Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Understanding Frames with an Eye Toward Using Them Better

George Lakoff, the liberal blogosphere's new hero, analyzes all discourse, and political discourse in particular, using the concept of frames. Frames, for Lakoff, are metaphors that serve to structure our experience and understanding of the complex world around us. They are metaphorical, under Lakoff's view because they take structure from less complex, or more concrete experiences (e.g., paying membership dues), and carry that structure over to a new domain (e.g., taxation)1. Frames not only aid us in structuring our own experience, but rhetorically, they can work to influence how others structure their experience. Thus, skillful use of frames can cause others to share your view of particular phenomena. Lakoff uses the taxation example a great deal to illustrate this fact, and the ways in which competing views attempt to frame the debate with a structure that is favorable to their own positions. For example, George W. Bush, in the 2000 campaign, and often since, has talked about alleviating the tax burden on the American people. Framing taxation as a burden, and as something to be alleviated, tends to cause people to see it as a highly negative thing, and therefore when Bush is on the side of doing the alleviating, or getting rid of some taxes, they will view his position favorably. One of the ways in which liberals should frame taxation is through an analogy (I tried, I really tried, to type metaphor, but I couldn't bring myself to do it -- see footnote 1) to paying dues for services rendered. The government provides all sorts of vital services, from police and fire services, to maintaining roads, giving money to our children's schools, and funding scientific research that makes our lives better in the long run. We, as members of the society, benefit from these services, and therefore should pay for them. Lakoff believes that framing taxation this way will cause people to see it in a more positive light2, and therefore be less likely to thinking raising taxes (or rescinding tax breaks) is a bad thing.

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.


Caleb said...

Very interesting post! I'm familiar with Goffman and "frames" mainly from the literature on "new social movements." Some NSM theorists have a more complex view of framing than Lakoff seems to. They are big, for instance, on the idea of "frame alignment," a concept they use to pay closer attention to the intersection between a social movement's frames and the frames of its audience.

Chris said...

It's probably unfair to judge Lakoff's view of frames by reading his political works, which are all written for a lay audience. You might try his 1987 book Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things for a more sophisticated look. I think there you will find a better look at the intersection of cultural and individual frames.

Matt Scofield said...

Very interesting post.

roger said...

Chris, I agree with your suspicion about framing talk. Dissolving the notion of self interest into variants of spin doesn't seem very helpful to me. I appreciate Goffman as much as the next guy -- I think he was a genius -- but he had a healthy respect for the non-linguistic. The assumption that lies under Lakoff's frame talk is that power derives from the frame -- but maybe, just maybe, the frame derives from power.

Maybe, just maybe, taxation is perceived as a burden because it is felt as a burden -- maybe a liberalism that tries to support a whole structure of entitlements by radically increasing FICA and figuring out how to increase such other regressive taxes as the property and sales tax, at the state level, while colluding in cuts to corporate taxes and, especially, cuts to upper income taxation from the 60 percent in 1980 to the 15 percent in 2004, is a liberalism that is headed for the rocks.

The traditional New Deal liberalism that appealed to the self interest of the people who made incomes below the upper 10 percent/20 percentile basically was as amoral as an insurance man's pitch. Basically, it said that the same self interested tactics that served the wealthy -- sluffing off the costs of there industries on third parties, fighting tooth and nail to find tax loopholes, etc. -- are the tactics you should use if you aren't wealthy -- that is, get money for goods and services that advantage you from the people who have that money in this society, who happen to be -- in the upper class. Period. There's no way of tiptoeing around this point with some sweet linguistic frame.

Anonymous said...

Contrary to most of the views presented here, it seems to me that Lakoff's idea of conceptual metphor is not too linguistically oriented. Considering some of the historical background, one of Lakoff's achievements was to expand the notion of metaphor from a strictly linguistic interpretation to a wider cognitive one. Still, a lot of people tend to think of metaphors as literary ornaments. In the field of linguistics, this view was/is centran to the Chomskyan paradigm, and the idea that language is domain-specific and can be studied without a consideration of other aspects of cognition (Thus, it is seen as unproblematic that UG focuses on the so-called 'core' and leaves out the 'priphery' of metaphor, idiomatic expressions etc). Of course the cognitive/linguistic aspect must be acknowledged, since language is where we can empirically approach these matters.

"The assumption that lies under Lakoff's frame talk is that power derives from the frame -- but maybe, just maybe, the frame derives from power"

I do not think Lakoff's point is about causation as implied in the quote above (frame>power vs. power>frame), but about the interplay. Thus, framing is the process of _highlighting_ certain aspects of a situation over others, since human beings seem to interact selectively with their environments. Even if taxes can be truly felt as a burden, does not mean that we have to reinforce this idea linguistically like a mantra. Rather, if we believe taxes to serve some long-term positive function, we need to emphasize a different frame in order to reinforce the motivation.

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