Sociology, Department of


Date of this Version



Hill, Michael R. 1992. “The Gunman Downstairs.” (Formal remarks presented to my Social Problems course, SOC 201, at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln on October 13, 1992).


Copyright 1992 Michael R. Hill


EXACTLY 24 HOURS ago, in this building, nearly two dozen of your fellow students fled from Room 112, downstairs, in mortal terror of being murdered by a classmate in a senior-level actuarial science class. Newspaper accounts of this event present a particularly vivid example of the frame concepts that Erving Goffman explicates in Frame Analysis. In particular, Arthur McElroy’s entrance into Room 112 was a “guided doing” by which he willfully intended to kill at least a few, if not all, of his classmates.

“For a second,” said a student in the class, “I just sat there in a daze.” Said another, “I thought he was kidding at first. I didn’t think it was real.” From the calm frame of students reading newspapers while waiting for a class to start, the frame was shattered completely in a split second. This is a particularly violent and extreme example of what Goffman calls a “frame break,” when we are conscious of the fact that we do not know what frame holds and we begin asking, “what is going on here?” as if our life depended on it. In a split second, said one student, “I was really scared. I thought my life was in danger.” “There were chairs falling all over. There was a sense of panic.”