Photographic frames are actually nothing but instantiations of what are called “cognitive schemas” elsewhere in these blogs: schemas that help organize what you see; that let out what is unimportant; and bring to the foreground what is relevant for you. It’s a term that is especially used in linguistics and psychology. The philosopher Antonio Damasio calls them “maps”, while the term “frame” is common in sociology for the phenomenon (although the word is also often used in psychology). The classic book on “frame analysis” in sociology still is the one by Erving Goffman with the same title, published in 1974. Maybe the subtitle of this book describes best what framing is about: The organization of experience. The photo of the napalm girl discussed by me last week shows well how this works.
Goffman’s Frame Analysis is quite a thick book (nearly 600 ages) and in my blogs I can’t do justice to it, but let me pick a few elements from it. As we just have seen, for Goffman framing is a matter of organizing experience. More exactly, for him framing is a method we use for defining a situation we are involved in; so it is a way to give it an interpretation. He sees frames as “principles of organization which govern events – at least social ones – and our subjective involvement in them” (pp. 10-11). For instance, suddenly I hear a bang and I see people running. I wonder what is happening and what I have to do. Is it an explosion? Is it a terrorist attack? Does it come from the exhaust pipe of a car? Depending on how I interpret the bang, so how I frame it, and the reason I am there – am I a passer-by, a policeman or do I live there? – I decide what to do: Nothing, or going to the site for getting more information, calling for help, running away, etc. A frame is individual, as Goffman says a few pages further, it is subjective and, as I want to add – but certainly Goffman says it elsewhere in his book – it has consequences for our behaviour: from doing nothing and accepting as it is till taking action.
Most framing doesn’t happen explicitly and consciously. Goffman’s explanation is a bit complicated, so let me say it in my own words: As soon as someone recognizes a situation, he or she automatically applies a framework or schema of interpretation. Since everyone has gone through a shorter or longer period of education and internalization, initially he or she falls back on the concepts and standard interpretations typical for his or her culture when interpreting an event or situation. Goffman talks here of “primary frameworks”. So if we see someone taking a book from a shelf in a certain type of building and giving a sheet of paper to another person, we automatically apply the framework “buying a book” (p. 21; the example is mine).
Primary frameworks can be of two kinds, so Goffman: natural and social. Again I want to use my own words. A framework is “natural” – not to confuse it with the term “natural frame” as I used it in my blog last week – if it is purely physical and if its meaning does not depend on the willful agency and intentionality of other people. On the other hand it is “social”, if it gets its meaning from the wills, aims and intentions of others. So a certain object is for us just a round thin piece of copper if considered in the natural way or a five-cent piece if interpreted within a social framework. (cf. pp. 21-22) Dealing with objects within a natural frame requires instrumental action, while within a social frame it involves rule-guided action.
By applying frames we constitute what we see and experience. Often frames are shared among individuals in the sense that they apply more or less the same frames to the same situations or events. Then all share an understanding of what it is that is going on and what everyone is doing, and then the frame concerned is “effectively correct” (cf. p. 301). In this way shared frames make that people stick together so to speak.