You’ve Been Framed

By Laurence Matthews and Alison Matthews - 12 November 2014

Laurence and Alison Matthews argue that the way we frame global policy challenges is vitally important, and yet often overlooked.

Have you heard much about International Warming lately?

There’s something odd about that question, now, isn’t there? We don’t seem to talk about ‘international’ warming - it’s always global warming. After all, ‘international warming’ doesn’t make much sense: molecules and climates don’t respect national boundaries.

And yet, all policy efforts to address climate change focus on a international, rather than a global, solution to this problem. Policymakers unthinkingly accept the worldview, or ‘frame’, that sees the world as a collection of countries. Attention immediately focuses on national statistics, national commitments, quid pro quo negotiations between nations. Global policy becomes international policy. Perhaps we need a field of Global Relations to complement International Relations.

This framing is something that goes largely unnoticed. And the trouble with frames is that we won’t look outside a frame, if we never notice that there’s a frame there at all.

The phenomenon of ‘framing’ happens in all sorts of policy debates, and much more often than you’d think. Take the framing of people as consumers. The word ‘consumer’ is not just a word, an innocent part of the language. It triggers a frame - a whole set of inter-related ideas - about roles and expected behaviour, including moral ideas. In this frame, your job as a consumer is simply to choose between menu items; you don’t have any say over what gets onto the menu in the first place. Making decisions in life is framed as shopping.

This has consequences. Firstly, if you concentrate on the menu items you often fail to even realise that there might be other options that are not on the menu. While you’re choosing between a red car and a blue car, it might not occur to you to wonder why you can’t buy a good bus service. Because, secondly, shopping focuses on us as individuals: in choosing your car, you don’t care how other people get around - let alone about any wider effects on society as a whole. Then thirdly, you shop using money, and this means that the rich get more say: the poor may not be able to afford any choices at all. And fourthly, there’s the issue of blame: the ‘consumer’ frame implicitly blames us for problems. If we all want cars, or to fly, then climate change is all our fault, really.

In recent work with a climate NGO, and previously in industry, we’ve both come across a lot of framing. And we decided that people ought to know more about it. So our new book, Framespotting, explores this world. How do we spot frames, and what happens when we do?

We’ve written the book for the general public, and to this end it’s short and punchy, using crisp language with plenty of illustrations, and totally avoiding graphs, equations and jargon: we’ve used the yardstick of producing a book which would make a good Christmas present (hint, hint!) But there’s also plenty of food for thought for those more deeply concerned with policy questions, for in our experience - talking to politicians, policymakers, civil servants, academics and activists as well as the general public - we’ve found that many ‘experts’ unconsciously think within frames too. We use climate change as an extended case study, and we uncover seven distinct frames there, and explore the policy implications of looking outside those frames.

Frames can run deep. The pervasive framing of economic growth is a case in point. It is not just a reflection of vested interests, but also taps into deep stories of who we are and where humanity is going. Uncovering these stories is an important step in tackling more specific issues effectively. At the moment too many people are trapped in one of two stories: a despairing story of ‘doom’, or an unrealistic ‘endless growth’ story; this all too easily leads to depression or denial, neither of which is conducive to mental health, never mind the kinds of clear thinking we’ll need to solve humanity’s largest problems. But what alternative is there?

Well, the answer is surprisingly inspiring. Spotting frames is all about seeing the bigger picture; looking outside and beyond the frames that we spot. And that can be liberating: it can lead to larger, positive and appealing visions, that in the long term will be more effective than environmental scare stories or exhortations to change our ways.

Our hope is that in getting some of these ideas out there to a wider public we’re helping to prepare the ground, rendering it more receptive to policy proposals which don’t fit the usual ‘frames’.


‘Framespotting’ by Laurence and Alison Matthews is published by IFF Books, in paperback and as an ebook. For more information please see here.

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