After completing this lesson, learners will have:
- Examined the concept of framing as an activity of understanding, persuasion and recruitment
- Differentiated between four varieties of frame alignment between speakers and audiences
- Coded a current primary text to assess the extent to which various forms of frame alignment are employed in a political context
Introduction: What is a Frame?
Take a look at the above picture, taken in Taksim Square, Istanbul, Turkey in the summer of 2013. What matters in that picture?
Is the man with a dubious expression on his face on the left-hand side of the image the most important element of the picture? What is he thinking? Is it most notable that this square has been entirely paved with stones (see lower left)? Is the presence of police with riot gear the aspect of the image to which you should be paying attention (center)? Or is the use of electronic gadgetry to capture images and engage in conversation the important and new historical fact of the period?
I’ve drawn your attention to four aspects of the picture through the use of literal frames. Once those frames are made visible, it’s difficult to escape the temptation to look inside them, and difficult to look outside the frames for additional information that might not yet have been noticed. A frame can be thought of generally as a way of saying that what occurs within the frame matters most, and that what happens outside a frame is not as important.
The main difference between frames in social science and frames in art is that in the social sciences, frames are not literal constructions around images. Instead, as Erving Goffman identifies them in his classic Frame Analysis (Goffman 1974), frames are rhetorical devices that draw attention to a certain way of seeing a phenomenon, a way of seeing that suggests a certain definition of the situation and in turn a certain natural-seeming way to resolve the situation.
Goffman cites two examples of ways in which dealing with the obscene can make framing especially important and especially visible. The very idea of obscenity is the display of what should not be scene, the mentioning of the unmentionable, the speaking of the unspeakable. How can such matters be even discussed when they are, by definition, not to be discussed? Goffman notes that the question is not merely rhetorical and academic; the city of Winchester, Indiana found it could not implement an anti-obscenity ordinance because, in order to take effect, the ordinance would have to be published, further spreading the obscenity it sought to curtail:
“Winchester, Ind. (UPI) — Winchester’s new antipornography ordinance may not take effect because the local newspaper says its language is not in good taste.
In an article explaining the position, Richard Wise, publisher of the Winchester News Gazette and Journal Herald, said:
‘We are not questioning the wisdom of the ordinance itself or the constitutional right of persons to buy or sell such material. Rather, we are simply exercising our right to print only matter which we feel is reasonable or tasteful and we do not believe the language with definitions is in good taste.’
Winchester ordinances must be printed in a Winchester newspaper of general circulation in order to take effect, and Mr. Wise has the only one.”
(UPI 1973, in Goffman 1974, p. 71)
In order to extricate itself from this kind of difficulty, political and publishing authorities had to exert effort to reframe the use of obscenity in newspaper reporting on obscenity as somehow not technically qualified as obscenity. Eventually, commentators concluded that the use of “obscene” words when not intended for “obscene” purposes was not technically obscene. Therefore, newspapers’ explicit discussion of obscenity laws with obscene terms was “not banned altogether, [but] allowed only with the apology that their appearance is necessary for realistic representation” (Paletz and Harris 1975). The frame of “necessity for realistic representation” allowed the publication of obscene words to be understood as an exercise of professionalism.
On trial for using obscene words in his comedy routine in mid-20th-century America, Lenny Bruce took the opposite tack in framing his situation. In order to disturb the proceedings of a highly professionalized court environment being used to alter his speech, he tried to reframe court proceedings as simply another gig, a nightclub act, an absurdist “show.” Goffman quotes a San Francisco Chronicle report on the trial by Michael Harris to highlight Bruce’s framing effort:
“The task of reaching a verdict was handed to the jury after Bruce’s unprintable word and unprintable story were related in his own words in an 18-minute excerpt taped from his October  show.
‘This show is high comedy,’ Bendich [Bruce’s lawyer] announced before pulling the switch to start the performance. ‘I am going to ask that the audience be allowed to respond to the humor. It wouldn’t be human not to.’
Judge Horn stopped Bendich in mid-argument.
‘This is not a theater and not a show. I am not going to allow any such thing,’ the Judge replied.
Judge Horn then turned to the spectators in the crowded courtroom and said, ‘I am going to admonish you to control yourselves in regard to any emotions you may feel.’
The warning was taken solemnly — and so, it developed, was the performance.
No one laughed, and very few in the room showed the trace of a smile during the sampling of the humor by Lenny Bruce.”
(Harris 1962, in Goffman 1974, p. 69)
Had Lenny Bruce’s lawyer succeeded in allowing laughter in the courtroom, Bruce’s routine would have been judged on the basis of the ‘audience’ reaction. Because Judge Horn successfully turned aside the reframing of an obscenity case into a talent contest, he was able to affect the behavior of those involved (who acted as an ‘admonished’ courtroom rather than an amused ‘audience’), and thereby the outcome of arguments.
Frame Alignment Operations
A decade after the publication of Erving Goffman’s Frame Analysis, David Snow and his colleagues (1986) extended h1. is work on framing by noting that frames can be used as strategic instruments of persuasion to gain adherents to a social movement. The act of bringing a possible adherent’s way of seeing the situation — her frame — into congruence with the frame of a persuasive agent is called frame alignment. Snow et al. 1986 identify four kinds of frame alignment operations:
- Frame Bridging. This is the simplest of frame alignment operations, in which people seeking to recruit others to join a movement target people who are already in agreement with the movement and its goals. Frame bridging is merely the act of bringing an issue to people’s attention. For example, imagine that you are a passionate drinker of coffee. A leader of the Coffee Drinkers Association of America will probably only need to approach you and say, “did you know that members of Congress are trying to make coffee illegal?” in order to gain your support. Frame bridging doesn’t have to change anyone’s mind — it just involves sending out an alert.
- Frame Amplification. Frame amplification involves a bit more work. It involves not just highlighting an issue, but reminding people that the issue matters to them. Usually, frame amplifiers have to remind people of some cherished values that nevertheless have lain latent — that is, mostly unattended and unnoticed in people’s minds. Imagine a country that has known peace for some 40 years. An anti-war movement seeking to halt sales of ballistic missiles in that country will have to work to remind people who haven’t thought about issues of war and peace for some 40 years that yes, their pacifist values matter to them. Recruiters who begin a sentence with the question, “Wouldn’t you say that ____ is wrong?” are engaging in frame amplification, getting their targets to activate long-neglected values.
- Frame Extension. Frame extension involves yet more work on recruiters’ part. A recruiter may try to sway some target to her or his cause even if that target doesn’t share the cause’s core values. Snow et al. (1986) use the example of anti-war activists who in the 1980s sought to impose a freeze on the development of new nuclear weapons These activists thought they might not gain too many new adherents by simply arguing that nuclear weapons were morally wrong due to their violent potential. Instead, they appealed to citizens’ fiscal sensibilities, arguing that building and maintaining nuclear weapons costs a great deal of money. Wouldn’t that money be better spent elsewhere: building new schools, finding people jobs, or paying down the national debt? In this way, anti-nuclear activists hoped, non-pacifists would come to support their cause even if they did not share the original pacifist frame. Another frame — fiscal concerns — could lead to the same substantive conclusion, it was hoped. Therefore, activists extended their frame to encompass economic arguments. For reference, see this 1981 essay from within the movement discussing just such a strategy.
- Frame Transformation. This is the hardest method of frame alignment of them all. Efforts at transformation do not try to take the other’s point of view into account, or to draw targets’ attention to long-dormant values they already hold. Instead, when politically active persuaders attempt a strategy of frame transformation, they are actually trying to change the minds of their targets, trying to change their beliefs and values. If you hear the phrase “actually, you’re wrong. You need to look at it this way…” in the middle of an argument, you’ll know that someone is trying to fundamentally transform the way someone sees and thinks about a subject. This strategy is incredibly difficult to pull off because people are subject to anchoring bias, the tendency to cling to an already-held belief or value, even when someone offers a sensible argument for letting go. In other words, people are very stubborn about changing their minds. It usually takes a lot of time and effort to make frame transformation work.
Can You Find Frame Alignment in the Maine State Legislature?
Are you ready to find some frames? Let’s look for some in testimony of political activists before the Maine State Legislature. To find testimony, I’d first like you to identify a bill on an issue that interest you. To get started, visit the main homepage of this very website, Open Maine Politics — a freely-available mashup database of Maine state legislative data for the current Maine State Legislature. Use the search function indicated below by the yellow arrow to find a bill that you like…
Once you have made a successful search and identified a bill of interest to you, look for a link to the official bill’s informational page at the Maine State Legislature, and click that link:
You’ll be taken to a page with a “Status in Committee” link (see below). Click that link, and if there is any testimony that has been offered for or against that bill, you’ll see a link appear entitled “Public Hearing Testimony” (also see below). Click that link to start browsing through and reviewing testimony on the bill! This is the nitty-gritty work of political research. Some people may never learn to love it; but if you find yourself wanting to read more… and more… and more… then pay attention to that feeling. You may have a career as an activist, an archivist, or a researcher ahead of you!
Can you find some examples of frame bridging, frame amplification, frame extension, and frame transformation in the testimony you’ve just read? If so, don’t keep your findings all to yourself! Share what you’ve learned with others using the interactive “Padlet” you see below. Just double-click on the main Padlet area and you may e ither type in text, add an image or share a document like a spreadsheet or report that contains your data and findings.
Athanasiou, Tom. 1981. “Conversion: The Limits of the Soft Sell.” It’s About Times: the Abalone Alliance Newspaper August: p. 5. Accessed March 29, 2016 at http://foundsf.org/index.php?title=Conversion:_The_Limits_of_the_Soft_Sell.
Goffman, Erving. 1974. Frame Analysis. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Harris, Michael. 1962. “Lenny Bruce Acquitted in Smut Case.” San Francisco Chronicle, March 9.
Paletz, David L. and William F. Harris. 1975. “Four-Letter Threats to Authority.” The Journal of Politics 37(4): 955-979/
Snow, David A., E. Burke Rochford, Steven K. Worden and Robert D. Benford. 1986. “Frame Alignment Processes, Micromobilization, and Movement Participation.” American Sociological Review 51: 464-481.
The Rag. 1974. “Pornographic Ordinance.” The Rag, 8(15): 5.
United Press International. 1973. Wire Report, December 29.
Assistant Professor James Cook
University of Maine at Augusta (Social Science)
I am an Assistant Professor of Social Science at the University of Maine at Augusta. My areas of interest in teaching include social research methods, social network analysis, and the examination of social facts more broadly. My areas of interest in research include social networks, social media, and social relationships in politics.