Blog post

A Practitioner’s Guide to Political Frames

I’d like to share with you some of the things I’ve learned about putting frame analysis into practice, both during my time at the Rockridge Institute and afterward as a strategy consultant and professional trainer with Cognitive Policy Works.  My experiences span many different settings including:

  • Deconstructing the cultural and political frames of an academic research department at a major university;
  • Analyzing media frames around health care, foreign policy, immigration, presidential campaigns, environmental issues, social justice, democracy, economic development, and more;
  • Advising executive-level managers of non-profit organizations, professional unions, government agencies, and social businesses on strategic social change issues;
  • Educating citizen activists in virtual classrooms and in-person workshops about the workings of the political mind.

In all of these settings I’ve found that many people have heard of frames, yet few really understand what they are or how significant their existence is for social change efforts.  Also, I’ve typically found that people have wide ranging misconceptions about what frames are, how they work, and why it is so important that people learn to identify them effectively in their efforts.  This essay is an attempt to start shedding light on this difficult topic.

What the Heck IS a Frame?

George Lakoff, a linguist famous for his insights into frames as they apply to politics, describes them as:

“Frames are the mental structures that allow human beings to understand reality – and sometimes to create what we take to be reality. [T]hey structure our ideas and concepts, they shape how we reason, and they even impact how we perceive and how we act. For the most part, our use of frames is unconscious and automatic – we use them without realizing it.”

Stephen Reece, in the field of media studies, gives this working definition:

“Frames are the organizing principles that are socially shared and persistent over time, that work symbolically to meaningfully structure the social world.”

Frames are everywhere around us. They are the conceptual models that allow us to make sense of the world.  We cannot have a coherent thought without them.  There is no such thing as “choosing” to use frames, only a matter of consciously selecting frames or blindly using them without knowing it.

Can Frames Be Framed?

One big challenge of discussing frames is that we have to use frames to reason about them.  This means we have to evoke a conceptual model of something familiar to explain something that is not.  As any teacher can attest, this process often leads to misconceptions and faulty understandings of the new concept.  It is especially confounding when the new concept we want to talk about contradicts many commonplace assumptions about thought, language and behavior that are prevalent in our culture.

An example is the reaction to the word ‘frame’ as if it meant “I was framed!”  The conceptual model for being framed is one of a malevolent person placing blame for wrongdoing on another person who is actually innocent.  In this context, to “use frames” is to intentionally mislead people into believing that a good person has done something wrong.  The listener is naturally cautious about incorporating frames into their practices because they see the use of ‘frames’ as malicious and deceptive.

This conceptual model evokes an important semantic frame having to do with the distortion of truth that is linked to it in the meaning-making process.  This happens because a particular philosophical tradition – what George Lakoff and Mark Johnson call “objective realism” in their ground-breaking book Philosophy in the Flesh – is prominent in Western culture.  Objective realism presumes that there is a single, objective reality that is true and knowable.  It asserts that the way language works is for every utterance (or written text) to either be true or false relative to some kind of “God’s eye view” of the universe.  As such, to ‘frame’ something is seen as putting an additional layer of interpretation between a word and its correspondence with the world, thus ‘distorting’ it by creating a layer of interpretation between it and its ‘true’ meaning.

Ironically, one of the major implications of frame semantics is that no such “God’s eye view” exists.  A single word or phrase can correspond with many different, equally legitimate meanings.  Linguists call this phenomenon polysemy and it has been extensively documented by the cognitive psychologist Raymond Gibbs in his research on communication intent. (An excellent overview can be found in his book, Intentions and the Experience of Meaning.)

This leads to two obstacles for the practitioner seeking to implement frame analysis in their organization:

  1. The need to correct misconceptions as they arise;
  2. The need to anticipate and manage doubts and concerns that are bound to deeply held assumptions in Western culture.

The practitioner will need to be mindful of misunderstandings about frames while giving careful consideration to his or her communication strategies in order to avoid defensive reactions where new discoveries about the mind conflict with standard assumptions that happen to be incorrect.

The Critical Piece – Psychological Process of Change

As I’ve attempted to convey strategic insights about frame analysis to practitioners, I’ve learned a valuable lesson:

Pay attention to psychological processes in the face of change!

Attempts to convey new understandings of human thought and behavior will inevitably tap into personal feelings and predispositions people have about their own minds (and their unstated theories of human nature). Unlike other kinds of knowledge about “objects” in the world, learning about the workings of our own minds requires us to consciously grapple with and update our notions of ourselves.  In other words, to use frame analysis effectively a practitioner has to go through a personal change process.

The reason for this is simple.  The conceptual models we have about human thought apply equally to ourselves as they do to those around us.  If we have assumptions about rational thought being purely conscious, quantifiable, logical, and literal we’re going to measure ourselves relative to this ideal.  As we learn that none of these attributes accurately reflects the workings of our own minds we have to reconsider our sense of ourselves.  This is a psychological change process.

My colleagues and I handle this by establishing a safe learning environment and building trust with our students so that we can guide them through the strange landscape that is the accurate depiction of the human mind.  We take care to incorporate our understandings of psychology into the learning process to help us see when a student is uncomfortable with the material and help them along.

The Challenge of Institutional Structures and Norms

Ultimately, frame analysis is only useful if it leads to a change in organizational practice.  Merely identifying problematic (or helpful) frames won’t get practitioners very far if the exercise doesn’t lead to changes both in communication and outreach strategy.  Furthermore, the deconstruction of cultural narratives (which frame analysis is a key part) often reveals hidden assumptions on the part of the advocacy organization itself.  Improvements in overall effectiveness will be contingent on the ability of executive-level managers to be self-critical and reflective about how their organization is framed and what its practices mean to key publics it must engage with in order to have success.

Even more challenging, however, is the adoption process for replacing existing practices with new ones.  Any practitioner who has attempted to bring new ideas into a bureaucracy knows how difficult initiatives like this can be.  One of the reasons frame analysis gets relegated to the “messaging silo” is that this is the easiest way to dismiss its implications for organizational change.  And such resistance is commonplace when people are confronted with the uncomfortable prospect that they may have to do things differently.

At a higher level, shifts in organizational strategy will implicate new configurations of alliances and partnerships.  When the innovative organization adopts frame-based methodologies, it will have to get other organizations on board in order to cooperate.  This “trans-organizational” level of application is the most difficult we have attempted so far, having some success with two coalitions of NGOs in the UK around the theme of Identity Campaigning.

By now, I hope that it is clear why more people haven’t adopted frame analysis in their work.  Many enthusiastic readers of George Lakoff express frustration that his brilliant ideas have not been more widely adopted.  Complications like the ones presented here should begin to clarify why the change process has taken so long.  To summarize:

  • Frame analysis is based on nuanced and unfamiliar concepts that are easily misunderstood;
  • Skilled use of frame analysis involves an introspective personal change process that must be guided by expert trainers;
  • Implications for changes in organizational practice are often met with resistance;
  • Merging the innovative practices of one organization into the web of institutions they cooperate with is a time-consuming and difficult process.

Through our work at Cognitive Policy Works we are carving a path for others to follow.  We will continue to share our insights as we provide the valuable services of frame analysis, professional trainings, and strategic management in the midst of organizational change.

In the service of this vital work,

Joe Brewer
Founder and Director
Cognitive Policy Works

This blog was originally posted on Cognitive Policy Works.

Joe Brewer

About Joe Brewer

I am a social change strategist and facilitator of idea implementation for people seeking to innovate at the intersection of the advocacy, policy, and technology worlds. Throughout the last decade I have sought to understand human values and behavior through the study of cognitive semantics and complex systems with the goal of helping build livable communities for the 21st Century. Much of my work has focused on values, identity, and modes of thought that shape cultural understandings of political and social issues. I am interested in developing new practices that empower people to manage large-scale social change while solving problems through collaboration. I would like to see greater levels of trust and cooperation arise through a culture of sharing that enhances life satisfaction and well-being for people everywhere. Currently I am founder and CEO of Cognitive Policy Works, an educational center and consulting firm that trains people to manage the change process through the application of strategic planning tools and insights into the political, cultural, and psychological aspects of social change.