Goffman, Culture and the “Authentic Self”

Friday, 20 July 2018
Distributed Paper
Pavel POSPECH, Masaryk university, Czech Republic
There is a popular misconception about Erving Goffman being a “sociologist of the insincere”. In this line of thought, Goffman’s actors are understood as strategists and manipulators whose actions are presented in opposition to those constructed as true, earnest and authentic. While this opposition is false, an important question remains here: how does Goffman’s theory of the interaction order relate to the problem of authenticity and of the authentic self?

There are revealing places in Goffman’s writing: his discussion of “universal human nature” in the Interaction ritual (1967) or his discussion of normal appearance as a “deep part of the self” in the Relations in public (1971). However, the key to the problem, I argue, is Rawls’ reading of the interaction order as constrained by general needs of the self, rather than those of an individual or those of social structure. It is when studying these “general needs of the self” that the idea of culture comes in: the requirements on the self are of cultural nature and they invite a cultural sociological perspective into the study of the interaction order.

The “culture of authenticity”, as a recent phenomenon, is a good example of this. Increasingly, a requirement to “be yourself” is articulated as a cultural imperative, sacralising authenticity, as opposed to a mere role performance. Where does this leave Goffman’s theory of the performance though? What happens to the frontstage and backstage – are backstages even allowed, in a culture which sacralises the image of the authentic?