Integrating Dark Humor and Compassion: Identities and Presentations of Self in the Front and Back Regions of Hospice

Cindy L. Cain

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

34 Scopus citations


In The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Goffman drew attention to the various ways that individuals present themselves across settings. One aspect of his discussion was the division of space into front and back regions. In this article, I use data from two years participant observation and forty-one interviews with hospice workers to examine the ways that workers identify as well as how they use those identities to account for discrepancies between front and back region behaviors. Front stage behaviors emphasize compassion, while backstage behaviors include dark humor, strategizing, and detachment. This article argues that workers create a hospice identity that emphasizes authentic emotional expression and enlightenment about death as a way to explain away discrepancies in behavior. This work challenges assumptions that fronts are only performances and that back regions are more authentic by showing how workers integrate the two into a professional sense of self.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)668-694
Number of pages27
JournalJournal of Contemporary Ethnography
Issue number6
StatePublished - Dec 2012
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
The author disclosed receipt of the following financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article: This research was supported by the National Science Foundation, Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Award (1129541).


  • care work
  • emotions
  • hospice
  • identity
  • presentation of self


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