- Most people don't really feel the need to actually read something about frame analysis, even if it's only Lakoff, before they develop opinions about its worth.
- Lakoff himself hasn't done a very good job of explaining what frame analysis is, because even the people who do appear to have read him usually don't get it.
Several misconceptions reappear, again and again. For example, "Lakoff is a postmodernist." If we put aside for a moment the fact that I haven't the slightest idea what that means, I can't imagine that if we compared Lakoff to many of the thinkers who are labeled "postmodernists" in more serious circles, we'd find a whole hell of a lot in common. I mean, sure, Lakoff readily admits to being a "relativist," but the sort of relativism he's talking about is probably not all that common among analytic philosophers, and I know it's not uncommon among cognitive scientists, and I don't think we can count many in either of those crowds as members of "postmodernist" schools of thought. The "relativism" of Lakoff, and many other cognitive scientists, simply says that our background knowledge influences our understanding and interpretation of facts and language. And that, in a nutshell, is what frame analysis is about.
Another common misconception is that framing is just a marketing tool. To be fair, I don't think that Lakoff has done a particularly good job of dispelling that notion, as when he talks about who should be the spokesperson for evolutionary science. And it's certainly true that framing is often used for marketing purposes, both in advertising and in political rhetoric. But that's not all it is. Frame analysis is a tool for interpreting discourse, and a tool for more effective communication. The goal of framing doesn't have to be convincing, it can simply be understanding.
A related misconception is that the purpose of framing is to manipulate or trick people into taking your side. Again, it can be used for that purpose, but I've never gotten the impression that Lakoff is advocating that type of use, and that's certainly not what frame analysis is about.
So, since my frustration has peaked, I thought I'd attempt to provide a very brief explanation of frame analysis, with the hope that it will clear up those misconceptions and others. This is all ground I've covered before, but what the hell? I'll cover it again.
First, what is a frame? Frames are essentially schemas in the head, or words and phrases used to elicit schemas in the head (follow the last link for more technical definitions). When referring to frames that are in people's heads, we're talking about knowledge structures in long-term memory that are used to interpret incoming information, and to reason. An example of a mental frame might be the FANCY RESTAURANT frame. You have specific knowledge of the order of events to expect in a fancy restaurant (the order of the courses, when the check comes, and even how often the server should check up on you), how to behave in a fancy restaurant (you don't eat with your hands, for example), and so on. When you're actually in a fancy restaurant, the frame serves to highlight certain information and create expectations (which is why you get pissed off if the server leaves your drink near empty or watered down for too long), while it causes you to ignore other information (like, say, the color of the plates, unless you're just really into plates). Frames in language are designed to take advantage of those representations or change them, by highlighting certain parts of them or additional facts or associations, and perhaps ignoring others.
So frame analysis will consist of three stages (maybe only two, if you're a linguist... sorry, I couldn't resist that little jab):
1.) Discovering the mental frames that people already have. If you don't do this, you won't know what information you should highlight or add, or what information you should de-emphasize.
2.) Developing an understanding of what it is you want to communicate. What do you want to make more salient in people's mental frames, and what do you want to add to their knowledge?
3.) Framing your speech and writing in such a way that it accomplishes the goals from 2) given 1).
That's it, really. You're just developing an understanding of how people are representing something, deciding what you want to communicate, and choosing your wording based on the combination of those two things. There's nothing inherently postmodern or manipulative (I think that some people mean "manipulative" when they say "postmodern") about any of that, and the potential uses of it extend well beyond simple marketing. In fact, it's a good idea to do those three things anytime you want to communicate effectively. Of course, in practice, all three of those things can be very difficult, particularly when your audience is diverse and/or your message is complicated. And it's important that you go into the process with a good understanding of how people represent information in general, and how they reason. And that's a large part of Lakoff's point, even if he really has no clue how people actually represent information or reason. But at least he's trying.