Explanation of the Dramaturgical Theory


In basic terms, Dramaturgical Theory is the idea that a person’s life can be understood by looking at a stage and seeing performers acting out a scene. Developed by Erving Goffman, the idea is that a person lives their life much like an actor performs on a stage. The events of a day become scenes that are enjoyed during a trip to a theatre. Therefore, if we were to present ourselves to a specific situation, our responses could be anticipated, much like the lines an actor would be expected to say.

Goffman believed that life was more like a series of performances and that led to the development of the Dramaturgical Theory. Here is a deeper explanation of this concept.

The Definition of Self: Different Roles for Different Scenes

Do you ever feel the need to be “someone else” when you are presented with a specific situation during the day? Are you one person when you’re dealing with your boss at work, but a different person when you’re at home with your family? Is Facebook the one place where you try to present a perfect exterior?

These are all examples of the Dramaturgical Theory being put into practice. Goffman believed that how an individual presents themselves throughout the course of the day was a performance that the individual believed was necessary to accomplish a specific goal.

It is sometimes referred to as “impression management.” We actually prepare in advance for the roles that we know we must play throughout the day, much like an actor prepares for their role. This can take on several aspects that are quite specific.

  • A person might apply makeup because they know that their boss is physically attracted to them, so “looking pretty” can be part of a daily performance to ensure specific needs are met.
  • A person might dress a certain way when they attend church so that the general perception of them is “righteous,” even though the moment they get home, they’re changing out of those clothes.
  • A person might even practice certain tones of voice or a “speech” when preparing for a salary negotiation, an interview for a promotion, or some other major event.

Goffman looked at how people behaved and saw people who were designing their lives around a specific impression they wanted others to have. Because impressions create reactions, just like an actor creates a reaction based on their own performance, the Dramaturgical Theory began to have a life of its own.

How Managing Impressions Is Critical to Success

Every situation, according to Goffman, is an interaction where both people (or the total number of people who may be involved) must convince the other that their definition of the situation is a correct one. Imagine that you are trying to purchase a brand new car because you’re current one just broke down. You have a certain budget that must be met and maybe have some style preferences. Your job is to convince the salesperson that they need to sell you a car that meets those expectations.

Yet the salesperson sees the situation differently. They will attempt to convince a customer that they need to have a car that has more features, like an extended warranty, because the car becomes a representation of who they are. Who cares about the budget? You need to have a sunroof!

You’ve constructed one definition. The salesperson attempts to redefine it. Through the performance that both of you have while negotiating, one person or the other will be persuasive. You will either come home with the exact vehicle you want because you were the most persuasive. If you decide to compromise, then the salesperson was able to change your definition because of how convincing their performance happened to be.

This is Dramaturgical Theory. If the salesperson is a poor performer, you will remain unconvinced and “stick to your guns. If the salesperson is an excellent performer, there’s a good chance you are going to compromise.

Why Is Knowing the Dramaturgical Theory Important?

How we perform in life involves more than how we convince others of our value. It is also how we convince ourselves of our own self-worth. If we see ourselves putting out a poor performance, then we will feel that we have less value in society over someone who we perceive to be a better overall performer.

Just like an actor can practice and improve, so can individuals in Goffman’s Dramaturgical Theory. If you can improve your performances throughout the day, then the idea is that you can make good things come your way.

Or at least be able to come home with the new car you’ve always wanted.