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Towards a Deeper Understanding of Framing, Footing, and Alignment

Linda Wine

Goffman’s (1974, 1981) ideas on framing, footing, and alignment provide a powerful lens for examining social roles, how they are signaled, and how speakers position themselves vis-à-vis one another during interactions. However, as constructs, these terms can be so squishy that one is tempted to quote that famous Supreme Court line on the definition of pornography: “I might not be able to define it, but I know it when I see it” (Simpson, 1988). On the one hand, the richness of Goffman's notions resides precisely in their ability qua metaphors to be sufficiently imprecise to capture the vagaries and ambivalences of the human condition. As Lakoff and Johnson (1980) note, the very strength of metaphors is in their ability to express what is hard to pin down in more reductionist ways. So, it is not surprising that Goffman (who was always more of a big picture guy, than a data driven positivist) would bequeath to us a way of looking at interaction that is as compelling and effective as it is messy and somewhat vague. On the other hand, the strength of one's work in the social sciences often rests on empirical research. Consequently, finding workable definitions for constructs—which, by their very nature, can be elusive—is an important part of the game. And hitting upon a definition others embrace is tantamount to striking gold.

I am not, by nature, a prospector. Since my roots are in the humanities, I was fairly content to see Goffman's use of framing, footing, and alignment as metaphorical and leave it at that. However, Dr. Leslie Beebe came of age when Labov was revolutionizing the study of the relationship of society to language in more quantifiable ways. She brought the same need to be data-driven and precise to her study of discourse as Labov did to language variation. To work with Leslie was to be reminded that that ideas as well as texts must track (i.e., that there is a real virtue in consistency, when sound) from a theoretical and empirical point of view. In other words, she dragged me kicking and screaming to an attempt to define what framing, footing, and alignment might really mean. And, as almost always happened when Leslie pushed me to do something I did not want to do, in retrospect I have come to the conclusion that Leslie was right. While I have in no way struck gold, I do have some thoughts I hope will contribute to a deeper understanding of how the terms framing, footing, and alignment can, or perhaps should, be used.

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Working Papers in Applied Linguistics & TESOL

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