Question of agency: Interactionism, Structuralism and Male gaze

Introduction: Contributing to the debate of structure and agency, Erving Goffman and Talcott Parsons differentiates in their perspectives but their theories do not necessarily run parallel or opposite to each other, instead there are points of confluence. I would also argue that reading their work side by side enables one to understand more comprehensively the nature of the relationship between social structure and individual agency. In my understanding, Parsons is dealing with the decisive and motivating aspect of this relationship while Goffman is involved with the performative and reflective aspect. And rather than just  focusing  on the debate of structure vs agency, their theories aid in a comprehensive understanding of the interconnection between both. In their own ways, Parsons and Goffman, both are providing theoretical understanding of interactions, breaking the commonsensical notion of social life. The former is analyzing from a macro perspective and is concerned with cultural patterns, while the latter is using a micro perspective and is interpreting social behavior.

While engaging with these theories, I would also try to show that dialogue between different perspectives is essential for not only understanding but also to facilitate the  further development towards solutions to social as well as individual problems.

Parsons’ ‘Motivation’ vs Goffman’s ‘Interpretation’ and their conception of ‘self’

The base of debate between Talcott Parsons and Erving Goffman can be understood in terms of their theoretical position of the concept ‘Action.’ For Parsons, an influential structural functionalist, action is motivated by an ‘end’ or a purpose. For Goffman, a key figure in the study of symbolic interactionism, action is oriented by ‘interpretations.’

Parsons is making sense of the bridge between actor and action through ‘motivation.’ He is focusing on the meaning attached by the actor with their action in the influence of social ‘situations’, while Goffman is concerned with the making of this meaning on an individual level. And notably the concluding point for their actors is achieving an end.

Play of self and society

Goffman’s focus is between the relationship of  ‘performer’ and ‘audience.’ Goffman’s ‘self’ is who performs the character/s based on the understanding of interpretation done by the audience of character (as a theater performer understands the audience’s reviews/ remarks for character in order to perform the character better to attract more audience and gain in terms of artistic exposure or material means). Here, the audience is other participants in the social interaction whose gestures, expressions and actions acts as a reflection for the performing self. And the self makes changes to the character according to their own understanding of these reflections, and the self would do that to ‘fabricate an impression’ they would like to have on other people (and character changes with change in social settings, thus self is consistent but the character is not) (Goffman,1956).

Goffman is more concerned about the impression rather than the action, as action is part of the presentation which is done in order to create a desirable impression. The same can be understood in the sense that the question is not about becoming moral but how to appear moral, to have the benefits which comes from accepted and appreciated morality.

For example, the aim of a student is not to write a good essay alone, or just wanting to write a good essay in order to be intelligent but to write an essay which appears good to teacher and teacher’s evaluation suggests the intelligence level of student which would reflect in grades and thus a student use their essay to make an impression of intelligence which would benefit in terms of good result, appreciation and admission at desired level. Another example can be ‘work behavior’ which is typically performed in the places of employment and is more formal than other types of interactions. The environment of workplace and responsive behavior of colleagues and employers determines the nature or way of behaving of an employee. ‘Startups are often young, innovative, collaborative, and focused on growth, while corporations are often established, slow-moving, hierarchical, and focused on productivity.’[1] Thus, an employee might feel more free and confident in expressing their creative vision and newer ideas in a startup environment while in a big company, exhibit a task and goal oriented approach specifically designated to them.

Thus, Goffman is denoting the relation between self and society through performance of character/is influenced by social interactions and this is a continuous process. And after a point, the characters and self merged and thus an individual is known by their social personality, values and abilities as these are the attributes of the characters performed by the self, and in this continuous process, the actor becomes the character/s (Goffman, 1956).

For Parsons, interaction imposes conditions on participating actors (with respect to ‘cultural patterns’ and ‘social system’) and the interaction consists of ‘expectations’ and ‘evaluations’ (Parsons,1951).

Parsons is depicting the frame of action in terms of situation, which includes conditions of actions which an actor cannot control and others which they can and use as ‘means.’ Parsons depicts ‘Personality as a  system’ with a ‘psychological base’ whose formation is influenced by social situations and internalization of these as values and ideas along the way of socialization.

It is in this sense that he is analyzing alternatives presented to an actor for carrying out an action. Parsons is concerned with the choice of alternatives and factors affecting these choices and the decision of the actor.

Considering the example of Indian and American culture of addressing elders. In India it is seen as disrespectful to call an elder by name; even with strangers, a respectful relation has to be established, such as Uncle, Aunty, Didi or Bhaiya etc. While in Western culture, it is perfectly normal to call an elder (who may or may not be directly related to the person) by name. So there is internalization of values and expectation of action is different with respect to culture.

Another example (at macro level) can be Fair and Lovely changing its name to Glow and Lovely. This change can be attributed to the ‘woke culture,’ with waves of feminism and body positivity spreading across the world aided by social media and the global scale criticism of fairness creams. The company evaluated the impact of the consumer community criticizing the brand, analyzing their expectations and decided to change the brand marketing in order to retain the customers.

Thus, the structure is not catering to its constitutive entities but the entities are modifying itself to cater to the larger structure (The brand to be understood as a member of the consumer market).

Essentially, Parsons is most interested in this play of motivation towards deciding the course of an action from the ‘normative alternatives,’ considering how the end will be ‘achieved.’

Also importantly, he differentiates the actor’s ‘self’ from the body and states that the actor’s body is also a part of the ‘situation of action,’ a means which the actor can control.

It is here that Parsons and Goffman confluence as later suggests that the self presents a character through body (gestures, expressions etc.). After this, Parsons and Goffman diverge as the former places ‘self’ in the frame of social action influenced by ‘social structures and culture patterns,’ while the latter studies the self at the level of individual interactions to understand social behavior of actors.

The question of agency

In my analysis, while Goffman is going back and forth between self and society as performer and audience, Parsons is understanding ‘self’ acting in between the confluence of larger social interactions within the frame of cultural patterns. He states that social action is what one does in the capacity of being a member of the social system. Here, the agency is with the system while for Goffman, agency is moving between individual and society, in the sense that the actor is handing agency to the audience (in a reflective sense) during the interaction and then taking the agency back while understanding their interpretation and evolving character in order to create a desired impression which then produce desired outcome.

Male Gaze,[2] and Self-identity of women

“Men act and women appear.

Men look at women.

Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object- and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.”

-John Berger, “Ways of Seeing.” 1977

In an attempt to understand male gaze and its effects on females’[3] self identity, structure vs agency debate is a tool to aid in not only understanding the social structure of patriarchy which forms the foundation of male gaze but also the social interactions happening within this framework.

Female bodies are seen as objects of desire, which are meant for pleasure and stripped off their identity as humans. This is evident through cinema, where while a male actor gets to act as a protagonist with storyline and a climax to be ‘hero,’ female actors are used for sex appeal (engaged in a seductive act wearing revealing clothes).

Parsons theory would suggest that it is in systematic fabrication of cultural norms which gives rise to differentiated ideas of masculinity and femininity. And through socialization in a heteronormative patriarchal society, actors (males as well as females) internalize these values and act accordingly. It is therefore that (appreciated) expressions of femininity are catered to male gaze, becoming more aggressive with social media platforms in modern society .[4]

(The dominant-submissive power dynamic is so strongly internalized in sexual relations that same dynamic can be witnessed among same-sex relationships.)

Understanding the same through Goffman’s lens, we have to look from the point of view of an actor, such characters arise when actors based their identity on the perception of others validation. While engaging in social interactions, women realize what is appreciated and expected and what kind of presentation would benefit them in terms of social validation, social relationships and material gain. Relation between Male gaze and sexual expression of femininity can also be understood through the concept of Scopophilia.[5]

Female actors losing or gaining weight to attain a professional figure,  doing sexually objectifying scenes and dance (item) numbers to cater to dominant male gaze and   appropriate their bodies according to demands of the entertainment market, is one of many examples where male gaze plays an important role in deciding the way female view themselves and the nature of interaction with society.

But several questions arise from this particular discussion,

where is the freedom of one’s own expression in all these? Is female vanity all about male attention and nothing more? Is dressing up to feel good and confident as a woman is internalization of male gaze? Then what about a woman’s freedom in making choices for her own body? Till what limit, social structures affect self identities?

It is here that complexity occurs between individual agency and internalized ideas.

In an exploration to have an answer against male gaze, feminists use the concept of female gaze to portray women’s agency over their bodies and how a female gaze is more comfortable and free in its expression. And also to highlight that problematic male gaze affects men as much as women in terms of identity, where men are expected to be muscular, strong, aggressive and bold.

‘The female gaze looks to evoke emotions and feelings, focusing on touch, interactions, and atmosphere instead of action and just sexuality. The female gaze looks to balance the man and the woman, making them equals in all areas.’ [6]

  • Daila Ayala

The following picture depicts the difference between male gaze and female gaze.

Interactionism, Structuralism and Male gaze Introduction

    Source: Pinterest (

But the question arises: Is female gaze an answer to the question of structure vs agency in the scenario of dominant heteronormative male gaze?


(With reference to above question) I would like to answer this question in the understanding that the effect of social structure and cultural patterns over individual agency is inevitable (as we all are products of our socialization) but this does not mean that individual agency is a myth. But through the concept of female gaze, it can be understood that social structures which facilitate expression of individual agency are better alternatives to a system built on unjust power dynamics.

Thus, what I want to put forth as an ideal situation is: The structure should facilitate individual agency rather than putting limitations to it. It is equally important to not confuse freedom with self indulgence. This can be achieved by working towards a spectrum of society, interests and interactions.

For instance, allowing and accepting sexualities and genders of different kinds to coexist rather than forceful confirmation to binaries. It makes the social structure more equitable.

It is crucial to note that a debate between different perspectives is important to not only have a discussion but to also put forth the direction in which work should be done (for betterment of society and self  and especially for the interaction of both). For I believe, sociology can not only provide answers to social curiosity but can also show the direction of moving forward.


  1. Goffman, Erving. “Performances.” Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. University of Edinburgh, Social Sciences Research Centre, 1956, pp. 10-46.
  2. Parsons, Talcott, and Edward Shils. “Some Fundamental Categories of the Theory of Action: A General Statement .” Towards a General Theory of Action, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1951, pp. 3–27.
  3. Parsons, Talcott. “The Theory of Action.” The Structure of Social Action, 2nd ed., Free Press, New York, 1968, pp. 43–51.
  4. Oliver, Kelly. “The Male Gaze Is More Relevant, and More Dangerous, than Ever.” New Review of Film and Television Studies, vol. 15, no. 4, 2017, pp. 451–455,


[2] Coined by Laura Mulvey in 1975 refers to the way women are portrayed in media and literature through the eyes of straight men as an object of desire rather than a full human being.

[3] Female and women are used interchangeably here to include both the sex and gender identities as being subjected to male gaze.

[4] Women judge their appearance based on ‘hotness’ and ‘sexiness,’ the terms popularized by social media. Social media is the tool which has become the modern ground for play of male gaze with use of selfies, trends such as hot summer bodies and aesthetic appeal of bodies through poses.

[5] Sigmund Freud first introduced the concept in 1905 in his Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality. Scopophilia refers to the pleasure of looking as well as the pleasure of being looked at.

[6] Dalia Ayala (

Tamanna Nandal, a 23-year-old student currently pursuing a Master’s degree in Sociology at Ambedkar University, has submitted her entry for the Social Sciences Writing Competition. Her submission delves into the topic of ‘Question of Agency,’ employing Interactionism as expounded by Erving Goffman and Structural Functionalism as elucidated by Talcott Parsons to analyze the concepts of agency, Male Gaze, and Female Gaze within the framework of sociological perspectives.

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