Evolving Thoughts

Framing framing wrong?

John Hawks links to Greg Laden’s blog in which he points out that Nisbet and Mooney misused the notion of framing. It seems (I am not that familiar with it, except via secondhand stuff about Lakoff’s views, which Laden notes is derivative of the work of Goffman) that framing doesn’t mean what they think it means, as Inigo Montoya might have said if they were Sicilian.

Or does it?

Words do not always mean the same thing as their theoretical contexts imply or define. Take “paradigm“. Kuhn used it in a context (later deconstructed by Margaret Masterman into 21 distinct senses, some subtly different, some radically), but it found its way into popular culture and now can mean anything from a new car model to a drug experience.

Many terms of science evolve like this. “Deme” now means a breeding population; when it was proposed, it meant any taxonomic object at any level. It did not change its meaning by a direct and explicit theoretical redefinition. It was subverted by distinct usage, and acquired a novel theoretical context with its new meaning.

So “framing” – it appears, from Laden’s post, to mean something like a socio-conceptual context in which terms and ideas have particular meanings. In common usage, though, whether or not this is what Goffman or Lakoff intended, framing means to set the terms of a debate. That may be very bad sociolinguistics; but ordinary language appears in technical papers too, and not every term that has a technical meaning in a field that is outside the immediate disciplinary context (“frame”?) is being used in a technical sense.

That said, it is clear there are resources going begging in the technical theory of framing. Maybe. I have seen a lot of these “theories” before, and they come and they go. If there is anything of depth and weight in them, those elements will be retained. Often, very little is. I had better go read about it.

One way of analysing issues that I do think has weight and depth is the notion of “conceptual spaces”, such as Peter Gärdenfors’ Conceptual Spaces: The Geometry of Thought sets it up – the issues that are active in a context are the axes, and this determines the meaning of the debate. Perhaps this is the same sort of thing as framing technically is.

Oh, and getting a commentary piece in Science, Greg, is a paper in Science. It’s not a research paper, and it’s not a review paper, but it is a paper. At first I thought you had a point. But on reflection, that strikes me as a piece of framing, in the spin sense.

Late note: Chris Mooney in email thinks I was attacking him and Matt Nisbet. I was not – I was attacking Laden’s article, but it was unclear. Let it be noted for the record that I haven’t yet seen his and Matt’s article, and was not attacking them.

Late late note: I followed up some of Nisbet’s references in the comments. Laden is wrong. There is a tradition in the social sciences of taking framing the way they do, and it seems that this is very similar to the philosophical tradition of presuppositional analysis in the analytic tradition.

Comments

  1. #1 Madhu
    April 9, 2007

    I’ve liked both of your commentaries on this framing debate, John – better than the Science article which started the whole thing. I’ve just posted a rather long piece of my own mind on this topic over at Reconciliation Ecology, if you are interested.

  2. #2 Matthew C. Nisbet
    April 9, 2007

    I appreciate Greg Laden’s intense interest in framing. His latest post, however, dismisses literally hundreds of peer-reviewed papers across the fields of communication, political science, and sociology.

    Though he references Goffman’s work from 1974, over the past three decades, research in the above fields have developed framing as a theory of media influence. For overviews and applications of the literature see the citations we reference in the Policy Forum article:

    Price, V., Nir, L., & Capella, J.N. (2005). Framing public discussion of gay civil unions. Public Opinion Quarterly, 69, (2), 179-212.

    Gamson, WA. and Modigliani, A. (1989). Media Discourse and Public Opinion on Nuclear Power: A Constructionist Approach. American Journal of Sociology, 95, 1-37.

    See also the latest issue of the Journal of Communication, the flagship journal in the field. It’s a special issue devoted to framing and media influence. See especially the following overview:

    Scheufele, D. A., & Tewksbury, D. (2007). Framing, agenda-setting, and priming: The evolution of three media effects models. Journal of Communication, 57(1), 9-20.

    See also this earlier article by Scheufele, possibly the most heavily cited article in the field over the past decade:

    Scheufele, D.A. (1999). Framing as a Theory of Media Effects. Journal of Communication 49 (4): 103-22

  3. #3 John Wilkins
    April 9, 2007

    Matt – zing! I will be looking at these articles in detail in a bit. Thanks…

  4. #4 RBH
    April 9, 2007

    This whole “framing” hoorah has become ludicrous. I taught undergraduates for 20 years, and I learned a few useful things during that period. Among them:

    1. Start where your students are: find out about their presuppositions and prior knowledge, and start there.

    2. Identify where you want to take them from where they are.

    3. Figure out how to get them there via lectures, readings, demonstrations, and guided discussion.

    4. Do it.

    In the course of #3 and #4, one often invents and tells stories — narratives — that illustrate the path being taken. I had one lecture that went from the bare notion of a frequency distribution to statistical significant testing in 45 minutes, and it was a long carefully thought-out narrative. It told a story that the kids could follow, the whole story illustrated on the blackboard wrapped around three sides of the classroom, the illustrations being generated in real time as I talked about them — no Powerpoint! At the end of it, while they could not (yet) have actually calculated the statistical significance of a data set, they knew what variance was and what a probability density function was and why they’re useful, and when it came time (next class period) to learn how to actually calculate statistical significance they had a helluva lot easier time of it because they know why the calculations are as they are.

    Good teaching — and that’s what is required in this whole debate — is good story-telling. Gould and Dawkins and Zimmer and Sagan have been effective because, and only because, they are/were good story-tellers. Darwin was a master story teller: the Origin is an amazingly effective story.

  5. #5 jeff
    April 9, 2007

    Good teaching — and that’s what is required in this whole debate — is good story-telling.

    That’s probably why creationism does well. Genesis is a good story, especially for young kids. It’s not easy to make science that simple.

  6. #6 Greg Laden
    April 10, 2007

    I’m not sure what I think about the “it’s a paper” / “it’s not a paper” issue. I think I was reacting to the fact that there was a huge hoo-ha and when I went to read the paper/non paper, I spent several minutes looking for the paper because all I could find was a fw paragraphs of commentary. This is not really an important issue, and I’m happy to concede that it really is a paper. I really don’t care too much one way or another.

    I also think that the fact that this commentary was published, and the fact that it has created a fair amount of discussion, and the fact that it was clearly an honest effort to do something important, is what counts, and I’m glad they published it.

    I came into this discussion late (very late, for the blogosphere, like 20 hours or something…) and I noted the commentary that addressed a key issue: Do we want to spin science, or more exactly do we want to spin and even appease in order to be liked? My reaction to that is no, of course not. This does not mean that I object to making the communication work better. In any event, for my two posts on this topic, I chose to explore the Frame Analysis angle rather than to re-hash other areas of the blogosphere.

    I saw that Frame Analysis was invoked in the paper, but actual Frame Analysis was not being used. So I checked as well as I could, by looking at the references, and in this way verified that the authors were indeed referring to a concept that had its roots in Goffman.

    My commentary, in the two posts and in various comments on various sites, has explored this issue: The apparent change in Frame Analysis from one thing to an entirely different thing. I really do think that Goffman’s approach was insightful, and the new use of the term, despite reference to these historial roots, is something very different that I would call spinning.

    So my commentary is about the scholarship. Not necessarily the scholarship of the authors of the commentary in science, but rather the larger issue. I’ve made myself very clear, I think, in my posts, and I stand by these comments, at least for now! Frame Analysis has been wrecked, what they are doing is not about this concept of frames, yet that is still a useful tool, and so on.

    I’m starting to get annoyed at two things. The first, and most annoying is the occasional comment that “It doesn’t matter what you call it” or “Its just a term” etc. The nature of the scholarship itself is important. It may not always be the most important aspect of a particular issue, but it never becomes unimportant. I’m not trying to be pedantic, and in that vein, I have said repeatedly that I agree that better communication is necessary, and so on.

    The other slightly annoying thing is that everywhere I look on the blogsphere I find Matthew’s same exact comments:

    I appreciate Greg Laden’s intense interest in framing. His latest post, however, dismisses literally hundreds of peer-reviewed papers across the fields of communication, political science, and sociology.

    Though he references Goffman’s work from 1974, over the past three decades, research in the above fields have developed framing as a theory of media influence. For overviews and applications of the literature see the citations we reference in the Policy Forum article: …

    Mat seams like a nice guy and he’s obviously smart, so I’m only moderately annoyed by this. I would simply like to see more, rather than the same thing.

    With respect to these comments, I certainly did not dismiss anything. You’ll know when I’m dismissing something because I’ll tell you. I’ll say something like “I dismiss thousands of papers…”

    I did ignore them, of course. I’m an anthropologist, not a sociologist. I probably know more of the sociological literature than most sociologists know of the anthropological literature.

    If we want to talk about dismissal, let’s talk about the fact that in the sociological literature, the history of Frame Analysis often seems to be glossed. None of the authors I’ve read so far would last five minutes in an oral exam on the relevant theory.

    In other words, consider this: You are listening to Science Friday and they’ve got a cosmologist on talking about the origin of the universe. Some guy calls in, getting past the producers who are supposed to screen calls. He has his own theory of the origin of the universe. It is clear that he has read one book on this and does not know the background or details of the arguments. It is embarrassing and annoying.

    This is similar: There is this thing, it’s called Frame Analysis, it has a literature, a description, a methodology, a history. And then I see this literature that totally butchers it. THAT, my friends is dismissive and poor scholarship.

    Again, I’m not accusing Nisbet and Mooney of bad scholarship. But the sociologists as a whole have made a mess of it.

    John, regarding this:

    I have seen a lot of these “theories” before, and they come and they go. If there is anything of depth and weight in them, those elements will be retained. Often, very little is. I had better go read about it.

    One would think. Unfortunately, at least in cultural anthropology (I am NOT a cultural anthropologist, by the way…) theories that get old get thrown out no matter how good they are… There is no selection based on power, effectiveness, or any other qualities…

  7. #7 Clark
    April 10, 2007

    Words do not always mean the same thing as their theoretical contexts imply or define. Take “paradigm”. Kuhn used it in a context (later deconstructed by Margaret Masterman into 21 distinct senses, some subtly different, some radically), but it found its way into popular culture and now can mean anything from a new car model to a drug experience.

    Interesting you demonstrate the principle with your use of “deconstruct” which has a public sense quite unrelated to Derrida’s.

  8. #8 John Wilkins
    April 10, 2007

    That’s because we moved on from Derrida ;-)

    Actually, I never read him, but the term has been in use for a couple of decades at least.

    Greg: theories of social science get thrown out largely because they get exhausted; to wit, everyone is repeating themselves. But elements that are productive, like in any other science, are retained and modified. To think otherwise is to think that social science is not science at all, but just the fashionable mode of self-expression.

  9. #9 Clark
    April 10, 2007

    BTW – I think that the popular sense of framing just means the context one provides to the terms at hand. Since it’s widely accepted that individual terms receive their meaning from context this is important for communication. Wrong context and people either don’t care (importance isn’t communicated) or misunderstand.

    The trick in science and the public is that since there isn’t much by way of a shared context, due to that lack of an university science education, you have to find what is in the public context that can get close to the meaning and importance scientists get.

    Yeah, I know, obvious stuff. But I think everyone bringing up Lakoff and the like are trying to turn all of this into more of a technical debate than it need be. That’s not to say there aren’t some technical issues about philosophy, cognitive science and linguistics in all this. Just that I think their importance is perhaps overstressed and over focused in on.

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