Ervin Goffman’s famous dramaturgical analogy to reflect social reality does strike a chord. This is a reality produced by performers, audience, and outsiders within a given establishment. The impression management framework is illuminating in apprehending political reality also. As Goffman points out: “Power of any kind must be clothed in effective means of displaying it, and it will have different effects depending upon how it is dramatized” (p. 154).
While I am fascinated with the book’s well-elaborated and detailed theatre performance metaphor (including concepts like front stage, back stage, teams, performance disruptions, discrepant roles, etc.), a few critical remarks are in order.
Firstly, while the work implies that impression management is a pre-requisite for social order maintenance, I found the subject of change underdeveloped. To be sure, Goffman does elaborate on performance disruptions (incidents) and the ways they are fixed (defensive, protective, and tact practices). However, these are all performance maintenance mechanisms; the question of transformative mechanisms was not dealt with systematically.
Secondly, I did not find a convincing argument why the audience helps performers “save the show”. Consider a typical political campaign in a typical liberal democracy – a good illustration of Goffman’s conceptual arsenal. In a nutshell, a campaign is a show; the brightest shows wins; the electorate is often derogated in its absence, etc. And yet people (audience) keep participating in the same performance, exercising their “civic duty” by voting for politicians (performers) who decide and solve little.
One way to explore this puzzle would be through engaging another seminal work by Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann. Thus, one could theorize that performances tend to get institutionalized through repetitive practices, and thus exert coercive power on the participants.
On a final note, the book doesn’t seem to provide tools for revealing the “real reality” behind a performance. For example, the Marxist and neo-Marxist schools of thought offer an economic lens to retrieve true intentions of performers. E.g., when a man proposes to a woman, and stages a performance “Marry me so that we can live in love and happiness”, what he really means is something like “Become my maid, and I will buy you food and gifts.” Or, when a national leader calls for raising the defense budget to deflect a potential threat, what he can really mean is “I need money to build a new villa with a swimming pool”. These kind of “exposure tools” are lacking in Goffman’s book.