Sunday, 13 October 2013

Why framing doesn't work

"We are now fully into the swing of things and [REDACTED] is a busy learning hub.  We have a number of clubs operating before and after school and some of our enrichment visits have already taken place..."

So begins the latest newsletter from my children's primary school, and there is a problem here.

I don't know what a 'learning hub' is, and - even having googled it - I'm none the wiser.  'Clubs' I understand, but for 'enrichment visits' I think this is little more than what we used to know as good old 'school trips'.

Does this slavish devotion to jargon matter?  Well, I think it does, because it is imprecise - because it gives the impression that something new has been described: some new idea or institution that deserves management time, when actually something new hasn't been described after all.  It's the same old same old.

Which brings me to the irritating contagion of a new buzzword in political circles, called 'framing'.  Actually, it isn't new at all: it is a highly complex set of social science concepts first coined in 1972, and thanks to George Lakoff - a cognitive linguist with an interest in metaphors - it has been in American Democratic Party circles for ages.

Metaphors are important, because they set up a political argument for success or failure.  But there is a problem in practice.  Because it doesn't doesn't really mean much more than tweaking a few mild metaphors.

The UK left has been particularly gargling with the idea, but - despite all the effort - the huge framing imperative tends to be conjuring with rather familiar metaphors (otherwise the old left gets suspicious) or new kinds of description (basically, another mind-numbing kind of political correctness).

I have a theory about this.

The problem seems to be that, once again, the technocrats have taken over.  Campaigners seem to believe that this is a form of calculation, that all they need to do is to move ideas around in some calculated way, whereas - like any other kind of endeavour - it requires a burst of inspiration.

I have a feeling this is why we get so many clod-hopping attempts at 'framing', especially on the left.

 They think it is a technical matter, and they are nervous about anything too new. See for example this recent critique.  "In a civilised society, the answer to Unspeak is not more Unspeak," said Steven Poole, and he's right.

The campaign I was involved with which really 're-framed' the debate was the Clone Town Britain campaign from 2004 onwards, which successfully re-set the terms of the debate about small shops as an aesthetic issue - and had huge impact as a result.

It involved no systematic consideration of 'frames' or anything like them.  It stemmed from a moment's inspiration by my friend and colleague Andrew Simms.  No attempt at framing, not even any mention of framing, no re-arrangement of very familiar phrases in a slightly different order.  

It was something new, and I have a horrible feeling that the whole business of framing in practice gets in the way of anything very new at all.  It may in fact be a blind alley.


Richard T said...

In my days at work, such meaningless but somehow impressive language was called erudite cobblers.

Neil Stockley said...

David, I know of no campaign that has succeeded without using frames that resonated with the target audiences, and prevailed over opposing frames.

EVERYONE frames their arguments, every day, in that we all try to determine the terms of a debate, issue or argument.

I’ve had a quick look at the clone towns material and it used two very strong frames – “diverse economies” and “small is beautiful”.

“Progressive” and “left wing” efforts at framing tend over fall over when people confuse frames with slogans and/or try to invent frames or slogans that don’t resonate with the audience or are not credible or authentic.

David Boyle said...

I don't think I'm denying that people use 'framing', but that the word is unnecessary. Most campaigns that declare themselves as using 'framing' are actually just tweaks of politically correct language.