Erving Goffman's theoretical framework in this book is breathtakingly simple: modern social interaction is like a stage performance. Social interaction takes place within a social establishment (a place surrounded by fixed barriers to perception a.k.a. the theater) and includes a team of performers (actors) who cooperate to present to an audience a given definition of the situation. The stage for this interaction is divided into a front region (which the audience sees) and a back region (hidden from the audience). The actors and the audience tacitly agree to act out roles - doctors and patient, lawyer and client, waitress and patron etc. The implication of his framework is that the individual self is not a constant, unchanging entity. Instead, the self is multifaceted, morphing to suit the stage performance and thereby creating social order. Goffman illustrates the framework by drawing examples from his research in the Shetland Islands and other social science research on such topics as the women's role in the home and on race relations in the U.S. South.
Despite the range of his model, Goffman is critical enough not to take the dramaturgical metaphor too far. Though he draws on research on Indian and Chinese societies, he does not pretend that his framework is culture-free. He understands that his framework may be applied - at least as presented in this book - to 'Anglo American society' (pg 244; 1959 edition). According to Goffman, his model may be more applicable to Western societies because 'we live an indoor social life. We specialize in fixed settings, in keeping strangers out and in giving the performer some privacy in which to prepare himself for the show' (pg. 236). He also admits that the language of drama is contrived and in some ways is not as real as 'real life' where successful staging of performances can lead to serious consequences for the 'actor' and 'audience'.
The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life is a very readable book. Even though Goffman's writing style is too turgid for my tastes (he excessively uses the third person singular pronoun and the passive voice), I still enjoyed reading the book. (Afterall the book was first published in 1959.) By deploying a simple metaphor to analyze micro-level social interaction, Goffman demonstrates his mastery of social observation. Furthermore, by reflecting on his framework, he exemplifies what Andy Van de Ven (2007) calls engaged scholarship. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life deserves to be the classic that it is.