Roles and the Presentation of Self

Learning Outcomes

  • Describe how individuals present themselves and perceive themselves in a social context
Long before the Internet, sociologists were examining how individuals interact with society and how they present themselves to others and are in turn perceived. In our digital age, we can contemplate the kinds of photos posted online, how others react to those photos (“hearts,” “thumbs up,” emojis, comments, etc.), and then how we interpret those reactions. This threefold process correlates with Cooley’s 1902 concept of the looking-glass self, in which we develop our sense of self as we: 1) see how others react to us, 2) interpret that reaction (typically as positive or negative) and 3) develop a sense of self based on those interpretations. 

Status and Roles

Sociologists use the term status to describe the responsibilities and benefits that a person experiences according to their rank and role in society. Some statuses are ascribed—those you do not select, such as son, elderly person, or female. Others, called achieved statuses, are obtained by choice, such as high school dropout, self-made millionaire, or nurse. As a daughter or son, you occupy a different status than as a neighbor or employee.

As you can imagine, people employ many types of behaviors in day-to-day life. Roles are patterns of behavior that we recognize in each other, and that are representative of a person’s social status. Currently, while reading this text, you are playing the role of a student. However, you also play other roles in your life, such as “daughter,” “neighbor,” or “employee.” These various roles are each associated with a different status.

If too much is required of a single role, individuals can experience role strain. Consider the duties of a parent: cooking, cleaning, driving, problem-solving, acting as a source of moral guidance—the list goes on. Similarly, a person can experience role conflict when one or more roles are contradictory. A parent who also has a full-time career can experience role conflict on a daily basis. When there is a deadline at the office but a sick child needs to be picked up from school, which comes first? When you are working toward a promotion but your children want you to come to their school play, which do you choose? Being a college student can conflict with being an employee, being an athlete, or even being a friend. Our roles in life powerfully affect our decisions and help to shape our identities.

One person can be associated with a multitude of roles and statuses. Even a single status such as “student” has a complex role-set, or array of roles, attached to it (Merton 1957).

A person sits at a desk while working at a computer, while holding a baby of about six months old. A second child leans against the chair as well.

Figure 1. Parents often experience role strain or role conflict as they try to balance different and often urgent competing responsibilities. (Credit: Ran Zwigenberg/flickr)

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Presentation of Self

Of course, it is impossible to look inside a person’s head and study what role they are playing. All we can observe is outward behavior, or role performance. Role performance is how a person expresses his or her role. Sociologist Erving Goffman presented the idea that a person is like an actor on a stage. Calling his theory dramaturgy, Goffman believed that we use impression management to present ourselves to others as we hope to be perceived. Each situation is a new scene, and individuals perform different roles depending on who is present (Goffman 1959). Think about the way you behave around your coworkers versus the way you behave around your grandparents or with a blind date. Even if you’re not consciously trying to alter your personality, your grandparents, coworkers, and date probably see different sides of you.

Watch It

Watch the following video to learn more about Erving Goffmann’s concept of dramaturgical analysis and consider the various roles you play on the different “stages” of your life. What is your front-stage self and your back-stage self?

As in a play, the setting matters as well. If you have a group of friends over to your house for dinner, you are playing the role of a host. It is agreed upon that you will provide food and seating and probably be stuck with a lot of the cleanup at the end of the night. Similarly, your friends are playing the roles of guests, and they are expected to respect your property and any rules you may set forth (“Don’t leave the door open or the cat will get out.”). In any scene, there needs to be a shared reality between players. In this case, if you view yourself as a guest and others view you as a host, there are likely to be problems.

Impression management is a critical component of symbolic interactionism. For example, a judge in a courtroom has many “props” to create an impression of fairness, gravity, and control—like her robe and gavel. Those entering the courtroom are expected to adhere to the scene being set. Just imagine the “impression” that can be made by how a person dresses. This is the reason that attorneys frequently select the hairstyle and apparel for witnesses and defendants in courtroom proceedings.

A photo of a statue of Janus. The statue is of two heads facing outwards with the backs of their heads molded together.

Figure 2. Janus, another possible “prop”, depicted with two heads, exemplifies war and peace. (Photo courtesy of Fubar Obfusco/Wikimedia Commons)

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Again, Goffman’s dramaturgical approach expands on the ideas of Charles Cooley and the looking-glass self. We imagine how we must appear to others, then react to this speculation. We put on certain clothes, prepare our hair in a particular manner, wear makeup, use cologne, and the like—all with the notion that our presentation of ourselves is going to affect how others perceive us. We expect a certain reaction, and, if lucky, we get the one we desire and feel good about it. But more than that, Cooley believed that our sense of self is based upon this idea: we imagine how we look to others, draw conclusions based upon their reactions to us, and then we develop our personal sense of self. In other words, people’s reactions to us are like a mirror in which we are reflected.

Watch It

Watch this Khan Academy video to learn more about Charles Cooley’s looking-glass self.

Think It Over

  • Describe a situation in which you have tried to influence others’ perception of you? How does Goffman’s impression management apply to this situation? 
  • Draw a large circle, and then “slice” the circle into pieces like a pie, labeling each piece with a role or status that you occupy. Add as many statuses, ascribed and achieved, that you have. Don’t forget things like dog owner, gardener, traveler, student, runner, employee. How many statuses do you have? In which ones are there role conflicts?

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achieved status:
the status a person chooses, such as a level of education or income
ascribed status:
the status outside of an individual’s control, such as sex or race
dramaturgical approach:
a technique sociologists use in which they view society through the metaphor of theatrical performance
impression management:
the effort to control or influence other peoples’ opinion
looking-glass self:
our reflection of how we think we appear to others
patterns of behavior that are representative of a person’s social status
an array of roles attached to a particular status
role conflict:
a situation when one or more of an individual’s roles clash
role performance:
the expression of a role
role strain:
stress that occurs when too much is required of a single role
the responsibilities and benefits that a person experiences according to his or her rank and role in society