The theory of ‘framing’: useful for think tanks?

The conservative right study cognitive science and work in advertising, they understand the role of emotion in generating values. The progressive left study political science and are stuck in a phony enlightenment form of reasoning.

That’s the view of George Lakoff, Professor of Cognitive Linguistics at Berkeley and the go-to US expert on framing theory.

In the course of a 90-minute session about framing hosted by Counterpoint recently, Lakoff made this assertion repeatedly.

He is ‘framing’. He knows progressives and conservatives don’t really fall into neat categories. He is using the metaphor of education to frame what differentiates right and left political discourse about values. Framing is a theory with practical implications for how think tanks should communicate their ideas and has its roots in linguistics and cognitive psychology.

Frame theory is everywhere right now. A recent report by the New Economics Foundation challenges us to devise ways of ‘re-framing’ the narrative of ‘Austerity’, a report by Compass analysed the values (aka ‘deep frames’) at the root of Ed Miliband’s Newham dockside speech in June. Counterpoint is in the middle of a programme of work exploring the influence of framing.

Policy metaphors help frame political issues, enabling even the most politically disengaged citizens to understand policy. Lakoff goes so far as to suggest that political framing be considered ‘applied cognitive science,’ so convinced is he of the technique’s empirical foundations.

‘War’, ‘struggle’, ‘motion’ and ‘direction’ are among the most common policy metaphors in use (for a list of political metaphors check Safire’s Political Dictionary). George W Bush used the metaphor ‘Axis of Evil’ to describe states that were against the ‘war on terror’. Franklin D Roosevelt implemented a ‘New Deal’ to combat economic depression.

Much political blood was spilt in 2007 and 2008 over whether to describe a $700 billion package to save Wall Street (TARP) as a ‘bail-out’ (BAD) or a ‘rescue’ (less contentious). Recently European Central Bank (ECB) policy on sovereign debt has been re-framed, the term ‘bail-in’ being deployed to describe the removal of Cypriot cash deposits.

But what gives these metaphors the agency to actually change minds? Lakoff talks of the importance of ‘deep frames’ and the norms and values that underpin the way policies are framed in public discourse.

For example, the metaphor of  ‘bail-out’, appeals to deeply ingrained value content (deep frames) implying the immorality, recklessness or irresponsibility of getting into debt.  A ‘bail-in’, by contrast, draws on the same value content, but re-frames it in favour of personal neoliberal values of responsibility.

This touches on something that is contentious in Lakoff’s approach. His golden rule of framing is ‘never work with a frame set by your opponent’. On this logic, should the ECB have looked for an alternative to the ‘bailing’ metaphor? Just because an opponent has embedded an effective frame in the public consciousness, does that make it immune from hijack?  Is it practical to ignore well-established frames like ‘austerity’?

An observation by philosopher Raymond Geuss questions the reliability of the assumption that values can be mobilized towards political action. He argues that people’s values are ‘usually half-baked, are almost certain to be both indeterminate and, to the extent to which they are determinate, grossly inconsistent in any but the most local contexts, and are constantly changing.’

There’s clearly something to the theory of framing, and think tanks that are committed to a clear set of values would do well to think about how those values can be framed in order to influence and lead public opinion.

Paul Hebden is a journalist and comms specialist.
He blogs at and on Twitter @prformativcontr

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Posted in Opinion
4 comments on “The theory of ‘framing’: useful for think tanks?
  1. Hans Gutbrod says:

    Great topic, and definitely worth reflecting on in more detail.

    One book that is interesting in this context is Stanley Greenberg’s Dispatches from the War Room, which takes the perspective of someone who has advised in a number of highly contested elections. I think up to a point think tanks should clearly be aware of framing (which is, well, framed as a new concept but which would have been recognizable to people teaching rhetoric in ancient Greece).

    In my old job we did a little bit of research on this question, and it is remarkable how certain measures receive different responses, depending on how you explain them. For example the proposed policy of switching from dubbing to subtitling foreign-language films was not popular. Practical arguments in favor (faster reading acquisition for children; opportunity to learn English) did not help. Instead “these films are foreign films anyway” resonated most, even though it explained no benefit.

    In my view, it is borderline for think tanks to go into this area. First and foremost, the research needs to be absolutely solid and make a very plausible case. Then the framing can come in. I would be concerned if it became a norm that think tanks prioritize the spinning of their message, effective as that may be. I like that you highlight that concern.

    Curious what others think.

  2. shepsil says:

    The conservative movement started framing over 40 years ago, directly via politics and indirectly thru the media as a result of the Powell Memo. Think tanks do press releases and need to be aware of their messaging and “framing”. Conservative think tanks use framing and now it is time for the progressive ones to do the same.

    As Lakoff has pointed out, 80% of US media booking agencies book conservative pundits for US talk shows. The conservative movement knows how to get out their message and how to frame it.

    Frank Luntz is the conservative wordsmith who puts out a conservative phrasebook every year. 2 years ago the conservative movement announced they were moving their messaging efforts to include Hollywood.

    Conservative think tanks have been framing their message for decades. In the US this is a direct reflection of the Republicans having won 3 out of 4 elections in the last 40+ years.

  3. hegemonic says:

    Framing is a modestly interesting notion but it is actually far less profound than Gramsci’s concept of hegemony. Gramsci recognised that the struggle for hegemony was a battle for ‘intellectual and moral leadership’. It was thus simultaneously a contest of ideas, which mattered, and a contest of values. The latter connected to popular ‘common sense’, the product of centuries of sedimentation in the context of domination by particular social classes (think support for austerity), and should be fought (from the progressive side) by building on the ‘good sense’ deriving from the experience of subaltern social groups (think public hostility to bankers). Political parties played the role in this context of ‘collective intellectuals’, coalescing ‘historical blocs’ of social forces behind political projects (think a ‘national health service’) while disarticulating such alliances constructed by the opposing side (think, from Thatcher’s era, the ‘right to buy’); media could in this sense act like parties too (Gramsci was thinking of the organising role historically for the British ruling class of the Times). Such hegemonic projects went beyond advancing the ‘economic-corporate’ interests of particular classes (think the limits of Labourism as conceived via the Labour Representation Committee of 1900 or the toxic association in the public mind of Cameron’s Tories with the energy companies). The Lakoff ;frame’ is quite one-dimensional by comparison.

    • paulheb says:

      @hegemony that’s a strong marxian critique that is missing from my assessment of framing so thanks for the comment. I Was toying with the idea of a more radical leftist critique of Lakoff (along lines of: these ‘values’ are merely bourgeoise values anyway) but in the end resorted to Guess’s liberal criticism of applied ethics, of which framing is an example. But I will check out Gramsci’s theory as well. Thanks

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