Framing is the principle by which, on the one hand, any semiotic entity (any meaning-entity) – such as a ‘text’ or an ‘event’ – is given internal unity and (the possibility of) internal coherence; and by which, on the other hand, it is clearly marked as distinct from other units or events of the same kind and at the same ‘level’ in a larger unit or event.

‘Framing’, or ‘to frame’, starts from a decision to mark and/or delimit a ‘space’ – material or conceptual – which sets / establishes / defines a domain of interest / concern /meaning at a particular ‘level’. All elements in that space are (treated as) significant. All elements in that space have to be described in their relationships – or brought into relationship – with all other elements in that space. The elements and their relationships represent the meaning-potential of the framed semiotic entity.

Each mode of representation and communication makes available a distinct set of framing devices apt for the materiality of that mode. Framing devices establish boundaries between elements by a variety of devices – for instance by marking the boundary itself or by creating contrasts between the framed elements at the particular level. So for instance in writing a full stop marks a boundary between sentences. In image a ring, bubble or box, ‘empty’ space or contrasting colours can mark the boundaries between textual entities of the same kind and level. In speech and music a pause or a shift in tempo may be used to divide yet other kinds of meaning material up. In gesture contrasting movements can be used – et cetera.

Van Leeuwen (2004) and Kress (2010) discuss framing in more detail and explore the framing devices that are used in different texts and contexts.

The notion of framing is also widely used outside multimodality, in any domain where ‘meaning’ is an issue. For instance, in sociological studies of face-to-face interaction, the term is often associated with the work of Gregory Bateson and of Erving Goffman (1974). They focused on the communicative events that occur within a frame. They used the notion of frame to refer to the definitions and expectations that people hold, and use, to make sense of situations which they encounter in their everyday life. For instance, an event may be framed as ‘play’. That means that the ‘players’ and their audience produce and recognize a range of different signs, in various modes, that ‘give away’ that what is happening is indeed play – certain facial expressions and intonations, for instance.

Editors: Jeff Bezemer & Gunther Kress
Other contributors: Theo van Leeuwen

Key references

Goffman, E. (1974).
Frame Analysis. An essay on the organization of experience.
Boston: Northeastern University Press.

Kress, G. 2010.
Multimodality. A Social Semiotic Approach to Contemporary Communication.
London: Routledge.

Van Leeuwen, T. (2004).
Introducing Social Semiotics.
London: Routledge.