5. Frames

Values, as well as influencing our behaviours and attitudes, are connected to the way we understand the world. One way this connection manifests itself is through frames.

Frames are both mental structures that order our ideas; and communicative tools that evoke these structures and shape our perceptions and interpretations over time.1

Framing

The frame around a painting or photo can be thought of as a boundary between what has been left in and what has been left out. Each of the elements placed inside the frame is significant, and makes a difference to the meaning of the piece. Similarly, when we communicate about an issue we (consciously or unconsciously) impose boundaries. The emphases, facts and concerns we include can make a real difference to the message conveyed, and to subsequent responses. Support for health care reform policies in the US, for instance, was shown to be significantly influenced by whether it was presented as a universal right or a market issue.2

The interaction between people, the environment, and the context can also constitute, or evoke, a frame in itself. The way someone responds in an office environment will be different from how they respond in a hospital environment. Frames such as these may be specific to particular contexts or ideas. Other frames are deeper-rooted, broader in scope, and, like ideologies or ‘grand narratives’, tend to be applied across a variety of different situations. These often incorporate social or political ideals – such as equality between people, respect for authority, or personal freedom – and are thus strongly connected to our values.

Metaphor

In addition to what we explicitly express, we can also meaningfully frame issues through what we convey implicitly. Metaphor provides a strong and effective tool in framing complex issues quickly. This type of framing often plays an important role in political discourse. Likening national debt to household debt may evoke the idea of a ‘united family’, and leads more smoothly to the solution of drastically cutting spending (making ‘savings’) – omitting issues such as government investment and economic growth.3

Frames as associations

Frames reflect associations between concepts, and often values. Finding Frames explores some of these with reference to the idea of development, which has come to be associated with a particular model of change – which has, in the past, relied mainly upon economic indicators to judge ‘progress’. Much like the idea of ‘developed’ and ‘less developed’ countries, the idea of ‘charity’ may tend to normalise and legitimise the unequal power relationship on which it is based. These ideas, despite good intentions, risk becoming more connected to extrinsic values such as power, social standing and security than self-direction and universalism values. Further, many people perceive little change in the economic or social wellbeing of countries that they have been asked to donate money to for thirty years, and therefore experience a sense of stasis. The authors suggest more focus on ‘justice’ as a frame, which has more connection with intrinsic values.

Reinforcing frames

Over time, frames become embedded in our thinking and discourse through repeated exposure. The frames most prominent in our minds provide communicative shortcuts. These can provide helpful shortcuts or unhelpfully distort our thinking. Frames such as the ‘bloated civil service’ and ‘taxpayers’ money’ provoke negative reactions to the idea of public spending. An alternative framing might refer to ‘public funds’. Frames thus help us define the roles of actors and institutions. Through framing we understand how things work – but also how things should work.

Frames as mental structures

Associations between particular words, ideas, emotions and values reflect mental connections that have formed between them over time. Frames, then, are also meaningful ‘bundles’ of concepts in our minds – gradually learnt through experience and association, strongly linked, and stored in memory. These structures serve as ‘frames of reference’ for interpreting new information and experience.

We might initially learn about the NHS (the UK’s National Health Service) through personal experience with a doctor or at the hospital. Over time, the NHS will come to be associated with a whole set of such experiences, emotions, and values. Frames will also overlap. An initial ‘doctor’ frame may become part of a wider ‘NHS’ frame, a ‘welfare state’ frame, and an ‘expert’ frame.

Frames, then, are vehicles for engaging and strengthening values. The way we incorporate them in our language, and in the experiences we create and facilitate, are crucially important.

See Finding Frames for more discussion of frames.

  1. [1] Darnton, A. and Kirk, M. (2011). Finding Frames: New ways to engage the UK public in global poverty.  
    G. Lakoff, et al. (2004). Don’t Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate. Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing Company.
    Cienki, A. (2007). Frames, idealised cognitive models, and domains. In Geeraerts, D and H. Cuyckens. The Oxford Handbook of Cognitive Linguistics, pp. 170-187, Oxford: OUP.
    Fillmore, C (1985) Frames and the semantics of understanding, in Quaderni di Semantica, 6, 222-254.
  2. [2] Lau, R.R. and Schlesinger, M. (2005). Policy frames, metaphorical reasoning, and support and support for public policies. Political Psychology, 26 (1), 77–114.
  3. [3] Other examples discussed in: Shenkar- Osorio, A., 2010. You Say Tax Cut… Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off. The Huffington Post, 2010. Available here.

Next: 6. Implications