Chapter 3 – Part 1: Frames

This article is part of the Thinking Points Discussion Series published by the Rockridge Institute in early 2007. It was written by Joe Brewer (Rockridge Institute staff member) on Friday, March 23, 2007 11:44 AM

Previous <—–> Next

Expanding our discussion of Thinking Points to include Chapter 3, we explore frames and brains to see how cognitive science informs our understanding of politics. This chapter is filled with so much information that we will consider it in three parts. This installment considers what framing is and identifies several important kinds of frames relevant to politics

At the Rockridge Institute we offer something new and (hopefully!) refreshing to political discussions. Our contribution comes from an extensive body of empirical research in the cognitive sciences that helps us explain a number of confusing and seemingly paradoxical features of political discourse.

Central to our political work is the nature of framing in shaping our thoughts and motivating our moral sensibilities. But what is a frame? And how does it relate to politics? Are there different kinds of frames I should be aware of? These questions are critically important, as many of you already know. The answers are long and complex, so I will not attempt to be comprehensive…opting instead for an introduction that should help clarify what it is that we do at Rockridge (and why you should care about it).

Chapter 3 of Thinking Points covers a number of different topics that represent the intellectual background for applying the findings of cognitive science to politics. We focus primarily on framing – the cognitive sciences offer us a considerably broader array of useful insights into the human mind than framing alone – because George Lakoff has connected linguistic analysis to morality in powerful ways that are directly relevant to politics. We will consider this connection between morality and politics in greater depth when we get to Chapter 4.

What is a frame?

Understanding frames is essential to progressive politics. A frame is the structure a concept carries with it to provide content to the concept. I will try to put it into concrete terms with an example:

What is the concept for “cup”? When you here the word “cup”, you will automatically know certain things about what a cup is:

  1. It is a container that typically holds liquids.
  2. It is graspable, meaning it comes in a size and shape compatible with grasping it with a typical human hand.
  3. Certain body movements are associated with it, including: reaching, grasping, lifting toward your mouth, drinking from it, and so on.
  4. It has a logic to it that includes the following rules:
    1. It must contain liquid in order to drink from it
    2. If you drink all of the liquid, it will be empty
    3. You cannot drink from it if it is not located near to or in contact with your mouth

All of this information arises automatically when you hear the word “cup” because the concept associated with this word has all of these features in many experiences you have pertaining to cups. This hidden structure that gives meaning to the word “cup” is a frame.

One of the powerful findings of cognitive science is that our thoughts are embodied. This means our thoughts are shaped by the physical structure and processes in our brains. The word embodied, when talking about the human mind, tells us that our minds are the way they are because the are embedded within our bodies. One consequence of having embodied minds is that the concepts we use to make sense of the world are shaped by our bodily experiences, as you can see when we talk about the concept for “cup.” The word’s meaning is inseparable from the experience of using a cup with bodies like the ones we have. (For those of you with a more scholarly inclination, you may want to check out The Embodied Mind by Varela, Thompson, and Rosch or Philosophy in the Flesh by Lakoff and Johnson to learn more about the significance of having embodied minds.)

Metaphor of “Life as a Play”

In chapter 3 we learn about the work of the distinguished sociologist, Erving Goffman, who first noticed the role of frames in shaping our interactions with the world. He discovered something remarkable, which is that social institutions and situations are shaped by mental structures (frames) that determine how we behave in those institutions and situations. He used the metaphor “Life is a Play” to describe the phenomenon.

Let’s explore the example given in the book, which is the hospital frame:

  • A hospital has clearly defined roles: doctor, nurse, surgeon, orderly, patient, visitor, receptionist, janitor, etc.;
  • Scenes play out in specific locations: the operating room, the emergency room, the recovery room, the waiting area, and patient areas;
  • There are props: the operating table, scalpels, bandages, wheelchairs, and so on;
  • There are conventional actions: operations, taking temperature and blood pressure, checking charts, emptying bedpans, and so on.

The hospital frame provides a context for all of these things to be meaningful. The phrase the operating room only makes sense when we know what a hospital is.

The hospital frame also has an internal logic to help us make sense of all this information. There are fixed relationships and hierarchies among the roles: Doctors are superior to nurses, who are superior to orderlies. Various rules exist like the one that tells us “All surgeons are doctors, but not all doctors are surgeons.”

This internal logic is important in many ways that relate to politics. For one thing, the fixed relationships rule out certain scenarios. Examples are that surgeons don’t empty bedpans and operations are not performed in the waiting room. This relates to politics because the frame we use shapes the possible solutions available for consideration. We will see this below when we discuss Issue-defining Frames and the war metaphor.

We can see that frames provide context for meaning and carry quite a lot of additional information that goes well beyond simple definitions. If I were to ask you what a hospital is, you would immediately have this body of information available to work with when you put together words that summarize its meaning.

Deep Frames and Surface Frames

While reading Thinking Points you may be confused by what we mean by deep frames and surface frames. The difference is subtle in the sense that they are both activated (often simultaneously) to provide contexts for us to comprehend things. For our purposes, we can think of them in the following way:

  • A surface frame is the mental structure associated with specific words or phrases that creates the context for meaning for those words or phrases;
  • A deep frame is the most basic frame that defines a moral or philosophical worldview.

You might read these definitions and say, “Oh yeah, that’s so clear I could explain it to my grandmother!” but chances are it is still somewhat confusing. Let’s see if we can work out the difference with a detailed example.

Analysis of the War on Terror

Recall that surface frames are the mental structures associated with words and phrases. The surface frames in this phrase are the mental structures normally associated with the words war and terror. We know that a war is a series of battles between two armies, that our side is assumed to be good, and that the battles are necessary to win some kind of moral crusade. The frame associated with the word terror is that it is an extreme form of fear, it is experienced by a person who feels threatened, and that it is an emotion.

When we put these words together we get the metaphor “Terror is our enemy.” This happens because we wage war on an enemy who threatens us in a way that mandates military action. The phrase ‘War on X” tells us that X is our enemy that we must fight.

So where is the deep frame in this example? It is not the frame for war or the frame for terror, since we can see that they are surface frames. Remember that the deep frame is the most basic frame that defines our moral worldview. It is not apparent directly in the surface frames of war and terror, but is in the way that our response to the terrorist attacks on 9/11 has been framed.

Our response in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks was to talk about treating the terrorists as an international police problem. This is the deep frame that organizes the situation into a context where moral issues are defined. If we had continued to frame the situation as a police problem, we would have focused on things like gathering evidence, sending spies into terrorist organizations, and arresting criminals to be tried in the International Court. It is a deep frame because our moral purpose is defined as catching criminals to protect our communities. The moral values associated with this deep frame are protection, responsibility, collaboration, and so on.

Instead of applying the deep frame of police problem to the terrorist attack, the Bush administration and right-wing message machine bombarded us with a different frame. They chose to frame the situation as a military problem. They immediately started talking about the “War on Terror” and organized public discourse around the frame of war. When they did this, the surface frame for war restricted our discussions to issues related to war: mobilize an army, engage in military battles, “smoke out” our enemy, and so on.

In this example, we can see how deep frames are different from surface frames. The deep frame defines the general relationship to the situation by telling us what kind of situation we are dealing with. The surface frames reinforce the deep frame and clarify the details of the deep frame. With the “War on Terror” we can see that the surface frames of war and terror reinforce the deep frame that tells us we are dealing with a military problem that requires a military solution.

Issue Defining Frames

As we saw in the “War on Terror” example, the deep frames we use define the issues that we deal with. This is clear with the situation in Iraq. As Lakoff has noted elsewhere [link to occupation article], the issues are quite different if we call it the War in Iraq or the Iraq Occupation. This is also true of immigration [link to immigration article].

Frames that decide the issues also restrict the range of possible solutions. If we are dealing with a war, we don’t have the option of quitting. Whereas, talk about addressing an occupation opens us to considerations of when to withdraw our troops.

Messaging Frames

I have written about the importance of message frames as part of the climate debate. There are many different kinds of messaging frames and each has its own rules: political speeches and debates, advertising, news stories, editorials, and commentaries. All messaging frames share the common features of messenger, message, audience, issue, medium, and images. One thing to note is that the messenger plays a critical role. The messenger must have credibility and integrity for the audience to accept the message as valid.

Frames are Political When They Have a Moral Component

At Rockridge we talk about frames that relate to politics. The word “cup” is a lexical frame, meaning it is the conceptual structure related to a word. We are interested in lexical frames (and other kinds too) that relate to moral values. For example, the lexical frame for the word “illegal” has aspects of right and wrong associated with it. Something “illegal” is typically something that is bad. A person who is illegal, such as an illegal immigrant, is a person who has done something bad and must make up for it in some way.

We understand this through the metaphor of “moral accounting.” Here is how moral accounting works: If Person A harms Person B, it is metaphorically the same as Person A taking something good from Person B. There are two ways to “balance the books.” Person A can give something good of equal value back to Person B to make up for the harm. This is what we call restitution. Or Person B can harm Person A for an equal amount of damage. This is what we call retribution.

The logic of moral accounting is intuitively understood when we use a frame where harm is done. The moral accounting frame (which has the structure I just described) is connected to the “illegal” frame. This is why words are political by default. We need to consider how moral issues are entailed in the words we choose, especially when we talk about political issues where the moral issues impact real people in real communities.

Frames are important to politics when they pertain to moral values. If we are not aware of the frame we use, someone else may define the issues, paint the moral landscape, and limit the range of public discourse without our knowledge that they are doing it. This is what conservative think tanks have done for decades. We progressives have some serious catching up to do!

(This is the first part of three installments covering Chapter 3. Part 2, which will be published next Monday, April 2nd, will explore the key findings of the cognitive sciences that mandate revision of our notion of rationality. Part 3, to be presented one week later, will look at the different meanings key political words take on when framed according to the Strict Father and Nurturant Parent worldviews.)

Go to the next discussion in this series.


Cognitive Policy Works specializes in providing organizations and individuals with frame analysis, policy briefs, strategic advising, and training.

heartSupport CPW

heartSubscribe to RSS

heartSubscribe to Newsletter

linkhttp://www.cognitivepolicyworks.com/?p=933