The idea that language, analogy, and metaphor structure experience is certainly not new. Philosophers have known this for 2400 years, and with the linguistic turn in the 20th century, more and more emphasis has been put on the role of these things in shaping our experience. Even the concept of frames is not new to Lakoff. In various disciplines, frames have been called by different names (e.g., narratives, schemas or schemata, scripts, themes, mental models, and my favorites, Thematic Organizing Packets and Memory Organizing Packets, or TOPS and MOPS), but for the most part, the basic idea is the same: we have structured representations which we use to interpret, understand, and organize experience. Framing analysis, especially of political discourse, has been particularly prominent in sociology for the last 30 years.
In 1974, Erving Goffman published Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience, a detailed account of how to use the concept of frames to understand human thought and interactions. It wasn't very popular at first, but is now one of the most cited texts in the sociology literature. Here is Goffman's definition of frames:
I assume that definitions of a situation are built up in accordance with principals of organization which govern events […] and our subjective involvement in them; frame is the word I use to refer to such of these basic elements as I am able to identify.
Since then, the concept of frames, and frame analysis, has undergone several major revisions within sociology, and there are currently several different competing theories, but again, the basic idea is the same. Here is a later definition:
Frames are principles of selection, emphasis and presentation composed of little tacit theories about what exists, what happens, and what matters.3
And an even more recent definition, which places more emphasis on the construction of frames:
To frame is to select some aspects of a perceived reality and make them more salient in a communicating text, in such a way as to promote a particular problem definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation, and/or treatment recommendation.4
This last definition is the most similar to Lakoff's, because, as in Lakoff's now popular works, it focuses on the creation and use of frames to structure reality and to promote one's structure in the minds of others. In fact, the only thing left out of this definition, that one would find in Lakoff's writing, is the concepts of "metaphor" and "metaphorical structuring."
As you've probably guessed by now, I prefer the metaphor-less view of framing. That is not to say that I don't think we use metaphors, analogies, counterfactuals, and all sorts of other types of mappings as structuring elements in thought and discourse. It's obvious that we do. However, I think that Lakoff's reliance on conceptual metaphors detracts from the utility of his framing analysis. I feel this way for a few reasons, the primary one being that to really learn how to use frames properly, we have to understand how people actually map the structure of a frame onto experience. How is it that people map the structure of the dues paying frame, or the burden frame, onto taxation? Conceptual metaphor theory tells us little about this, and what it does tell us is wrong in important ways. We're not running around with a complex web of metaphors (in Lakoff's sense) in our heads; we're running around with a bunch of structured representations, some of which stand on their own, and some of which rely heavily on other structured representations. When we have novel experiences, we use the most relevant structures (as judged by the available cues) to aid us in structuring them. When we have representations of certain concepts (e.g., taxation) which is fairly impoverished, we can use richer concepts to structure that concept, and more importantly, we can cause other people to use the concepts we want to structure that concept. Afterwards, conceptual connections between the two may be less necessary, and the increased structure of the once impoverished concept may allow us to notice new structures and possible frames (for example, after borrowing the structure of dues paying to frame taxation, we might notice that the two domains involve different types of consent, and we might also notice that unlike most dues, income taxes use a sliding-scale fee structure).
Why is all this detail important? Because when we're coming up with frames, we need to keep several things in mind. The first is the sort of structure our audience already have for the relevant concept? If conservatives have been telling people that taxation is a burden to be alleviated, then we need to build our frame so that when mapping it onto the already present structure, it will help people to understand taxation from our perspective. This requires understanding how two relational structures map onto each other, something that cognitive scientists have been studying for a few decades, and which is simply not captured in conceptual metaphor theory. We also need to pay close attention to the types of inferences that our frames license. We don't want to shoot ourselves in the foot with our own frames. For instance, when people start thinking about instances in which they pay for services, they might begin to think about the fact that in those cases, they chose the services and willingly consented to pay for them. However, with taxation, consent is different, and people might begin to think of it as coerced consent. We don't want our taxation frame creating a whole new generation of anti-tax libertarians, do we? Finally, we need to be well aware of the ways in which our own frame might be modified by our opposition. Republicans could easily use the dues paying frame to highlight the fact that the services the government is giving are pathetic (look at all those potholes! and look at all those people who went to government-run schools and can't even spell "pothole!" are these the services we are paying so much of our hard-earned money for?). Once again, understanding the ways in which structures are mapped onto each other and how we make inferences from these mappings is important here. Unfortunately, Lakoff's theory gives us little insight into these things.
So, I'm ending on a mostly negative note: Lakoff's concepts of frames is mostly an old one, and the parts that are new to Lakoff, namely the conceptual metaphor parts, should be thrown out. Lakoff has done liberals a great service by writing approachable books on frame analysis, aimed directly at American politics, and us in particular. However, instead of just reading Lakoff's smooth-reading books, liberal intellectuals should take their newfound knowledge seriously, and actually do the work to learn how to frame their views more effectively. Maybe in the future, I'll describe the theory of frames (though in this theory, they're called schemas) that I think we should use.
1 I hate to be pedantic (no I don't), but in most cases, particularly when we're talking about the frames themselves, it's better to call them analogies. Metaphors are more like truncated analogies, and "metaphor" really describes the everyday use of these analogies. For instance, "Taxation is like paying dues, because..." followed by an explanation of why the two are alike, is analogy, while stating, "we must pay our dues to help this great nation," in a speech about taxation, would be metaphor.
2 Lakoff discusses a few reasons why people who use this frame to think about taxation should view it as a good thing (up to a point). For instance, most of us, as products of capitalism, feel like we should pay for goods, and we also have a strong sense of reciprocity.
3 From The Whole World Is Watching: Mass Media in the Making and Unmaking of the New Left by Todd Gitlin
4 From Entman, Robert M. 1993. "Framing: Toward Clarification of a Fractured Paradigm." Journal of Communication 43 (4): 51-8.