“A brilliant spark that will fly through the air and set the vapors of our insurrectionary imaginations alight.”John Jordan, founder of Reclaim the Streets
“Our revolution is fought with concepts, not with guns.”Gloria Anzaldu’a
In the words of media researcher Charlotte Ryan, “A frame is a thought organizer, highlighting certain events and facts as important, and rendering others invisible.” Framing a message correctly can make or break an entire campaign.
Sociologist Erving Goffman’s 1974 book Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience, popularized among progressive movements by Charlotte Ryan, George Lakoff, Makani Themba, Center for Story-based Strategy and others.
We are narrative animals, always using story to make sense of our world, and conceptual frames are key to this process. Frames, writes George Lakoff, “are the mental structures that allow human beings to understand reality — and sometimes to create what we take to be reality.”
Whether we’re aware of them or not, frames are embedded in the ways we describe and understand the world, imposing a meaning that often benefits those with power. For example, when economists give the “economic forecast,” the analogy of economy-as-weather subtly steers us to think of capitalism as a force of nature, beyond human control. This framing benefits banks and corporations, as it obscures how they actually manipulate markets to their own advantage.
Framing can be a useful tool not just for reinforcing power, but also for contesting it (see PRINCIPLE: Reframe). When framing an action or campaign, we must consider how the problem or conflict can be most compellingly portrayed so as to disrupt the dominant framing and replace it with a frame that benefits the movement’s goals.
Some questions to ask include: Who are the good guys? Who are the bad guys? What is the conflict and what is at stake? What hidden forces or new solutions must be revealed? What are our underlying values? Is there a unifying theme that can create a framing structure for our story?
For example, when workers are organizing for better benefits, rather than rally for “paid” sick time, which implies people should be paid by their already oh-so-generous employers to be home sick, they may choose to rally for “earned sick time,” which implies that the workers have earned this benefit as compensation. The shift from “paid” to “earned” creates an entirely different frame for understanding the issue.
While proponents of the so-called “Stop and Frisk” program in New York City call the practice of “police stops” a boon for “community safety” that “saves lives,” opponents of the program focus their message using the frame of “racial profiling,” and say that the policy “criminalizes a whole race and community of people.” They widen and at the same time focus the frame on revealing a narrative of racial injustice, effectively mobilizing a broad-based movement of people of color and allies against racism.
Another example: fossil fuel company-backed scientists call themselves “climate skeptics” for a reason. What scientist worth his salt isn’t skeptical? Isn’t that part of the scientific method? Rather than go down the dead-end road of “But they’re lying!,” climate activists have been able to frame these voices as marginal using analogies like “tobacco science” and labeling them “climate deniers.” A denier (as opposed to a liar) makes an active choice to refute a difficult truth that society has already accepted.
When you engage in framing, you must be willing to accept that the facts of your case alone are not enough for you to win (see THEORY: Ethical spectacle). Framing is a struggle over meaning. As framing guru George Lakoff reminds us, “Truth must be framed effectively to be seen at all. That is why an understanding of framing matters.”