Erving Goffman continues to be one of the most influential contemporary sociologists and perhaps the most cited. Frantz Fanon was a multi-disciplinary academic who also contributed directly to the field of sociology. The theories of Goffman and Fanon are relevant today and can be used to influence and develop further contemporary sociological thought.
The main question that both Goffman and Fanon ask is how reality is constructed. Particularly, both theorists examined phenomena as a unit of analysis. For purposes of this essay, a “phenomenon” is any observable occurrence or circumstance, in other words, a phenomenon is simply something that happens and is observable. An interaction is a type of phenomenon.
Chronologically, reality consists of past, present, and future phenomena. Such occurrences or circumstances include phenomena lasting one minute, one year, one century, and any length in between, greater, or less. I will describe sequential reality construction by examining phenomena.
The argument I will make is that the construction of reality does not simply consist of what comes before or during an interaction. The construction of reality also includes what comes after. It is helpful to combine the theories of Fanon and Goffman because they show what leads up to an interaction and what occurs during the interaction.
The problem with Fanon and Goffman is that each theorist overlooks the importance of chronologic phenomenological progression. Further discussion is needed to answer the question of what comes after the interaction and how each interaction affects those that follow. I will argue that the ontology of being (Fanon) and the presentation of self (Goffman) that occur within any interaction contribute to forming the next phenomenon.
In this essay, I will introduce the theories of Goffman and Fanon. I will show how Fanon explains the ontology of self. I will analyze how Goffman describes presentation of self. Then I will address the problem of how reality is constructed by answering the question of what comes after the initial interaction.
Interaction as Phenomena
For purposes of this critique, I will analyze the phenomena of interaction because that is the unit of analysis used by both Goffman and Fanon. Although confining the critique to interaction limits the analysis, it is appropriate for this essay for two reasons. First, the essay is a critique of Goffman and Fanon who use interaction as a unit of analysis so the subject matter will coincide. Second, expanding the unit of analysis to include more than interaction is outside the scope of this essay.
Erving Goffman – Presentation of Self
Erving Goffman (1959) addresses the concept of role in “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life” by examining how individuals possess a “role.” I say “possess a role” because Goffman avoids action phrases like “playing a role” or “performing a role” throughout the essay. Rather, Goffman writes “his role,” “one’s role,” and “the role” (CST, pgs. 57, 54, 53) to indicate that a role is something humans possess.
The possessed role remains over time and, although it may change, continues to exist within the individual. This is to say that a role is not a sole performance, per se. “Role” is not a verb. The performance, acting out a role, does not encompass the full definition of role. There are elements of role that I will discuss in the following essay.
Goffman primarily attempts to answer the question of how reality is constructed. Through a description of role playing Goffman gives his analysis of how reality is perceived. Construction and perception of reality are obviously two different things. In the first half of this essay, I will provide an introduction to Goffman’s argument including the difference between actual and perceived reality. Then, I will define and interpret key terms used by Goffman. Finally, I will provide a brief critique of the lack of clarity Goffman offers related to key terminology.
Introduction to Goffman’s Argument
The initial argument Goffman makes is that individuals construct reality through a performance that observers take in and absorb. As a role is performed, the two parties involved include the individual playing his role and the observer, while the product is referred to as the performance. We cannot discuss, for example, the “performance” without taking the “actor” into account. These are two elements, actor and observer, that combine to make up role performance.
However, limiting the product of such a phenomenon to simply “the performance” implies an instant and time-limited result of role playing. This dismisses consideration of residual effects and focuses solely on the current phenomenon. There are multiple resulting effects of the performance (e.g. memories and recognition) that contribute to the existing and future roles of the two participating parties, both observer and performer.
The term “performance” refers to “all the activity of an individual which occurs during a period marked by his continuous presence before a particular set of observers and which has some influence on the observers” (CST, pg. 55). Here again, although the time is “continuous” it is finite and fails to include any effect post-presence.
To interpret the elements of performance/actor/observer, we must also seek to answer: What is a “real” act versus a “phony” act? And, “What are the ways in which an act [a given impression] can be discredited?” (CST, pg. 62). The distinction between real and phony will segue to discussing the difference between real and perceived, and both of these revolve around the possible legitimizing of an act or performance. An act can be legitimized, or believe to be legitimate, by the individual or the audience. So, too, the act can be discredited.
In addition to the individual performer, the audience can also be impressed by an act. It is natural for an audience to feel that it has the authority to judge the validity of the performance. At the same time, the audience considers “the precarious position in which performers place themselves” (CST, pg. 60). For every performance, there might be two interpretative entities: self and audience (CST, pg. 53). There are also two interpretations: cynicism and belief (CST, pg. 54). The interpreters and interpretations are additional elements that combine to make up a role.
When determining how reality is constructed, it is quite obviously important to examine the pieces that come together to form reality. The substantive elements are most apparent. In any act, there can be movement or expression such as audible sound. These can usually be seen objectively. For example, this sound was loud or that movement was quick. The things that are interpreted subjectively are less obvious. He spoke rapidly to sneak in words that might trick me. It is much easier to understand how an audience might interpret subtleties of the performance but it is more difficult to see how the individual performer might somehow judge his own actions to be insincere.
Goffman provides two extremes. An individual “may be taken in by his own act or be cynical about it” (CST, pg. 53). In this case, the individual is his own audience and interpreter. Goffman fails to elucidate the origin of such cynicism. The individual may have developed a tendency to be cynical. Also, Goffman implies that being “taken in by” is finitely tied to that single act. Goffman failed to mention that an individual may be continually taken in by his own acts, or that an individual has built up a tendency to be cynical about his own acts, or any other reference to a chronological progression of actions.
Summary of Key Terms [Goffman]
The remaining descriptions that Goffman conveys are quite clear. He describes performance as “all the activity of an individual which occurs during a period marked by his continuous presence before a particular set of observers and which has some influence on the observers” (CST, pg. 55). A performance may include a “front” which is that part of the individual’s performance regularly functioning in a general and fixed fashion to define the situation for those who observe the performance” (CST, pg. 55).
Goffman defines the elements of role-playing well, but he continues to exclude the scope of possible chronological progression. He refers to a certain (finite) activity and mentions explicitly that a front is fixed. Continuing, Goffman describes more fixed elements of front including static scenery items.
One type of front is the personal front that includes the items that intimately identify with the performer himself and that we naturally expect will follow the performer wherever he goes (CST, pg. 55). The performance setting includes background items that supply the scenery, in other words, props for the front; example: living room (CST, pg. 55). Appearance is a type of personal front; an example would include a business suit (CST, pg. 55). Manner(s) are a type of personal front; for example, aggressiveness (CST, pg. 55). While I agree that props and attire are “fixed” and static, I argue that aggressiveness is not a fixed front.
There are two types of performers (CST, pg. 53): (i) a sincere actor who believes in his own act; and (ii) a cynical actor who deludes the audiences for purposes of “self interest” or private gain. Within this dichotomy, we find the first time Goffman hints at the reasoning behind action.
The resulting benefit from a performance might include a performer’s own good and/or the good of the community. An example of a performance could be a doctor giving a placebo. In that case, the perceived reality by the patient would increase the benefit received and therefore a phony action would produce beneficial results to the observer. That is the reason that the actor chose to perform the phony act, because of the intended benefit to the other. The rationalized choice indicates a period of time leading up to the act that then influenced the act. The resulting benefit continues to occur post-act.
What follows is discussion on the idea of belief. Belief can go in two directions or cycles of development (CST, pg. 54): (i) from disbelief to belief; for example, the cycle begins when an army recruit endures initial physical punishment; then ends with the recruit following rules to gain respect of peers/officers; or (ii) from belief to disbelief; for example, the cycle begins with a group of idealistic medical students who, midway through their schooling heed to learning tasks; then ends with the group’s original ideals of medical service (CST, pg. 54). Again, Goffman has presented finite phenomena.
Dramatic realization includes signs that dramatically highlight and portray confirmatory facts that might otherwise remain unapparent or obscure (CST, pg. 56). An example would be a baseball umpire (performer) who emphatically gives his judgment to convince the audience that he is sure of his judgment. Dramatic realization is a bit like the doctor using a placebo in that the doctor likely does not timidly administer it. He must deliver the placebo with confidence or else the observer patient will not buy into his administration (CST, pg. 56). Here, the delivery and confidence performed at that moment is a finite phenomenon. However, the accumulation and erosion of confidence over time (both before and after the event) is not included by Goffman.
Idealization is when the performer offers his observers an impression that is idealized in several different ways (CST, pg. 58). This indicates a crucial discrepancy between our all-too-human selves and our socialized selves. Misrepresentation can be analyzed because an audience will judge truth/falsehood, genuine/spurious, and valid/phony of presentation (CST, pg. 60). Only shame, guilt, or fear prevents performers from misrepresenting to an audience. Although the judgment potentially occurs at one time, the elements of fear, shame, or guilt may have been building during the time leading up to the judgment.
There are many statuses in which membership obviously is not subject to formal ratification (CST, pg. 61). Reality encompasses a real, sincere, or honest performance (CST, pg. 63) and is seen as not purposely put together but many individuals sincerely believe that the definition of the situation they habitually project is the real reality. Reality is less firmly connected with the solid world than one might first assume.
Real routine can be managed and/or enabled in part because of “anticipatory socialization.” Contrivance is a false performance that thorough fabricators assemble for us (CST, pg. 64) and can result from scripts. Anticipatory socialization is the one portion of Goffman’s theory that hints at any time prior to the performance that has influence on the performance.
Brief Critique of Goffman [Lack of Clarity in Terminology]
It would improve the theory of Goffman if he would elaborate, extend upon, or replace his chosen term “to be taken in by” an act (CST, pg. 53). This portion remains vague. The reader is left to wonder exactly what “taken in by” is supposed to mean. It might be any of the following: is convinced of, believes in, understands, is/not tricked by, loves, interprets, is interested in… The list could continue in any which way. The best clarification that Goffman inserts is the instance “when the individual has no belief in his own act and no ultimate concern with the beliefs of his audience, we may call him cynical, reserving the term ’sincere’ for individuals who believe in the impression fostered by their own performance” (CST, pg. 53). It appears by those words that “to be taken in by” an act is to “believe” in the act.
However, Goffman continues by saying that the cynic “may obtain professional pleasures from his masquerade” (CST, pg. 53). Here, Goffman’s words can be understood meaning that “to be taken in by” is “to obtain pleasure from” which might then be rephrased as “to love” or be infatuated with. This is an appropriate complaint of Goffman’s writing because this phrase (“to be taken in by”) is not meant to be vague. Rather, Goffman uses the phrase as part of a definitive description of the theory.
Building Upon the Ontology of Frantz Fanon
The theory of Frantz Fanon is less straightforward than that of Erving Goffman. Fanon utilizes a “theoretical reflection on his experiences as a Black professional in the West Indies. [He] emphasizes how the experience of growing up under colonial rule (or other sorts of domination) may produce a kind of psychological internalization of the power of the oppressor. Fanon’s emphasis is on ontology, the study of being. Fanon draws on Hegel’s notion of ‘being for others’ to argue that for Black people in a white-controlled world, one’s self is not framed just by being Black, but by ‘being black for the White man’” (CST, pg. 314). The elements of the last part of that statement can be deconstructed and related to parts of Goffman’s work.
For example, “one’s self” is in many ways synonymous with “one’s role.” As previously discussed in this essay, Goffman eludes to the ownership of a “role” in that it is something an individual possesses. Additionally, “being for others” can be read as being for an “audience” (CST, pg. 53). I will avoid deconstructing the statement any further, however, since it is the interpretation of Fanon held by the editors of the CST reader and not a direct quote from Fanon himself.
Since the second part of the essay is not a direct recitation of Fanon’s theory, I have chosen not to define terms but rather expound on given ideas. The quotes that I examine do not contain complex terminology and therefore no additional summary of key terms is necessary. Although some critique is conveyed in what follows, the overall goal of this essay is not solely to critique preexisting theory. I have synthesized and built upon established theories (both Goffman and Fanon) to progress and move forward into new realms (my own). In the following text, I will reconstruct Fanon’s theory and build a new approach based on his foundation.
This reconstruction will progress through a chronological expression of an action, interaction, or event. Borrowing a term from Fanon, I will refer to these generally grouped as “phenomena.” Then, I will define “placement” as one element of phenomena. Next, I will explain how a person can be aware of his place and also of his involvement with others. Participation [in phenomena] then leads to subsequent or residual phenomena. As an example, recognition can be a subsequent phenomenon. When mutual recognition is examined, self and other can be more known. Mutual recognition relies on dependence. This line of reasoning will transition from a reconstruction of Fanon’s work into a new approach that blends with Goffman that will be elucidated in the final portion of this essay.
Phenomena [E.g. Language]
When determining how reality is perceived and/or constructed, the first appropriate element put under the microscope is phenomena. Quite simply, I have defined a “phenomenon” as “something that happens and is observable.” Language is a universal and observable phenomenon that can be studied in advanced societies or those in the third world. Therefore, it is important to analyze on a sociological basis.
Fanon agrees that we should “ascribe a basic importance to the phenomenon of language” (CST, pg. 337). To use language is to involve the self in a situation. I will speak to awareness of involvement later in this essay. We cannot pass on the fact that language is a phenomenon that involves a giver and a receiver, an actor and an audience. In any event, communication is a “two-way street.”
Placement [An Element of Phenomena]
In modern times, communication (the venue of linguistic interaction) is almost omnipresent. It exists just about everywhere. When Fanon wrote, the majority of language transmission was still limited to an interpersonal basis. Therefore, it was of utmost importance then to analyze the placement of the phenomenon. As Fanon put it, “the Negro has been given two frames of reference / / within which he has had to place himself” (CST, pg. 338). I have broken this quote into sections for a reason.
First, Fanon is discussing an individual who “has been given” his frames of reference as opposed to determining his place on his own. That individual then has the onus of dealing with that placement within frames of reference. The charge is on the individual “to place himself.” Not only that, but the individual is limited to the original placement and must remain “within” it. His progress is limited. His phenomena have elements that are predetermined by others. He will “experience his being through others” (CST, pg. 338). Rather than use experience to express ideas in this essay, as Fanon did in “Black Skin, White Masks”, I will draw from his theoretical elements. The more abstract concepts express his views of ontology. I will restrain from mentioning specific experiential examples.
Second, the individual cannot be sure of his reality because of the influence of others. The individual cannot solely determine his own reality because “the body is surrounded by an atmosphere of certain uncertainty” (CST, pg. 338) that is manipulated and guided by others. The individual has been given frames of reference, within which he has placed himself, but has neither determined this placement on his own nor is his place only within himself.
Awareness [of Place]
After an individual has been situated, he then finds his place. He comes to know the elements that make up his place. This is his development of awareness. Fanon provides an example: “I become aware of my uniform” (CST, pg. 341). The uniform is created by the other. He was given the uniform. The individual then has only a limited range to what he can do with it.
One portion of awareness is to know one’s own place. It is another thing to know the other. But, this is an important part of complete awareness of the construction of reality. Fanon brings up, in general, “the colored man’s comprehension of the dimension of other” (CST, pg. 337). More specifically, Fanon talks practically by stating “To speak means to be in a position [to use certain syntax]” (CST, pg. 337). The phenomenon of speech is much greater in scope than simply a one-to-one dialogue.
Awareness [of Involvement]
Involvement in phenomena includes self and other. An analysis of communication provides Fanon’s observation that “the situation [of language and communication] is not one-way only” (CST, pg. 337). Therefore, the communicator (or “actor”) must become aware that involvement includes himself and the other.
However, the individual is more apt to know himself automatically than to know the other without thought. As Fanon puts it, there is “the occasion when I had to meet the white man’s eyes; an unfamiliar weight burdened me” (CST, pg. 339). At that point, Fanon was unable to insulate his inner self from such contact with that white man audience of one and therefore was unlike certain professionals whom Goffman describes (CST, pg. 54). Fanon also limits his description of this event to a finite time period.
Fanon describes this phenomenon as an occasion involving the development of burden. The term “unfamiliar” indicates that this burden was new to the individual. However, such an incident was influenced by prior phenomena. There is a reason that the burden was unfamiliar rather than familiar. There is a reason that the two participants’ eyes met (e.g. because of their respective placements). In the same manner that such elements led up to that incident, the same types of elements will lead up to the next incident(s) and therefore the occasion in question has portions of the past, current, and future within its scope.
The reader should understand from Fanon’s statement that the performance of the other is unfamiliar as are the products of the interaction with the other, no matter one’s ability or lack of to insulate his self. Progressively, through involved interaction, the individual has become aware of that which he knows he cannot be sure of.
Involvement [Participation Leads to Subsequent Phenomena]
When an individual becomes involved in participation, his actions lead to subsequent phenomena. The concept here is chronology. Fanon understood in one instance that “some identified [him] with ancestors of [his] who had been enslaved or lynched: [he] decided to accept this” (CST, pg. 340). This refers to past phenomena that are influencing the present for him. He has accepted the fact that the present cannot be exclusive from the past.
Interaction also begets further phenomena. For Fanon, “attention was a liberation… endowing me once more with an agility that I had thought lost, and by taking me out of the world, restoring me to it” (CST, pg. 338). He understands that the attention of the other was a piece that contributed to the construction of reality.
Recognition as Phenomena
Recognition is another element that contributes to the construction of reality. In some sense, recognition is tied to desire. Recognition can be both desire for and a result of certain phenomenon. Fanon explains how “the former slave wants to make himself recognized” (CST, pg. 342). This is to say that the former slave desires interaction with others.
This desire is so strong that Fanon includes an explanation about how the desire is the main driver in the act(s) of an individual. “It’s impossible for me to get away from an inborn complex; since the other hesitated to recognize me, there remained only one solution: to make myself known” (CST, pg. 341). Both the need for recognition and the recognition (by the other) itself are two quintessential elements that contribute to the perception and construction of reality. “Making myself known” is a way of altering the current situation and future of both self and other. (Knowledge of self, aware to the other, this is a knowledge that did not previously exist but will exist in the future.)
Regarding recognition, it cannot be divided into actor and audience being exclusive of one another. The actor’s reality depends on the perception of the audience. Individuals “recognize themselves as mutually recognizing each other” (CST, pg. 342). This mutual recognition, the dependence on the other to verify one’s reality, is the crux that leads me to a combination new blended theory consisting of the works of Goffman and Fanon.
Phenomena Begets Phenomena
Knowledge of self is dependent on the acts and beliefs of the other. “Knowledge of self” for purposes of this essay can be taken to mean “one’s own reality.” Notice I did not say “construction,” “understanding of,” or “perception of” reality. This concept of “knowledge of self” cannot escape influence from the other. For example, “the Negro looks fiercely at the white man, the white man tells him: ‘Brother, there is no difference between us.’ And yet the Negro knows that there is a difference” (CST, pg. 344). The knowledge held by the Negro (of the understood difference) paired with the absorption of the actions of the white man combine to form the Negro’s constructed perception of reality.
Unfortunately, I disagree with a large portion of what Fanon exhibits. My brief critique is that he puts too much stake in conflict (CST, pgs 344, 343, 342, 339). Conflict should be a small example of human interaction. Conflict is just one phenomenon like language is just one phenomenon. Agreement can result from interaction. Goffman’s concept of performance can both include and exclude conflict.
Fanon is incorrect, writing “human reality (in-itself-for-itself) can be achieved only through conflict and through the risk that conflict implies” (CST, pg. 343). That position is too narrow. I argue that human reality can be achieved through awareness, of self or perception or place or other and/or… I am presenting involvement and placement but further research is necessary to develop other elements of awareness. There is no process by which human reality can be achieved “only through.” It is only possible to analyze and describe one stream of progress; in this case I have chosen to describe awareness. Fanon described conflict. Goffman described performance.
Blended Theory – Phenomenological Progression
This essay builds off established theories and reconstructs them to form new ideas. In the preceding text, I reconstructed Fanon’s theory into a new approach built on his foundation. Prior to that, I interpreted Goffman’s theory especially through an analysis of key terms. The main questions that can be asked of the two theorists include how reality is constructed and how reality is perceived. I used phenomena to explain an approach to discover answers.
The consensus is that there is a difference between actual and perceived reality. Perception quite obviously depends on the other/audience in most phenomena (sans the individual act). To speak of perceiving nothingness is very much outside the scope of this essay. It is useful to define and interpret key terms, especially for Goffman’s work. A framework of analysis can be employed when labels are utilized. We can see ourselves as actors. We can view others as the audience.
Especially with Fanon’s work, this reconstruction progressed through a chronological expression of an action, interaction, or event, which I refer to as “phenomena.” Phenomena can occur in different forms. A performance, like Goffman describes, is a type of phenomenon. Conflict, like Fanon describes, is a type of phenomenon. Reality encompasses a real, sincere, or honest performance. Therefore, we can approach the question of perceived reality through examining performance.
While performance is regarded as a perceived reality, we must also examine how reality is constructed. In this essay, there are two interpretative entities: self and other. The interpreters of reality create intangible understanding and knowledge of events/phenomena. Added to the tangible, generally static, items like “setting,” these interpretations combine to construct phenomena in both “real” and “perceived” ways.
Future phenomena are the result of past constructed and perceived phenomena. The reasoning behind actions includes influence from prior actions. The construction of reality includes many elements, of which I have only covered a few. Most importantly, the actor/self and audience/other become aware of phenomena, at the very least, during and after any specific phenomenon. The participants become aware of their respective involvement in phenomena as well as tangible settings. The combination of awareness influences subsequent phenomena for both self and other.
The central preceding argument is that the construction of reality does not simply consist of what comes before or during an interaction. The construction of reality also includes what comes after an initial interaction.
Combining the theories of Fanon and Goffman was beneficial because those respective theories show what leads up to an interaction and what occurs during the interaction. I provided further discourse to answer the question of what comes after the interaction and how each interaction affects those that follow. I argued that the ontology of being (Fanon) and the presentation of self (Goffman) that occur within any interaction contribute to forming subsequent phenomenon.
I introduced the theories of Goffman and Fanon. I showed how Fanon explains the ontology of self. I analyzed how Goffman describes presentation of self. Finally, I addressed the problem of how reality is constructed by answering the question of what comes after the initial interaction.
Calhoun, C. (2007). Contemporary Sociological Theory. Wiley-Blackwell.