All the World’s a Stage: Researchers and Participants are Merely Players

By Dr. John Whittle, Further, London, England, john@dubishere.com

“All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players”

(Shakespeare, As You Like It, Act 2, Scene 4)

Have you ever thought that you aren’t seeing “all” of someone, even if you’ve known that person for your whole life? Have you been shocked to discover a totally new side to a long-standing friend, partner, or relative, brought about by the arrival of a new person or situation? If you have, and I’d be surprised if you haven’t, don’t be alarmed. In every social interaction, you are only seeing a single side to someone; a performance, as it were, driven by context, relationships, cultural norms and the intentions of the “actors” involved.

This can prompt us to ask whether we can really identify how someone feels when they are only giving us their best “performance.” What hope is there for research and contextual exploration when any answer that we gather, regardless of method, is only going to be a single slice of a person’s whole identity?

Before there is a great gnashing of teeth, the answer to these questions is (thankfully) yes, and yes there’s hope. We can better contextualise participant behaviour by reframing our interpretation of what an individual identity is and by exploring how people perform varying roles amidst a host of personal, group, and societal pressures. Using specific identity frameworks, we can simultaneously understand how participants have been affected by the research process (and researcher) and use this knowledge to reconsider how we can construct the right “stage” for various performances. This can lead to producing better quality research, and thus better-quality findings. No mean feat; however, to do this, we need to turn to works of old.

Adopting and Hiding Identity Roles

For academics like Erving Goffman, author of the ground-breaking The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959), Shakespeare’s quote at the start of this article was more than a pithy comment. It was the insight that led him to develop an innovative framework for studying human behaviour, known as the dramaturgical approach. His work approaches social life (including research encounters) as an ongoing piece of theatre, in which individuals perform roles and present themselves to an audience. To Goffman, every identity is fluid—able to alter shape and purpose depending upon the requirements of the moment, and the skill of the individual. Just as actors can affect multiple roles within a play, so too can we adopt multiple identities.

For example, in a focus group or online community exploring parenthood, participants might want to appear to be responsible parents to both the researcher and the assembled group. By successfully displaying behaviours which match with widely held notions about how responsible parents act, others might indeed consider them to be that person. However, in a different setting, say surrounded by friends on a night out, the same participant might want to instead appear to be relaxed, easy-going and open to less responsible experiences. Although the identities on display are very different, they are still part of the same person. In each instance, the participant has sought to express, or play, another side of their total identity, motivated by a desire to be seen by others in a specific way; fun and outgoing with friends or mature and responsible with other parents.

In each of these settings, the other actors (i.e. the parents or friends) will normally perform their identities in
a way that maintains the cohesive structure of the interaction. In other words, every individual will perform their best face while actively accepting and working with the other performers on how to ensure that the social dialogue progresses smoothly. Preventing interaction breakdowns, which can occur when a role is openly discredited, and accepting the identity expressions of others regardless of whether you agree with their act, is a key unspoken social rule that guides most of our social interactions.

Masking Identity Flaws and Unmasking Context

Actors will attempt (during any role) to mask inconsistencies which might present opportunities for their performances to be discredited. This can involve hiding contradictory information and behaviours. A parent who wishes to appear proficient in their guardianship might want to include, as part of their group performance, the notion of being caring and attentive to their children. This could involve ensuring that they always provide a healthy and nutritious lunch. When the discussion turns to the subject of packed meals, a parent wishing to be perceived as health conscientious may avoid disclosing the multitude of chocolate bars they hastily stuff into their child’s lunch. If the group includes the children (a daunting prospect!) and a parent’s daughter tries to reveal how many candy bars she eats at lunch, the parent—in order to salvage her role as the good parent—might shush her child or otherwise discredit her child’s role. In my experience, many breaches in the portrayal of a good parental role can come unwittingly delivered from the mouth of a child seeking to deliver their own helpful, honest performance.

While this might seem like a trivial example, our construction and deployment of roles affect how we structure our habits and interactions. We wear suits to interviews in order to appear respectable and professional. We say “please” and “thank you” because we want to show that we are thoughtful and civilized. Understanding why we use different roles in different situations, and why the characteristics associated with each role are (or are not) acceptable in that context, is the challenge at the heart of the vast majority of any research project.

To Be True, or not to Be True, That Is the Question…

Of course, with such a wide range of potential performances available, it can be tempting to frame a participant’s response in terms of true or false. In the example above, a parent has been waxing lyrically about their nutritionally balanced lunch routines, while at the same time concealing a daily chocolate shipment. At face value (excuse the pun),  they have distorted the integrity of their response. However, rather than see their contribution as useless or invalid, we should seek to explore why they felt the need to hide one part of their identity and assume another. Goffman helps us to do this, and distinguish between differing identity states, by drawing upon the concept of the front stage, where the performance takes place, and backstage, where actors can relax and prepare for their role away from the audience’s gaze. The focus group in this instance will be the front stage, where the social objective is to appear as the consummate parent and avoid anything that might suggest otherwise. The back stage is where this identity objective is different, or where other elements which do not wholly contribute to the front stage creation are allowed to appear. These terms provide a contextual relevance for each performance, with Goffman keen to point out that the backstage of one role might be the front stage of another.

This means that rather than seeing one identity as valid and the other invalid, we should frame these performances and place them upon a continuum that runs from private to public. Through attempting to elicit as many versions of an identity as possible upon this spectrum, we are then able to gather a more complete sense of who someone is, what they do, and why, across a broader range of contexts. When we apply this identity framework to our research practices, every interaction and scrap of data that we gather is a vital piece of a larger picture; the trick is learning to see the fragments of each performance and its contextual relevance as well as the whole image.

Identity Tools for the Researcher

This may sound like a daunting task; however, there are several tools that researchers can use to help incorporate this identity framework.


When planning and structuring your research, ask yourself: What combination of research methods can I use (or what different situations can I create) which will capture the various versions of an identity performed by participants that are relevant to the brief? This will allow you to look at behaviours from different angles and in different contexts, and unearth answers which might have otherwise been unobtainable.

For example, you might want to combine unobtrusive approaches to capture behaviour that is unaffected by your presence in the situation (like ethnography or social media listening) with more reactive methods (like face-to-face interviews or focus groups). You may mix methods that allow in-the-moment data collection with more reflexive methods (like online communities). You might use more longitudinal methods to capture how performances change over time and across situations. You could combine individual and group-based methods, in the full awareness that other participants in a group situation actually shape everyone’s contributions. Importantly, we have to also reconsider that such identity decisions are conscious or rational. The roles that are enacted by the individual are just as much a combination of past experiences, social pressures and cultural inclinations which combine to produce instant and unthinking responses. Thus projective techniques, alongside rationalized responses and recalled tasks, will help uncover conscious and subconscious role choices. Offering multiple and different opportunities for individuals to express themselves will yield a far greater range and quality of identity performances.

Participant Comfort

While triangulation is excellent for creating varied spaces for identity expression, it is important to ensure that your participants also feel comfortable sharing alternate versions of themselves. Demonstrating a non-judgmental and empathic approach when interacting with individuals will encourage them to share sides of themselves which might consciously oppose information they have shared elsewhere. When interviewing the parent from the focus group and revisiting the discussion surrounding their lunchtime habits, once you have established their actual behaviour (uncovered through your triangulation of social and private methods), it would be ill-advised to challenge the response they provided when surrounded by their parental peers. To help generate a more intimate conversation, tactfully acknowledge that they might have felt inclined to offer an answer that differed from their typical behaviour and show that you understand the pressures and nuances of the situation. You might then examine why each performance was used, and the norms surrounding each role.

Consider Your Role

Mastering the ability to explore identity roles, without coming across as abrasive or interrogative, takes practice. However, as stated at the start of this article, no one is exempt from hiding or showing very different sides of their identity, including you as a researcher. Accepting that we all adapt to social pressures and adopt differing roles, without attempting to hold each other to a singular fixed identity, will help you better understand the motivations of your participants. When designing your research, take some time to reflect on how you might respond to your tasks and activities as if you were the participant. Consider the social pressures and values that they might be subject to, how this might shift depending upon their situation or environment, and how the methods at your disposal can reveal or accommodate these roles. Ultimately, simply being aware of and sympathetic to the fluidity of an identity under pressure and openly discussing this, without challenge, will often yield incredible results.

Charity and Identity

This identity framework played a key part in a recent project which explored the modern UK family and their relationship towards charitable giving. The examples threaded throughout this article are not arbitrary, but genuine cases of how understanding identity and using multiple methods allowed us to connect deeply with parents and explore very private behaviours and habits. By structuring the project in a number of stages, we were able to first investigate the current state of families across the UK, including the challenges they face and the values that they hold dear, before diving into a more granular exploration of how these factors affect their relationship with charities, and specifically, their opinion of the charity which had commissioned the work.

Building close relationships with the participants across varied methods and contexts allowed the research team to unearth a multitude of roles which were vital in identifying how the client needed to adapt their fundraising approach. At the start of the study, during a social discussion, families responded positively about engaging with charities while managing the pressures of a modern family. However, during later phases (and after the research team had bonded with the participants) they were more open about the everyday issues which affected their time, motivation and capacity to give. Exploring the differences between these responses and why they had been performed enabled us to identify the real issues that each family encountered and provide our client with the actionable insights they needed to successfully execute their new fundraising schemes and provide compelling value to families. Had we not used this identity framework, gathering these personal insights, connecting with our participant group, and understanding the varied answers we were receiving would have been far more challenging and time consuming.

Curtain Call

Using the lens of the dramaturgical approach when exploring social life will allow you to evaluate data more critically. It can highlight key areas to explore, suggest new questions and even reframe data that might initially seem irrelevant—all through understanding that every role is part of an important and interconnected personal production. Next time you create your research script, take a moment to familiarise yourself with the roles that you and your actors might play and begin to read between the lines.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply