Standing on the outside, it's tempting to invent stories about the people inside. Photo: Su Leslie, 2013

On the outside looking in on those inside looking out. Photo: Su Leslie, 2013

The notion of ‘inside’ connotes not only physical space, but a whole social and psychological landscape.

To be inside can mean to be safe, to be part of a group, to share in privilege – or even to be locked up in prison.

Inside and outside become dichotomous states, or perhaps poles of a continuum.

The sociologist Erving Goffman used the metaphor of theatre to understand how we humans, as social beings, construct ourselves for different audiences. He suggested that – depending on circumstance and audience – we have ‘front of house’ selves and ‘backstage’ selves. The further inside the theatre of our lives we allow people the more of our backstage selves is revealed to them.

Those on the outside are witness to our most managed performances, while those we permit inside the workings of our theatre witness the make-up and costumes, the props, backdrops, wings and general chaos of the performer’s work.

Waiting for the curtain to rise on a family wedding. A performance for which expectations are known - yet the potential for slippage is great. Photo: Tony Gray, 2006.

Waiting for the curtain to rise on a family wedding. Inside the family circle, yet giving a performance involving an ensemble cast drawn from all parts of the bride and groom’s lives. The potential for slippage is great. Photo: Tony Gray, 2006.

In The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1990, Penguin Books) Goffman says

Very commonly the back region of a performance is located at one end of the place where the performance is presented … In general the back region will be the place where the performer can reliably expect that no member of the audience will intrude. (pp.115-116)

I think private homes are a really interesting instance of the inside-outside continuum. We invite people inside our house, but there is (at least in my social circles) an implicit agreement that some parts of a home are ‘public’ spaces for the duration of the invitation, whilst others are private. Even within this interior space we construct ‘inside’ and ‘outside’.

The stairs in my house mark the boundary between "inside" my private sphere and "outside." Visitors don't go upstairs unless invited - and invitations have been rare. Photo: Su Leslie 2011.

The stairs in my house mark the boundary between inside my private sphere and the space that lies outside. Visitors don’t go upstairs unless invited – and invitations have been rare. Photo: Su Leslie 2011.

My partner and I have  lived in our house for 14 years, and couldn’t count how many people we have invited in during that time. I do know, though, how many have been upstairs. Up the stairs in our home is our bedroom, en suite and my office. It is private space. It’s not that it’s messy – we make the bed and don’t leave our laundry strewn over the floor. It is actually quite a beautiful, tranquil space – but it is ours. It lies inside the sphere in which we live out our most private, spontaneous and unguarded life – the area of love and trust and intimacy.

This week’s Daily Post Photo Challenge is “Inside.” You can find out more about it here. And here are some other posts on the theme that I enjoyed:

weekly photo challenge: inside

Weekly Photo Challenge: Inside

Weekly Photo Challenge: Inside

Weekly Photo Challenge: Inside


Inside #2: on the constuction of social space

20 thoughts on “Inside #2: on the constuction of social space

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  3. Nice piece, Su, working with Goffman’s metaphor. Trying to figure where our redwood deck out front fits, an in-between stage where some people are held at bay and also the place where we plan our ranch work, share intimacies and create.


    • Hi John. Thanks. It’s fun to think about how different parts of the house “fit” into different performances. I love the idea of you guys sitting outside working, and being able to see people approach. It is a transition – like warming up for the performance.

      We have only a small deck at the front of the house, which is fairly close to the street. It’s definitely only used for holding people at bay. Our main deck – with the bbq and chairs and stuff – is around the side and has big doors. Sometimes when I open those, I feel like I’m parting the curtains on a stage. My son sometimes takes his guitar out there and plays.

      What got me thinking about all this was a visitor who arrived recently – someone I didn’t know but is a friend-of-a-friend. She kind of walked past my son at the front door, up our stairs and into my bedroom. It was such a weird moment. Even my really close friends don’t do that (I’m a really private person), and I felt kind of violated. But apart from all that; I love Goffman. I used to think he was the most fun sociologist I studied!


      • Metaphors are fun way to deal with the real stuff, but sometimes hard to find a good one. And sometimes friends-of-friends are just plain numb, though hard to imagine quite that numb.


      • Hehe Meghan. That’s a cool idea. I used to tutor a Sociology class and one of the things we did for “fieldwork” was figure out what behaviours would be considered slightly inappropriate (but hopefully not offensive) and go out round campus to test our hypotheses. That could be hilarious.


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  7. This is an absolutely wonderful post. I’d never heard of the metaphor of the theatre representing our relationships with our ‘audience’. I’ll have to read some of Goffman’s work. I do know that when I go out of the house (except just to work out), I always put on my ‘face’ as in a little bit of makeup. Part of the ritual of turning my social self on. As for the inside of our home… even Tim’s sons are respectful of coming into our bedroom suite. It is clear that it is our very personal space.


    • Thanks Meghan. Putting on our ‘face’ is a really important part of our presentation of self. I’m very conscious of my social and personal selves and I think that was probably part of my distress at the bedroom intrusion – I was in the warm-up stage of getting ready to go on “stage” with someone I’d never met before and it was interrupted suddenly. And that’s quite apart from the fact that bedrooms are usually seen in our society as personal space – even my mother doesn’t go into my room.

      Goffman was quite brilliant I think. He did lots of field work in places like hospitals and hotels – places where roles were constantly being made and remade – and in subcultures where roles are less clear and constantly being remade. As you can tell -I’m a fan!


      • That’s an interesting thought… hospitals. The two times I was hospitalized last year (for a week each time) I was not only not my social self, but was adrift from my personal self as well (or perhaps at the most intimate part of it?) it was very disconcerting.


      • Wow! I hadn’t thought about that, but of course you’re right. Being in hospital puts us in a situation we haven’t rehearsed for and don’t know how to play. On top of that we’re (by definition) unwell and unable to “play” much of a part. 🙂


      • Funny you mentioned rehearsed. My first visit was an emergency appendectomy and I got to know the hospital and staff pretty well (I clutched a lovely white stuffed cat my hubby had brought me all the time for comfort). So I felt much better when I was in the same hospital for my hip replacement surgery (planned) 2 months later. I brought the same kitty and many of the staff remembered me. It was much easier!


      • Ouch! Two hospital stays in a few months. Great observation though; we learn roles through familiarity. I wonder how much impact TV hospital dramas – or reality TV!! have (unconsciously) on our expectations of hospitals. An aside almost; I was listening to a podcast about some research into hairdressers and their relationship with clients. It was about how people working in personal service jobs walk a kind of performance tightrope. They are doing quite intimate stuff, but in a professional capacity (like nurses). There is huge potential for “slippage” between the role of professional and confidant, etc. Apparently sometimes people think of their hairdresser as a friend, and then there are problems around both the nature of the “friendship” and if something goes wrong in the performance of the service (bad haircut). Fascinating stuff; I’m glad you’re interested in it too. 🙂


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