08. The Social Frame

I began these notes by explaining what the smallest unit of meaning, the sign, is and how it is generated. Following that, I indicated that we refer to “archived” signs in our memories to create new signs, which are called “codes.” Here, I would like to zoom out a bit more and look at how codes are used to “standardize” the forms of communication and behavior in society.

There is a concept in sociology (social theory) called “frame.” Here is the most quoted definition by the sociologist Erving Goffman who coined the term: 

“I assume that definitions of a situation are built up in accordance with principles 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. That is my definition of frame.” (Goffman, 1974, 10-11; in König) 

Here is another definition by Goffman:

‘Given their understanding of what it is that is going on, individuals fit their actions to this understanding and ordinarily find that the ongoing world supports this fitting. These organizational premises – sustained both in the mind and in activity – I call the frame of the activity’ (Goffman, 1974, 247; in Elam, 88).

[“Frame” is a rather technical term used in various and elaborated ways in sociology, media studies, social movement studies, etc. after Goffman. My use of the term is limited to my understanding of Goffman’s definition (he has also used the term “framework”). K. Elam and R. Schechner use the term in their books within those limits as well.]

Goffman maintains that certain repeating actions that are part of a social situation or event eventually acquire a “definition” as a whole in the minds of the participants. “Frames are conceptual or cognitive structures to the extent that they are applied by participants and observers to make sense of a given ‘strip’ of behaviour.” (Elam, 87) 

Let us put it this way: Codes that are repeatedly referred to for the identification of certain situations or events eventually get bundled and set to form “rules” of behavior within the “frame” of those situations or events. In the “Codes” section I quoted John Fiske’s definition of codes: “Codes are .. the systems into which signs are organized.” (Fiske, 64) We can possibly group the codes within frames and say that frames are the systems into which codes are organized.

Frames emerge mainly for practical reasons, to organize, correlate and homogenize the behaviors of participants in social events and, hence, to generate repeatable “packages” (perhaps one might call it “ritualization”). Environments built for specific functions form specific sets of behavior: for instance, prescribed and expected behaviors at a restaurant are rather different from behaviors at a bank, supermarket, concert, etc.

“On the whole, frames are not consciously manufactured but are unconsciously adopted in the course of communicative processes.” (König) As a result, over time, we tend to ignore or forget the fact that the frame is an artificial structure which we ourselves place around the event and that the prescribed behaviors are basically customary. Due to that, in a way, the frame eventually becomes an encompassing and defining code that is no longer questioned. In other words, the form established around the content takes over and begins to control and dictate its interpretation.

Unquestioned acceptance of frames can enable the media and the political and social institutions to manipulate society (social construction) more effectively, particularly utilizing the new tools of communication offered by developing technologies. I am not talking about the transmission of direct messages, I am pointing at the manufacturing of definition packages for particular situations through audio-visual means. In other words, frames are established for and imposed indirectly upon people to signify particular situations in certain ways and to cause them to act accordingly. It is usually easier to transmit fabrications (mythical codes) in bundles, dressed in a frame, than issuing them one by one. 

In order to create an awareness of the frame, to have it questioned, and to initiate change (frame-shift), the existing frame needs to be destabilized with some irregularity, unpredictability or incongruity (see section “Estrangement and Meta”).

To connect this subject matter to the arts, performing arts presentations in front of audiences are social events and, therefore, are “framed.” For example, there is an established social activity called “theatergoing.” Through repetitions that take place in comparable situations, this activity has settled itself in a frame. The frame includes the forming of a line in front of the box office, purchasing of tickets, waiting in the lobby, showing the ticket first to the person at the door, then to the usher, keeping quiet and not standing up during the performance, etc. The person who goes to the theater arranges his/her behavior according to the codes included in this bundle.

Another example: Concert-goers and performing musicians tend to dress in particular ways according to the type of music involved. Classical music orchestras and choirs are almost always “uniformed” and their audiences often arrive dressed up (people in the expensive front seats tend to be more elegant than the rest). Outfits of pop or rock or hip-hop musicians are also quite predictable and their audiences also arrive dressed for the occasion. Although these customary social practices have no effect on the core subject-matter, i.e. the sound, they are part of the frame that surrounds the event and they certainly influence the perceptions and interpretations. 

Frame creates a crucial dilemma in the performing arts:

One side of the dilemma: You are dependent on the audience because you are doing work that needs to be watched/heard. If you decide to go against the routinized practice and shift the frame too much (beyond an innocuous, acceptable surprise), they will stop coming to your performances.

The other side of the dilemma: The audience, when it enters the frame of, for instance, “theatergoing,” it begins to develop certain definitions, expectations and demands. For example, if the seats are comfortable in a few theaters a person goes to, s/he first will come to the conclusion that seats in theaters are comfortable and then will expect and demand the seats to be comfortable in all theaters s/he goes to (there is no such expectation of those who go to watch sports events).

Apart from expectations formed about the auditorium, seats, stage, ushers, etc., the audience develops expectations about the artistic aspects of the event as well.

For instance, the person who watches standard representational plays in theaters will arrive at the conclusion that theater is representational and then develop the opinion that theater has to be representational. If this person somehow ends up watching Eugene Ionesco’s Exit the King (Le Roi se meurt), s/he would be puzzled a bit but would not react too strongly when s/he sees that there is a plot, characters and structure – s/he may miss the “meta” allusions in the play but may find its absurdities entertaining and “different.” But another play, Bald Soprano (La Cantatrice Chauve), by the same author, which does not tell a story and does not have conventional dialogues, may not agree with this person at all: s/he may not understand why such nonsense is staged.