Unpacking the Idea of Context: Iterative Frames

The 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.[1] 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.[2].

1.   Powerlessness

2.      Meaninglessness

3.      Normlessness

4.      Cultural estrangement

5.      Self-estrangement

6.      Social 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.  

The Response to Frame Analysis

On the face of it, Frame Analysis generated an enormous response[3] (Benford & Snow 2000: 611). The Social Science Citation Index has more than 1800 references, making it one of the leading titles in social science.

But 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.

There 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: 6).

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.

Some 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 credible stories.”

Koenig 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: 52)

Koenig’s point is that, like this one, most responses to Goffman’s book have been misinterpretations, or at least, not constructive.

Critical 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!).

The 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 apply it.

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 issue below.

The Introductory Chapters of Frame Analysis

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: 10-11)

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.

Deciphering Frames

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 book’s purpose.

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. [2] 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. [3] (Indeed, to find an utterance with only possible reading is to find an utterance that can occur in only one possible context.) [4] 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.)[4]

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 chapter.

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 the discourse.

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.

Cicourel’s Approach

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 talk.

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 itself.

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 funny.)

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 was doing?[5]

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 others.

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 [6](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 its structure.

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 ms.)

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 seminar members.

Recursive Structures of Awareness

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 higher.

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[7]. 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. 48).

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 and constraining.

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 recursive steps.

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?

            IDA: No. This is the eye lady.

            PA:   (?)

            IDA: Cellulitis

            PA  : Oh.

            IDA :With group A strep..in shock.

            PA   : In shock. How about that.

            IDA : I[t?] was gonna be more interesting / if she didn’t

            MR :                                                            / I’m (?)

            IDA:  have bacteremia but (laughing…) now she’s had / bacteremia so

            MR:                                                                                  /There’s a little problem      

                                                                                                     /with that….

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: RIGHT-WING BASTARD!!!!

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 notation:

Mathematics, for 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[8].

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.

 Shanon (1990) 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).[9]

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 others.

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 else.”

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. 


Abbott, Andrew. 2001. Chaos of Disciplines. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

­­­­______________2004. Methods of Discovery: Heuristics for the Social Sciences. New York: Norton.

Austin, J. L. 1965. How to Do Things with Words. Oxford: Oxford U. Press.

Baptista, Luiz Carlos. 2003. Framing and Cognition.  Chapter 8 in Trevino, Javier (Editor), Goffman’s Legacy. Lanham, Md: Rowan & Littlefield.

Bartlett, Frederic. 1932. Remembering. Cambridge: The University Press.

Benford, Robert D. and David A. Snow. 2000. “Framing Processes and Social Movements: An Overview and Assessment.” Annual Review of Sociology 26: 11-39.

Burns, Tom.  1992. Erving Goffman. London: Routlege.

Chenail, Ronald. 1995. Recursive Frame Analysis. The Qualitative Report, Volume 2, Number 2, October

Cicourel, Aaron. 1992. The Interpenetration of Communicative Contexts. Chapter 11 in Alessandro Duranti and Charles Goodwin (Editors), Rethinking Context. Cambridge: Cambridge U. Press.

Craik, Kenneth. 1943. The Nature of Explanation. Cambridge: The University Press.

Davis, Murray S. 1975. Review of ‘Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience.’ Contemporary Sociology 4 (6): 509-603.

Ditton, Jason.  (Editor) 1980  . The View from Goffman. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Drew, Paul. and A. Wootton. (Eds.) 1988  . Erving Goffman: Exploring the Interaction Order. Cambridge: Polity.

Durkheim, Emile. 1915. Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. New York: Free Press (1965).

Entman, Robert M. 1993. Framing: Toward Clarification of a Fractured Paradigm. Journal of Communication 43 (4): 51-8.

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Gitlin, Todd. 1980. The Whole World Is Watching: Mass Media in the Making and Unmaking of the New Left. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Gergen, Kenneth. 1996. Postmodern Culture and the Revisioning of Alienation. In Geyer, Felix (Editor),. Alienation, Ethnicity, and Postmodernism. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood.

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 _____________ 1969. Strategic Interaction. Philadelphia: U. of Penn. Press.

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­­_____________   1981. Forms of Talk. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press

_____________ 1983. Felicity’s Condition. American Journal of Sociology 89 (1): 1-53.

Heinz, Walter. 1992. The methodology of alienation research. In Felix Geyer and Wlater Heinz (Editors), Alienation, Society, and the Individual. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.

Koenig, Thomas. 2004. Reviews of Frame Analysis. www.lboro.ac.uk/research/mmethods/resources/links/frames

Laing, R. D., H. Phillipson, and A. Lee. 1966. Interpersonal Perception. New York: Springer.

Leary, Mark and Roy Baumeister. 2000. The Nature and Function of Self-Esteem: Sociometer Theory. Pp. 1-62 in Advances in Experimental Social Psychology. Mark Zanna, (Editor). V. 32. San Diego: Academic Press.

Lefebvre, Vladimir. 1977. The Structure of Awareness: Toward a Symbolic Language of Human Reflexion. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Manning, Peter. 1980. Goffman’s Framing Order: Style as Structure. In Jason Ditton (Editor), The View from Goffman. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Lemert, Charles. 1997. Goffman. In Charles Lemert and Ann Branaman (Editors), The Goffman Reader. Oxford: Blackwell (pp. Ix-xlviii).

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[1] Ditton  (1980); Drew and Wooton  (1988), Riggins (1990), Manning  (1992), Burns  (1992), Lemert and Branerman (1997), Smith  (1999), Trevino (2003), and in four volumes, Fine and Smith (2001). There are also several volumes in other languages devoted to Goffman.

[2] Heinz (1992) also criticizes alienation studies for confounding individual and relational elements, but doesn’t note the emotion/cognition confound. Nor does Gergen (1996).  who has proposed giving more emphasis to the relational aspect of alienation, in line with his more general interest in bringing relational elements into individual psychology.

[3] My brief review of the responses are based in part on Koenig’s (2004) lengthy one.

[4] I am indebted to Gregory W. H. Smith for suggesting this paragraph, in response to my query about locating any discussion of the meaning of context by Goffman. It was Smith’s suggestion that made this article possible to write.

[5] Manning (1980, 261) refers to the “almost systematic evasiveness” of Goffman’s writing. It’s possible, however, that Goffman was not evasive, but so intuitive that he was unable to explicate parts of his own work.

[6] Once again, I am indebted to Greg Smith for calling my attention to this passage.

[7] Ronald de Souza called this essay to my attention.


[8] Lefebrve’s (1977) notation includes lateral frames.

[9] The last three references were suggested to me by Keith Oatley.