Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Framing

framing main

(podcast download)

‘Framing’ is a metaphor to describe the ways in which we understand, and use language selectively to portray, policy problems. There are many ways to describe this process in many disciplines, including communications, psychological, and sociological research. There is also more than one way to understand the metaphor.

For example, I think that most scholars describe this image (from litemind) of someone deciding which part of the world on which to focus.

framing with hands

However, I have also seen colleagues use this image, of a timber frame, to highlight the structure of a discussion which is crucial but often unseen and taken for granted:

timber frame

  1. Intentional framing and cognition.

The first kind of framing relates to bounded rationality or the effect of our cognitive processes on the ways in which we process information (and influence how others process information):

  • We use major cognitive shortcuts to turn an infinite amount of information into the ‘signals’ we perceive or pay attention to.
  • These cognitive processes often produce interesting conclusions, such as when (a) we place higher value on the things we own/ might lose rather than the things we don’t own/ might gain (‘prospect theory’) or (b) we value, or pay more attention to, the things with which we are most familiar and can process more easily (‘fluency’).
  • We often rely on other people to process and select information on our behalf.
  • We are susceptible to simple manipulation based on the order (or other ways) in which we process information, and the form it takes.

In that context, you can see one meaning of framing: other actors portray information selectively to influence the ways in which we see the world, or which parts of the world capture our attention (here is a simple example of wind farms).

In policy theory, framing studies focus on ambiguity: there are many ways in which we can understand and define the same policy problem (note terms such as ‘problem definition’ and a ‘policy image’). Therefore, actors exercise power to draw attention to, and generate support for, one particular understanding at the expense of others. They do this with simple stories or the selective presentation of facts, often coupled with emotional appeals, to manipulate the ways in which we process information.

  1. Frames as structures

Think about the extent to which we take for granted certain ways to understand or frame issues. We don’t begin each new discussion with reference to ‘first principles’. Instead, we discuss issues with reference to:

(a) debates that have been won and may not seem worth revisiting (imagine, for example, the ways in which ‘socialist’ policies are treated in the US)

(b) other well-established ways to understand the world which, when they seem to dominate our ways of thinking, are often described as ‘hegemonic’ or with reference to paradigms.

In such cases, the timber frame metaphor serves two purposes:

(a) we can conclude that it is difficult but not impossible to change.

(b) if it is hidden by walls, we do not see it; we often take it for granted even though we should know it exists.

Framing the social, not physical, world

These metaphors can only take us so far, because the social world does not have such easily identifiable physical structures. Instead, when we frame issues, we don’t just choose where to look; we also influence how people describe what we are looking at. Or, ‘structural’ frames relate to regular patterns of behaviour or ways of thinking which are more difficult to identify than in a building. Consequently, we do not all describe structural constraints in the same way even though, ostensibly, we are looking at the same thing.

In this respect, for example, the well-known ‘Overton window’ is a sort-of helpful but also problematic concept, since it suggests that policymakers are bound to stay within the limits of what Kingdon calls the ‘national mood’. The public will only accept so much before it punishes you in events such as elections. Yet, of course, there is no such thing as the public mood. Rather, some actors (policymakers) make decisions with reference to their perception of such social constraints (how will the public react?) but they also know that they can influence how we interpret those constraints with reference to one or more proxies, including opinion polls, public consultations, media coverage, and direct action:

JEPP public opinion

They might get it wrong, and suffer the consequences, but it still makes sense to say that they have a choice to interpret and adapt to such ‘structural’ constraints.

Framing, power and the role of ideas

We can bring these two ideas about framing together to suggest that some actors exercise power to reinforce dominant ways to think about the world. Power is not simply about visible conflicts in which one group with greater material resources wins and another loses. It also relates to agenda setting. First, actors may exercise power to reinforce social attitudes. If the weight of public opinion is against government action, maybe governments will not intervene. The classic example is poverty – if most people believe that it is caused by fecklessness, what is the role of government? In such cases, power and powerlessness may relate to the (in)ability of groups to persuade the public, media and/ or government that there is a reason to make policy; a problem to be solved.  In other examples, the battle may be about the extent to which issues are private (with no legitimate role for government) or public (and open to legitimate government action), including: should governments intervene in disputes between businesses and workers? Should they intervene in disputes between husbands and wives? Should they try to stop people smoking in private or public places?

Second, policymakers can only pay attention to a tiny amount of issues for which they are responsible. So, actors exercise power to keep some issues on their agenda at the expense of others.  Issues on the agenda are sometimes described as ‘safe’: more attention to these issues means less attention to the imbalances of power within society.


Filed under 1000 words, agenda setting, PhD, public policy

14 responses to “Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Framing

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  10. Katie

    Hi there! Great explanation of framing. I’d like to be able cite this properly though – does this information come from one of your articles or books? Also, what is the reference for the text you have pasted at the start? Thanks!

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