Framing in Media Essay
Different actions carry resonances of wider values or frameworks of understanding; in an action, we often have a sense that wider issues are somehow at stake. Indeed, because we are aware of that frequent connection, ritual form is one important way in which the legitimacy of assumed wider values can be confirmed and communicated. This is a crucial point in helping us understand, ultimately, how rituals are linked to power and media framing.
The idea that ritual is a means to direct, or ‘frame’, our attention to something wider that is ‘at stake’ in ritual performance has been emphasised by many writers, within both anthropology and media theory. Ritual focuses attention by framing; it enlivens the memory and links the present with the relevant past. In all this it aids perception. ‘Framing’ is a useful term, derived from the sociology of Goffman and ultimately from Gregory Bateson. It captures how actions that can be described straightforwardly on one level - putting a ring on another person’s finger - are recognised by all involved as signifying something else, whose exact nature depends on context (the act of marriage, the acting of a marriage ceremony in a scene from a play, a children’s game?).
Action in one register is ‘rekeyed’ in another.The notion of ‘framing’ is important because it formulates precisely the connection with wider social values central to the Durkheimian view of religion and ritual. In ritual action, according to Durkheim, there is a sense (not necessarily explicit) that wider values of sociality are at stake: rituals deal in some sense with what it is we have in common as members of a society. This connecting notion of framing (working through the way actions are understood) is common to many writers influenced by Durkheim.
The idea that ritual action is embedded in a wider frame of significance is central also to Victor Turner’s account of the ritual process as associated with, or capable of expressing, social conflict and social drama. I return to Turner’s concept of ‘liminality’ below.What exactly do we mean by ‘framing’ in the context of ‘rituals’? We can explain this by amplifying the provisional definition of media rituals offered above. Rituals are actions which, because of their patterning, stand in for wider values and frameworks of understanding. This connection (or ‘framing’) works as follows:
1 The actions comprising rituals are structured around certain categories and/or boundaries. 2 Those categories suggest, or stand in for, an underlying value. 3 This ‘value’ captures our sense that the social is at stake in the ritual.
By ‘framing’, then, in relation to rituals, we mean something more specific than the incidental associations of a ritual performance. We mean the way that a regular categorisation of the world organises particular ritual performances, and, in so doing, makes material a broader pattern, value, or hierarchy. The concept of ‘framing’, in turn, draws upon two other aspects of rituals: boundaries and media-related categories.
First, however, let us just clarify the way in which media rituals in particular might frame the social. An example for the media field would be the organisation of ritualised meetings with celebrities around the distinction between the ‘media person’ (or celebrity) and the ‘ordinary person’. The wider resonance, or framing, of such acts derives from the way that the media person/ordinary person distinction replicates a broader hierarchy between people/things/places ‘in’ the media over people/things/places not ‘in’ the media; this naturalised hierarchy, in turn, helps reinforce the special status of media themselves, and underlies, for example, the common reading of celebrities and their stories as if they stood for ‘something more’, something central about contemporary social life. This boundary or category distinction suggests a broader, underlying value, which is that media somehow ‘stand in’ for, or represent, the social world as a whole.
‘Liminality’ is a term which, like ritual, still has its uses within a non-functionalist perspective, even if its usage has been particularly associated with the neo-Durkheimian theory of ritual found in the early work of Victor Turner. Underlying ‘liminality’ is the idea of separation, and through that ‘framing’. ‘Framing’ clearly implies some separation of ritual action and everyday action (see above).
The idea that ritual action is distinct from, even sealed off from, the everyday may be expressed literally. So some ritual performances happen in physically separate sites, away from the flow of everyday action. More generally, in various ways ritual action is ‘extraordinary’ action, set apart from the actions of ‘ordinary’ life. The concept of ‘liminality’, however, takes this notion of separation much further.
Certainly, unlike with religious rituals, we cannot look for media rituals in a single confined space, such as the church or the mosque. Media processes are too dispersed across space for that. Indeed your action of turning round, and staying turned around, when a media person enters the room, is not yet a media ritual, but it is an action organised on a principle (media people are special, therefore worthy of special attention) that can be played out in formalised action, for example in the highly organised spaces of the television studio.
Small-scale media rituals can occur even within wider spaces that are not, as such, ritual spaces. So, while much of what goes on at the media theme parks, such as Granada Studios Tour in Manchester, , some things that go on there are media rituals: the occasional meetings with celebrities, the chance to appear ‘on camera’ (or pretend to do so), and so on.What we are looking for is not just categories at work, but ritualised action. We need to identify those actions where latent media-related categories are put to work in ways that are formalised enough for us to call them media rituals.
The analysis of media events did not emerge out of the blue, but followed in a line of work on television’s role in mediating British royal ceremonial. The starting point was Shils and Young’s article on Queen Elizabeth’s coronation in 1953. This influential article interpreted the meaning of the coronation in postwar Britain. The researchers read it in classic Durkheimian terms as a ‘rededication of the nation’, the ceremonial occasion for the affirmation of the moral values by which the society lives … an act of national communion. The article described the details of the coronation ritual itself, and the way it was amplified to a wider audience through a crucial departure from previous royal ritual: the fact that the ceremony could be experienced in a family setting in front of the television or radio set. In a theme echoed in all subsequent accounts of media.
It hardly needs emphasising that current media systems, whether market-based or publicly funded, do not constitute such a non-hierarchical space, or anything like it. Indeed, all basic economic principles (economies of scale, economies of scope), operating by themselves, work against the possibility of such a space. If we are serious, then, in imagining such a space, we need to develop critical reflection in the teeth of economic constraints. In these final pages, rather than closing off possibilities, we will discuss a range of ways in which we might begin to imagine beyond the current horizon of an overwhelmingly centralised media process, in which most people do not participate. A world where ‘media’ comprise a ‘scatter’ from many sources, a succession of sources, with a very different balance for individuals between possibilities of production and possibilities of consumption. Within this new horizon, current forms of media rituals (surrounding celebrity, the media’s special access to ‘reality’, ‘liveness’, and so on) should seem less necessary, even redundant.
But isn’t it naive, one might object, given the massive centralisation of so many other aspects of contemporary societies (the state, the economy), even to imagine this less centralised media world? That charge, however, can be reversed: if this alternative image of the mediation process (quite possible in principle) must for ever be ruled out of court because of its ‘lack of fit’ with current structures of media power, that only demonstrates how complicit in those power structures our standard, centralised concept of mediation is. The point here is not to claim unrealistically that ‘everything is possible’, but to show how the space of the possible is larger than the one we are assigned - that something else is possible.
None of this is to undermine the fundamental social importance of communication, and our need for connection with distant others through media - to see both, in other words, as social facts, in Durkheim’s sense. The point is to develop an alternative image of what forms of mediation sustain best the conditions of social life and democratic politics.
Media rituals are at least as much about confirming categories and divisions as they are about establishing social unity. The media’s ritual categories are socially divisive, not because they are understood directly in those terms (if they were, they would be less effective), but because they entrench a naturalised division of the world into two, which in turn helps legitimate society’s unequal distribution of its symbolic resources. Media rituals, and the boundaries they encourage us to draw, are therefore necessarily entangled in the broader notion of politics at stake in the distribution of symbolic power; this is a crucial dimension of the current crisis of representative democracy.