Frame analysis - a few examples

Crossing the boundaries of a frame
  • This example occurred during a performance of a number of excerpts from Grieg's Peer Gynt and an accompanying narration by a professional actor (based on Ibsen's text). The actor's stage was a strip of about 1.5 metres in front of the symphonic orchestra and he also made use of a limited number of props.
  • At one point, the actor/narrator (deliberately?) mistakes the tip of the conductor's jacket for the sheikh's daughter's veil in which he is shedding his tears. The humourous effect here lies in the crossing of frame boundaries and the audience's recognition that such may result in a disruption of the musical performance (the conductor is drawn into the narration/action frame in a way which may jeopardise his participation in the conducting frame opon which the narrating frame is conditioned). Humour abounds when the conductor responds gently with a friendly and consoling tap on the actor's shoulder (he steps into the narrating/acting frame, i.e. this counts as a change of footing) and, while doing so, he reclaims the tip of his jacket (safeguards the frame of the musical performance).
Example based on a performance of Grieg's/Ibsen's Peer Gynt in De Bijloke (Gent), October 7, 2000 by the Vlaams Radio Orkest (dir. D. Vermeulen) and Frank Groothof).


Manage uncertainty about an emerging frame
  • The plot: Lois and Tom, a married couple, are both policemen and so is Matt, their closest friend. Tom is an undercover agent who's taken on the role of a pimp. Shelley, one of his prostitutes, has been killed and there is growing uncertainty over his exact involvement in the murder but also as to what his relationship with Shelley is/was. The scene comes after Matt & Lois's visit to the prostitute's flat where they meet her mother who's described Tom as the only one who really cared for Shelley. Sarah is a mutual colleague.
  • The scene is shot in Matt's house, late evening, living room. Lois sits on the floor, leaning against the settee, Matt lies flat on the settee and has a beer (drinks from the bottle).
(*.wmv, 2.5 Mb)
L1 [frontal gaze, right forearm extended palm down] what's left of him [right hand palm up] - what's left of the Tom that I [right hand to chest] actually know
M1 [gaze at L., non-reciprocated] there's a lots of things
L2 like what [hand down again, gaze to M, shakes head, gaze then away again, both forearms extended, palms up] - I was - I was in that flat this afternoon talking to that woman who was telling me about my husband [hand to chest] - his life [gaze to ground] who's to say which one is the real version [gaze to M and then to ground]
M2 [gaze to L, gaze L to ground] well he's being paid to be that man we heard about in the flat - that's the difference [takes a sip from beer]
L3 that's fine then [turns head away, gaze at ceiling] [eye contact] - my husband's a prostitute
M3 no [re-arranges body position] - that's not what I'm saying
L4 so what are you saying exactly? [gazes meet, M is leaning forward now]
M4 bottom line [still leaning forward] - I just know that Tom wouldn't be sleeping with anyone but you [gets half up and now sits next to her; both gazes frontal]
L5 how can you know that [eye contact]
M5 [looks at L, smile on face; gaze L fontal] apart from the fact that any man who had you would never look elsewhere you mean
L6 sweet [looks at him & smiles, M. looks away and opens another bottle, smile still on his face] - unconvincing - how can you know that
M6 because he was too worried that you might be falling out of love with him [intense gaze to one another]
L7 [gaze away] that gives him the perfect excuse doesn't it [M opens bottle] - he felt unwanted so he lept into bed with someone else [gaze to M, M takes a breath through nose indexing disbelief]
M7 hu hu hu hum [nervous laughter indexing embarrassment, looks at her, gaze away again, throws bottle cap on floor] - sorry - it's just Sarah thinks that's actually what you're doing
L8 does she
M9 yeah [gaze at floor]
L9 who with [a brief glance at M]
M9 [looks at her & then gaze to floor] me [lower lip drawn in]
L10 hm
M10 hm
L11 that's ridiculous
M11 [clicks tongue] that's exactly what I said [takes sip from beer]
L12 [gaze to M] did you
M12 [right forearm, palm up, swing away and back] the idea of me and you [gaze at each other now] - it's stupid - huh [nervous laughter running through the utterance; eye contact; M gazes at floor, L gazes at M, forearm M moves left to right a number of times] - I mean not that I - that we uh [with salient breathtake] I mean uh - if things were different - wha - maybe erm - just tell me when I buried myself completely and I'll stop here [blows air between teeth, indexing nervousness]
L13 [sighs + shrugs shoulders, gaze at M, M gaze at floor] you don't want me
M13 [intense eye contact and then M turns head away] no - no - and you don't want me [takes sip from bottle]
L14 [looks at M but his gaze is still at floor] as long as that's clear
M14 [nods with mild click of tongue at end; M looks at L, then away again, then back to, while L's gaze now at floor] are we flirting here or are we fighting - just for the record
L15 we're [turns head to M, eye contact] - touching
M15 [looks down and eye contact again] I know - you move first
L16 [shakes head; M + L bring lips closer to one another, faces tilted]
M16 this is one of those moments then - when one of us does the sensible thing
L17 [nods] it erm - you're probably right
scene now shifts to wild kissing on the way to the bedroom, where they discover M's daughter asleep in the M's bed
L1 we're probably glad she did this in the morning
M1 why
L2 because we're fundamentally - decent people
M2 yeah - it's a bastard thing isn't it [L gives him a kiss on the cheek and leaves]
Comments & analysis
The following exchange can be read as a situation in which a frame is emerging but the actors are uncertain as whether or not to proceed towards fully establishing it (M and L as lovers outside marriage), especially as they realise that, once established, no return is possible to the present frame in which they are two close friends who have a friend/husband in common. In such situations, actors can be shown to momentarily "step out of the frame", so as to check the likelihood/desirability of the new frame being established, while allowing themselves still room to cancel it altogether. This happens three times in the exchange above:
  • In M12, the actor comments on the frame to save mutual face (it becomes face-threatening to say that he has no interest in L but it is equally face-threatening to signal that he has an interest).
  • In M14, the actor is doing some prospection. He positions himself one step removed from acting within the frame so as to check on a next move, but he does so in a way which still allows him to call off th whole thing, depending on the response he gets. The categories of "flirting" and "fighting" pertain to the interpretation of the multually expressed denial of interest in each other in L13 ("you don't want me") and M13 ("and you don't want me"). Note how, in response to M14, L15 introduces an alternative reading ("we're touching"). It counts as a signal towards establishing the frame, also by resuming action inside the emerging frame.
  • In M15, the actor negotiates sequence. L15 responds with a move within the frame.
  • M16 offers a comment on the action sequence inside the frame (because this is a point of no return). Note that the turn can be read as a positive/negative move towards establishing the lovers frame fully, depending on how one answers the question "what is the sensible thing to do". L17 ("you're probably right") has similar ambiguity.
Note, finally, that the frame of "being lovers" is one which depends on physical behaviour for its full establishment. This is not to deny the role which talk plays in establishing and maintaining such a frame (that would be very unlike Goffman), but it does provide an interesting case which brings out the limits of any efforts to restrict interactional analysis to a concern with talk alone.
Example drawn from the BBC Series, Undercover Heart, as broadcast on Canvas, October 9, 2000).


Out-of-frame activity
  • A dog wanders into a wedding ceremony. Someone tries to shoo it out, while others ignore the frame break.
Example borrowed from Collins (1988:60 R. Collins, 1988, 'Theoretical continuties in Goffman's work' ).


Multiple frames mounted on a primary physical frame
Porta Nigra, Trier
  • The following happened on entering the first floor of the right tower of the old Roman gate, the Porta Nigra, in Trier around lunchtime. On doing so, we found the tower on the left to be occupied by a crowd of small groups (2 to 3 persons) talking around roundshaped, high tables, each person holding either a champagne flute or a wine glass filled with orange juice or having such a glass in front of them.
  • The interesting bit lies in a brief moment of hesitation as to what sort of response is required. Even though we carried tickets giving us legitimate entry to all parts of the building which are open to the public and even though there was no sign, verbal warning or physical barrier to stop us from crossing over the central corridor to the left tower, we nevertheless hesitated before proceeding. This, in itself, is telling. Clearly, the cues which index the frame of a 'business reception' came with the assumption of an event from which non-invitees are excluded.
  • Eventually, we did proceed to the left tower and walked around the floor, self-consciously behaving within a tourist/visiting frame (helped in this by a camera and a raincoat) in a manner which treated the 'reception' on the disattention track, as Goffman calls it. However, others faced with same dilemma may well have proceeded directly up the stairs to the second floor.
Example occurred in Trier (Germany), September 2000