Framing theory

In my latest research I aim to further theoretical and empirical understanding of organisational ambidexterity at functional level by using frame analysis as a way of examining exploration and exploitation activities in the implementation of electronic HRM systems for mobilising strategic HRM. That’s a lot of concepts…in this post I will attempt to make sense of frame analysis.

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Frames can be defined as value-laden rhetorical resources (Hamilton and Bean, 2005) consisting of ‘a quality of communication that causes others to accept one meaning over another’ (Fairhurst and Sarr 1996: xi).


Erving Goffman was an early proponent of framing.  He undertook empirical examination of the structures of human experience in everyday life as he tried to make sense of their lived, meaningful experiences. He agreed with W.I. Thomas’ famous dictum, that “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences” and so he studied people’s attempts to construct `the definition of the situation’. More specifically, Goffman argued that most who exist within a particular `definition of the situation’ usually do not create the `definition’.

Goffman’s seminal work, a book called ‘Frame Analysis’ has been called both interesting and a very long, dense and at times a rather trying and difficult read. Goffman defines a `frame’ as a collectivity of `definitions of situations’ that together govern social events and our subjective involvement in them. He employs a myriad of concepts embedded within a multitude of frames from which the reader can view a complicated and complex social world. In his book ‘Frame Analysis’ he presents a number of concepts which may be used by the researcher, including: the `frame,’ `primary framework,’ `keying,’ and `fabrications.’

A `primary framework’ provides meaning to events that would otherwise be meaningless and consists of two classes, “natural and social.” The “natural” class concerns frames that are “purely physical” (e.g. Goffman provides “the state of weather as given in a report” as an example). “Social frameworks” on the other hand provide a basis for understanding events that include agency, aim, will, and controlling effort of human intelligence.

`Keying’ consists of an “openly admitted” transformation of untransformed activity and concerns a systematic reworking of something that is already meaningful within the primary framework, therefore enabling social actors to determine what it is that they think is really going on (e.g., Goffman lists the following as basic keys employed in our society, `make-believe,’ `contests,’ `ceremonials,’ `technical redoings,’ and `regroupings’). For instance, style (an example of a keying): consists of features of particular social actors who then through “the maintenance of expressive identifiably” systematically transform or modify a strip of activity. `Fabrications,’ like keying, consists of a reworking of something that is already meaningful within the primary framework but unlike keying concerns the intentional effort of one or more persons to manage activity so that one or more individuals will garner a false belief about the definition of the situation. A “strip of activity” then is perceived by social actors in terms of the rules of a primary framework (social or natural) and that the perception of such activity provides a model for two basic transformations (keying and/or fabrication). These organizational premises then sustained in both activity and the mind of the actor, collectively comprising what Goffman calls the “frame of the activity.”

The “frame of activity” contains the subjective aspects of social life whereby human actors constantly adjust their behavior based on the actions (and subsequent interpretations) given off by other actors. An empirical examination of meaningful activities taking place within the frame of activity as outlined by Goffman in his nearly six hundred page masterpiece allows us to then develop a very basic understanding of the social production of reality. This book is not recommended for the novice sociologist but is geared for the more serious student (e.g. those considering graduate school or those in already in graduate school). A more suitable `beginners’ Goffman book might be The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959) which provides a less systematic (and theoretical) approach toward the mundane interaction in everyday life.


Blumer, Herbert. 1969. Symbolic Interactionism. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Brissett, Dennis and Charles Edgle (eds). 1990. Life as Theater: A Dramaturgical Source Book. New York, NY: Aldine de Gruyter.

Fairhurst, G. and Sarr, R. (1996) The Art of Framing: Managing the Language of Leadership. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Hamilton, F.and Bean, V. (2005). ‘The importance of context, beliefs, and values in leadership development’. Business ethics: A European Review. 14 (4).

Goffman, Erving. 1959. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. New York, NY:Doubleday Press.

Lofland, John (ed). 1978. Interaction in Everyday Life. Beverly Hills, CA: University of California Press.