“When an individual plays a part he implicitly requests his observers to take seriously the impression that is fostered before them. They are asked to believe that the character they see actually possesses the attributes he appears to possess, that the task he performs will have the consequences that are implicitly claimed for it, and that, in general, matters are what they appear to be.”
– Erving Goffman, “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life” p. 26.
This blog is looking at the metaphor of role as a way of understanding career. This series as a whole is looking to interact with the metaphors discussed by Ker Inkson. Inkson says of the metaphor of role that “Careers can be construed as performances, and career self-management as a performing art… Career action is role behavior.” This metaphor of a role links with the idea of a performance of a play. In a play you have a script that is performed by actors for an audience. These ideas are central to Erving Goffman’s classic sociological work “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life.” In it Goffman highlights how our actions are social performances in which we don’t just do things for their own sake but also for the impression this action creates. Central to this is the idea of the script (what Goffman calls a “working consensus”), the idea that without actually having a formal agreement people expect various behaviors from people in various roles. Though not everyone may explicitly agree to this they still share the impression that the expectations exist and form a structure that should be adhered to.
It is easy to see how how this idea of role creates a powerful perspective on career. If we look at Goffman’s theatrical metaphor we can see a number of sub-metaphors which we will structure our discussion around; performance, script and audience.
Fundamental to the idea of a role is that you perform for an audience. This may make you feel uncomfortable that your career is not your own but it I feel it has merit for a number of reasons. Firstly for nearly all people our employment depends on pleasing someone. In conventional employment we get jobs because of the performance we produce in interview and progress in them (or simply don’t loose them) because of ability to keep on performing. This is no objective force governing employment, people have the power. People hire, fire and promote and so we most perform to someone. Secondly we use our careers as social capital in our everyday relationships. We take on the role of the doctor to please our proud parents, we go for that promotion at work to keep up with our school friends etc. Looking at it like this our whole career is a performance to please people, we perform in front of an audience.
If audiences are there then they have expectations of what they are going to see. Though not many people sit through Hamlet with a torch and The Complete Works of Shakespeare we still have expectations of the play we are about to see. The problem though in real life is that these scripts vary in how explicit they are. This is Goffman’s “working consensus” everyone knows what the performance should be without formally agreeing it or making their expectations known. Job specs, duty lists and annual appraisals may provide formal scripts but what our boss, our family and friends have in mind for a “good career” is not always made so explicit. This also opens up the chance of multiple competing scripts. The parents who just want their child to be happy versus the form teacher who wants the pupil to reach their potential. Part of the difficulty is knowing what the scripts are. Their seems enough confusion around “what recruiters really want” on CVs/ application forms/ at interview etc. never mind the less explicit scripts we may face. What this points towards is how living well starts with understanding this tangled web.
What I like about the role metaphor is it brings together social forces and personal agency. We are not forced into the action we take but we respond to others in the form of a performance. Therefore a better managed or maintained career is achieved through better performances. This does raise two problems though. Firstly we need to ask who is the driving force behind our careers? There is a difference between aiming to please someone for our own ends (such as a boss we’re trying to get a promotion from) to performing to keep someone happy because we fear them or feel tied to their approval. Secondly Goffman raises an important point about how we feel about our performances. If we feel we start performing a role we don’t associated with or don’t like we may find ourselves increasingly alienated from our performance while our real identity is left hidden “backstage”. Goffman implies that we are in fact audiences to our own performances as we reflect on our actions. There is a need for us to produce something authentic. In a way you could say we have our own script for our performance and a desire that our action matches it.
The role metaphor firstly allows us to discover what is going on in our careers. Discovering what scripts we play allows us to understand the nature of our career and how we got there. Do we play the role of the obedient son? The daughter who followed in her mothers footsteps? The students who rejects the straight life of their parents as they are accepted by their peers? These are all scripts that we follow. There is nothing wrong per se with following a script we just need to recognise that it is happening. The other question is what scripts do we want to read? Realising that we often move in our careers through performing to others helps us understand how we transition. This allows us to build transition skills by focusing on who we are performing for and what their expectations are and so to build better performances in light of this.