Frame Analysis

Bourke, S., Cikoratic,J. & Mack, G.


How a person attempts to resolve a difficult problem or approaches an opportunity is dependent on how the issue is framed. Issues may be framed around structural terms, a human resource view or a political frame or through a symbolic perspective such as the culture of the organisation.

Each frame can lead the person to resolve the issues from a different perspective, the key is which frame is valid or are all the frames valid and equally real (Bowen 1998). Frame analysis is an expansion of classic frame research. Classic frame research is in essence the classification and organisation of experience.

Frame analysis extends framing to include the interpretation of our experiences to make sense of them. Its use has been most prevalent in sociology, political science and communication theory (Elliott & Hayward, 1998).

It was Erving Goffman who developed frame analysis. A significant impact on Goffman's work were his views of modern society as being egocentric, false and superficial (Manning & Cullum-Swam 1998). His contributions were advanced through his perspectives of existentialism, phenomenology (how you experience things), structuralism (rules inherent within structural forms) and semiotics (the science of signs) (MacCannell 1983). Even though other writers have had an impact on frame theory, this paper will predominantly focus on the work of Goffman over some 30 years.

Framing Analysis is not a methodology in the true sense, rather it is a manner of classifying and viewing an opportunity or a problem.

Construction of reality

Several writers including Berger and Luckman (1967), James (1983) and Schultz (1973), have identified that people collectively create facts and knowledge that to an individual appear to be true and real, thereby the individual constructs a reality. This process is achieved by moving or transforming our "actual" events and "literal" experiences, which are unframed, to another meaning of reality. This provides the opportunity to create multiple realities each with its own logics and principles of organisation.
Goffman was quite critical of both James and Shultz as both writers elevated one reality over another, with the "working world" having preferential status.

Goffman argued that meaning interpreted from a single frame would produce a distorted view of experience.
Goffman (1974) introduced the concept that the social worlds had layers of intentional and unintentional deceit. And as people would transform their unframed events through successive layering these reframings would be built on deceit the final "transformed" real world could not be taken at face value. (Chayko, 1993). Goffman also suggested that as we all classify, organise and interpret our life experiences to make sense of them, but what we perceive as real is inferred from the situation.

Structuralist vs Interactionist views in setting a frame

Goffman's attempt is to see behind the unfolding of the interactionist's analysis:- the unfolding of everyday events. Goffman argues that behind these everyday events are structures that he refers to as frames.
Through Goffman's structural viewpoint of everyday life is made up of delineated social worlds or frames, with special meaning. The structure of the frame, unlike that of the situation, is fixed and not dependent on day to day events. And reinforces this concept as he sees language analogous to the rules and syntax of the frame (Gognos, 1971).

Interactions are concerned with the meaning attached by the actors to their situation. As such the documentation of their inner thoughts through questionnaires, interviews and dialogue is required. Goffman argues to the contrary that is useless to determine the actors motives, and is more interested in the properties of the activity, which would prove to be more reliable. With this in mind the interactionist viewpoint is that people are the source of social change and Goffman would argue that people support the social structure, ie. it is human nature. (Gognos 1971)

Frame Analysis Model

Goffman argues that if an individual only use one frame, that individual will produce a distorted representation of experience, thereby Goffman encourages the usage of many frames to organise knowledge An example is a work of art, which is seen as representations of the phenomena of the real world, inspired by real phenomena yet kept clearly separate from the real world. Through a transformation process of viewing the primary framework of the real world and subsequently the secondary framework of the painting, we organise the experience to create a form of reality.

Frames are principles of organisation that govern events, especially social ones, and our subjective involvement in them. Frames are subject to reworking as we move from one frame to another. As in our example with our work of art this frame movement is achieved in one of two ways, keying or fabrication (Bloland, 1979). Keying is a more creative process where transformation can take place through make believe, sport, games, ritual, experimentation, practice. Fabrication on the other hand is based more on deceit (Goffman, 1974).

The frame provides the rules and principles, which guides one towards understanding the meaning of experienced events. The frame addresses the question "what is going on here". (Manning & Cullum-Swan, 1998)


There are two areas of concern with application Goffman’s framing analysis. The first is that the model is built on structural rules and the second impact of technology on the perception of our reality. ‘

·Structural Rules
Sharron (1981) argues the Goffman's analysis is flawed, as it does not encapsulate the notion of social time: eg. attention to the tone of speech rather than its rules leading to a better understanding of the speaker. Cognos (1977) also criticises Goffman's structuralist approach in relation to society on several grounds.

Interactionists place a focus on unpredictability of the social process. Goffman's frames are predictable and recurring. Also structuralism studies the structure as a whole. But frames are a way to analyse and organise action, as the actor perceives it. It therefore neglects to analyse undefined fragments. The ad-hoc meaning that people assign to specific actions are not taken into account, as the rigid structure of the Goffman model does not have that flexibility. And finally spontaneity is not explained in Goffman's structural analysis ·
Technology Integration
Modern technology will arguably challenge the theories of framing analysis. These technologies are swiftly penetrating our social world and reframing our current frames. Television for example provides ready-made framing packages that continually bombard our lives. As this form of media further penetrates our society and provides increased social control, resulting in individuals continually and rapidly moving in and out of frames.

Frame interpretation of events can occur in two ways. · An event inside an apparent frame may leak out into our literal world. Examples are going to a football match expecting to see a replay, a rock concert where the singer sounded wrong because it did not sound like the CD. Arguably there may be confusion as to what is a primary frame and what is not, as media continually challenges what is the literal space or experience ·

Frame interpretation can also move the other way. Where events in the real world are leaked into frames. An example of information leakage is the now public knowledge of actors’ intimate personal details being reflected in the actors’ perceived performance. (Chayko, 1993).

These examples show that the impact of technology is greying the area between what is real and what is not real. The traditional rigid binary frame to conceptualise the organisation of experience and reality is arguably becoming less relevant for the future. In this context Chayko (1993) argues that concept of reality Goffman model needs to be replaced with a continuum rather than a black and white view of reality.

Applying Frame theory to business

The use of images, frames and metaphors in analysing, organisation and management theory and practice, is generally viewed in a positive manner. Even though a multiple perspective approach through framing is often seen as a managerial competency, there is still a lack of empirical evidence in this regard. (Dunford and Palmer 1995).

The use of framing analysis in the business world has to date been limited. Its use has been most prevalent in sociology, political science and communication theory (Elliott and Hayward, 1998). Political scientists and communications theorists have used frame theory to understand how political issues and media frames are presented to influence people (Domke & Dhaven 1996), while narrative frames have been used to construct meaning.

Schmitt (1993) used frame analysis with content analysis of communications in conjunction with a case study of the Chicago Bears to understand how traditional meanings where changed with the 1987 American NFL strike. Donohue and Dreake (1996) showed the effect of framing patterns on conflict resolution, identifying four types of frames predominantly used in divorce disputes: interest frames, factual frames, value frames and relational frames.

Recently Elliot and Hayword (1998) have expanded the definition of framing and its particular impact on economic experimentation. The study showed that continuing experimental explorations of framing created greater insight into actual economic decision making in settings such as public choice arena's, goods and labour markets, by in essence moving from classical economics to a socio-economic premise. Dunford and Palmer (1995) showed that managers described reframing as a useful tool but they typically failed to apply it in their everyday practices. This was possibly compounded by the fact that the relationship between reframing and outcomes are not direct.


The frame provides the rules and principles, which guides one towards understanding the meaning of experienced events. Frames are principles of organisation that govern events, especially social ones, and our subjective involvement in them. Frames are subject to reworking as we move from one frame to another, thereby providing different perspectives of events. Framing analysis can be a very useful tool in classifying and viewing an opportunity or a problem. Limited application of frame analysis as a research methodology in business contexts has been carried out to date. This paper presents a formalised and disciplined approach to frame analysis that could yield insights into research programs.


Bowen. D, D, (1998). Team Frames: The multiple realities of Teams. Journal of Management Education.
22(1), pp 95-104.

Describes the experiential exercise, team frames, designed to introduce students to the problem-solving skill of reframing by applying the concept to class teams. Explanation of the concepts of team building; Discussion on the frames or perspective's of organisation and management theory.

Bloland, G (1979). Opportunity traps and Sanctuaries: A Frame Analysis of Learned Societies. ASHE. Annual Meeting 1979 paper.

An analysis and comparison of two frames, " convetioneering" and "game," as experienced by convention goers is presented to provide a partial explanation of convention behaviour and stress response. Many of the concepts discussed come directly from the book by Erving Goffman. Frames are principles of organisation that governs events, at least social ones, and our subjective involvement in them. Frames are subject to reworking, a shifting of one frame to another in two ways, "keying" and "fabrication".

A description is presented of the untransformed conventioneering frame, which gives the conventioners what is most often considered by them to be an authentic and appropriate reality. The game frame is discussed with reference to transformation through keying. Several kinds of focused convention situations are analysed to demonstrate the differences between keying to a game frame or to a conventioneering frame. Problematic frame transformations, self and two frame, and frames and historical explanations of dramaturgy are discussed.

Chayko, M, (1993). What is real in the Age of Virtual Reality: Reframing Frame Analysis for a technological world. Symbolic Interaction, 16(2), pp171-181.

Considers how experience is generated & organised in modern social life & applies Erving Goffman's frame theories to technologies, eg virtual reality, they have transformed everyday life & definition of real experience. Conclusions suggest that a reframing of frame analysis & a reconceptualization of reality itself are necessary to understand how social worlds involving highly sophisticated technologies are created & endowed with meaning & the subtle, long term effects of such technologies.
Drake, L & Donohue, W, A, (1996). Communicative Framing Theory in Conflict Resolution. Communication Research, 23(3), pp297-323

Evaluates the use of the communicative framing concept in conflict resolution. Heuristic value of the framing concept; Theoretical framework for explicating the communicative framing process; Effects of framing patterns on conflict interaction.

Dunford, R, W, & Palmer, I, C, (1995). Claims about frames. Practitioners assessment of Utility ofreframing. Journal Of Management Research,19(1), pp 96-106.

Assesses the practical significance of the use of images, frames and metaphors in analysing organisation and management theory and practice. Views of advocates of the multiple-perspective's approach; Discussion of perceptions of management practitioners.

Elliott, C & Hayward, D (1998). The expanding definition of framing and its particular impact oneconomic experimentation Journal of Socio-Economics, 27(2), pp 229-234.

Explores the expanding definition of framing research and its impact on economic experimentation. Review of related literature; Examination of the issues related to economic experimentation and framing research.

Goffman, Erving (1974). Frame Analysis New York: Harper Colophon
Gonos, G (1977). Situation Vs Frame the Interactionist and the structuralist analysis of everyday ife. American Sociological Review, 32 (December), pp 854-867.

"Situation" and "Frame" the elementary units of analysis of two versions of micro-sociology, are compared in order to elucidate the currently existing but (as such) barely recognised, interactionist and structuralist approaches that they represent and to demonstrate that they contain widely divergent understandings of everyday life. After certain of the notions that underlie each of them are made clear, the contrasting positions of theses two approaches are reviewed with respect to the common issues, including the nature of self, the place of meaning and subjectivity in analysis, and what are the appropriate research methods.. These considerations provide the basis for the general interpretation of Goffman's work, something that the sociological literature has lacked.

Though Goffman is most often treated as symbolic interactionist this paper argues that a better understanding of his work results from reading it as a version of contemporary structuralism. The fundamental ways in which this structuralism is distinct from the cultural as well as the interactionist approach are given.

MacCannel, D (1983). Erving Goffman (1922-1982). Semiotica, 4-1(2) : pp1-33.

A review of the sociological work of Erving Goffman, utilising Goffman's own Method of Frame analysis. His work began as an involvement with existentialism. Eventually he declared an attachment to the phenomenological school in Frame Analysis (1974). He partially followed the European sociological shift from phenomenology to structuralism, grounding each approach in the critique of each other. His work can also be understood as largely semiotic in focus, from the beginnings to its final form. The ultimate context of his work is its concern with defending the sense of personal independence.

Manning, R, P & Betsy Cullum-Swan, (1998). Semiotics and Framing Examples. Semiotica, 92-3(4), pp 239-257.

A case is outlined for studying the production of meaning by signs. The analysis is directed toward integrating Erving Goffman's notions of framing with selected concepts from semiotics in order to demonstrate how a semiotic approach can be fruitfully applied to ethnographic or qualitative material. Goffman's ideas on framing are explicated in Frame Analysis (1974) are discussed. Some real-world examples illustrate the usefulness of the framing approach.
Schmitt, L, R, (1993). Enhancing Frame Analysis: Five Laminating Functions of Language in 1987 NFLstrikes. Sociology of Sport Journal,10(2). June , pp135-147

The introduction of "replacement teams" into the social world of the National Football league during the 1987 strike stimulated a laminated language, that transformed traditional meanings by linking varying social definitions to one another. Emergent content analysis of extensive newspaper, sport magazine, newsmagazine, & live television & radio accounts, supplemented by a case study of the experience of the Chicago Bears was used to inductively study this language. Power, media & social structure impacted on the various language terms that were created. Laminated language protected, rejected, accepted, satirically extended & integrated definitions. Various ways in which the recognition of laminated language may be used to enhance the use of Erving Goffman's framing concepts & leads in the sociological study of everyday life are offered.

Shah, D & Domke, D (1996). To thine own self be true : Values Framing, and other Voter Decision-MakingStrategies. Communication Research, 23(5). pp 509-546

Examines the relationships among media frames, individual interpretations of issues, and voter decision making by building on multidisciplinary research on framing, motivation and decision making. Framing and priming; Motivation and the self; Decision making; Implications for understanding the voting process.

Sharron, A (1981). Frame Paralysis: When time stands still. Social Research 48(3), autumn, pp 500-520

The theory of social time is illustrated through a critique of some major concepts introduced in the works of Erving Goffman. One is the concept of the "frame", the basis of his Frame Analysis. An attempt is made to show that frame implies discontinuity, rather than process, in social life. The second attempt is the "dramaturgical approach," in which social life is depicted as a series of theatrical presentations. It is suggested that a musical metaphor of social life would be more appropriate, since music is more "temporal" in nature than in theatre.