Frame Analysis is Erving Goffman's major contribution to social theory, the crux of which concerns teasing out the relation(s) between social life and meaning through an empirical examination of the existent structure of experience in everyday life. Those seeking to discover the ways in which these structures were/are created will not find suitable answers to their queries, as Goffman makes no stated (or otherwise), attempt to address these issues here (note: for a more concrete analysis of such matters, I would suggest anything by the masterful Michel Foucault). The central thesis of Frame Analysis concerns `the definition of the situation' initially developed by W.I. Thomas; whose famous dictum, "If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences," has become a theoretical stable of the symbolic interactionists perspective. Goffman argues that those who reside within the `definition of the situation' more than likely did not create the `definition,' thus posits Goffman, warrants further inquiry into the matter.
Frame Analysis is very long, dense and at times a rather trying and difficult read. Goffman employs a plethora of concepts couched within a multitude of frames from which the reader or `student' can view the ever complex and complicated social world. The most distinctive concepts (and important in terms of this text) however include the `frame,' `primary framework,' `keying,' and `fabrications.' Goffman defines a `frame' as, a collectivity of `definitions of situations' that together govern social events and our subjective involvement in them. A `primary framework' then provides meaning to events that would otherwise be meaningless and consists of two classes, "natural and social." The "natural" class concerns frames that are "purely physical" (e.g. Goffman provides "the state of weather as given in a report" as an example). "Social frameworks" on the other hand provide a basis for understanding events that include agency, aim, will, and controlling effort of human intelligence.
`Keying' consists of an "openly admitted" transformation of untransformed activity and concerns a systematic reworking of something that is already meaningful within the primary framework, therefore enabling social actors to determine what it is that they think is really going on (e.g., Goffman lists the following as basic keys employed in our society, `make-believe,' `contests,' `ceremonials,' `technical redoings,' and `regroupings'). For instance, style (an example of a keying): consists of features of particular social actors who then through "the maintenance of expressive identifiably" systematically transform or modify a strip of activity. `Fabrications,' like keying, consists of a reworking of something that is already meaningful within the primary framework but unlike keying concerns the intentional effort of one or more persons to manage activity so that one or more individuals will garner a false belief about the definition of the situation. A "strip of activity" then is perceived by social actors in terms of the rules of a primary framework (social or natural) and that the perception of such activity provides a model for two basic transformations (keying and/or fabrication). These organizational premises then sustained in both activity and the mind of the actor, collectively comprising what Goffman calls the "frame of the activity."
The "frame of activity" contains the subjective aspects of social life whereby human actors constantly adjust their behavior based on the actions (and subsequent interpretations) given off by other actors. An empirical examination of meaningful activities taking place within the frame of activity as outlined by Goffman in his nearly six hundred page masterpiece allows us to then develop a very basic understanding of the social production of reality. This book is not recommended for the novice sociologist but is geared for the more serious student (e.g. those considering graduate school or those in already in graduate school). A more suitable `beginners' Goffman book might be The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959) which provides a less systematic (and theoretical) approach toward the mundane interaction in everyday life.
SUGGESTIONS FOR FURTHER READING
Blumer, Herbert. 1969. Symbolic Interactionism. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Brissett, Dennis and Charles Edgle (eds). 1990. Life as Theater: A Dramaturgical Source Book. New York, NY: Aldine de Gruyter.
Goffman, Erving. 1959. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. New York, NY:Doubleday Press.
Lofland, John (ed). 1978. Interaction in Everyday Life. Beverly Hills, CA: University of California Press.