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Frame Analysis

Frame Analysis: A Primer

Thomas König

Frame analysis is en vogue (Meyer 1999: 85; Reese 2001: 7; Benford & Snow 2000: 611f). The Social Science Citation Index counts 1,805 references over the past decade for Goffman's (1974) methodological foundation. That almost doubles Durkheim's ([1894] 1968) classic Rules of the Sociological Method (936 references) and also easily surpasses DiMaggio's (1983) re-interpretation of Weber's iron cage, the best known piece of the ubiquitous neo-institutionalism school.

Even so, frame analysis was initially predicted to become a niche method at best. One Contemporary Sociology reviewer complained that Frame Analysis is cumbersome to read (Davis 1975: 603), the other one wondered, if an adequate systematization of frame analysis would be feasible (Gamson 1975: 605). How can this skeptical approach to framing at its onset be reconciled with its current success?

Probably the single most important factor for the success of Goffman's frame analysis is its unorthodox application. Frame analysis is no longer Goffman's frame analysis, but is frequently only loosely connected to the original formulation. Notwithstanding the recurrent symbolic nods to Goffman, today's "frame analysis" spans a number of disparate approaches (D'Angelo 2002; Fisher 1997; Maher 2001: 81f; Scheufele 1999: 103, 118), some of which are even incompatible with each other (Scheufele 1999: 118), While not excluding the possibility of fruitful interaction between the heterogeneous frame analyses (D'Angelo 2002: 883), conceptual parsimony necessitates the clarification of the framing concept for present purposes.

This is not the place to overview the wide range of approaches that have been subsumed under the heading of frame analysis, a task that others (Benford and Snow 2000; D'Angelo 2002; Scheufele 1999) have already accomplished. Here I will only give a brief glimpse on the development of frame concepts.

Frames: Ontogenesis of (a Range of) Concepts

In his initial and widely quoted definition, Goffman characterized frames as follows:

“I assume that definitions of a situation are built up in accordance with principals of organization which govern events […] and our subjective involvement in them; frame is the word I use to refer to such of these basic elements as I am able to identify” (Goffman 1974: 10f)

In other words, frames are basic cognitive structures which guide the perception and representation of reality. On the whole, frames are not consciously manufactured but are unconsciously adopted in the course of communicative processes. On a very banal level, frames structure, which parts of reality become noticed.

For example, a group of persons lined up in an orderly fashion at the side of a road might evoke the frame "bus queue" in a passer-by. This particular frame structures perception in the way that attention is paid to the orderly arrangement of people in a line, which is one indicator of the "bus queue frame" and might have actually triggered it. The frame also directs attention to other latent frame elements, such as a bus stop sign. At the same time, it deflects attention from clothing style, body shape, or communications among the presumed prospective bus passengers.

The adoption of frames is not immune to real world events. If a cab stops at the curbside in front of the line, chances are, the bus queue frame will become rejected and replaced by the "waiting for a taxi" frame.
Todd Gitlin has summarized these frame elements most eloquently in his widely quoted (e.g., Miller 1997: 367; Miller and Riechert 2001: 115) elaboration of the frame concept:

“Frames are principles of selection, emphasis and presentation composed of little tacit theories about what exists, what happens, and what matters." (Gitlin 1980: 6)

While it is hard to improve theoretically on this definition, the trouble starts, when it comes to the identification and measurement of frames. Precisely because frames consist of tacit rather than overt conjectures, notorious difficulties to empirically identify frames arise (Maher 2001: 84).

The difficulty of measuring latent frames could partially explain the gradual theoretical shift towards a conceptualization of frames as being more actively adopted and manufactured. Particularly in media studies, it has become commonplace to treat the choice of frames as a more or less deliberate process. Entman's famous definition of frames led the way. For Entman,

“[t]o frame is to select some aspects of a perceived reality and make them more salient in a communicating text, in such a way as to promote a particular problem definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation, and/or treatment recommendation.” (Entman 1993: 52)

Notice the shift towards active selection of frames, a conception that has become dominant in media studies. While indeed not agreeing with Entman on much else, D'Angelo (2002: 873) likewise treats frames as consciously pitched powerful discursive cues. Tankard (2001: 97) moves even beyond the mere conscious selection of frames, suggesting that journalists at times circulate frames to deceive their audiences. Reese (2001: 7) goes furthest in the direction of conscious framing suggesting that framing always implies an active process. Consequently, he demands that the analysts "should ask how much 'framing' is going on" (ibid., 13). In a Goffmanian framework, such a question would have been non-sensical, since framing is an innate property of all social processes, not only those most consciously manufactured.

As journalists are professional symbol handlers with a high degree of self-reflexivity, it is probably no accident that media studies treat framing as a more conscious process. Indeed, social movement theory considers "conceptual scaffolding" (Snow & Benford 1988: 213), a metaphor, which in fact is more appropriate to Goffman's . However, social movement theory also elaborates "framing tasks" for successful movement mobilizations (Snow et al. 1986; Snow & Benford 1988), it thus also wanders into the direction of conscious framing.

In conjunction with this bias towards active framing, the ambiguity of the framing concept has led some framing researchers to the suggest the conceptualization of frames as a metaphor, alluding to a picture frame (Tankard 2001: 98f; Tankard et al. 1991). In this reading, journalists select certain frames and transform them into "airtight compartments" that make complete social consciousness impossible (Durham 2001: 128). While I doubt that any metaphors are suitable for inclusion in sociological theories, picture frames are definitely not a metaphor in Goffman's spirit. His frames do not limit, but rather enable the perception of and communication of (social and physical) reality. In fact, it seems that Goffman himself initially avoided the picture frame metaphor, sticking to framework over the first few pages of Frame Analysis. For Goffman, Gitlin, and Gans frames are indespensible for communications, they are the scaffolds for any credible stories.

While the approach to consider frames delimiting might also have its merits, e.g., for use in agenda-setting approaches, frames will here be considered as both consciously adopted, but more frequently unconsciously used conceptual scaffolds. That still leaves open the question, which frames in substance can be detected.


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