Structure of Context: Deciphering Frame Analysis
Abstract: This essay proposes that Goffman’s most puzzling
book, Frame Analysis, can be read as an extended attempt to unpack and
define the idea of context as it
occurs in subjective experience. Because the use of undefined vernacular words
rather than concepts is a problem in social science, Goffman’s approach to
context has a general, as well as a particular significance. His examples of
context imply a model involving frames within frames. I suggest combining
Goffman’s recursive layers of frames with the levels of mutual awareness in
earlier models of consensus. Neither Goffman nor anyone else has clearly
defined what is meant by frames. I propose that they can be represented by names,
phrases or propositions that serve as an assembly of background
premises. This approach can be used to find the minimum amount of background
that would allow consensual interpretations of discourse. It might also help
construct a chain that links discourse, in the moment, to the highest
institutional levels of society, the micro-macro pathway from word and gesture
up to social structure. Goffman also hinted that mathematical notation might be
used. By adding levels of awareness to this notation, it could represent social
facts. (10, 047 words)
Erving Goffman is one of the
most widely read sociologists in the history of the discipline. Also frequently
cited, his work has been noted throughout the social sciences and even the
humanities. But the significance of his work is by no means clear. In the 22
years since his death, nine valuable monographs and edited volumes interpreting
his work have been published in English.
Many further mentions, some of them chapter length, can be found elsewhere. But
even a quick reading suggests that there is no consensus. As one reviewer
(Toiskallio 2000) stated, most contributors find in Goffman’s writing
“simultaneous irritation and fascination.”
An extended exchange on this
issue can be found in the first of the Fine/Smith (2000) volumes. Posner (Ch. 10, 2000), like many others,
stated that Goffman’s work is enigmatic. To back up this claim, she cites
several of his critics, and considers several readings of his work that she
claims are outright misunderstandings. She concludes that although often cited,
Goffman’s work has little status in the academic community.
But Oromaner (Ch. 11, 2000)
challenges Posner. He argues that not only is Goffman’s work massively cited,
but that he also received many honors from the academic community, and that
even his critics offer praise. Posner’s response (Ch. 12) is blunt. The crucial
point that Oromaner missed, she states, is that even the praise Goffman
received consisted of “left handed compliments.” Even more to the point is
Posner’s argument that most of the commentary on Goffman’s work shows that it
is either not understood, or misunderstood. Many reviews of Goffman’s work
agree: they see his work as enigmatic.
There seems to be several
reasons for the enigma. For one, Goffman’s prose style is incredibly involuted
and complex. It is dense with meaning, innuendo, impromptu classifications,
qualifications, and expansion. It is also humorous, ironic, and witty in ways
that both entertain and irritate, reveal and conceal.
But there is also a difficulty more
fundamental than mere style. Goffman seemed to revel in complexity. Not only
ordinary people, but most social science assumes that human conduct is so
simple that it can be understood in commonsense terms. For that reason, key
concepts are often expressed in ordinary language, using vernacular words.
For example, there have been a
large number of studies of alienation that have not provided a clear definition
of the concept itself. Although there are many standardized alienation scales,
there have been few attempts to decide, conceptually, what it is that these
scales are supposed to be measuring.
In 1975, Seeman reviewed studies
of alienation based on standardized scales. His analysis revealed that the
scales contained six different dimensions..
isolation: exclusion or rejection.
Each of these categories, in
turn, is also somewhat ambiguous. Powerlessness, for example, can mean a
relational element, lack of actual power relative to other people, and a
dispositional element, the feeling of powerlessness, whether grounded in
comparison to others or not. Five of the six dimensions can refer to relational
elements, but one, self-estrangement, cannot, since it is solely intrapersonal.
Furthermore, two of the six
meanings imply emotional components: the exclusion or rejection of social
isolation is a correlate of shame, as is the feeling of inadequacy that may
accompany powerlessness. Seeman’s study demonstrates both kinds of confounds:
dispositional vs. relational, and cognitive vs. emotional.
It may be significant that
although Seeman’s study was published some thirty years ago, no real inroads
seem to have been made on clearly defining alienation, or creating specialized
scales that measure only one of the six dimensions. Nor did his study slow down
the creation of new, general alienation scales, or studies using standardized
scales. For all practical purposes, his study has had no impact at all.
Many key concepts in social
science are ambiguous in a similar way. Self-esteem, perhaps the most studied
topic in all of social science, seems to have a similar problem. A well known
study by Leary and Baumeister (2000) implies that self-esteem scales confound
dispositional and relational dimensions. And I have shown, with David Fearon
(2004) that these scales also confound cognitive and emotional dimensions.
Some key concepts, such as
alienation and self-esteem, involve several potentially orthogonal meanings
(such as individual, relational, cognitive, and emotional dimensions) to be
measured by a single instrument. Others, such as irrationality, and, as
indicated below, context, may be mere residual categories, conceptually empty
boxes, because they encompass the enormously wide variety of different kinds of
things that remain after their polar opposite has been explored in detail.
Assumptions of simplicity hide these enigmas.
Goffman’s Attack on Basic Tropes
Unlike most social science,
Goffman’s work complicates, rather than simplifies. One of his signatures is
the seemingly compulsive attempt to use technical, rather than vernacular words
to describe human conduct. Most of his publications are rats’ nests of
elaborate schemes of definition and classification. Since these schemes go
unused, for the most part, he apparently created terms on principle.
Goffman’s basic approach seems
to have been dedicated to deconstructing the tropes (metaphors) that
rule both our society and also most social science. As indicated in the earlier
chapter, many of the basic ideas in our society and in social science are
extremely vague and unclear. For example, in his early work, Goffman frequently
attacked the Western version of the self or person, implying that it was
largely a social construction. He also proposed that the idea of insanity or
irrationality was also only a trope, a construction of Western culture.
In the case of frame analysis, however, Goffman may have
gone further than showing that the idea of context is merely a trope. I propose
below that he also hinted at first steps toward a conceptual definition to
replace the trope.
An adequate conceptual definition of context
could reveal that it stands at the very center a key problem in social science.
How is it that conduct and subjective experience both reflect and generate the
society in which they are embedded? How can we represent the reciprocal
relationship between the very small,
words and gestures in discourse, and the vastly larger social
structure/process of which they are a part? If discourse is the basement of a
skyscraper, and social institutions the top floors, can one construct an
elevator that goes up and down without having to get off at every floor?
Goffman’s Frame Analysis, and earlier work on consensus, suggest a step
toward the solution of this core problem.
Response to Frame Analysis
the face of it, Frame Analysis generated an enormous response
(Benford & Snow
2000: 611). The Social Science Citation Index has more than 1800
references, making it one of the leading titles in social science.
a close reading of some of the citations suggested that Goffman’s ideas in this
cae have not fared well, as Posner (200) suggested in her review of the
reception of Goffman’s work. Most of the responses have been of three kinds:
restatements that only paraphrase, harsh criticism, and adopting terms from
frame analysis but ignoring or misconstruing Goffman’s approach.
have been many responses that go no further than paraphrasing:
“Frames are principles of selection, emphasis and
presentation composed of little tacit theories about what exists, what happens,
and what matters” (Gitlin 1980:
Although this restatement casts
the idea in different words, it is much like Goffman’s definition in being a
loose collection of abstract ideas with no clue as to how to organize or use them.
paraphrases seem to be misleading, however. As Koenig (2004) notes: “One
response which seems particularly confusing is the conceptualization of frames
as a metaphor, alluding to a picture frame (Tankard 2001: 98f; Tankard et al. 1991).
.. 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... For Goffman and Gitlin… frames are indespensible for
communication, they are the scaffolds for any
goes on to note that “because frames consist of rather than overt conjectures,
notorious difficulties to empirically identify frames arise (Maher 2001: 84
[Koenig could have noted that this was Gamson’s (1975) chief objection also]).
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. Entman, for example, clearly takes this path:
“[to] 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:
point is that, like this one, most responses to Goffman’s book have been
misinterpretations, or at least, not constructive.
responses are not hard to find. One reviewer complained that Frame Analysis is
too esoteric, obscure, and difficult (Davis 1975:
599-603). Gamson (1975, p. 603-607) thought it was so inadequately systematized as to be impossible to teach or
research. Two of the six esssays that concern frame analysis in the Fine/Smith
volumes (2000) are so critical as to be dismissive (Jameson; Sharron). Both
have arbitrarily decided that Goffman’s scheme is static (The title of
Sharron’s chapter is Frame Paralysis!).
other four chapters on frame analysis in the Fine/Smith volumes (2000) are more
appreciative. Maynard (Chapter 56) applies the idea of framing to lawyers’
discourse. Schmitt reviews applications of framing ideas in many earlier
studies, and suggests some new applications. Bouissiac (Chapter 59) applies
Goffman’s idea of “negative experience” to the faking of accidents in circus
performances. Hazelrigg (Chapter 60) struggles to make sense of Goffman’s
prose, but, it seems to me, with little success. Indeed, none of these chapters
succeed in clarifying the meaning of the idea of frames, even the ones that
My own favorite criticism of the book is by an anonymous
reviewer on Amazon.com: “This book drove me crazy. It is repetitive and
like a verbal calculus problem that never ends.” This brief comment struck a
chord because it pinpoints my own early reactions, and also because it notes an
important feature of Goffman’s treatment, its iterative or recursive quality,
boxes within boxes within boxes, etc.
I also find Goffman’s verbal
iterations oppressive, a kind of mechanical repetition with only slight
variation, that reminds me of some of my worst encounters with higher
mathematics. But perhaps some type of iterative capacity is necessary if we are
going to find the micro/macro pathway, and would be bearable in a highly
compressed format. If we are to follow the long road between discourse and social
institutions, iteration in some form may prove requisite. I will return to this
The Introductory Chapters of Frame
Goffman launches into what is by
far his longest (586 pp.) and most complex book (1974) with his usual flurry of
definitions and classifications.
“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:
Just before introducing this
very casual definition, Goffman has also defined the much clearer idea of what
he calls a strip: “The term strip will be used to refer to any arbitrary slice
or cut from the stream of ongoing activity…(p 10). So a strip is an excerpt
from ongoing actions, but what is a frame?
One important idea is stated in
the definition: frames are only a part of a still larger structure, the definition
of the situation. The definition of the situation is the actors’ largest
subjective response, frames are a part of this subjective structure.
The definition above states that
it is the basis on which definitions of a situation are built, but doesn’t
explain what that basis is. This definition of frame is almost empty of
meaning. Does Goffman want to replace one trope with another?
The next chapter introduces the
idea of primary frameworks: “…a [primary] framework…is seen by those who apply
it as not depending on or harking back to some prior …interpretation (p. 21).
One use of this idea would be that physical reality is a primary framework. But
we still don’t know what Goffman meant by a frame or a framework.
Chapter 3 deals with what
Goffman calls “the key,” which he says in a central concept in frame analysis
(p. 43). By key, Goffman means “the set of conventions by which a given
activity, one already meaningful in terms of some primary framework, is
transformed by the participants to be something quite else” (43-44). Since this
chapter begins with an extended discussion of animals playing at fighting, the
meaning of key is fairly clear in this instance: it is the set of signals that
allow the animals to ascertain whether a fight is serious or only play.
However, the definition of key
introduces a new element. Before this point, I have understood framing to refer
to the actions of individuals, the way they understand situations in terms of
frames. But the definition of key mentions participants in the plural, so that
keying is not just individual but unavoidably social: it involves one
individual signaling a key to another. In order to fulfill its function, a key
must then involve what Goffman elsewhere has called mutual (joint) focus of
attention, or mutual awareness. This kind of mutuality has also been referred
to by others as intersubjectivity, shared awareness, or (my own choice)
attunement. I will return to this issue below.
I have proposed above that
although some of the definitions that form the early chapters of the book are
clear enough, the basic one, frame or framework, is not. The definition quoted
above is casual and fuzzy. It’s meaning is not clear, and therefore the whole
introduction to the book is not clear.
There is also another problem
with the early chapters of Frame Analysis just as damaging to his
argument. Goffman not only doesn’t adequately explain what frames are, he also
doesn’t explain why we should care.
What is the problem that frame analysis is intended to solve? There
doesn’t seem to be an answer to this question in the whole book. Without
understanding what frames are, and what good it will do to study them, the
reader might well get lost in the jumble of Goffman’s complex prose.
I think that these two absences
explain the bulk of the responses to the book: readers are highly critical,
even dismissive, they simply paraphrase Goffman’s treatment, or they
misunderstand or ignore it. If Goffman had defined frames more clearly, and
explained his purpose in developing them, perhaps more readers would have
responded in a constructive way.
Goffman seems to have hinted at
a direction that might be taken toward establishing a clear definition of
frame, but in the middle of the book, and in passing, rather than highlighted
in the introduction. I suggest also that in a later book he appears to have
explained the purpose of frame analysis. I will consider this issue first: the
Toward the end in the first
chapter of Forms of Talk (1981, p. 67) called “Replies and Responses,” a
paragraph about context appears out of nowhere, like an apparition (Because of
the length of the paragraph, I have numbered the last 3 sentences):
Commonly, critiques of
orthodox linguistic analysis argue that although meaning depends on context,
context itself is left as a residual category, something undifferentiated and
global that is to be called in whenever, and only whenever, an account is
needed for any noticeable deviation between what is said and what is meant. 
This tack fails to allow that when no such discrepancy is found, the context is
still crucial---but in this case the context is one that is usually found when
the utterance occurs.  (Indeed, to find an utterance with only possible
reading is to find an utterance that can occur in only one possible context.)
 More important, traditionally no analysis was provided of what it is in
contexts that makes them determinative of the significance of utterances, or
any statement concerning the classes of contexts that would thus emerge---all
of which if explicated, would allow us to say something other than merely that
the context matters. (Goffman 1981, p. 67.)
This paragraph occurs in Chapter
1 after 66 pages focused on low level issues involved in discourse analysis.
Out of the sea of mundane commentary, it suddenly breaches like a whale among
minnows. It is followed by a paragraph stating that only Austin (1965) may have
been moving toward addressing the issue of types of contexts, and then returns
to the local issues in the structure of discourse that make up the bulk of the
The paragraph is extraordinary
in many ways, especially the first and last sentences. The first sentence
refers to one side of an issue that is so general as to apply to all social and
behavioral science: his complaint about those who criticize studies that are
acontextual, but without specifying what they mean by context. The last
sentence goes on to imply that the idea of context could be developed beyond
its status as a “residual (empty) category” by explaining the features that
make it determinative of meaning, and by developing types of contexts.
The first and last sentences
take aim at those who criticize acontextual studies. But sentences 2 and 3
imply that Goffman is also critical of acontextual studies, since he flatly
states that ALL meaning is dependent on context. Studies that focus only on
discourse, ignoring the larger context, may well misinterpret the meaning of
Although the paragraph being
discussed refers only to “orthodox linguistic” studies and their critics, it
speaks to a issue that divides social science: the gulf between quantitative
methods, which sacrifice context in order to be systematic, and qualitative
methods, sacrificing system in order to include as many relevant details as
possible, including those that make up the context.
Although Goffman doesn’t refer
to quantitative social science studies that use standardized scales, paper and
pencil tests, and/or interview schedules, he could have included them along
side orthodox linguistic studies. All quantitative methods routinely omit most
of the details that might be used to construct a context.
In upholding the crucial
importance of context, Goffman also seems to be obliquely attacking
Conversation Analysis (CA) and other forms of discourse analysis that focus on
discourse alone, neglecting the larger setting in which it occurs. Although I
haven’t been able to find the reference, the criticism of CA and formal
discourse analysis may be the subtext of the first chapter, and perhaps even
the whole book.
There is nothing oblique about
Cicourel’s (1992, Chapter 11) attack on CA and discourse analysis, however. In
his chapter concerning a strip of discourse between 3 physicians in a hospital,
he shows how he constructed a context within which the discourse took place.
The information he uncovered about the participants, their organizational
roles, their previous exchanges, and their shared knowledge suggests how
inaccurate an interpretation would be if it lacked this background, or even
that it would be impossible to understand some of the discourse at all. The
strip he highlights is phrased in technical medical terms, with most of the
utterances syntactically fragmented and incomplete, as is true of most informal
It is clear that this chapter is
a response to acontextuality in formal studies of discourse and of
conversation, since Cicourel cites specific studies of this kind (p. 294). At
least for informal talk in specialized language between equals who know each
other, this study demonstrates that accurate interpretations are impossible
without providing considerable contextual detail outside of the discourse
In the same volume as Cicourel’s
chapter, Schegloff (1992) treats the issue of context by examining a strip of
talk within the larger context of the whole verbal “story” of which the strip
is a part. However, Schegloff doesn’t take up the issue of the still larger
context outside the text. The largest context for him seems to be limited the
text itself. In this way he ignores the challenge implied by Goffman, and
stated openly by Cicourel.
Schegloff may be less concerned
that Goffman, Cicourel, and others about context for several reasons. One would
be the behaviorist tendency in the CA approach. They seem to have the idea that
they are interpreting only the externals, words and gestures, and not making
inferences about events that occur within the speakers. Of course that is a
misconception: any interpretation of human discourse involves swift, and
largely unconscious attributions to those involved in the discourse.
Another and perhaps more
defendable source would be the nature of the discourse. It seems to me that the
texts that CA tends to use are much closer to standard, formal English than
Cicourel’s excerpt. The speakers are often strangers, or at least equals, who
are conversing about topics that are not highly specialized, with most of the
necessary syntax and grammar. To the extent that the circumstances approach
these conditions, to that extent less background information would be needed.
That being said, it is still
true that background information is usually needed to avoid mistakes. Goffman
makes this point by riffing on many variations of possible responses to the
question “What time do you have?” (1981, 68-70. Some of his instances are very
In the paragraph quoted above
from Forms of Talk, Goffman manages to be critical of both sides of the
issue: he is critical both of acontextual studies, and also those who criticize
these studies, because they don’t explain what they mean by context. It is
necessary, he says, to say something more about context than that it matters.
Cicourel shows that it matters, but by providing a large amount of ethnographic
detail, rather than engaging the issue of the structure of context.
Is there any one who has gone
further than Austin (1965) in defining what is meant by context? Perhaps the
most extraordinary thing about the paragraph above is that Goffman doesn’t
answer this question by referring to his own earlier work, Frame Analysis
(1974). The purpose of the present paper is to suggest that Goffman had already
developed an extended answer to his question himself, that the whole of the
earlier book as an effort to define and unpack the idea of context.
Before pursuing this issue, I
want to note that some of Goffman’s comments in the later book are puzzling. In
the Introduction, in the middle of the first paragraph on the first page,
referring to the chapters as papers, he states:
All the papers (least so the first) are written around the
same frame-analytic themes….(1981, p.1).
The parenthetical phrase “least
so the first” is extremely odd, since the first chapter contains the paragraph
that seems to refer to what frame analysis is about, as well as other
references pertinent to frame analysis. The first chapter was probably written
in 1974, the same year that Frame Analysis was published. It is possible
that Chapter 1 was the first paper Goffman wrote after completing the text of
the 1974 book. He had frame analysis and context on his mind at very nearly the
same time. Is it possible that the left hand didn’t know what the right hand
I ask that question because the
word context does not appear in the title of the 1974 book, nor in any of the
titles of the 14 chapters, nor in the extensive (10 page) index. Yet it appears
that the paragraph quoted above could have served as the core for the
introduction to the book, and if it had, there would be much less confusion
over what the book was about. Indeed, the book would have been better
understood if it had the subtitle Defining Context.
The idea that frame analysis is
closely related to determinations of context comes up, in passing, in some of
the responses to Frame Analysis. Indeed, Chenail (1995) treated context
and frame as equivalent. But as in the other responses, he doesn’t spell out
the equivalence, nor develop a detailed definition of frames or framing.
In order to find out if Goffman had defined context in
terms of frames, I scanned the whole book, and searched the file. He used the
word context 56 times, slightly less than once for each ten pages. All but one
of his uses are casual and in passing.
But on p. 441 he gives
an-off-the-cuff definition of context in parenthesis: “Indeed, context can be
defined as immediately available events which are compatible with one frame
understanding and incompatible with others.” It is of interest to note that this
page contains five more uses of the word context. But this definition, and his
casual usage throughout the book is exactly the kind that he ridicules as a
residual category in the paragraph from Forms of Talk (1981).
Mutual Awareness Models
Before describing the model of
subjective context that I think is implied by Goffman, it will first be
necessary to discuss the issue of mutual awareness or consensus. As already
indicated, his discussion of keys and keying (1974, pp 40-82) requires mutual
awareness of the participants. Both animals and human’s recognize a strip as
play or non-play because they are mutually aware of the key signals. Similarly,
the idea of “footing,” which seems to
be just another word for frame (p. 128 and passim), involves participants in
mutal recognition of shifts in alignment of self and other.
The idea of mutual awareness is
usually found in Goffman’s work, though his language seems somewhat evasive at
times. He never states flatly, as Cooley did, that “we live in the minds of others.”
But most of his work seems to assume it. Certainly the most substantial chapter
in Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959), on impression
management, is concerned in its entirety with how we live in the minds of
Furthermore, in his later work
on language, there is a subtext that implies that mutual awareness is crucial
for actually understanding discourse. He challenged the formal conversation and
discourse analysis practice of restricting their attention to texts, without
regard to the larger context. In the next to last sentence of one of his last
articles, he stated:
[In all social interaction] we find ourselves with one
central obligation: to render our behavior understandably relevant to what the
other can come to perceive is going on. Whatever else, our activity must be addressed
to the other’s mind, that is, to the other’s capacity to read our words and
actions for evidence of our feelings, thoughts, and intent (1983,
p. 53, emphasis added).
The meaning of discourse is
ultimately not in the text alone, but also in minds. This is a clear statement
of the crucial importance of mutual awareness. But he didn’t explicitly clarify
In one of my own articles
(Scheff 1967), I proposed a model of consensus that has a recursive quality
like the one that runs through Goffman’s frame analysis. The article suggested
that consensus involves not only understanding the other, but also
understanding that one is understood, and vice versa. Mutual awareness, I
argued, involves not only a first level agreement, but, when necessary, second
and higher levels of understanding that there is agreement.
As it happened, Goffman pursued
a similar idea in some parts of his book (1969) on strategic interaction. Under
certain conditions, as in spying operations, diplomatic and financial
negotiations, and in my opinion, in truly intimate relationships, it becomes
necessary to be aware of higher levels of mutual awareness; that is, of mutual
awareness of mutual awareness, etc. He implies that the winning spy or
negotiator would be the one who is able to accurately understand a level higher
than one’s competitor. And in my own work toward developing a concept of secure bonds (that would include both
true solidarity and genuine love), I propose that higher levels of mutual
awareness are necessary, rather than optional components (Scheff, unpublished
Finally, another version can be
found in a book by the Russian mathematician Lefebvre (1977), The Structure
of Awareness. This book takes a step further than I or Goffman did by
illustrating mutual awareness structures graphically. Lefebvre uses both
pictographs and mathematical notation. The former involves bracketing equations
similar to those outlined below. As Anatol Rapoport mentions in the Preface (p.
9), how this book, having nothing to do with Marxist doctrine, got published in
the USSR of the 70’s, is a puzzle.
There is also a question of
whether Lefebrvre came up with the idea of reflexive mutual awareness
independently of my model. He cites Laing, et al (1966), a brief work devoted
to a recursive model of mutual awareness that preceded Lefebvre’s book (1977).
But he also cites own his earliest work on recursive awareness, an article (1965) that precedes the Laing et al book.
It is possible that Lefebrve’s
work was based on my own (1967) model of recursive awareness. As Laing et al
(1966) indicate, their book developed from my presentation of the model in
Laing’s seminar in 1965. If I remember correctly, there were some 20 persons at
my presentation. Perhaps Lefebrve heard about the seminar directly from one of
the persons present, or indirectly by way of others in contact with one of the
Recursive Structures of
It is clear that all three of
these treatments, by myself, Goffman and Lefebrve, make mutual awareness
recursive, since they involve repetitions of awareness of awareness. Of course
actual consciousness is not always recursive. For example, there may be no
recursion in the consciousness of survey respondents, who, unknown to one
another, agree upon some issue. But there are also a wide variety of situations
that seem to be recursive, perhaps extending to the second or even the third
levels of repeating mutual awareness. Extended negotiations, spying/counterspying,
and close, highly intimate relationships, might extend a step or two still
This idea was represented in a
joky way in popular song from the 1930’s, with lyrics something like “I know,
that you know, that I know, that you know….etc, that we’re in love.” Although I
haven’t been able to find any trace of these lyrics, I am fairly sure that I
didn’t invent them, since I also remember the melody. (But I am willing to
stand corrected if anyone can report the actual lyrics).
In struggling to define what is
meant by perversion, the philosopher Thomas Nagel (1978) came near to defining
normal, or at least non-perverse sex in terms of recursive mutual awareness.
Although he doesn’t use that term, or any of the others I have used, such as
intersubjectivity, his definition of sexual love in terms of each knowing that
the other knows one another’s feeling certainly implies it:
These [sexual] reactions
are perceived, and the perception of them is perceived; at each step the
domination of the person by his body is reinforced, and the sexual partner
becomes more possessible by physical contact, penetration, and envelopment. (p.
The higher levels of mutual
awareness in a recursive model of mutual awareness might clarify and extend
Durkheim’s idea of the “social facts” that individuals experience as external
and constraining He proposed that there are many areas of unspoken and taken
for granted agreement in societies that constitute a conscience collectif.
Although this phrase is usually translated into English as “collective
conscience,” it can equally well be translated as collective consciousness,
sometimes translated, albeit awkwardly, as Group Mind.
The complex cognitive structure
of mutual awareness discussed here might help explain why members would experience
social facts as “external.” The recursive levels would insure that social facts
are experienced as external, since each individual understands them to be in
the consciousness of others (Scheff 1967), and that his or her own
participation in social facts or lack of it is also perceived by others, etc.
Although Cooley, Mead and Dewey
don’t engage this issue, the attribution of understandings to others is not
pure projection, at least in the long run. As writers in the CA tradition have
made clear, one’s understanding of the other person’s utterance in one turn may
be re-affirmed or challenged in subsequent turns. At least in discourse that
has more than one turn, each speaker can observe signs that bear on the
accuracy of his or her attributions to the other person.
This issue of the degree to
which beliefs about the other(s) are pure projection turns out to be much more
complicated than the CA approach has allowed. A wife who wants to believe her
husband’s claim that he loves her may ignore or misinterpret turns and
behaviors that give the lie to his statement. The bestseller Women Who Love
Too Much (1985) is based on interviews with women in this situation. An
example of this problem on a larger scale comes up in the politics of voter
support for government. In the U.S. at this moment, it appears that a majority
of the voters still trust their government, even though it has proven itself
not deserving of trust.
But in most cases, it would
appear that the attributions that are components of social facts are not pure
projections. That is, each individual’s experience with others has given them
external grounds for believing that their attributions are correct. To the
extent that this is the case, the externality of the social fact to each
individual is at least in part an objective fact, not just a projection.
At the time that my article
(1967) was published, I had no way of explaining why social facts would be
experienced as constraining. Subsequently, however, the sociology of emotions
has suggested a possibility. If, as Lewis (1971) has proposed, the fundamental
basis for genuine pride is connectedness with others, and for shame,
disconnection, then the incentive for participation in the awareness structures
of social facts is not only cognitive, but also emotional.
The individual would feel
powerfully constrained by social facts because he or she is rewarded by pride
when participating in them, and punished by shame when not (Scheff 1988).
Durkheim (1915) posited a social emotion that encourages social integration,
but never identified it by name. In my formulation, this emotion would be the
pride/shame dyad. One is rewarded by pride to the extent that one participates,
level by level, in the cognitive structure of mutual awareness, and punished by
shame, again level by level, to the extent that one does not. If, as I have
argued, an iterative model of mutual awareness in social facts is supported by
future research, it would explain why social facts are experienced as external
Personal, Organizational, and
Institutional Components of Context
It would be helpful to be able
to represent recursion of structures of mutual awareness in a compressed way
even if, as is the usual case, that there are only a few higher levels
involved. But with the recursion of frames, if we are to accurately interpret
informal and/or specialized discourse, and represent the micro-macro link, it
becomes essential to the endeavor. Moving back and forth between the words and
gestures of a strip of discourse and the personal histories, organizational
settings, and social institutions they reflect and generate will require many
This idea can be illustrated by
using the example of discourse that is as the center of Cicourel’s article
(1992), already mentioned above. He begins his analysis by showing only the
strip of discourse that he recorded, without revealing the identity of the
speakers or where they are located:
PA: Is this the one (we?) did yesterday?
No. This is the eye lady.
PA : Oh.
:With group A strep..in shock.
PA : In shock. How about that.
: I[t?] was gonna be more interesting / if she didn’t
: / I’m (?)
IDA: have bacteremia but (laughing…) now she’s
had / bacteremia so
MR: /There’s a little problem
For my present purpose I have
reported only the first 11 of the 41 lines that Cicourel presents. The question
marks in parenthesis represent sounds that he had difficulty interpreting, and
the slash marks (/) areas of overlap between speakers.
It is clear from this strip that
there are three speakers, and that they are discussing a fourth person who is
not present. Judging from the technical terms being used, one might guess that
the three speakers are medical personnel, and that they might be discussing a
patient. Judging from the informality, fragmentary, and incomplete nature of
some of the utterances, we might also guess that the three persons are more or
less equal in rank, and that they know each other well.
But beyond that, without knowing
more the background, it seems impossible to understand most of the discourse
even approximately, much less the fine points that are being made. For example,
the strip seemingly opens with a question from PA that refers to a frame larger
than the present discourse. Probably in response to a statement about a patient
by IDA, PA asks: “Is the this the one (we) did yesterday?
IDA clarifies which patient
he/she was referring to by saying: “No, this is the eye lady.” He further
identifies the patient with a one-word utterance: “Cellulitis.” So both
speakers begin the strip assessing the other’s frames, based on pre-strip
occurrences, in order to identify the patient that is being referred to. This
is Cicourel’s point: the less we know about the larger context of discourse,
the less able we are to understand it.
In establishing this idea,
Cicourel goes on to indicate the identity of the four persons and their
location. The three speakers are physicians, and their discussion involves a
patient they have all seen in the teaching hospital where they work. Cicourel
further shows that understanding this particular strip involves knowledge of
earlier conversations they had about this and other patients, and about the
location of the discussions in a teaching hospital, and knowledge of how
teaching hospitals differ in some particulars from general hospitals. So
correctly interpreting this strip involves at least five frames within what
Goffman calls the “rim,” the final frame the researcher uses for interpreting a
strip of activity.
Interpreting Cicourel’s strip of
discourse requires frames that reach up to the institutional level, since the
highest strip requires knowledge of a difference between teaching and other
hospitals. But there are many much less complex utterances that require frames
at a still higher institutional level.
The following example involves
one of my own utterances. It is only two words, but understanding it requires
an international political/economic frame. In this incident I was alone,
driving my car at about 60 mph on a two-lane, undivided back road. I had
noticed that the traffic both ways was very fast, most cars traveling at least
80 mph. I see a very large SUV heading toward me at what must have been about
that speed, but weaving in and out of my lane. Although I can’t be sure because
of the distance and glare, it appears that the driver might have his head
turned toward the passenger. I instantly run my car off the road onto the shoulder,
narrowly escaping being hit by the SUV as it went past me in my lane, and
without slowing. My frame included his existence, but his didn’t include mine,
and he nearly ended it.
In the dust and flying rubble as
my car slows down on the shoulder, I curse, but am also glad to be alive and in
one piece. My yell at the other driver as he passed was certainly not heard by
him, since both of our windows were up: but I had let fly without thought:
To understand the meaning of my
curse it is necessary to report some frames of mine in addition to the one I
formed looking at the oncoming car (a car coming toward me in which the driver
doesn’t see me). I make it a practice of driving no faster than the speed limit
for several reasons. One frame is my own safety: I think fast driving is
dangerous. Another frame is one concerning legality: I worry about getting a
ticket for speeding. A third frame is that I know that fast driving is
uneconomical in terms of gas consumption.
But this latter from is enclosed
by a fourth on a much larger scale. This incident took place after the war
against Iraq began, which I presumed to be largely about oil. Like the first
three frames, my political consciousness restrains my driving speed. It appears
that I instantly assumed that the frames of the fast driver of the gas-guzzling
SUV didn’t include the international politics of oil, that he was as oblivious
of it as he was of my car.
Note that the first two frames,
safety and legality, need not be part of the frame assembly that embeds gas
consumption in the large political economic frame. These first two frames may
be thought of a lateral to the more complex frame assembly.
Interpreting this brief
utterance required several orders of frames, and three points of view: mine and
the other driver’s, at the time of the incident, and mine now, as I interpreted
the meaning of my utterance. To incorporate many orders of framing and several
orders of mutual awareness in a way that will hold down vertigo, a compact way
of representing frame/awareness structures will be needed.
Fractal geometry represents one possible model. Andrew
Abbott (2004) has defined fractals as:
“…the property of recurring at finer and finer levels, always in the
same form.” (Abbott 2004, p. 250). The elegance of fractal geometry in the
physical world arises because of the EXACT duplication of forms at different
levels, with no difference at all except in size. Snowflakes provide an
example. Goethe, in his botanic studies, noted that in plants such as palms,
the whorls of the trunk can be found repeated in smaller sub-units.
In his essay on disciplines (2001), Abbott applied this idea
to the reproduction of conflict at various levels between and within
disciplines and sub-disciplines in the academy, and in the world of
intellectuals in general. But arguments over Marxism at various levels in the
history of the socialist movement are similar in some ways and different in
others. Certainly Proudhon’s rebuff to Marx was never repeated, at least in so
eloquent a form. The shape of snowflakes is elementary compared to the
complexity of human discourse.
Both sides of the conflict between the Leninist and
Trotskyite lines probably varied with each argument, depending upon context,
emphasis, choice of words, overt and/or covert emotional content, etc. To use
the fractal heuristic effectively would require conceptual and operational
definitions of each “line”, so that the extent of variation could be noted. The
same reasoning applies to deciphering Goffman’s frame analysis, since neither
he nor any of his commentators provided a clear definition of frames. This
issue will be discussed further below.
A Mathematical Model
Chapter 8 of Frame Analysis
concerns the informal bracketing that takes place in ordinary discourse. For
example, to show that one is representing a person other than self, a speaker
may bracket an utterance by using a high or low voice quite different than his
or her own. Men often speak falsetto to mime a woman’s voice, and women basso profundo to mime a man’s voice. A
visual way of bracketing is by signaling quotations marks with strokes by two
fingers of each hand. In the course of referring to this kind of everyday
bracketing, Goffman briefly considers the kind of brackets used in mathematical
example, employs the elegant and powerful device of simple typographic
brackets…[to] establish the boundaries of a strip of any length…. It is as
though here all our human capacity to think and act in terms of frame were
compressed and refined…(1974, pp.254-255)
In this passage, Goffman lapses
from his usual detached, ironic tone, displaying what for him appears to be an
enthusiasm so overwhelming that he contains it only with difficulty. How can
that be? It is possible that with his eerie prescience, but without
mathematical training, he sensed its possible utility, but could not illustrate
his interest in mathematical notation. As indicated above, Einstein’s first
thoughts about relativity were completely intuitive.
Although Goffman didn’t show how
mathematical notation might be applied, Baptista follows up on it, toward the
end of his essay on frame analysis (2003). Here I will follow and extend his
notation, since it is slightly less complex than Lefebvre’s (1977). I propose a
model of the structure of context that recognizes its complexity, in terms of
Goffman’s frame layers, and its intersubjective structure as suggested by the
models of consensus discussed above. This model, because it does justice to
both types of iteration and can also include lateral frames, may be a step
toward representing the enigma of micro-macro linkage.
Baptista proposed (2003, p. 208)
that any frame can be represented as composed of core frame, layers
(laminations), and rim (the last and most complex frame)
F = l n+1 [l n…[l
2[l 1[l 0]]]…]],
Where l 0 represents
the core frame, F, the rim, and the other l’s, zero to n= represent all the
layers between. It is my thesis that F, the rim, represents a model of the
structure of the subjective context.
This notation will only
accommodate the context inferred from a single point of view. It will need to be complicated by
superscripts to represent another person or persons’ point of view involved in
the framing of a context.
So if I am now analyzing the
frames involved in an earlier conversation I had with another person that I
will call John, my present point of view could be represented by the
superscript 3, my point of view a the time of the conversation by superscript
2, and John’s point of view at that time by superscript 1:
F3 = l2 n+1 [l n…[l 2[l 1[l
0]]] +l 1…]] + l1
n+1 [l n…[l 2[l 1[l 0]]]
+ l 2…]]
Where F3 is the structure of the context that I
will need to accurately interpret the strip of discourse.
It should be understood that all
the layers within the brackets after l2
except those with superscript 1 belong to my point of view at the
time of the conversation, and those with superscript 1 represent my images of
John’s frames. Similarly, all of the layers within brackets after l1,
except those with superscript 2, belong to John.
If at any point during the strip
the definition of the situation by either John or I changed, I must change the
equation at this point. In the course of rapidly shifting frames in discourse
between two persons, it may be necessary to use superscripts for each shift,
rather than for the participants. With only two participants, each could be
represented by some other notations, such as italics for one.
By enclosing the points of view
of others within the brackets, as well as the frame layers, this notation
represents structures of shared awareness, in addition to frame assemblies. In
modeling more or less static awareness structures among large groups of people,
as will be discussed below, the superscripts must be used for the perspective
of each person. Lateral frames that don’t fit into one of the assemblies can be
included in each of them by mere addition.
There is one more element needed
if this notation is to be used to define frame structure in a way that can be
taught and researched: a conceptual definition of frame. I can’t find a
definition in Goffman or in any of the commentary that is more than just a
collection of metaphors. I have been searching the rubric “schemas” in the cognitive science literature, hoping to find at
least an operational definition, if not a conceptual one.
recognized that the term context is just a trope, but doesn’t suggest a
conceptual definition. Instead he states that contexts are mental
representations that serve as premises or presuppositions. An earlier attempt
was made by Neisser, (1976):
A schema is that
portion of the entire perceptual cycle which is internal
to the perceiver, modifiable by experience, and somehow specific to what
is being perceived. The schema accepts information as it becomes available
at sensory surfaces and is changed by that information. It directs
movements and exploratory activities that make more information available,
by which it is further modfied." (p. 54).
Similar, if less wordy attempts
can be found in Bartlett (1932) and Craik (1943).
It seems to me that these are
the same kinds of loose definition as those used by Goffman and Gitlin. Perhaps
it is not possible to be more precise because of the scope of experience that
the idea is required to cover. But we must start somewhere.
To carry my thesis forward, a
frame can be defined tentatively as the statement(s) required to place and to
understand a strip of activity: “on the beach,” “playfighting,” “an 18th
century drawing room,” etc. Even if the actual frame is a nonverbal image, it
can be represented in a verbal form: as a name, phrase, or proposition. Representing an image, like a drawing room,
would be sufficiently complex to require an assembly of statements.
In the example given above, some
of the frames can be represented as simple propositions: In order to avoid
tickets for speeding, drive no faster than the speed limit; to save money and
wear and tear, drive no faster than the speed limit.
But the frame that involves my
stereotype of person driving a SUV exceeding the speed limit is more complex.
To represent it would require a statement with many elements: a person who is
well-to-do enough not to care about the costs of a SUV, wear, tear, and fuel
costs, and is either deluded, ignorant, or doesn’t care about the political,
environment and safety effects.
As Goffman’s discussion implies,
a subjective context usually involves more than a single frame. Rather it is
likely to be an assembly of frames, one fitting within, or merely added to the
other. The notation above, combined with the definition of frame just offered,
can be taken to be a model of these assemblies.
This model may enable us to
build up a structure of context for any discourse, no matter how many persons,
points of view, frames, and levels of awareness. In principle, we should also
be able to represent the frame and awareness levels of a social fact by
referring to the individual assemblies obtained from a large sample of
individuals or texts.
At the moment, techniques for
utilizing such a complex model do not exist, since it requires that discourse
be analyzed for recursive frames and levels of awareness. Perhaps such
techniques could be developed most easily in an interview format, by patiently
probing informants’ responses about the structure of their beliefs and the
beliefs of others. For example, one might try to determine to what extent the
idea that the United States has a democratic form of government is a social
fact. Such a study would require finding what the word democracy means to the
informants, which will require understanding the frames they use, and the
extent of mutual awareness they have of these meanings as they are held by
This kind of study could be a
step toward resolving the key puzzle in social science, the way that actions of
individuals reproduce or change society. Slang provides examples of both kinds.
I learned recently that my students say “My bad” when they are acknowledging a
mistake (rather than saying “Oops!” or “Sorry.”) This usage doesn’t reproduce
language practices in the larger society, and it has not yet changed them
either. But it may (or may not) someday.
This essay has argued that Frame
Analysis (1974) can be read as an unpacking of the “global and
undifferentiated” idea of subjective context. A further step toward defining a
concept of context could combine Goffman’s recursive layers of frames with the
recursive levels of mutual awareness proposed in earlier models of consensus.
This approach could enable us to account for the minimum amount of background
information that would allow consensus as to accurate interpretations of strips
of discourse, no matter how many persons, frames, and levels of awareness. It
might also help us to construct a chain that links discourse, in the moment,
with the highest institutional levels of society, the micro-macro pathway. This
essay takes a further step toward representing recursive models of frame and
awareness structures with mathematical notation.
Many scholars of the human
condition are likely to complain that this approach will lead to infinite
regress. Indeed, among scholars in the humanities, it is taken for granted that
contexts involve infinite regress: "Everything is the context for everything
On the contrary, this essay
proposes that subjective context can be defined in an orderly way, enabling us
to represent, in the simplest way possible, the least numbers of levels of
frames and awareness that are needed to make valid interpretations of any
particular strip of discourse. This same method could lead the way to showing,
in the moment, how the microscopic world of words and gestures is linked to the
largest social structures in any society.
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