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Recursive Frame Analysis (RFA) is a qualitative research method for mapping and analyzing change-oriented conversation. Cybernetician and therapist Bradford Keeney invented RFA over twenty years ago as a means of discerning and indicating the bare bones organization of real-time therapeutic performance. This book revisits some of Keeney’s original ideas while providing a more exhaustive theoretical foundation for RFA, a thorough exploration of its practical application as a research tool, and several detailed analyses of therapy sessions.

Rooted to Gregory Bateson’s notion of contextual frame and the way that a distinction can recursively operate on itself as formulated by G. Spencer-Brown’s Laws of Form, RFA offers both researchers and practitioners of all kinds a formal way of tracking the dramatological construction and movement of a conversation through its beginning, middle, and end episodes. By limiting the analysis to the actual performance of the conversation being studied - including spoken discourse and description of non-verbal action - RFA lays bare the primary distinctions, re-indications, and contextual frames embodied by the communication being studied, as well as those of the researcher. Commentary later generated by the researcher must be demarcated as a separate order of discourse, providing opportunity for multiple layers of analysis by researchers while keeping the primary data intact.

Though this book primarily exemplifies the application of Recursive Frame Analysis to the study of therapeutic sessions, RFA as a research tool is not limited to this domain but can be applied to the analysis of any change-oriented conversation, interaction, or even textual discourse to track the primary distinctions, recursively generated re-indications, and emergent contextual frames being constructed. It is intended that this book serve as a resource for the future application of RFA across multiple fields.

Publication Date



The Qualitative Report


Fort Lauderdale


Recursive Frame Analysis, RFA


Community-Based Learning | Community-Based Research | Quantitative, Qualitative, Comparative, and Historical Methodologies | Social and Behavioral Sciences | Sociology


Hillary Keeney and Bradford Keeney would like to express their gratitude and appreciation to our colleagues in Mexico for their support of this work. In particular Pedro Vargas Avalos and Clara Haydee Solis Ponce, who with their colleagues have sponsored our teaching at the Department of Clinical Psychology, National University of Mexico (UNAM), Zaragoza, and Juan Carlos García and Sylvia Arce, who have sponsored our teaching at Etfasis: Institute of Systemic Family Therapy. It was during our seminars there that many of the ideas in this book were developed.

Ronald Chenail would like to thank President George L. Hanbury II and Nova Southeastern University for supporting The Qualitative Report; Hillary and Brad Keeney for their continuing guidance and encouragement; Lydia Acosta, Michele Gibney, and Cheryl Ann Peltier-Davis for launching NSU Works and helping with our first book development and release; Melissa Rosen for her copyediting and graphics skills; Adam Rosenthal for his leadership in making TQR Books a reality; and Jan Chenail, my late wife, for making me a better writer, husband, father, and friend.

Copyright 2014: Hillary Keeney, Bradford Keeney, Ronald Chenail and Nova Southeastern University

RECURSIVE FRAME ANALYSIS: A Qualitative Research Method for Mapping Change-Oriented Discourse