or appearance of that situation or object, for it is a part of the mechanism whereby that situation or object is created (Mead, 1934, p. 78).

            Mead believes that individual identity influences the mind to make people interact with one another. The mind becomes a tool used to promoted active participation in the community activities (Mead, 1934).

Erving Goffman’s interpretations of the constitution

and reproduction of individual identity

Erving Goffman’s interpretation of the constitution and reproduction of individual identity is based on different aspects of individual’s personality. Goffman states that there are different meanings of the term “identity”. He defines three meanings: “social identity”, “personal identity” and “ego identity” (qtd. in Manning, 1992, p. 98). Goffman’s interpretation of identity is based on the connection between social identity and individual identity. Together, social identity and individual identity reflect some significant aspects of self, which are “socially in play with others, affecting them and affected by them” (Burns, p. 26). Goffman’s works are developed to highlight the role of individual identity in social development. He gives explanation to the self in order to effectively manage social interaction. Yet, the understanding of Goffman’s ideas leads to the underestimation of the complexity of the theoretical perspective developed by him. Goffman discusses the peculiarities of performing social interaction and the ways to sustain social order (Goffman, 1970; Goffman, 1967). According to Burkitt (1991), “Goffman refuses to broach the question of which is the most real, the presentational front or the self of the actor who is behind it”(p.70). In his theoretical approach to the study of individual identity, he is focused on two selves: “the self who is a mask and the residual self that it hides” (Burkitt, 1991, p. 70).

In addition, Goffman discusses the nature of the concept of embarrassment that can be characterized as an individual’s possibility to participate in face-to-face interaction. It may occur “whenever an individual is felt to have projected incompatible definition of himself before those present” (Goffman, 1967, p. 97). Actually, these projections occur in certain social environment where incompatible principles of social interaction are prevalent. In case of the conflict between these principles, embarrassment performs its social function. Social encounter is based on face-to-face interaction. Social construction of the self is associated with social encounter.

In general, Goffman states that each self is socially constructed and requires the appropriate social interaction. He helps to assess the role of an individual’s ability to influence the formation of individual identity under social conditions, which not only shape human actions, but also limit them (Burns, 2002). The self that has been constructed in social interaction is active, aimed at realization of one’s own plans and desires (Goffman, 1967; Burns, 2002).

The key similarities and differences between George Herbert Mead’s and Erving Goffman’s interpretations of the constitution and reproduction of individual identity

Like Mead, Goffman provided many different categories, which are still applied to the field of sociology. He explores the significance of the rituals of social interaction and reveals the key dimensions of the self. The constitution of identity, according to Goffman, is connected with the presentation of self with little real substance. Mead’s approach places emphasis on the role of social interaction in the construction of the self.

However, Goffman has developed the idea of the concept of identity more systematically. According to Goffman, every individual faces considerable problems in his/her life that require modeling one’s self and making it perceptible to others (Goffman, 1970).  The works of Goffman have direct relation to symbolic interactionism. As the major characteristic of symbolic interactionism is the use of symbols, such as language, in human interaction in order to develop socially constructed reality, Goffman’s views regarding the role of individual identity and its constitution are relevant. Similar to Mead’s approach, Goffman refers to the significance of social intercourse. In general, from the symbolic interactionist perspective, socialization influences individual identity. Due to the interaction of the self and society, it is possible to perceive social meanings, reinterpret them and give adequate response (Burkitt, 1991).  In other words, socialization can be defined as the continual formation of individual identity over time. According to Goffman (1971),“role is the basic unit of socialization” (p.105). Due to roles, individuals have an opportunity to perform concrete tasks in society and achieve success. Besides, roles help to highlight the qualities of individuals, their self-image and responses of others.

            In fact, the theories of Mead and Goffman help to better understand the impact of identity on social interaction and assess the effectiveness of symbolic interactionism.  Goffman is focused on subjectivity of social life. He compares social interaction to different elements of social life, including “a carefully staged play”, “defined roles” and other elements that influence interaction. Social life can be viewed as real-life drama, in which each individual performs its role. As a result, it is impossible to separate an individual’s identity from an individual’s performance. He writes,

A correctly staged and performed character leads the audience to impute a self to a performed character, but his imputation – this self – is a product of a scene that comes off and is not a cause of it. The self, then, as a performed character, is not an organic unit that has a specific location …it is a dramatic effect arising diffusely from a scene that is presented (Goffman,1971, p.23)

            Goffman characterizes identity as “a dramatic effect” because it equates the self and the mind. The self can be viewed as an effect, if identity is performed. In other words, the self becomes the major source of a wide range of activities performed by individuals, as well as their beliefs and ideas. Goffman considers that the capabilities of individual identities play a significant role in the realization of social performance. These views are not connected with Mead’s theory of the self. According to researchers, Goffman’s dramaturgical theory regarding the role of the self and identity differs from Mead’s views in the field of social psychology (Manning, 1992; Mead, 1925).

            In contrast to Goffman’s views, Mead provides an opportunity to see the distinction between the two parts of “the self” – the “I”, which characterizes immediate consciousness, and the “me”, which defines the product of performance or interaction of an individual (Mead, 1925). This fact means that Mead’s explanation of “the self” is taken from the practical action of an individual and social interaction (Brym, & Lie, 2009; Manning, 1992).


            Thus, it is necessary to conclude that George Herbert Mead’s and Erving Goffman’s interpretations of the constitution and reproduction of individual identity have very much in common, but, at the same time, there are certain differences between them. One of these approaches to individual identity is superior to the other. Goffman’s approach provides more systematic understanding of the presentation of one’s individual identity in social interaction.  The sociological concept of identity, according to both Mead and Goffman, was established as individual characteristic combined with social interaction. The self can be viewed as an individual’s identity. Goffman’s ideas highlight the significance of cooperation between individuals. Goffman’s approach is more influential than Mead’s approach, although Goffman explored some themes developed by Mead in his works. In general, two theorists Mead and Goffman contributed to the study of sociology that has a strong impact on the way sociology as a science is represented now.  Their works share some similarities regarding the construction of identity.

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A summary of one chapter from Steph Lawler’s Book – ‘Identity: Sociological Perspectives’ – Masquerading as ourselves: Self-Impersonation and Social Life

In this chapter Lawler deals with the work of Erving Goffman and Judith Butler – for both identity is always something that is done, it is achieved rather than innate – it is part of a collective endeavour, not an individual odyssey and it is not a matter of individual choice. The world of agency and interaction takes place in a wider social order than permits some actions and disallows others.

She deals with the differences between the two too, but more of that later.

Introduction: between semblance and substance

People in the west conventionally counter-pose being an (authentic) identity against doing an identity (performing). When contestants leave the big brother house for example, they often claim that the other contestants were acting, or wearing masks, rather than being themselves.

The distinction rests on the assumption that it is possible – and indeed desirable – for one’s true self to simply emerge – when a gap is seen to exist between doing and being – or semblance and substance – then the person is liable to be accused of pretension, inauthenticity, or acting a role.

We have a social and cultural preoccupation with authenticity – illustrated through the popularity of the Cinderella story – which is acted out today in various make-over programmes – here the fairy godmother is taken by a series of experts – who help the person to match their bodily appearance to the real person trapped inside. In other words the woman (typically) becomes who she is by changing her exterior self.

However, for Goffman this idea that there is a ‘true self’ which needs to be drawn out (if it’s a ‘nic’ self) or that can be hidden (with good or evil intent) is, in reality all there is is the performance.

(At this point Lawler also notes that what we should really be asking ourselves is why we are so concerned with authenticity, when in reality there is no such thing.)

Dramas and lives (Goffman)

For Goffman, to be a person is to perform being a person. To put it simply, it is no good doing something if no one recognises we are doing it – this is ‘dramatic realisation‘. This is not to say that we are being fraudulent, rather it indicates the importance of the social group – because so much of what we act out, we act out for their benefit.

Instead of focusing on authentic and inauthentic performances, Goffman suggests we should focus on what constitutes convincing and unconvincing performances.

For Goffman, there is no essence of the self waiting to be given expression to, the self is not the cause of a social situation, it is the result of the social situation. The self is not the mask, it is the mask, there is no aspect of the self which is not touched by the social world.

Even character – the background self or the ethical self reflecting backstage on what one does front stage is a performance.

Finally for Goffman the performances we give are fundamentally shaped by social norms – there are correct ways to act, and if someone acts out of character, we try and save them, and we feel horror or embarrassment when someone acts entirely inappropriately – social norms embedded deep within our psyche – also, where gender is concerned, so constraining are norms surrounding this that gender norms take on the hue of being natural – which is something Judith Butler picks up on…

Performative identities (Butler)

The idea that there is no essential or foundational identity also characterises Judith Butler’s work. Butler focus on gender and wants to go beyond Goffman to explore why the social world creates gendered identities at all.

Butler challenges the orthodox view that we have a physical, biological sex onto which a social gender is then added, arguing that there is no physical sexed-identity which precedes the social.

There is no natural sex onto which gender is added, because our bodies are so infused with sociality.

For Butler, identities are not just expressions of some inner nature, identities are performed – they are repeatedly ‘done’ and they bring into effect what they ‘name’.

It is not inevitable that sex distinctions should exist at all – but we live in a society where most people go along with idea that sex matters and invest a lot of time in it, this creates a dominant discourse surrounding sex and gender identity which it is hard to break free from – but Butler argues that all of this social stuff calls into being the idea that sex divisions exist, and these divisions do not have to be seen as significant.

Girling the Girl: The Performativity of Gender

Boys and girls are ‘boyed’ and ‘girled’ even while in the womb – and even though they have different sets of genitals, there is no necessary reason why we need to distinguish them along the lines of these genital differences.

As the child grows up this process of girling and boying occurs continuously, they are hailed by society to ‘become’ a boy or a girl, and by and large the child-subjects generally accept how they are hailed, and in doing so come to recognise themselves as a boy or a girl, and thus actively participate in the construction of their own sexed and gendered identity.

Moreover, this process of interpellation takes place in a wider institutionalised context of a sexed and gender divided society, and in this way sex differences come to be seen as natural, and derive much of their power because of this (mis) perception.

Along with the sex-divide, Adrienne Rich (1980) coined the term ‘compulsory heterosexuality’ to emphasise the way in which heterosexuality is also largely perceived as the norm.

Butler recognises the fact that interpellation does not always work – people can disrupt the process by not agreeing to go along with pre-existing categorisations.

Compelling Performance

The idea of the sex divide and heterosexuality reinforce each other to provide a discourse on sex/ gender.

To illustrate this discourse at work Butler draws on the example of ‘you make me feel like a natural woman’ by Aretha Franklin — in this song, the natural woman’ status is established through heterosexuality – the song is presumably directed at a heterosexual man, who is able to generate feelings of natural womanhood through his desirability and desire for the woman who is the subject of the song – ‘femininity and masculinity are consecrated in the heterosexual sexual encounter’.

However, the idea that a woman needs a man to feel natural at all proves the fact that all of this is a social construct. If something was natural, it would just be natural, you wouldn’t feel anything at all – and Butler also recognises that there is a possibility to re-imagine the song in order to subvert such traditional sex-gender norms.

We might also ask why, if gender is natural, people put so much effort into being masculine and feminine – through hair removal and the like.

So in short, normal masculinity and femininity work through normal heterosexuality.

Melancholy, Sexual Identification

‘there are no direct expressive of causal lines between sex, gender, gender presentation, sexual practice, fantasy and sexuality.

For Butler, heterosexual identification is a response to melancholic loss. Here she draws on Freud to explain how heterosexual identification emerges basically because we hate ourselves – the woman becomes the woman she never loved and the man becomes the man he never loved – and because we cannot love ourselves, we look to the opposite for love and companionship.

If we just learned to love ourselves, the men could love other men, and women could love other women.

Related Posts 

The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life – Extended Summary

Sociological Perspectives on Identity: Summary of Chapter on Focuault

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