The power of framing: Lessons for progressives
When was the last time you heard a perspective that unsettled or transformed the way you think about an issue?
That’s the power of framing.
How people, organisations, campaigners and institutions choose to conceptualise and communicate ideas can have a huge effect on how people respond to them. From migration to climate change, and from women’s rights to the economy, the way that we talk about the issues of the day can delineate the boundaries of what we see as right, as possible, and can influence how we behave as a result.
From migration to climate change, and from women’s rights to the economy, the way that we talk about the issues of the day can delineate the boundaries of what we see as right
When we consider framing, we’re talking about something so powerful that it could drive, or roll back, progressive change. Because regardless of what we hope to achieve by sharing information – poor framing can backfire. Consider the recent example of the BBC’s own internal impartiality review on their economics reportage. The review followed an open letter sent by leading economists (including at IPPR) critiquing the inappropriate and inaccurate use of household analogies in coverage. It found that the BBC has at times failed to reveal the political choices being made within economic matters – this matters especially for its impact on public understanding, and for the effect it has on holding power to account.
To succeed in the high stakes world of influencing peoples’ hearts and minds, every progressive must understand that there is both science, and art, to telling a story. Starting from the assumption that people aren’t empty vessels – framing theory recognises that everyone is filled with experiences, values and assumptions and that these have an impact on how they receive and process information. Throughout their lives, people construct their own sense of the world, and it’s up to anyone who seeks to affect progressive change to learn how to navigate this complex environment. They must rigorously research, test and consistently apply messages that can shape public views, actions, and ultimately make good things happen.
Whether intentional or not, leaders and influencers across the UK and around the world are wielding this powerful communications tool for better and for worse. This has wide ranging implications for how politics, our social movements, and even our everyday lives play out today. Indeed, framing is ultimately inextricable with questions of power. Many times, framing goes unseen in our society under the guise of assumed shared truths, and ultimately this is where it is most powerful. The very grounds on which conversations take place are both shaped by, and shape society in turn. As progressives, this is certainly worthy of considered reflection.
As Sofie Jenkinson and Margaret Welsh wrote recently in the New Economics Zine issue on framing, creating change, or building ‘a less fearful world where people look out not in’,
“Starts with the stories we tell and the words we use – because even with the best ideas or the most ingenious solutions, you still need to tell their story and get people on board.”
So, in this issue we ask: Which framing narratives are influencing the public? Who is doing the framing and whose interests are at stake? When are they doing it? How are the right using framing? How can progressives utilise it as a tool for social change? What are the limitations of framing? What does it mean for questions of objectivity? In this issue, our contributors tackle these questions and more head on.
This edition of IPPR’s Progressive Review sees prominent voices in progressive politics approach framing from a multitude of perspectives.
Nicky Hawkins is a framing and communications consultant, working with a range of organisations to explore and change the way social and environmental issues are framed in public discourse. She writes about leaders’ struggles to apply the evidence from framing research effectively, and explains how these can be overcome.
Raquel Jesse, former research officer of the Program Associate at the NYU Center on International Cooperation, and former research officer at the Centre for Labour & Social Studies (CLASS) where she led on the UK Race Class Narrative report, Jesse writes about how progressives can push back on narratives that seek to divide us and build something new in their wake which recognises the multi-ethnic nature of the UK’s working-class population.
Julia Tinsley-Kent and Fizza Qureshi, of Migrants’ Rights Network, write about the Words Matter campaign, a migrant-led initiative that has set out to counter and reframe how we talk about migration. Taking into consideration the colonial undertones of language used, even by progressives, they ask us to look beyond terms such as ‘integration’ and offer alternatives developed by people with lived experience of migration.
Ben Whitham, a lecturer in International Relations at SOAS, and Nadya Ali, a writer and researcher formerly at the University of Sussex, explore the framing of political-economic crises since the 2008 global financial crisis. They argue that though these have been posed as universal events, their impacts have been unevenly felt – with the ‘austerity’ frame successfully mobilised to reinforce Islamophobic rhetoric and policies over the last decade.
Dan Bailey, senior lecturer in international political economy at Manchester Metropolitan University and Joe Turner, lecturer in international politics at the University of York identify how far-right parties and movements are turning to ‘eco-bordering’, a warped form of environmentalism which fuses climate concerns with an anti-immigration agenda to create an invidious framing of environmental politics.
John Amis, chair in strategic management and organisation and head of the strategy group at the University of Edinburgh Business School, writes about his recent research with Janina Klein on the power of the photograph in affecting how issues are framed by the media - focussing specifically on the role this played in media coverage of refugees in 2015
Janey Starling and Jade Hammond, of feminist campaigning organisation Level Up, write about the Dignity for Dead Women campaign which has changed the way that much of the media frames fatal domestic abuse and which aims, in the long term, to shift cultural narratives.
Micha Frazer-Carroll, author of upcoming book ‘Mad World’, reviews how mental distress is increasingly framed as an illness comparable to physical illness. She argues that while it has helped create a parity of esteem between physical and mental illness at a political level, it also risks individualising mental distress as a personal ‘chemical imbalance’, rather than something that is affected by economic and political contexts.
Ruth Bookbinder, postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Leeds, challenges the common framing used by many policymakers around rational thinking when it comes to home retrofitting. Instead, she proposes a ‘social relations’ framing that looks at people’s everyday experience of home heating and interactions with tradespeople to better inform government policy.
Ian Loader, professor of criminology at the University of Oxford, looks at how right-wing agitators are attempting to make some council’s plans for a 15-minute neighbourhood a cause celebre by invoking limits to personal freedom. He then highlights how this framing fails to acknowledge how the car-dominant status quo is far less free than the alternative, and more harmful.
CREATING NEW NARRATIVES
As the above contributors make clear, while evidence is important, evidence alone will not change the world. The narratives we create and the way we communicate them can be a powerful tool to inform and inspire the progressive change we want to see in the world.
The final article in this issue is an additional piece from Loic Menzies, visiting fellow at Sheffield Institute of Education and senior research associate in the Jesus College Intellectual Forum, Cambridge, who argues that schools are institutions that can bridge holes in our society and provide structures around which ‘social capital’ can crystallise.
Anita Bhadani, Rosie Lockwood, Lucy Mort, Ellie Kearns, Joseph Evans, Joshua Emden.