- Social identity is the distinctive pattern of traits and connections that make us recognizable to others.
- Sociologist Erving Goffman stressed that these connections must be continually guarded and managed.
- Three challenges are achieving idealized identity, monitoring current relations, and preventing spoilage.
A couple weeks ago, I received letters from both my insurance company and my pension fund announcing a “third-party software event.” A company they use to transfer money and information had discovered a breach in its data systems. My name, Social Security number, gender, date of birth, and address may now be in the possession of unknown actors.
Sadly, most of us have become familiar with incidents like this. Companies we trust find themselves vulnerable. Thieves get hold of credit card numbers or other financial information. They take out loans in our name. Essentially, they become us, or rather some madcap version of us who races about spending money. Once the spree is over, restoring our good name—and credit rating—can be difficult.
All of this raises a more general issue: How do any of us maintain a clear and acceptable identity in the modern world? In that light, financial identity is merely one part of the broader—and much more important—theme of social identity: how other people see us and treat us based on those understandings.
To be sure, stolen identity—or just the idea of someone masquerading as us—is a disturbing prospect. But there are many other ways that social identity can be damaged. And a good portion of our time, or so I argue, is spent trying to manage our standing before others.
To discuss this, I rely on the insights of a man who continues to be America’s best-known sociologist, Erving Goffman. Goffman (who was born and raised in Canada) focused his career on the ways people define social situations and then seek acceptable identities within those situations. Commonly, our own visions of ourselves do not align with other people’s assessments of us. Our placement in the social order is, to use contemporary lingo, “contested.”
Just as Goffman did, let’s consider three challenges to identity management: seeking a better placement for ourselves, maintaining the identity we have, and preventing spoilage. What techniques do we use in each case?
Idealized Identity and Impression Management
Goffman’s fame rests largely on the widespread readership of his first book, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. That writing addressed directly the concerns of 20th-century people, who found themselves working at white-collar jobs, belonging to large organizations, and interacting with unfamiliar people. Career success—in some sense, life success—meant making one’s way through this maze of social judgments. At base, what the modern person sells is reputability, the public acknowledgment that we are the people we say we are and that we can deliver the services we promise.
Goffman, who worked on propaganda films in Canada during World War II, understood that much of what we do can be seen as a kind of play-acting or dramatic art. Like Shakespeare, he professed that we play characters on the stage of life. Everyone’s challenge is to be believable and consistent. Unlike professional actors, we cannot set those portrayals aside at the drama’s end. Instead, they become part of society’s wider understanding of who we are.
Most of us play our roles in deadly earnest. Still, we use the actor’s techniques. Every person I know doctors their appearance, not just to match the tone of the social situation at hand but also to be true to their own, broader vision of how they prefer to be seen. Make-up, hairstyle, and clothing are parts of the act. So are material settings, including interior decorations and various “props.” Who doesn’t fuss with their office or living room when someone they want to influence is coming over? Don’t most of us have something we employ to impress others—perhaps an object we bought overseas, a giant television, some self-made craft or artwork, or just books on the shelves? Our intention is less to exhibit that possession than it is to reveal that we are a person of a certain sort who should be treated accordingly.
We do the same with friends and “associates.” We tell others that Bill and Betty Baxter (high-status people, surely) will be coming to our party tomorrow. Failing that, we let the listener know what we did with Bill and Betty last weekend. Venturing into the public arena, most of us prefer to have some comrade or wingman, anything to avoid looking lonely, insecure, and ill-placed.
Goffman’s primary interest was how we behave—that is, what we say and do to support our idealized identity. Much as we control our facial expressions and physical gestures, so we regulate language, including tone of voice. A few of us may be compulsively honest, but most “shade” the truth of accounts. We are careful not to lie directly, because lies can be uncovered and then we acquire the reputation of a liar. But omitting to tell certain things (perhaps the fact of an unfortunate second marriage or some questionable deductions we took on our taxes) is accepted practice. In between lie all the ways we massage information to keep people thinking about us the right way.
We may laugh at the anxieties of 20th-century people. But conditions today—especially the need to make one’s way among communities of semi-strangers—only heighten these challenges. People who make Zoom calls adopt a business voice, compose their background, and (quasi-comically) arrange the upper half of their appearance. More than ever, it’s important to portray oneself as competent and credible. Some go so far as to “fake it” until they do—or don’t—“make it.”
Keeping One’s Place Through Interaction Rituals
It would be nice to rise continually in people’s estimations, but most of us focus instead on keeping the positions we have. That is the theme of Goffman’s book Interaction Ritual.
Many traditional societies are “shame-oriented”—that is, preoccupied with appearances before others. Everyone fears “losing face,” the prospect of diminished status that comes from saying or doing the wrong thing in public. High-status people, who have the most to lose, have the most sensitivity to this.
We moderns worry less about how our behavior affects social standing, both for ourselves and our families. Still, Goffman argues, we engage in a vast range of rituals to maintain our places. Rituals of greeting and departure are especially important. At such times, we acknowledge one another in ways that signify the character of our relationship. There may be physical touching (perhaps a hug for close friends). Nicknames and other forms of special knowledge may be exhibited. Routinely, there are smiles and other indicators of interest and affection. All these are just devices to reaffirm someone’s status as the person they claim to be.
Beyond this, we recognize some people to have higher status than we do (what Goffman calls “deference”). We and they are expected to behave consistently with that standing (he calls this “demeanor”). Everyone is quite clear that they will accept or “take” certain kinds of behavior from some people but not from others.
Few of us would admit to being posers or snobs. However, everyone has standards for how we should be treated. We fear loss of status (through teasing, shunning, gossiping, shaming, and so forth) in the groups we care about. Try to dislodge us at your own risk.
Managing Spoiled Identity
Despite our best efforts, sometimes we fall from grace. Goffman addresses this issue in his book Stigma.
Frequently, we can't change the circumstances that allow some people to discredit us. To take two historical examples, think of the discrimination directed toward those females or members of racial minorities. Like someone who is aberrant in terms of height and weight or who possesses some obvious physical infirmity, there isn’t much one can do to hide such issues; better to find people who accept you as you are—and to work on changing society from that foundation.
Other characteristics may not be so obvious. There are, in the first instance, conditions that once were hidden but now are known. Goffman calls that re-identified person the “discredited.” For example, an older person who has disguised their age through hair dye and facelifts finds themself outed by a former schoolmate. More extreme is the revelation that someone has spent time in jail or that they flunked out of a college they claim to have graduated from. Inevitably, people see them differently. The discredited must find ways to downplay the information.
The second type of person is the “discreditable.” This is someone whose stigma is yet to be known. Again, think historically of gay people or those with ethnic backgrounds they wished to hide. The challenge is to discover whom one can trust, where they can be open, and where they must hide. One careless move and the best-constructed identity collapses.
All of us, I maintain, have elements from our life history we would not want others to know. Relying increasingly on unfamiliar others for our social and economic livelihood, we guard that information carefully. As Goffman stressed, identity remains our most prized—and perhaps most threatened—possession.
Goffman, E. (1959). The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.
Goffman, E. (1963). Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Goffman, E. (1967). Interaction Ritual: Essays on Face-to-Face Behavior. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.
Henricks, T. (2012). Selves, Societies, and Emotions: Understanding the Pathways of Experience. Boulder, CO: Paradigm.