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Participation frameworks

Goffman's notion of 'participation framework' is a means of analysing the various interactional roles played by different people in a group in a particular place. When someone makes a contribution to a spoken encounter, there is not simply a speaker and hearer, but a 'circle' in which each individual holds a particular participation status. Whenever a participant makes an utterance, the other participants will all have some sort of participation status in relation to it.

If we take the example of a group of four people engaged in interaction in a pub, we may find that there are two key participants who alternately assume the role of 'main speaker', and who are the main addressees of each other's speech. The other two people in the group are also accepted participants in the conversation, but are non-addressed — the speakers' utterances are not aimed at them. Outside of this main group of participants, there may also be 'overhearers' who are within hearing range of the conversation but are not considered to be part of the encounter and do not have the participation rights of those who are.

It is also important to note that the character of the participation framework can change at any moment, and frequently. In the example above, the sudden 'dropping in' of particular friends or colleagues to the main group of four participants, or changes in the possible over-hearers surrounding the main group, would mean a suddenly different participation framework.

Goffman's notion of participation frameworks can be mapped on to conflict situations, and be used to take into account the different participants in a conflict, their relative level of involvement and the status of each as a contributing party, e.g. two main parties who are involved in conflict, several third parties who are involved in negotiations between the two main parties (who may communicate with either one or the other or both), and other parties whose status is simply to record the progress of negotiations, without making any spoken contributions.

Production formats

For Goffman, the term 'speaker' can have various meanings. As such, more precise terminology is necessary in order to properly identify the source of an utterance. Goffman's solution to this problem is his concept of the 'production format', which comprises the following ways in which we can consider a speaker:

• Animator – the animator is what Goffman calls the 'sounding box' through which utterances are made. Usually this is simply a human being, but at other times it might be merged with a piece of technology such as a telephone or a speaker system.

• Author – the author is the individual who composes the words uttered by the animator. This could, of course, be the same individual, or it may be a speechwriter who has written the words for a politician to animate, the lyricist who writes the songs for an animator to sing, or the academic who is quoted by a student.

• Principal – the individual or party whose beliefs and viewpoint are represented by the words uttered. Again, the principal could be the same person as the animator (and/or the author). On the other hand, we could have a situation where each is different: for example, the animator could be a politician giving a speech, the author the speechwriter who has written the words for them to speak, and the principal the governing political party for whom the politician and the speechwriter work.

An understanding of production formats can be helpful in the analysis of language and conflict. It can be easy to think of the term 'speaker' as simply referring to any one individual who speaks, and to assume that when an individual speaks they speak simply for themselves. However, as Goffman shows by breaking things down into animator, author and principal, it is important to consider where the words spoken actually originate from, and who it is that they represent.

Recommended reading

The essay 'Footing' in the following collection of Goffman's essays introduces the idea of participation frameworks and production formats:

Goffman, Erving. 1981. Forms of Talk. Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 124-159.

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