Dramaturgical Analysis Research Paper

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Dramaturgical analysis of social interaction is based on the assumption that social acts are staged, consciously or unconsciously, and thus embody all the elements found in enactments in the theater. Plays on the theater stage highlight all the elements of ordinary social life to present to an audience a new perspective on some aspect of social interaction. Thus, concepts used in theater production can be turned back again for the analysis of the social behavior that they are designed to reflect.

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1. The Main Concepts

The main concepts that can be used in dramaturgical analysis center on the stage or action area (Hare and Blumberg 1988). The action area can be divided into two parts; backstage and stage. The backstage area is where the actors prepare for their roles and where special effects are produced to influence the audience. The stage is where the action takes place in full view of the audience. Even if only two people are involved in the interaction, they take turns providing an audience for each other. When one is speaking the other is listening. As an audience, an actor provides consensual reality, cueing, social reinforcement, and continual observation (Sarbin in Allen and Scheibe 1982).

For any action area there may be offstage areas in which persons who have organized the activity (producers), as well as those who have rehearsed the cast (directors) and are providing cues for action remain hidden from the audience. In addition, there may be a person or group who provided the original idea or script for the performance (playwright). This does not complete the list as there may also be persons who cater for the audience.

The meaning of the event binds all the participants together. The overall meaning has been termed the definition of the situation, the frame, and the illusion. In the progress of the development of social interaction over time, agreement on an actable idea consistent with the overall meaning is the first phase. A second phase involves staging by locating or constructing an action area and providing resources such as props, costumes, and other necessary equipment. In the third phase, which may overlap with the second, actors are recruited, if they are not already involved in the development of the actable idea, and the actors are trained for their roles. The fourth phase is the period of enactment when the play is performed. In the final phase, after the performance, new meanings for selves, others, and the situation may be assessed by the actors and audience.

The actable ideas that form the basis for social dramas may be either very general or very specific in their implications. On one end of the continuum is an actable idea in the form of an image, an emotionally loaded set of words, physical object, or event, for example, ghetto or bacchanalia. An image has a program of action packed into it, much like a symbol in a dream may be a merger of waking events. An image often guides interaction in a small informal or therapy group. The actable idea may be a more complex theme (including a direction of movement, an emotional tone, and a minimal set of roles to be enacted) or a plot (with a detailed scenario, defined roles, and an indication of the phases a group must go through to reach its goal). At the specific end of the continuum, the idea may be as fully developed as a script for a play, with parts for each member of the cast and stage directions to guide the performance. A script is most evident in organizations, especially where the actors must use equipment.

Building on the perspective of (Burke 1968), Duncan (1968) emphasizes the importance of symbols, especially as they reflect authority relationships. For MacCannell and MacCannell (1982), the study of signs and symbols had become so important by the late 1900s that they suggested a semiotic interpretation of modern culture as an approach to the time of the sign. Brissett and Edgley (1990) add to the list variables that follow from the work of Goffman (1959) with a primary focus on the way in which individuals present themselves to others. These variables include: role distance, the case when an individual is playing with a role with full consciousness and thereby has the choice of either modifying the role or ceasing to play it altogether; ecstasy, stepping outside the world of everyday life; and remedial work, when a person attempts to change the meaning of an act from one that is seen as offensive to one that is acceptable.

2. Academic Fields That Contribute To Dramaturgical Analysis

Dramaturgical analysis has been used in several ways. One way is used more by sociologists of the symbolic interaction tradition with a focus on role playing (cf. Goffman 1959). The second way, introduced by the philosopher–linguist Burke (1968), is based on the analysis of the act. Another approach, used primarily by anthropologists, is to analyze the function of social dramas that are enacted by members of a society to bring about conflict resolution (Turner 1974), to signify a rite of passage, or to memorialize some important event in the history of the society.

Since role and script are central concepts for drama, the fields of psychology, political science, philosophy, linguistics, psychotherapy and the methods of narrative and qualitative analysis, also include descriptions of similar relationships that can be incorporated in the dramaturgical perspective.

3. Earlier Definitions Of The Dramaturgical Perspective

Evreinoff, in The Theatre in Life (1927), records that, at least since the sixteenth century, the similarity between life and the theater has been noted by Shakespeare and others. However, the dramaturgical perspective was not widely used until it was popularized by Goffman in the 1960s. The 1930–35 edition of the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, edited by Seligman and Johnson, does not include an entry on the dramaturgical perspective, although there is an entry for drama, covering activity in theaters. Burke’s entry on dramatism in the 1968 International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, edited by Sills, presents Burke’s pentad of the five terms: act, scene, agent, agency, and purpose. Sets of concepts are linked in ratios, such as the scene–act ratio, where the scene (the situation) has implicit in it the attitudes and behaviors that will become explicit through action. Burke places his own work clearly in the symbolic interaction tradition with references to Mead (1938).

For Brissett and Edgley (1990), in a second edition of their source book on Life as Theater, dramaturgy is the study of how human beings accomplish meaning in their lives through interaction with others. Just as meaning is created through enaction it can be recreated through re-enaction. Moreno observed that ‘every second time is a liberation from the first’ (Hare and Hare 1996) and developed psychodrama as a method of group therapy based on re-enactment.

In the 1992 Encyclopedia of Sociology edited by Borgatta and Borgatta in the entry on Dramaturgy, Warner records that the unique insight of dramaturgy is that daily social interaction consists of performances, that individuals stage and in which they present themselves to others. As with Brissett and Edgley (1990) the emphasis is on the work of Goffman and the symbolic interaction tradition of Mead and the Chicago School.

4. Methodological Issues

Brissett and Edgley (1990) provide a list of some of the critiques that have been made of dramaturgy. For some critics, dramaturgy is a pedestrian, nonsystematic form of inquiry that does not possess the properties of formal theory. Brissett and Edgley agree, but indicate that is it linked propositionally to other forms of social thought, such as symbolic interactionism, ethnomethodology, existential sociology, interpersonal psychology, and other humanistic models in the social sciences.

A second criticism is that dramaturgy does not produce universal statements about human behavior. It is said to be an artifact of studying the situational behavior in Western culture. In response, Brissett and Edgley first note that understanding how people interact in Western society is no small achievement, but go on to point to the fact that the expressive behavior of individuals is well-documented in the anthropological literature.

Dramaturgy, or at least Goffman’s version of it, has also been criticized for its methodology. It is said to have no specific, systematic method of testing propositions about the world. Brissett and Edgley claim that there is nothing special about doing dramaturgy. Being sensitive to the expressive dimension of behavior demands no special methodology or observational skills. However, there should be an unnerving and single-minded commitment to the observation of people’s doings.

Another criticism is that dramaturgy slights the impact of larger social units, such as institutions, on human behavior. In response, Brissett and Edgley assert that there can be no doubt that people’s interaction contexts are circumscribed by structural arrangements. However, rather than dwelling on the limitations, dramaturgy focuses on what people do within the contexts that are available to them. The concept of role is used as a way of accounting for people’s connections to one another as well as to the structures and organizations with which they are identified.

Finally, the most prevalent critique has to do with the theatrical metaphor. Critics say that the theater is make-believe and everyday life is real. Brissett and Edgely respond that life is neither theater nor is it different from theater. It is theater like.

5. Future Directions For Theory And Research

A first act to begin the analysis of social interaction would be to use the dramaturgical perspective to describe the stage, the various actors who are on or off the stage, the audience, and the overall meaning of the event (definition of the situation). As one turns the spotlight on the various actors in turn, their functions (formal and informal) and the process through which they express themselves in their roles can be described in terms of other perspectives, drawn from the social sciences and humanities, until all aspects of social behavior have been included.


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  2. Brissett D, Edgley C (eds.) 1990 Life as Theater: A Dramaturgical Sourcebook, 2nd edn., Aldine de Gruyter, New York
  3. Burke K 1968 Dramatism. In: Sills D L (ed.) International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. Macmillan, New York
  4. Duncan H D 1968 Symbols in Society. Oxford University Press, New York
  5. Evreinoff N 1927 The Theatre in Life. Bretano’s, New York
  6. Goffman E 1959 The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Doubleday, Garden City, NY
  7. Hare A P, Blumberg H H 1988 Dramaturgical Analysis of Social Interaction. Praeger, New York
  8. Hare A P, Hare J R 1996 J. L. Moreno. Sage, London
  9. MacCannell D, MacCannell J F 1982 The Time of the Sign: A Semiotic Interpretation of Modern Culture. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, IA
  10. Mead G H 1938 The Philosophy of the Act. University of Chicago Press, Chicago
  11. Turner V 1974 Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors: Symbolic Action in Human Society. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY
  12. Warner K A 1992 Dramaturgy. In: Borgatta E F, Borgatta M L (eds.), Encyclopedia of Sociology. Macmillan, New York
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