When he was teaching at the University of Chicago, Erving Goffman was known for his strange techniques of observing social interactions. He would schedule a class to meet outside on a warm day, and then not show up himself, instead observing how the students handled the situation through binoculars from a distant window. As a sociologist, Goffman relied more on ethnographic study and observation, instead of statistical data gathering. He did his early work on one of the smaller Shetland Islands; much of his work here ended up in The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life (1956).
The book was a tour-de-force when it was first released in the late 50s and it's merits have only increased with time. At times it feels very contemporary, if only because writers like Judith Butler have cribbed so extensively from Goffman. Butler's "performativity" is no different from Goffman's "performance"- both describe social presentation as basically dramaturgical. But, Goffman was there first.
In the study, Goffman deals with all Anglo-American social interactions as essentially theatrical. They all take place within a "social establishment", which Goffman defines as "a place surrounded by fixed barriers to perception in which a kind of activity takes place." Within these establishments, members of a team work to present a certain impression of reality to an "audience". This is a risky business and "the impression of reality fostered by a performance is a delicate, fragile thing that can be shattered by very minor mishaps." (156) Goffman's "dramaturgical" approach tends to focus on "impression management" and how it is maintained.
Various kinds of "communication out of character" are also considered, but interestingly enough, it seems that these exceptions prove the rule as they generally cannot occur within certain social establishments. For instance, team members may denigrate absent audience members when "backstage", but never on stage.
What is fascinating about the study is how it can be applied to most social situations. Clearly, these terms apply to work environments, but they also work in analyzing school situations, family structures, and even casual "hanging out". Groups are united in a common fiction as much as in any common goals or beliefs. In fact, the fiction could be considered a goal in itself. The study alters the way we understand the fictions in which we live. I would have liked Goffman to study how a person can maintain several different performances in their everyday life. Also, one could ask if anything social is "real" in a sense, or if performance can ever be naturalized. But, these are the questions that should be raised by a sociological study.
Certainly, we have all observed strange social situations as a visitor or while on vacation and felt that they seemed staged. Goffman argues that we were right all along, but didn't know how right we were.