Framing as a methodological strategy

Authors: Richard Andrews, Institute of Education and Jane Davison, Royal Holloway (both part of the University of London)

The act of framing – not frames themselves – is an important move in designing research; in the design of buildings and other cultural artefacts; in all the arts; and in the design and production of publications. It is a way of making meaning, and specifically of defining the parameters within which meaning can be negotiated.

Framing is not a theory in itself. Rather, it is a device or strategy that is informed by a number of theories.

Among these are contemporary rhetoric, deriving from the work of Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, Gérard Genette and others. In Mythologies, (1976) for example[1], Barthes examines a range of contemporary cultural activities and artefacts from the real world. Each phenomenon or activity is ‘framed’ as a sociologically-informed construct, and then analysed. In his other work, he brings together photography and the verbal arts to emphasize pleasure and the aesthetic dimension. In Seuils (Subtitle ‘Thresholds of Interpretation’) (1987), Genette discusses the literary framing of a work of fiction within what he calls its ‘paratext’, which includes aspects such as title and preface.  Antecedents of framing in other fields are Gregory Bateson (1954) and Tversky and Kahneman (1986), from a psychological perspective, and Erving Goffman (1974) from a sociological point of view, each of whom – in their different ways – sees framing as central to understanding. Framing also plays a significant part in discourse theory, as in Deborah Tannen’s edited book Framing in Discourse (1993) which grows from a tradition of sociolinguistics and conversation analysis; or in Andrews (2011).

Derrida (1979) is worth considering at greater length.  He explores the philosophical notion of framing via consideration of paintings and draped human figures surrounding portals and windows in classical and neo-classical buildings. In particular, he is interested in the ‘thickness’ of these framing devices, and paradoxically , the membrane-like nature of the frame: “the incomprehensibility of the border, at the border, appears not only at the inner limit, between the frame and the painting, the drapery and the body, the column and the building, but also at its outer limit” (1979: 24). This outer limit, i.e. what the outside edge of the frame signifies, is “the entire historic, economic, and political field of inscription” (ibid.).

“No ‘theory’, no ‘practice’, no ‘theoretical practice’ can be effective here if it does not rest on the frame, the invisible limit of (between) the interiority of meaning (protected by the entire hermeneutic, semiotic, phenomenological, and formalist tradition) and (of) all the extrinsic empiricals which, blind and illiterate, dodge the question.” (1979:24).

The ‘question’ is the nature and function of the parergon – the liminal line between the ergon (the work itself) and the milieu. Part of the nature of the parergon is the fact that it is “a form which has traditionally been determined not by distinguishing itself, but by disappearing, sinking in, obliterating itself, dissolving just as it expends its greatest energy” (1979: 26). Nevertheless, the frame draws attention to what is inside it, and asks the audience to bring aesthetic considerations of unity, balance, harmony etc to their ‘reading’ or experience of what is inside the frame.


Distilling these various perspectives to a working methodological approach is not as problematic as it might at first appear. Indeed, the distillation might take the form of questions to be asked in the design and production of a research dissertation, a research project and its reports; in business communication; in the design of buildings; and in the making and analysis of art forms.

These questions would include:

  • Who is ‘speaking’? You, or a number of voices? In one voice or several?
  • Who is your audience?
  • What is the substance of your message? Does it have an argument, or is it a different kind of message?
  • What are the genre conventions within which you are working? What expectations are there?
  • Do you wish to subvert convention?
  • In terms of framing your work, will you make the frame explicit? Will you transgress or break the frame?
  • Within the frame, what modes will you use?
  • What are the possibilities and tensions of contiguity between modes?
  • What forms of articulation (joining) will you use throughout the work, if any?
  • How will the audience navigate through your work?
  • Is there any risk of mis-understanding or mis-reading because of a lack of recognition of the frames that are being used?
  • What media will you use to convey the message?


To conclude by reverting to ‘The Parergon’, Derrida also suggests that “a systematic, critical, and typological history of framing appears possible and necessary” (1979: 37). That history has begun in the field of the semiotics of literary and visual art, but has yet to be applied to digital, multimodal research environments in education and the social sciences.

References and bibliography

Andrews, R. (2011) Re-framing literacy, New York: Routledge

Barthes, R. (1976) Mythologies, London: Paladin

Barthes, R. (1988) ‘The old rhetoric: an aide-memoire’ in The semiotic challenge (trans. Howard, R.) Oxford: Blackwell, 11-94

Bateson, G. (1954) A theory of play and fantasy: steps to an ecology of mind, New York: Ballantine

Carruthers, M. (1998) The craft of thought: meditation, rhetoric and the making of images, 400-1200, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Derrida, J. (trans. Owens, C.) (1979) ‘The Parergon’ in October, 9: 3-41 (Summer 1979)

Genette G. (1987) Seuils, Paris:  Le Seuil.  (Lewin J.E., trans. (1999)c Paratexts:  thresholds of interpretation, Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press

Goffman, E. (1974) Frame analysis, New York: Harper & Row

Tannen, D. (1993) (ed.) Framing in discourse, New York: Oxford University Press

Tversky, A. and Kahneman, D. (1986) ‘Rational choice and the framing of decisions’, Journal of Business, 59:  251-278

[1] See also Barthes (1988) where he sets out the limitations of the ‘old rhetoric’.


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