The Milindapanha begins with King Milinda asking monk Nagasena his name. Nagasena responds, “O king, I am known as Nagasena but that is only a designation in common use, for no permanent individual can be found.”.[1] King Milinda continues questioning this man, who gives a name when asked, but claims there is no person as such. After question upon question, Milinda identifies that ‘Nagasena’ is neither the material form, feeling, perception, mental formation, nor the consciousness.[2] Rather, ‘Nagasena’ is the cumulative sum of these five aggregates of Buddhist philosophy: many becomes one.  

The ‘Dolly Parton’ challenge swept the internet in early 2020, where users shared ‘different versions’ of themselves on different social media platforms. The opportunity was too good to let by without showcasing some editing skills (or lack thereof), so you can view my version below. Quickly, it was clear that various social media platforms brought out various parts of an individual- in my case, a goofy twenty-year old on Instagram, and a ‘woke’, and much more serious member of civil society on Twitter. Does this change the fact that both accounts can be found under the same username (@rania_mohiuddin) on different sites?  Then again, if everything about the profile from the user to the handle is the same- what is different?

Erving Goffman would argue: the audience. And, at least for the individual you see above, it would be true. is a space for Rania’s friends, while is where she follows think tanks, academics, and politicians.

Goffman’s take on dramaturgical sociology treats all human interactions as plays in a theatre.[3]  For instance, “in a play, actors try to convey to an audience a particular impression of the world around them. […] actors create a new reality for the audience to consider”.[4] Therefore it would appear that as the audience changed, so would the stage, the play, and the ‘impression’ portrayed by the individual. Indeed, taking it a step further, Goffman argues, “the self is a product of the scene that comes off […] The self, then, as a performed character is not an organic thing that has specific location”- an individual can fit many characters into their lives.[5]And just like that, one, becomes many.

So, do we accept ourselves as individuals with seemingly split personalities with no grounding? Is that thought alone not a tiring one, that tests our limits of self-perception? After all, despite efforts to define the self, one is left with several different characters: a daughter, a mother, a student, a teacher. Yet arguably, Goffman’s actor too, could call itself a Nagasena, for it has no single person to associate the self with.

It is at this exact point that a confused sociology student might ask- does the self, exist as a cumulative sum of all that they are, channeling various characters based on circumstance, or does the self, exist in order to be split into different characters? Perhaps it would be fitting to seek solace in the fact that both Nagasena and Goffman agree that there never is just one: no one is condemned to stagnancy. Similarly, there never is just ‘many’: fluidity does not lose meaning during its transformation. In this dilemma lies the beauty of philosophy and sociology- the acceptance of questions with no answers, yet a constant aspiration to seek.




[1] Pesala, B. (2003). The debate of King Milinda: an abridgement of the Milinda Panha. Buddha Dharma Education Association. Sydney

[2] Craig, E. (2002). Philosophy: a very short introduction. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press. P.37

[3] Kivisto, P. & Pittman, D. (2013). Goffman’s dramaturgical sociology: personal sales and service in a commodified world. In P. Kivisto Illuminating social life: Classical and contemporary theory revisited (pp. 297-318). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc. p.272

[4] Ibid p.272

[5] Goffman E. (1959) The presentation of self in everyday life. Garden City, NY: Doubleday. p.252