Tuesday, May 12, 2015

The Power of Framing and the Framing of Power

In their review of framing analysis literature, Vliegenthart and van Zoonen pointed out that "'frames' are part of a collective struggle over meaning..." thus "an individualist approach to political sense-making does not do justice to the interactive and social nature of interpreting politics." That is to say, neither the construction nor the reception of frames takes place in a vacuum..

So called libertarian paternalism ("NUDGE-ing") is oblivious to this social context of power and collective struggle over meaning. It is all about molding individual choices and meanings to better align with presumed (by the noodges?) deliberative preferences.

There is a history of framing discourse that goes back -- explicitly using the word -- at least to Gregory Bateson's "A theory of play and fantasy" (1955) and Erving Goffman's Frame Analysis: An Essay of the Organization of Experience (1974). The concept of gestalt, articulated by Wertheim in 1912, has obvious salience too, as is acknowledged by Kahneman and Tversky. Amos Tversky was married to Barbara Tversky, a cognitive psychologist who specialized in visual perception, no stranger to gestalt theory.

In a 1993 article, which has subsequently become "the standard reference in frame research," Robert Entman defined framing in the following terms:
To frame is to select some aspects of a perceived reality and make them more salient in a communicating context, in such a way as to promote a particular problem definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation and/or treatment recommendation Framing essentially involves selection and salience. To frame is to select some aspects of a perceived reality and make them more salient in a communicating text, in such a way as to promote a particular problem definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation, and/or treatment recommendation for the item described.
Frames, then,
  • define problems -- determine what a causal agent is doing with what costs and benefits, usually measured in terms of common cultural values; 
  • diagnose causes -- identify the forces creating the problem; 
  • make moral judgments -- evaluate causal agents and their effects; and
  • suggest remedies -- offer and justify treatments for the problems and predict their likely effects.
Frames highlight some bits of information about an item that is the subject of a communication, thereby elevating them in salience. The word salience itself needs to be defined: It means making :i piece of information more noticeable, meaningful, or memorable to audiences.
Vliegenthart and van Zoonen fault Entman's definition for assuming an intentionality to the framing while at the same time ignoring the contingency of a frame's power. Earlier frame studies had emphasized that frames were "the result of interactions and conflicts between collective and individual social and media actors," Here, again, is an instance of "reification":
Reifications are simultaneously an accurate portrait of existing social reality and a false consciousness, serving the existing framework of values and interests. Psychological reifications clothe existing social arrangements in terms of basic and inevitable characteristics of individual psychological functioning; this inadvertently authenticates the status quo, but now in a disguised psychological costume. What has been mediated by a sociohistorical process — the forms and contents of human consciousness and of individual psychological experience — is treated as though it were an "in-itself," a reality independent of these very origins. 
Frames do indeed define problems, diagnose causes, make moral judgments and suggest remedies but they don't do so universally or at the discretion of the policy architect. The problem with libertarian paternalism is not that Sunstein and Thaler are evil-doers or that the nudge machinery might fall into the wrong hands. The problem is that the approach subsumes collective action problems under a illusory rubric of individual preferences mediated by a sort of deliberative Maxwell's demon -- a nudgineer of human choices. Social, political or economic power is nowhere to be seen in this rather flat drama. The nudgineer --or noodge -- is a benevolent technocrat, first cousin to the Walrasian auctioneer and most likely indistinguishable in countenance (or should I go with the spell checker's suggestion, incontinence?).

Guy Standing sees "social policy, which has become directive and moralistic... driven by libertarian paternalism, or behavioural economics" as a threat to freedom:
The drift to behavioural nudging gives discretionary and arbitrary power to bureaucrats, commercial surrogates and ‘experts’ lurking behind politicians. Social policy is becoming part panopticon, with dataveillance supplementing surveillance, and part therapy, manipulating people’s minds, with cognitive behavioural therapy a favoured tool of utilitarians. 
To arrest this drift to social engineering, the Voice of those subject to the steering should be inside the institutions responsible for social policy. This means more than putting token ‘community leaders’ on boards. It must be a collective democratic voice. At present, we see the opposite, with privatisation and commercialisation of social policy. We need social policy democracy, before it is too late.
One might again paraphrase Marx to observe that "framing is collective or it is nothing."

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