For those new to basic framing, or wishing to learn more about the topic, including what distinguishes the MP’s version of it, this section of the MP site includes a general definition and history of framing, a summary of the best known simple ‘how to do it’ checklist, a description of American Framing as a specific version of framing for the American mainstream audience, and a survey of some knotty issues in framing.
First, some background —
What is a frame?
According to cognitive scientist George Lakoff and others, a frame is a conceptual structure used in thinking. For example, the word elephant is a ‘frame’ that evokes the image of an elephant and what one already knows about elephants. As Lakoff says in Don’t Think of an Elephant, the elephant frame includes a very large animal, large floppy ears, a trunk etc., and any of those words or phrases may also evoke the elephant frame. Lakoff’s favorite political example of neocon framing, the sound bite ‘tax relief,’ combines two frames, ‘tax’ and ‘relief,’ to create a new frame. The new frame is also a metaphor, since it describes one thing, ‘tax,’ in terms of another, ‘relief, ‘ and suggests a little story– that is, taxes are an unfair pain from which you deserve relief! (This one is also a ‘tweak’ of a slogan familiar to Americans-where have you heard ‘Get relief fast’ before?)
This framing metaphor works because no one actually likes to pay taxes; it really is painful. However, thoughtful people recognize that it is necessary for the common good. But that is a secondary response. The first reaction is ‘ouch.’ And if ‘tax relief’ gets repeated often enough, it starts taking up important space in our minds. Another way to understand framing is that it’s the way ideas are packaged–words, phrases and visual cues carefully selected to trigger proven responses in their hearers. The reputation of the communicator is also an important cue in this process.
A short history of the ‘frame’ concept
Gregory Bateson first introduced the concept of framing in the 1950’s; it was then picked up by Milton Erikson and others interested in psychology, as well as by the sociologist Erving Goffman. The discoverers of Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP), Richard Bandler and John Grindler, made use of it in the 1970’s also. It has since influenced theory in politics, communications, linguistics, and cognitive science, among many other fields.
For example, The Center for Communications and Community at U.C.L.A. makes a valuable distinction between two types of framing in the mass media:
- episodic (a story about an incident happening to one or more individuals) and
- thematic (reporting that places public issues in the broader context of general conditions or outcomes).
Another way to describe thematic reporting is that it shows that the misfortune of one or more individuals represents the exploitation of a whole group of people (tenants, workers, would be voters, or at risk youth, for example). It makes plain that their reactions are caused by unfair or unjust (or illegal) conditions, set in motion by the behavior of powerful others. This kind of new thematic framing is also a vital way to counter the all too pervasive American ‘blame the victim’ frame, especially when it comes to news about poor or oppressed people.
Here is a Simple Framing Checklist, drawn from the work of George Lakoff:
1.Be clear on your own values.
2.Use the language of values, not of facts or statistics.
3.Think strategically in terms of large moral goals.
4.Unite and cooperate with other kinds of issue-based progressives whose values you share.
6.Speak to the progressive base and to swing voters who share some of your values.
What the Metaphor Project Offers: American Framing
The Metaphor Project offers ‘speaking American’ or American Framing as the most effective way to frame our messages for mainstream Americans. ‘Speaking American’ is a specific technique for framing new liberal and progressive ideas at the ‘big idea’ level, in a concrete, easily accessible form. It means using commonly understood words, phrases, images or metaphors like ‘playing by the rules,’ that evoke the finest American values–the ones we also share, such as fairness. (See our Tools section for more detail.)
Some Knotty Issues in Framing
1. Framing versus Organizing?
Since George Lakoff’s rise to public prominence in 2004, articles periodically appear critiquing the ‘framing fad’ as inadequate for social change or political success. No serious framing expert believes that framing is a substitute for organizing or finding effective political candidates. Nor has any serious organizing or campaigning been effective without good framing of the issues at stake. For best results, effective issue framing must be fully integrated with movement or campaign building.
2. Framing for quick results or long-term success?
Some framing theorists feel that for best results, a whole system of widely agreed-upon progressive frames must be worked out and publicized for a long time, before we will be able to succeed with any of our own new frames. In the meantime, we must do what we can to come up with mainstream language that a broad cross-section of the liberal and progressive community can join in using–something like a big do-it-yourself experiment for the short-term, hopefully backed up by polls and focus group testing as we go along.
3. Framing individual problems or issues versus framing to promote broad public policy?
Leaders of the progressive movement are especially concerned about fostering framing that will promote broad public policy changes, rather than addressing a patchwork of single issues or the problems of individuals. This distinction is also reflected in The Center for Communications and Community’s preference for broader thematic reporting versus the episodic kind about individuals and their problems. To be most effective, we must keep these bigger goals in mind as we frame our own issues.
4. Framing for progressives and their friends or framing to reach mainstream Americans?
Activists have many different goals and audiences in their organizing. At times they may wish to activate their own constituencies, or those parts of the larger public who may already be sympathetic to their cause. At other times, they may need to reach as much of the voting public as possible and target public officials. Choosing the correct frames for the intended audience is vital to success. See About Speaking American for a brief overview of the different varieties of cultural narrative in America as framing sources. Many fields of study have contributed to American framing theory and continue to shed light on this particular topic–especially political science and American history.