Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience
By Erving Goffman
I first bought this 1974 book early in my PhD program, having read Goffman's The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life during my MA studies. It's a thick book, and (between you and me) not that engagingly written, and although I briefly attempted it, I gave up and focused on my assigned readings instead. It was always there on the shelf, I thought; I'll eventually get to it.
But at some point—either in the move to Texas Tech (1999) or to the University of Texas (2001), it was lost along with a box of other books. I was not heartbroken, since my research interests had drifted away from Goffman by that point. But earlier this year I saw a copy at a used bookstore. I had just reread Goffman's Presentation of Self and had read his Interaction Ritual for the first time, so he was fresh in my mind. And the price was right. So I picked it up.
And it stayed on my shelf for a while longer, unread, until I began thinking about frames again. The notion of frames had been brought up in a recent reading on pitching, and I began thinking about it in terms of how teachers present themselves to students, so Frame Analysis suddenly had new currency for me. So I sat down and read it.
Not in just one sitting, mind you. The book is 576pp.
So here's what you need to know about Frame Analysis. Here, even more than in Goffman's other books, it becomes clear that Goffman is a cross between Aristotle and Art Linkletter. Like Aristotle, he likes to exhaustively taxonomize the subject he's describing—in this case, frames. And like Art Linkletter, he is an inveterate gossip, pulling examples of frames and frame ruptures from everywhere he can (odd newspaper stories, magazines, television shows, books on cons and magic, and repeatedly from Dear Abby columns) in addition to published research. The result is overwhelming. There's a definite structure underneath, but it's not consistently signaled, so I sometimes had trouble remembering what the endless examples of grifters, airline accidents, and 1950s sexual peccadillos were meant to illustrate. (Although the book was published in 1974, I think the bulk of the examples came from the 1930s-1960s).
Let's try to strip away these examples, then, and get to what Goffman was trying to frame up. Goffman borrows the term "frame" from Gregory Bateson (p.7), using it to describe the ways that we bracket social situations so we know how to interpret and react to them. His aim is to "try to isolate some of the basic frameworks of understanding available in our society for making sense out of events and to analyze the special vulnerabilities to which these frames of reference are subject" (p.10). He uses frame to describe how people define a situation based on principles of organization that govern events (pp.10-11). Strip refers to "any arbitrary slide or cut from the stream of ongoing activity ... as seen from the perspective of those subjectively involved in sustaining an interest in them" (p.10). Essentially, we sample the strips available to us and use them to apply frames that can help us interpret further strips. When frames are confirmed, our assumptions "disappear into the smooth flow of activity" (p.39)—that is, once we are pretty sure which frame is operant, we tend to assume that frame and interpret subsequent interactions within that frame.
At this point, one can see why Goffman becomes so interested in his eclectic examples. They are full of instances in which people misapply frames in various ways. Some are deliberate (cons), some are accidental (comedies of error). But he successively deploys concepts and vocabulary to better understand them.
In Chapter 3, he introduces keying, a systematic transformation along schema of interpretation (ex: play fighting, which resembles actual fighting).
In Chapter 4, he discusses fabrications: deliberate attempts to manage activity so that someone will have a false belief about the activity (p.83). Like keyings, fabrication is a transformational vulnerability of the activity; keying is to fabrication as satire is to plagiarism (p.84).
Chapter 5 discusses the theatrical frame (cf. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life). Here, there is a performer and an audience (p.124).
In Chapter 6, he discusses structural issues in fabrications, including retransformations, recontainment, transformational depth, actor transformations, and fabrication frameworks. Sorry, I'm not going to give you thumbnails on all of these; suffice it to say that these all boil down to tactics that fabricators use to reassert their fabricated frames. These are useful if you're going to fool or con someone (or if you want to avoid being fooled or conned).
Chapter 7 considers out-of-frame activity: overlapping activity that inevitably intrudes on the focus activity.
Chapter 8 describes the anchoring of activity: the way that the frame is related to the world in which the framing occurs (p.248).
Chapter 9 describes "ordinary troubles" in sustaining a frame: innocent troubles that relate to "straight activity" as well as collapses in fabrications.
Chapter 10 is about breaking frame: the extent to which people are engrossed in the activity rather than drifting into other realities (or: becoming engrossed in a competing frame) (p.347).
Chapters 11 and 12 focus on manufacturing negative experience and the vulnerabilities of experience, respectively; the latter explores frame traps, in which people are trapped in a specific interpretation of a frame (p.482). Also in the latter, Goffman protests that his aim is not to compile tips on how to hoodwink people (p.486).
Chapter 13 specifically applies frame analysis to talk.
As you may be able to intuit from the increasingly short descriptions of each chapter, the book was in some respects exhausting. If you are fascinated by endless midcentury news clippings and advice columns, you may find the book easier going than I did. I would have preferred that Goffman make his points more succinctly and with more explicit definitions. Nevertheless, the fact that it was exhausting does not make the book less valuable; there are few keener observers of human nature. If you are interested in how people construe, misconstrue, and correct their readings of situations, pick this book up. You may have to use both hands.