When foreigners think of America, they think of McDonald?s, the Statue of Liberty, Hollywood film stars, and the list goes on. In terms of Americans, people associate Texans with cowboy boats, Californians with surfboards, and New Yorkers with a snobbish grin on their face. It is true that all these things represent America in one way or another, but what exactly is American identity? Erikson?s analysis on American identity has drawn attention to four topics: Mom, adolescent, boss, and machine. He links all four topics together by using the myth of John Henry Hero. Goffman, on the other hand, develops dramaturgical analysis to understand human behaviors. He sees men as actors with different roles and these actors have to perform to different audiences. Even though Erikson?s approach and Goffman?s approach to understanding human identity are very different, both of them consider American identity changes over time because of the change in environment.
John Henry Hero is a representation of cowboys. Cowboy is a unique product form American culture. When people think about cowboys, they think of a carefree, independent white male, just like the ones on Marlboro advertisements. The birth and death of John Henry, as Erikson analyzes, gives two fundamental factors of American identity at the cowboy period: abandonment of and by parents, and rejections to intimate feelings.
Abandonment comes from Momism. A Mom is ?a certain dangerous type of mother? (Erikson, P.289) that creates a mental or physical barrier for her children to live with. Erikson gives several examples on how parents can let their children down based on the John Henry myth. First, there are the expectations that parents want their children to achieve. In John Henry?s case, his parents have thought of all jobs possible for him to do when he grew up. However, children, almost never, want to be what their parents want them to be; or as Erikson said ?he (John Henry) will not commit himself to any identity as predetermined by the stigmata of birth? (Erikson, P.298). Second, parents do not satisfy everything the child demands, and the child feels neglected and grows distant from his parents. John Henry left his parents because his parents fed the dogs before they fed him. Third, he left because he was sure that he could take care of himself. John Henry took into his grave believing that ?a man counts only as a man? (Erikson, P. 299). Hence, in another point of view, he abandoned his parents just as Erikson says, ?it was the child who abandoned the mother, because he had been in such a hurry to become independent? (Erikson, P.296).
This abandonment also lead to another factor ? rejections to intimate feelings. Erikson finds ?not only the sorrow of having been abandoned but also the fear of committing to deep emotions? (Erikson, P.301) in cowboys because there is a mental barrier in knowing that they have abandoned their mothers and have been abandoned by her. Cowboys, thus, are usually rather lonely people. Their job will not let them see their family nor their friends very often. They are the ?man without roots, the motherless man, the womenless man? (Erikson, P.299). The nonsense folk songs offer a funny yet sarcastic view of cowboys? life ? they are not bounded by relationships because they are not allowed to do so. This lifestyle, therefore, ?express a deliberate and stubborn paradox, a denial of trust in love, a denial of a need for trust. It thus becomes a more intimate declaration of independence? (Erikson, P.304). Since they view the rest of the world as a totally isolated entity from them, their love for the country is rather bitter as compared to in other countries.
What if John Henry Hero is put in another set of environment, such as, the modern business world? In this new environment he can no longer just run away from home. The turning point of his life will change from the infant stage to the adolescence stage. In America, typically there will be a standardized role forced on adolescents, namely students. Erikson thinks that the ?danger of this stage is role diffusion? (Erikson, P.307). Young people, unaware of their roles, may run away from school or work. American families are usually rather democratic that children are given certain rights and they will learn about responsibilities. However, even though there might be less ?Moms? in the society, social structure is more complex than before since there are the church and politics involved. Thus, in Erikson?s analysis, John Henry, growing up in such community, ?will never be a true individualist? (Erikson, P.320).
Other factors that will change John Henry?s identity, and American identity in general, are ?Bosses? and ?machines?. Bosses are the ones who stay within the law yet invade the space of other?s ? basically, they are autocrats. Machines, on the other hand, ?convert him into a consumer idiot, a fun egotist, and an efficiency slave? (Erikson, P.323). This is why Erikson concludes that American youth, including our ?transformed? John Henry, can only be fully aware of their identity if they know the autocratic trend and not be uniformed because of the society?s increasing automation.
Goffman?s dramaturgical approach to understanding human relations is very different from Erikson?s approach since Goffman concerns himself with the mode of presentation employed by the actor and its meaning in the broader social context. Interaction is viewed as a “performance,” shaped by environment and audience, constructed to provide others with “impressions” that are consonant with the desired goals of the actor (Goffman, P.17). The performance exists regardless of the mental state of the individual, as impression is often imputed to the individual in spite of his lack of faith in, or even ignorance of, the performance. In this way, the individual develops identity or impression as a function of interaction with others, through an exchange of information that allows for more specific definitions of identity and behavior.
The process of establishing social identity, then, becomes closely allied to the concept of the front, which is described as “that part of the individual’s performance which regularly functions in a general and fixed fashion to define the situation for those who observe the performance” (Goffman, P.22). The front acts as the a vehicle of standardization, allowing for others to understand the individual on the basis of projected character traits that have normative meanings. As a “collective representation,” the front establishes proper “setting,” “appearance,” and “manner” for the social role assumed by the actor, uniting interactive behavior with the personal front (Goffman, P.27). The actor, in order to present a compelling front, is forced to both fill the duties of the social role and communicate the activities and characteristics of the role to other people in a consistent manner.
This process is predicated upon the activities of “impression management” (Goffman, P.208), the control and communication of information through the performance. In constructing a front, information about the actor is given off through a variety of communicative sources, all of which must be controlled to effectively convince the audience of the appropriateness of behavior with the role assumed. Believability, as a result, is constructed in terms of verbal signification, which is used by the actor to establish intent, and non-verbal signification, which is used by the audience to verify the honesty of statements made by the individual. Attempts are made to present an “idealized view of the situation” (Goffman, P.35). Information dealing with performer?s secrets is concealed from the audience.
Goffman also notes that a group of people with a common goal, of whom he calls ?teams,? will cooperate in order to achieve a team performance. In fact, this is the most common case in real life; for example, when students try to cheat in a test, they tend to conceal for, or even help, each other and pretend they are doing the test normally. Men all concern their appearances on stage, share staging problems in terms of both an individual and a team performance, feel shame when there is a bad performance, and are secretive about their backstage towards the audience. As Goffman says, ?these are some of the dramaturgical elements of the human situation? (Goffman, P. 237).
Despite the differences in Erikson?s approach and Goffman?s approach to understanding human identity, and American identity in particular, they both agree that the change in identity is closely related to the change of social settings, that is, the environment. Erikson uses the John Henry Hero myth to demonstrate how American identity changes from the cowboy period to the modern business scene. He concludes that John Henry?s fate will be different if Momism is not only forced on the child but the entire family, namely asserted by the church and politics instead. Also, role diffusion in the adolescent and the increase in automation and autocrats in the society contributes significantly to the change in social surroundings, which results in the transformation of identity. Goffman employs the dramaturgical approach and describes how an individual, in different ?stages,? will have to perform according to a script for his social role and try to convince his audience about his role. Goffman notes that there are times where individuals will have to work together as teams in order to convince the same audience. Nonetheless, these teams change as the stage changes. Therefore, as a conclusion, American identity changes through time as the environment changes ? foreigners may very likely to think of America based on the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal instead of the Statue of Liberty!