The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life is a seminal sociology book by Erving Goffman. It uses the imagery of the theatre in order to portray the importance of human – namely, social – action. The book was published in 1959. See dramaturgy (sociology) for a detailed analysis.
In the center of the analysis lies the relationship between performance and front stage. Unlike other writers who have used this metaphor, Goffman seems to take all elements of acting into consideration: an actor performs on a setting which is constructed of a stage and a backstage; the props at either setting direct his action; he is being watched by an audience, but at the same time he is an audience for his viewers' play.
According to Goffman, the social actor has the ability to choose his stage and props, as well as the costume he would put on in front of a specific audience. The actor's main goal is to keep his coherence, and adjust to the different settings offered him. This is done mainly through interaction with other actors. To a certain extent, this imagery bridges structure and agency, enabling each, while saying that structure and agency can limit each other.
A major theme that Goffman treats throughout the work is the fundamental importance of having an agreed upon definition of the situation in a given interaction, in order to give the interaction coherency. In interactions, or performances, the involved parties may be audience members and performers simultaneously; the actors usually foster impressions that reflect well upon themselves, and encourage the others, by various means, to accept their preferred definition. Goffman acknowledges that when the accepted definition of the situation has been discredited, some or all of the actors may pretend that nothing has changed, if they find this strategy profitable to themselves or wish to keep the peace. For example, when a lady who is attending a formal dinner--and who is certainly striving to present herself positively--trips, nearby party-goers may pretend not to have seen her fumble; they assist her in maintaining face. Goffman avers that this type of artificial, willed credulity happens on every level of social organization, from top to bottom.