Erving Goffman’s Face and Stigma Theory Explained


In 1963, Erving Goffman published Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. It is an examination of how an individual protects their personal identify if they depart from an approved standard of conduct, behavior, or appearance. It is essentially a way for people to manage an impression of themselves.

For most people, the primary method used to avoid stigma is concealment.

This is because the perception of a stigma will often result in shame. There is a personal disappointment in an inability to meet the standards that other people or society in general has set for them. There is also a fear of being discredited, which causes an individual to conceal whatever shortcomings they feel that they have.

Think of a person with a criminal record. They might withhold this information when meeting someone new to prevent being judged off of the record instead of who they are as a person.

This is expanded upon in an essay by Goffman called “Face Work,” which was published in Interaction Ritual and originally written in 1955. When combined, Goffman notes that there are three types of symbolic imagery which influence how individuals may think, act, or react. These are stigma symbols, prestige symbols, and what Goffman calls “disidentifiers.”

How Face and Stigma Theory Is Applied

Goffman offers the idea that the interactions people have with one another on a daily basis are like a theatrical performance. This is especially true when two strangers encounter one another. Each person has the goal of controlling the first impression that the other individual has of them. They will guide this impression by withholding information, altering their own setting, or even changing their appearance and mannerisms to create the desired result.

The performance is likened to what happens on a theatrical stage because there are two elements: what is provided to the audience and what occurs backstage. This creates a dual role for each person.

  • For the onstage performance, an individual becomes the person they feel an individual wants them to be or what society demands of them. It is what occurs through social interactions and results in positive self-concepts when the desired first impression is offered and then successfully received.
  • For the backstage performance, there doesn’t actually need to be a performance. It is a place that is hidden and private, allowing individuals the opportunity to drop the role or identity that they offer to the world. There is no longer a need to follow the demands that society offers here.

At the same time this face-to-face “performance” is happening, the individual attempting to garner an accurate first impression of the individual is working to obtain more information from them.

Goffman notes that he believes this practice is performed because it offers both people an opportunity to avoid embarrassment. This is because society is a living, breathing entity. Every person feels the need to act differently in changing situations.

Where Does an Individual Prefer to Find Action?

The vehicle which drives face-to-face interactions and stigma avoidance in the face and stigma theory is action. People are drawn to social spaces where an action they prefer takes place. It is, in a sense, the way they “worship” what the world has to offer.

Worship is often associated with religion, but an individual can worship sports, gambling, or taking physical risks just as much as they can worship a deity. This is the action which will ultimately define the performance that an individual offers to others.

Someone trying to gain acceptance at church might withhold the fact that they cheated on their spouse. An individual wanting acceptance through gambling might risk more money, buy drinks for others, or become extroverted when they’re really an introvert.

The goal is to earn respect through the acceptance of the performance. The “true” self is set aside so that the face-to-face encounters can create a different reality. In return, individuals are able to control the fine details and the major events of their life without being exposed to an overt amount of shame in the process.

Avoiding stigmas is a natural process that we all take on in some way. It often occurs in our face-to-face encounters, but we also see it occur on social media, in our correspondence, and other interactive aspects of life. We do this because we want people to think a certain away about who we are and what we do. When these actions are taken, we are implementing Erving Goffman’s face and stigma theory.