Goffman's frame analysis

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" ...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

Goffman's frame analysis is a way of explaining "what is going on" and determining "what is salient" in a given event or experience. Typically, it involves organizing our experiences and structuring our individual perception of the events of experience. This includes filtering important information, discarding the noise and, according to Goffman, building frames and basic cognitive structures to guide us in our perception of reality. Human beings don't consciously manufacture these life frames but unconsciously adopt and adapt them depending on the situation. Goffman argues that humans frame things in order to organize their understanding of something and to guide future action. Frame analysis is therefore the study of cognitive organization of social experience. He uses picture frames as a metaphor to illustrate how people use frames (structure) to understand their pictures (context). Primary frames are the most basic frameworks which take an experience or event and make it more meaningful. Goffman concentrates on frameworks that aim to "...construct a general statement regarding the structure or form of experiences individuals have at any moment of their social life".

Impression management

The process of building an identity, interpreting other "identities" and adjusting to new environments was described by Goffman as impression management. People regularly seek to define social situations from the environment around them. Over time, they learn how to make meaning out of something by noticing the reactions of others in relation to how we project ourselves (boyd, 2007). According to danah boyd, online social networking sites can help people develop interpersonal skills because they encourage individuals to re-evaluate the signals they send to others through their profiles, interactions and preferences (boyd, 2007). In Goffman's work, impression management is part of the human play of life, and a chief motivator in complex social settings. His ideas incorporate symbolic interaction and qualitative analysis of the interactive nature of communication. Actors, shaped by their environment and audiences, see interactions as part of performance. The objective is to provide an audience with an impression that is consistent with the goals of the actors. Impression management is thus highly-dependent on contexts and situations. Differences in responses towards an environment and target audience are part of what Goffman calls self-monitoring. Another factor in impression management is self-verification, the act of conforming the audience to a person's self-concept.

Applied to media

In media studies, it is widely-accepted that the choice of frames is more or less a deliberate process. Entman's definition of frames says that "...[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). Entman makes a shift towards a more active selection of frames, a notion that is dominant in media studies in the 21st century.

It is no accident that media studies views framing as a conscious process which aligns with social movement theory "conceptual scaffolding" (Snow & Benford, 1988) as a metaphor, which seems more appropriate to Goffman. Social movement theory elaborates "framing tasks" for successful movement mobilizations, and develops the idea of conscious framing.

Social media

Goffman's frame analysis has been used to describe notions of performance and social interactions in social media spaces. In All the world wide web’s a stage: the performance of identity in online social networks, Pearson uses Goffman to show how individuals perform their identities. In our interactions on social networking sites, we straddle the public and private spheres so that we can navigate different identities simultaneously. Pearson also introduces the "glass bedroom" metaphor in her article; the glass bedroom is not an entirely private space, nor is it a true backstage space as Goffman envisioned. Interestingly, it takes on elements of both spaces over the course of using the web. The web is therefore a bridge that is partially private and public, and it is constructed through its own set of signs and language.

Libraries' use of Goffman

Goffman's frame is a conceptual schema for interpreting the structure of interactional order, and provides actors with the definition of a situation. Analysis of how the interactional order of a situation is organized explains how social constraints affect individual actors in social settings. Goffman presented insights into human interaction and his work has been applied to the library and information science field since the 1960s. However, the understanding of his theory is unsatisfactory. This 1991 paper reconstructs Goffman's theory of interactional order by examining his concept of frame, proposes new directions for its application, and considers applications of the theory to certain library and information science areas. Goffman might take as revealing the notion of a front-back stage of librarians working at the reference desk. Reference librarians often behave differently out "in front" of the library's public spaces than when they are in the back, working in their offices or socializing in the lunch area. Librarians therefore act in a certain manner when “in public” and in a quite different manner when “in private.”

Business students' & Goffman's frame

Fayard explores Goffman's theatrical metaphor to describe video-mediated interactions among MBA students in a distributed course. In video-mediated contexts, we adjust and evolve the routines we have to interact in everyday communication and in order to build a ‘stage’ for interaction. This stage does not refer to a spatial frame, but a shared social context, a ‘place’ where participants collaboratively interact. Instructors aiming to support communication in video-mediated settings should focus on building a stage and practices to support interactional order; focus on the construction of a shared social context, and a ‘sense of place’. The use of Goffman's theatrical metaphor to study video-mediated interactions revealed some valuable insights about use of the technology and replicating face-to-face interactions online - this, the paper suggests, will not work.

Museums' use of social media & framing research

Kidd's paper highlights and reflects on the use of social media in museums and seeks to explore challenges of using it for institutions steeped in discourses of authority, authenticity and materiality. He uses Goffman's frame analysis to understand the use of social media by museums and reveals the gulf between the possibilities of social media and how it is used by museums. Kidd says that this leads to forms of frame misalignment, which can be intensely problematic for museums; he argues further that museums should increase their understanding of frames within which certain activities can be encouraged and experienced. Kidd does not offer a comprehensive mapping of social media used by museums but uses examples to foreground concerns for exploration for further research. He says that a re-appraisal and re-framing of social media activity is needed.


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