In as much as behaviour is the process of living life, the development of behaviour sets, which can be thought of as roles, may be employed for the purpose of simplifying the task: the idea was first proposed by William James (1890). 'Some roles, James believed, we choose for ourselves ... Other roles are prescribed for us by virtue of our position in life'.
The ideas of James have been further developed by a number of sociologists; notably Merton (1957), Mead (1934), Parsons (1951) and Goffman (1959).
There is wonderful economy in the process of role-play which is a key to why this behaviour has evolved: the mechanism exists simply because it provides a survival edge. Its advantage may lie in rendering the procedure of reviewing all possible responses to a given situation obsolete. Once a particular role is initiated, the task is simplified to that of reacting within character. It follows that the effect of this is to reduce the active processing time required by the brain to produce a solution. The brain is therefore far less taxed during role-play than it would otherwise be if role-play was not involved.
In The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Goffman's main contribution to the discussion concerns the analysis of characterisation. His suggestion that the performer attempts to present an idealised version of the character (page 45) which reflects the values of society - since the notion of the ideal is one which is derived from society - is somewhat reminiscent of the Freudian concept of super-ego.
Goffman suggests that belief in a particular role by an individual performer, is related to perceived reality. (page 28) Hence there is considerable importance attached to the clothing worn by the performer whilst in character, which primarily serves to increase belief in the role. The wearing of an appropriate costume enables the character to be donned more readily which, in turn, contributes to the definition of the situation: 'the more the individual is concerned with the reality which is not available to perception, the more must he concentrate his attention on appearances.' (page 241)
This aspect of 'appearance' is part of what Goffman identifies as 'front'; and, in performance terms, it is closely related to 'manner'. The appearance and manner of the performer serve to enrich the quality of performance, and they will normally operate in harmony. 'We often expect, of course, a confirming consistency between appearance and manner'. (page 35) Front distinguishes between the public part of the performance and backstage, or off-stage, action which is still carried out within the scope of the role: it is 'that part of the performance which regularly functions in a general and fixed fashion to define the situation'. (page 32) It also encompasses 'setting'; the furniture and props that make up the set for a particular act.
Non-verbal communication in the form of gestures which are made by the performer 'during the interaction' (page 40) serve to add a confirmatory emphasis: Goffman uses the example of a baseball umpire who's body language is actually communicating his decision whilst he is in the act of processing the information upon which it is to be based. Related to this, there is a possibility of accidentally misleading an audience with unintended body language. For this reason, it is suggested, the performer keeps non-relevant gestures to a bare minimum. (page 59)
It is rather disappointing that, in this book, the broader parallel with theatre was not fully exploited; for example, there is no mention of scriptwriter, director, make-up or wardrobe roles. Director and script writer roles, for the purpose of reviewing and refining future performance, might be linked with existing work on 'schemas', whereas make-up and wardrobe roles could be incorporated into Goffman's own discussion of 'front'. There appears to be plenty of scope for the further integration of psychological theory into this approach.
In terms of characterisation, Goffman provides a thorough analysis but ultimately, he refuses to expand this interesting line of thinking 'Now it should be admitted that this attempt to press a mere analogy so far was in part a rhetoric and a manoeuvre.' (page 246) - my italics. This comment perhaps indicates his awareness of the criticism that role-play theory has attracted from certain quarters, 'in many respects it is diametrically opposed to most psychological theories of personality'; and may even cast doubt on his own full acceptance of the validity of the theory.
The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life
by Irving Goffman Will Edwards
November 1997 750 words
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