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Frame and framing analysis in policy research - Definitions

Frames are structures of thought, of evidence, of action, and hence of interests and of values, […] formulated in a world of becoming which brings those together“ (Rein, 1983: 96, 222).
Framing is the interactive, intersubjective process through which frames are constructed (van Hulst and Yanow, 2014: 2), serving to order a chaotic situation, facilitate interpretation and provide a guide for doing and acting (Laws and Rein, 2003: 173).

In Detail

The school of frame and framing analysis is an actor-centred approach used in a variety of fields across the social sciences, most notably in the study of communication, social movement, leadership, and policy studies. In this brief, the focus is on the latter, as it has evolved within the hermeneutic (i.e. the background against which understanding is performed) and dialogical (i.e. the social and practical contexts of understanding) traditions of analysing meaning.

Hermeneutic Meaning
Within the hermeneutic tradition, frame analysis emerged in the American pragmatist tradition of the 1970s, under the influence of Thomas Kuhn’s concept of paradigms. Hence, the initial preoccupation was with the (little) influence that social science research has on public decision making. The emergence of frame-critical policy analysis is given by Rein's (1976) take on the generation of directions for intervention. In his view, actors' understanding of policy situations, together with the causal relations which underpin them, is performed by appealing to an a-priori framework of interpretation (p. 104), rather than being deduced from the data on the issue at hand.

This view that policies are par excellence social constructs rather than scientific endeavours serves to reverse the traditional sequence of data leading to knowledge. What actors do is to draw on a multitude of so-called frames, which are in essence “structures of thought, of evidence, of action, and hence of interests and of values, […] formulated in a world of becoming which brings those together” (Rein, 1983: 96, 222). The main aim of understanding the origin and use of frames is to explain deep controversies over what to do in a context which is assumed to be pluralistic and contingent. Those controversies are in essence disputes about the persuasive use of frames that bring a policy (i.e. an intervention) into being (Wagenaar, 2011: 85). Controversies stick not because there is a lack of data or expertise on the topic, but rather because once elaborated, frames are very hard to alter, often becoming institutionalised. The best policy analysis can do then is backtrack to the problem-setting phase, and grasp the elaboration of worries into problems. (Rein and Schon, 1977: 236). This work of constructing frames highlights certain features of a situation, ignores or selects out other features, and binds the highlighted features together into a coherent and comprehensible patterns.

Schon and Rein (1994) synthesise a classification of frames based on the evidence upon which the frame is constructed upon:

  • rhetorical frame: the theory based on policy-relevant texts which is put forward by frame sponsors and critics in policy debates.
  • action frame: pattern of actions undertaken by policy practitioners (i.e. those who design and implement policies).
  • policy frame: action frame that an institutional actor uses to construct the problem of a specific policy situation
  • institutional frame: a more generic action frame from which institutional actors derive their policy frames
  • meta-cultural frame: broad, culturally shared systems of belief. These frames shape institutional action frames and rhetorical frames (p. 32-4)

Working within the hermeneutic tradition, frame research will always look for the normative dimensions of meaning. This does not come without its analytical problems. Wagenaar (2011) points out an epistemic issue for the analyst: are frames out there to be discovered, or are they conceptual constructs to provide an interpretation about innate events? (p. 88-9). In other words, the hermeneutic take on frame analysis inevitably acquires a positivist character, thus defeating the initial subversion of the sequence which leads to knowledge. Another pressing issue is that frames will inevitably work differently for individuals, groups, and institutions (Vliegenthart and van Zoonen 2011: 112). From a meaning-realist perspective, the analyst is hence confronted with a myriad of frames and interrelations between them; on the other hand, working within the constructivist school, analysts are in no position to conclude an evaluation of frames, as the analysis and analyst themselves are both bound within their own frames.

Dialogical Meaning
For the remainder of their eagerly expected book – “Frame Reflection”, Schön and Rein (1994) shift the frame research agenda towards a dialogical-oriented approach, seeking to bridge the gap between thinking and acting. Adhering to a practice-driven take on policy analysis, their focus is on the ability of practitioners to reflect on the meaning of the policy-making game while being situated in it. The key argument is centred around the primacy of reframing (i.e. reflection in action) in policy making, viewed as an activity subject to the rationalities of design. Given this, the authors view that the coherence of a policy reasoning is given by the policy object itself, in spite of the oftentimes conflictual, disjoined, and chaotic, nature of the politics of reasoning that takes place. This stable object is viewed to serve as an external memory upon which actors perform sometimes divergent cycles of activities (p. 84).

Aiming to explain how policy controversies are resolved in a pragmatic manner, the authors push for an explanation of the policy designer's role as being embedded in several layers of complexity. Briefly, they can be summed up as:

  • working under conditions of uncertainty and complexity, which leads to a back-talk of design intentions (e.g. unintended consequences);
  • the social (rather than individual) task of designing, implementing, and consuming policy; design hence takes a communicative dimension between designers themselves, but also with other stakeholders;
  • conflicting action frames (i.e. patterns of action), which, following the design-rational logic leads to co-design (p. 170).

The emphasis on reframing shifts the theorising of frames from stable objects which actors possess and use, to a more dynamic understanding, where frames become systems of beliefs that intertwine with identity and social action (Laws and Rein, 2003: 174). This understanding of frames paves the way for a more dynamic , politically-sensitive language, focused on processes. The usage of the concept also moves away from an explicit focus on controversies, towards an analysis of public decision making shaped within networks of governance.

In one of the latest theoretical publications on the subject, van Hulst and Yanow (2014) highlight the aspects of framing:

  • sense-making: while early frame theorising focused on the individual cognitive process, the framing perspective takes this to be an intersubjective aspect which draws on the interactions between actors. And most importantly, action is driven by meanings acquired in the course of sense-making through a conversation with the situation (i.e. with persons, acts, events, language and/or objects). (p. 7).
  • selecting, naming, and categorising – in essence understood as framing devices (i.e. informing audiences how to think about an issue).
  • storytelling

References and more information:
Laws, D. Rein, M. (2003). Reframing practice . In Hajer, M. A., Wagenaar, H. (Eds.). Deliberative policy analysis: understanding governance in the network society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Schon, D., Rein, M. (1994). Frame Reflection: Frame Reflection: Toward the Resolution of Intractable Policy Controversies. New York: Basic Books
Van Hulst, M.,Yanow, D. (2014). From Policy “Frames” to “Framing” Theorizing a More Dynamic, Political Approach. The American Review of Public Administration, 0275074014533142.
Vliegenthart and van Zoonen. (2011). Power to the frame: Bringing sociology back to frame analysis. European Journal of Communication, 26(2), 101-115.
Wagenaar, H. (2012). Meaning in Action: Interpretation and Dialogue in Policy Analysis. London: M.E. Sharpe

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