Erving Goffman’s concept of Self and Jacques Lacan’s Theory of Mirror Stage

Many social theorists try to understand what type of connection exists between a human being and society. The most difficult thing is to recognize where the individual ends and where the social being begins. Erving Goffman’s theory considers identity as a part of social drama where people create themselves according to certain roles and masks. The theory explains control and face-work, and thus humans discover the identification of themselves through mirrors, which separates the individual being from the collective.

Jacques Lacan presented the same idea in his conception of the mirror stage that clarifies individuals about their identification with their images. This is the idea where a person comes to understand who he or she is through identification with others. The theorist believes that presenting the reflection of oneself is a vehicle for understanding the self. Accordingly, both Goffman’s theory of the self and Lacan’s idea of the mirror stage represent the dialectics of self-identification, where the self is always a result of social identification with other people through one’s self-imagination and social roles as well.

Erving Goffman’s concept of the Self

Since the publication of Goffman’s first book “Presentation of Self in Everyday Life” (1956), he followed by the reputation of the symbolic interactionist. However, Handler (2012) stated that Goffman’s focus on “micro-ethnography, on everyday encounters, on body symbolisms and linguistic interactions may be problematic for some sociologists” (179) because it is difficult to track hidden social roles and practices of people. The central concept of Goffman’s social drama theory is the self which is represented by the image of the personal role that has a “dramatic effect”. The most important aspect is whether society will accept the role or reject it.

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At first glance, the theoretical construct of the socio-dramatic approach is similar to Bloomer’s understanding of social action, but in reality, it is quite different. Goffman proposes three postulates of symbolic interactionism.

  1. First, the social action itself has no meaning because it represents values and norms that only refer to it. It means that a person acts not in the way he or she wants, but in certain social ways. This idea is similar to Guy Debord’s concept of a society of spectacle that reflects the same intention of unconscious human behavior.
  2. Second, Goffman states that every action derives from social interaction. A person cannot be in a society without performing its rules and norms. In this case, Goffman (1956) proposes his definition of performance: “We have been using the term ‘performance’ to refer to all the activity of an individual which occurs during a period marked by his continuous presence before a particular set of observers and which has some influence on the observers” (13).

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On the other hand, there is no logic in such generalization, but for social behaviorists, a person is always a result of social interactions. Even in the theory of Jacques Lacan, there is a similar idea where only social communication defines the self which appears to be real. Finally, the act is continuously transformed in the course of social interaction. In fact, Goffman borrowed the idea of “society as a set of performance” and “interaction” from Bloomer.

However, the interpretation of social interaction even in his early work differs significantly from the interpretation of Bloomer. According to Goffman, society does not have a homogeneous structure. He believes that people act differently in different circumstances. Therefore, he called these acts “frontstage” and “backstage,” and compares them with theater as well. In this case, Handler (2012) adds that “much of daily life in modern society is structured to create security, not chanciness” (183), and therefore people really behave themselves according to a planned social scenario.

In the context of social drama and its presentation, Erving Goffman distinguishes two stages of human behavior: the front stage and the backstage. The frontstage is characterized by social settings and contexts, and the backstage is limited by sex, clothing, age, hairstyle, and other personal features (Goffman 1956:14). Therefore, the frontstage is that social context where people interact with each other according to their social roles. Goffman also identifies two other important elements of the frontstage, such as appearance and manner (Goffman 1956:15).

The first one represents some external features that “tell us of the individual’s temporary ritual state, that is, whether he is engaging in the formal social activity, work, or informal recreation” (Goffman 1956:15). As for manners, they determine those stimuli that encourage individuals to play specific roles which “the performer will expect to play in the on-coming situation” (Goffman 1956:15).

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For example, a waitress will do everything possible to keep a good mood with a client, even when a client is very picky. However, she can go to the kitchen and say everything that she thinks about the client. The last case is the backstage; therefore, it is the place where the actors can discuss and improve themselves without revealing themselves to the audience: “A back region or backstage may be defined as a place, relative to a given performance, where the impression fostered by the performance is knowingly contradicted as a matter of course” (69). The backstage is also an important region because people rehearse their social roles and try to understand what action is appropriate and what is not. These two social performative regions lead to the fact that every person plays a role and wears a mask.

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Playing certain roles in society, people always wear social masks, thus hiding their true nature. In this case, people know each other in their social roles. The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche claims: “Everything deep loves a mask.” In other words, the mask is a picture that people are creating of themselves. This is the reason for the increased interest of Goffman in the drama which people perform in everyday situations. Moreover, people create special roles because they want to be perceived according to their image, and “each participant is expected to suppress his immediate heartfelt feelings, conveying a view of the situation which he feels the others will be able to find at least temporarily acceptable” (Goffman 1956:4).

They choose their masks not by chance but prefer the one that perfectly illustrates what they want to be. Therefore, there is a double nature of the self, similar to Lacan’s theory of the mirror stage: the real self is a part of an individual human being, and the symbolical performative self is a part of society. Goffman suggests that people are what they want to be in the eyes of others (Goffman 1956:2). Finally, this role becomes the second nature and an integral part of the personality.

People come to the world as individuals and then create their characters, becoming a person with certain views and values. This is one of the reasons why Goffman prefers self-presentation as a part of social drama. Goffman notes that society expects an average person to be dressed neatly and be carefully shaved in a public place (Goffman 1956:38). This study, written six years ago, did not take into account the fact that young people can appear in public with long hair, unshaven, and their views will be more casual and relaxed. However, this view is now typical, and it complies with generally accepted ideals; therefore, Goffman’s model works. Moreover, Goffman indicates that during the day, particularly during rush hour on the subway, the carefully adjusted masks slip from human faces, and they reveal a truly human face. People lose control of their roles and masks as well; so finally, they become more and more readable for others.

Goffman believes that people themselves create a situation to express symbolic meanings with which they make a good impression on others. This concept is called the “dramaturgical approach” (Goffman 1956:7). For example, when some respectable people are late to the party, they try to create an impression of their importance to impress everyone that no event will take place without them. The American writer Tom Wolfe tells the story of a writer who has spent too much money to buy furniture because of his habit.

After each party, he went around the apartment and stayed in those rooms, where his guests were housed. He was trying to assess the situation at home from their point of view. In other words, he tried to look at it through their eyes. This situation means that the self is always limited by perception, so a person needs some point of view, real or often imaginary. This idea is present in Lacan’s theory of the mirror stage when an individual looks at himself with different eyes, thus trying to collect their identity during their lifetime. In fact, Wolfe’s example illustrates how the self depends on social interaction, creating different performative actions and situations as well.

The theorist considers social situations as dramatic performances in a nutshell: people act like actors on a stage using “sets” and “surroundings” to create a certain impression. Goffman identifies a specific communicative situation like the scene (Goffman 1956:13). Entering the stage, the actor begins to play a communicative role, meaning and feeling it, thus creating a communicative situation. Moreover, many actors can participate in the performance; it depends on the specific conditions of the social act. The communicative situation exists physically; it also includes props, which have a material or immaterial nature, and the actor controls it. The actor creates a setting that plays a crucial role in what will be the outcome of the drama (Goffman 1956:27).

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In the process of achieving the goal, the actor tries to show himself or herself from the positive side. It means that the actor plays for his “audience,” and thus he or she needs to know the rules of the “game” while using a certain acting technique. Despite a certain goal, which the individual puts in front of him or her, and the motives determining this goal, he or she tries to regulate the behavior of others, especially their response. This regulation is conducted primarily through its impact on others’ understanding of the situation.

Therefore, a person acts certainly because he or she wants to impress others according to their mental image. For example, a pregnant woman may be dressed in a shirt on which the word “baby” is written and an arrow pointing to her stomach painted. Probably, it tends to create the impression that the pregnancy does not consider anything necessary to hide. One more social action is that this person wants to shock the audience. Goffman focuses on the analysis of the situation of interpersonal communication resulting from the continuous interaction experience.

Jacques Lacan’s Theory of Mirror Stage

The Lacanian mirror stage theory is also intended to understand the whole image of the human self. At a minimum, the mirror stage describes a typical phase of the evolution of the human psyche (Gasprayan 2014:11). Proposing the theory of the mirror stage, Lacan focused on the characteristics of child behavior and supported it by data of comparative psychology. This feature means that the child at the early stages of development can recognize himself or herself in the mirror. In this context, Lacan mentioned that “we have only to understand the mirror stage as an identification” (Lacan 1977). However, animals cannot identify themselves in the same way; so, the mirror stage is only a human practice. The same situation concerns Goffman’s dramatic actions, the animals do not have the imagination for the reproduction of their roles. It means that the self is a product of social interactions, and the process of identification is socially acquired.

The mirror stage is characterized by the development of a child between six and eighteen months old. At this stage, the process of identification starts with the child learning his or her own image even though the child “outdone by the chimpanzee in instrumental intelligence, can nevertheless already recognize as such his own image in a mirror” (Lacan 1977). This discovery was implemented by using the child’s own vision in the mirror. This mapping indicates that the subject lacks as such. But this self-knowledge, for Lacan, is false knowledge (Lacan 1977).

The mirror stage creates the phenomenon of alienation because to know oneself through external images is possible only through alienation. Therefore, the subject has a deeply ambivalent attitude to such a reflection. The person loves the identity of the image, which the mirror offers. However, since the image is external to the child, he or she also hates this image experiencing ambivalent emotions. There is a rivalry with his or her own image because the image integrity is fraught with the threat of disintegration. For example, many children have a problem with gender identity at an early age. Boys often call themselves girls, and girls conversely think that they are boys for some reason.

It means that the mirror stage happens later, and a child does not think about his or her sex. The child does not see the reflected image, and thus there is no problem with self-identification. Gender identification occurs when parents try to explain how the child differs from others by themselves, or when the child asks about his or her own sex after the mirror stage. Lacan also supposes that the subject will hate this image to the end of life (Lacan 1977). This is similar to Goffman’s social roles that everyone should perform in all cases. Hereafter, a person always should be on the front stage, thus creating as many visible roles as would be required according to the social roles.

The acquisition of the child’s visual image is an ideal situation for studying symbolic and imaginary formations of the subject, through which he or she subsequently identifies with others and becomes self as well. The child does not only learn the way of reflection in the mirror but can also perform a series of gestures by which he or she can playfully relate to the duplicated reality, with the body, other people, or reflected objects in the mirror. This incompleteness theory is similar to Goffman’s, who also believes that the self is incomplete without society and other people.

According to Oliver (2004), it means that the self has unique characteristics and has never been the same as the subject in its genesis through the acquisition of linguistic order (4). Lacan and Goffman convince of the need to construct the self through others, but this construction is rather symbolical than real. They both believe that the self constructs itself as another person through different practices. In fact, it is not crucial whether it is a child or an adult because both of them construct the self-using imagination. Therefore, Goffman insists that this role is usually understood as a metaphor as well as Lacan’s use of the mirror. Nevertheless, in both cases, it is a person who just needs self-construction, creating and recreating his or her own identity.

Before the mirror stage, the child is going through the body not as an entity but as the autoerotic autonomy of its parts. Meeting with double mirrors causes a child delight, and the experience of “doubling reality” is designed to counteract the rampant decay of the body image. Identifying himself or herself with the way coming from the outside, the child takes the first steps to express the self. This recognition comes from the outside, and it always should come from the outside world. In this case, Gasprayan (2014) made the following commentary to Lacan’s conception: “To view oneself from outside, one should act as an external observer of himself, i.e., he can actually become a subject if he sees himself in a mirror, though in this case, we would be dealing with a deficient and fragmentary self-image” (4).

In this context, it is clear that the subject is incomplete because the mirror stage breaks the self into pieces where the outside world is the only method for future self-understanding. For Goffman, it is also important to understand that social dramaturgy becomes a necessary action of human cooperation with society. Therefore, the unity of the self will bear the imprint of the imaginary, thus supporting the individual throughout life.

Recognizing himself or herself in the other people, a person will radically alienate from the self in his or her own objectifying identification. In this case, a person completes with his or her own image, trying to understand who he or she is. As Olivier (2004) stated, the mirror stage “represents an ‘identification’ in the sense of a transformation in the subject on its ‘assumption’ of an image that seems or promises to impart to wholeness and unity, but, in fact, has the effect on it of alienation” (4). Lacan and Goffman believe that the person always deals with double images of self, starting from the bifurcation in childhood and continuing throughout life to play different roles, wearing masks as the individual self-images.

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The most important thing is that both theorists do not believe that a person can complete his or her image; so, it is a never-ending process of self-deconstruction. For Goffman (1956), this process is a hidden part of human life: “In some cases, if very little effort was actually required to complete the object, this fact will be concealed. In other cases, it will be the long, tedious hours of lonely labor that will be hidden” (28). Therefore, the human self is perceived as a fragmented reality because of the mirror stage and social interaction as well.

The mirror image of the personal body and its individual characteristics has a formative effect on the child. It not only contributes to the perception of body unity and identification with reflection but also extends the field of human cognition. At the mirror stage, the human exhibits the capacity for spatial mastery of the image, resulting in an assembly between the body and its image. Lacan identifies this order as the imaginary, the sphere of identification. As Olievier (2004) mentioned, it is “a psychical process that he initially regarded as fundamental” (3).

The mirror stage shows that the self is a product of misunderstanding, the false identification. It is at the mirror stage that the subject of alienation from himself or herself appears and the imaginary order is set. The mirror image is a transition between the visible and invisible world, “if we go by the mirror disposition that the image of one’s own body presents in hallucinations or dreams, whether it concerns its individual features” (Lacan 1977). The alienation from the self and the subject starts to create the imaginary order. The abandoned child is not able to coordinate and master the movements created in his imagination and by the holistic perception of his body. Therefore, constructing the imaginary self, the subject is moving to it all his or her life.

The identification with the image forms preconditions for the development of dialectics between the self and the other. It attributes the self with socially conditioned life situations, forming the base for the individual adaptation in the society, thus leading to paranoid alienation because of a gap between the individual and the social self. For this reason, the subject should find the other, who will be his or her reflective image. This identification is the process and the result of unconscious identification with another significant person, especially parents, group, image, or symbol. It also means to accept goals and values, social behaviors, and human qualities, which the individual threats with respect. Goffman also agrees that a person needs to find some perfect roles for his or her social adaptation, even if they conflict with his or her feelings. The most important thing in social identification is how the self will connect with others; therefore, everyone should rehearse social roles in the mirror.


Therefore, the researchers tried to understand the nature of the human self, using sociological and psychoanalytic methods in their studies. They agree that the self-process is incomplete and needs the other for his or her identification. For this social drama format, where the individual plays a role on the frontstage and backstage, Goffman offers to wear the appropriate masks. During the performance, people almost always know how they should act in public, adopting different patterns of behavior. It happens because the society itself is a theater, where all the actions happen on both micro and macro levels. For Lacan, the mirror stage is a fundamental period in human life, when the child meets his or her image.

Before that, the subject does not see himself or herself holistically, only in fragments, because the mirror stage indicates the need to collect the self. Accordingly, from this point on, the construction of identity begins at the order of the imaginary, which is also important for Goffman. However, the child does not have the power to collect himself or herself. Therefore, he or she appeals to the symbolic, constructing the self as another person. In both cases, it is important to find a balance between real expression and symbolic social expectations. The human self is basically a social construct that invented itself through the presentation to others their rules and expectations. Consequently, every person should overcome a long way to social identity, trying to understand who he or she is.

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