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Identity: Learning and The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life

In The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life Erving Goffman explores social interaction through the lens of theatrical performance. An important focus of Goffman's work is his investigation into how people present themselves in everyday life and how others perceive them. In other words, he explores the construction and perception of identity. This is an interesting aspect of learning that links the preservation of self to the ways in which people communicate their identity...

The Presence of Identity: Hidden Meaning

Many authors refer to perception as a way in which we can learn to uncover the hidden dimensions of something. For example, Edward Hall describes perceptual acuity as a means to become more aware and sensitive to the silent language of culture (see: Edward Hall: The Silent Language). Marshall McLuhan describes perceptual acuity as a means to reveal the hidden effects of media (see: Probe: Learning Environment - The Medium Is The Message). Erving Goffman travels a similar line of thought with respect to the ways in which people create and express identity:

Many crucial facts lie beyond the time and place of interaction or lie concealed within it... The expressiveness of the individual (and therefore his capacity to give impressions) appears to involve two radically different kinds of sign activity: the expression that he gives, and the expression that he gives off.
- The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life

In other words Goffman focuses on the communication of the self. The expression that a person gives refers to the individual's own intentions - the way they make themselves up for the performance. The expression that a person gives off refers to how other people perceive and understand another person's intentions. It is the communication of giving off that Goffman is most interested in. And it is here that, "Many crucial facts lie beyond the time and place of interaction or lie concealed within it."

Goffman notes that sometimes people will attempt to portray an identity that is misleading.

The individual does of course intentionally convey misinformation by means of both of these types of communication, the first involving deceit, the second feigning.
- The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life

Sometimes when we listen to other people speak we know that the words do not match their intentions. We can also see this in people's actions, that is, people do things in order to create a specific kind of impression on others, but those things are not necessarily an authentic portrayal of who they really are. Goffman refers to this as deceit and feigning. This false portrayal of identity can be both intentional and unintentional.

Yes, I have tricks in my pocket. I have things up my sleeve. But I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.
- The Glass Menagerie

This wonderful comment by Tennessee Williams captures the more illusive and out-of-awareness aspects of communication.

Education as Theatre

One of the underlying assumptions in Goffman's work is that:

A social establishment is any place surrounded by fixed barriers of perception.
- The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life

What this means is that the ways in which we perceive (i.e. - what we become aware of and how we become aware of it) experience follows the form and function of the social setting we find ourselves in. For example, education is a social establishment and in Goffman's terms this would imply that a school is a "place surrounded by fixed barriers of perception."

Within the walls of a social establishment we find a team of performers who cooperate to present to an audience a given definition of the situation.
- The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life

In education we might tend to include teachers as being part of the team of performers, but I would suggest that this is incorrect. School administrators, teachers and students, to my thinking, are in fact all audience members. Teams of performers are really those people that decide what the nature of curriculum, instruction and evaluation will be (see: Curriculum: The Design of the Prerequisite and Instructional Design: The Propagation of Curriculum). These are the people that, "present to an audience a given definition of the situation."

We often find a division into the back region, where the performance of a routine is prepared, and front region, where the performance is presented.
- The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life

Curriculum, instruction and evaluation are "the performance of a routine." Our understanding of precisely where and how this performance is prepared is left our imagination. Perhaps we create images of groups of experts sitting around a table deciding what thousands of school administrators, teachers and students will perform. These illusive people, in this sense, the scriptwriters.

A tacit agreement is maintained between performers and audience to act as if a given degree of opposition and accord existed between them. Typically, but not always, agreement is stressed and opposition is underplayed.
- The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life

The relationship between performers and audience are defined in a manner that allows a certain degree of discord, but usually not enough to root out the performers themselves. The idea of optimism in this context is often framed as a way of thinking that is supportive of the performers and their scripts. For example Jean-Paul Sartre's criticism would be accepted within the terms of the accord:

The attentive pupil who wishes to be attentive, his eyes riveted on the teacher, his ears wide open, so exhausts himself in playing the attentive role that he ends up no longer hearing anything.
- Being and Nothingness

In other words, the performers seek to control what optimism is so that any real challenge to their authority can then be framed as something negative. "Discrepant roles" develop when apparent teammates, audience or outsiders acquire information about the performance that was not apparent.

We find that performers, audience, and outsiders all utilize techniques for saving the show, whether by avoiding likely disruptions or by correcting the unavoided ones, or by making it possible for other to do so.
- The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life

In other words as Freddie Mercury often crooned:

Empty spaces - what are we living for
Abandoned places - I guess we know the score
On and on, does anybody know what we are looking for...
Another hero, another mindless crime
Behind the curtain, in the pantomime
Hold the line, does anybody want to take it anymore
The show must go on,
The show must go on
- Queen: Greatest Hits 1 & 2

The Preservation of Learning in Everyday Life

Goffman invites us to learn more about how people perceive themselves and others. Like Edward Hall and Marshall McLuhan, he turns our attention to aspects of things that often lie outside of our awareness. It is not that we can't perceive them, it is simply that we are not perceiving them. Marshall McLuhan noted:

Environments are invisible. Their ground rules, pervasive structure, and overall patterns elude easy perception.
- The Medium Is The Massage

This idea is present in Goffman's investigation of the theatre of the self. There is a sense that in order to improve of ways of learning we must find ways to step outside of our own preconceptions and perceptual conditioning. To do this, we first need to become aware of the limitations of our current ways of learning. Goffman's work is a means to become more fully aware of how each of us portrays our identity. His technique was to use theatre as a lens to explore the communication of identity. In doing so we are in a much better frame of mind to deal with false, misleading and potentially damaging beliefs:

Reinforcing these ideal impressions there is a kind of "rhetoric of training," whereby labor unions, universities, trade associations, and other licensing bodies require practitioners to absorb a mystical range and period of training, in part to maintain a monopoly, but in part to foster the impression that the licensed practitioner is someone who has been reconstituted by his learning experience and is now set apart from other people.
- The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life

Goffman's criticism is closely connected to criticisms made by Gregory Bateson and others. Education will not save us from being educated, but learning might.

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