Strategic Frame

Pattern number within this pattern set: 
Douglas Schuler
Public Sphere Project (CPSR)

The complexity of the world and multiplicity of perspectives with which to view it can often stymie people’s attempts to interpret it in ways that make sense and suggest meaningful action. People often can not see the connection between their own thinking and the situation they wish to address. Groups seeking to work together in some broad arena may not identify a common basis for doing so effectively. Sometimes groups can't even agree on what they would like to accomplish much less how to go about accomplishing it. At other times their efforts may not resonate with the people and organizations they are trying to influence. A similar problem arises when people reactively base their interpretation on some prior and frequently unconscious bias or stereotype, a fact that is consciously exploited through deceptive use of language. In all of these cases, a poor understanding of strategic frames hinders the ability of people to make progress in their pursuits.


This pattern can be used whenever people and groups need to interpret complex information or develop approaches to communicating with other groups or the public.


People all over the world are confronted with events and information that they find overwhelming. Without "frames" people quite literally would not know how to make sense out of what their senses provide. Frames provide the connection between information and data and the way that the information and data is interpreted. In other words, frames of one sort or another are necessary for every aspect of daily life. Human brains don't have the processing power to interpret each new situation "from scratch."

Many types of social scientists including social psychologists, linguists, and political scientists routinely use the concept of frames and framing to help understand how people interpret information. It is now being recognized by social scientists and neuroscientists that the context or framing of a event has a major effect on how it is interpreted and, hence, what course of action or inaction is pursued (De Martino et al 2006). Frames are apparently an economical way for the brain to process large amounts of information quickly, a skill undoubtedly linked to survival. A frame is deeply connected to cognition in individuals and is helpful in understanding other social phenomenon (such as learning) as well.

The concept of frames was initially developed by anthropologist Gregory Bateson (1972) and was further popularized by sociologist Erving Goffman (1974). More recently, based on the work of George Lakoff, a linguist at the University of California at Berkeley, framing has taken a prominent position in progressive political discourse (2004). On a general level, a frame in a social or political sense is a story distilled to its basic elements. It could be related to the family, father as protector, fairness, fatalism, laziness, freedom, a favored football team, nostalgia for the past, or fear of the unknown — the possibilities are limitless.

Recognizing the ubiquity of frames and the fact that different frames can be employed by different people for different reasons to describe the same story or event has lead to a strong interest in frames and framing, the conscious act of characterizing a situation, event, or idea by specific frames that help encourage the interpretations that the framer desires.

How do frames work? When a person selects a frame (usually subconsciously) other aspects of that frame are automatically called into play. Labeling a person as an "illegal immigrant," for example, causes connotations to arise that the term "refugee" would not. Framing the person in that way places the focus on that person and his or her "illegality," not, for example, on the societal forces that caused him or her to leave home.

Although political and economic elites and mass media are the major users of frames, the framing lens can and ought to be turned around and focused upwards as well. Mass media systems are the primary purveyors of frames and their choice of frames can have important consequences. The use of frames by journalists can be conscious or unconscious; conscious use can suggest manipulation while unconscious use may reveal fatigue, laziness, or a lack of understanding of the subject. A “strategic communication terms” web site (2008) refers to an example from Charlotte Ryan’s Prime Time Activism (1991) that illustrates multiple ways in which an incident of a child in a low-income neighborhood who was repeatedly bit by rats could be covered by the local television news stations. Because frames shape interpretation they also contain implications for what types of action are acceptable responses. Who, for example, should be held responsible for this unfortunate occurrence? Is the child’s mother the culprit or should the apartment manger, the government heath department, or, even, society at large be reprimanded?

A strategic frame is a specific type of frame that has been developed as an important element within an overall strategy to encourage people to see things in a certain way. In this sense, the concept is neutral. In fact Susan Niall Bales stated that her approach to “Strategic Frame Analysis” could be used to promote tobacco use, but added that she probably wouldn’t consent to help with that effort.

When frames are shared with people or organizations they promote group action and similar interpretations — while acting to discourage disputes and incompatible interpretation. When developed collaboratively, a strategic frame can also be a useful tool for groups. Keck and Sikkink (1998) illustrate the potential of frames to bring together disparate groups under one coalescing concept. The unifying theme of opposing "violence against women" became an important frame in the 1995 United Nations Conference on Women in Beijing.

When people respond without reflection to an externally imposed strategic frame, they are being exploited. Different frames can be constructed for any given story, message or event. How well those frames resonate with people and what they choose to do with the ideas contained within the frame is of interest to people who are trying to influence other people. Opposing forces will employ different frames with different people to win the particular battle they’re engaged with. This is reflected in the recent New York Times article entitled, “Framing Wars” (Bai, 2005). Unfortunately many strategic frames that are available to the public serve to reinforce existing stereotypes, thus preventing people from developing effective agendas for the future. Frames allow people to quickly assess a situation, but they can also allow people to quickly assess a situation incorrectly. Unfortunately, too, the new evaluation, although easily and painlessly obtained is not as readily abandoned. Strategic frames work in two directions — they can channel progressive action but can also constrict and distort thought.

When frames are acknowledged as independent entities, people who are interested in persuasion can begin asking such questions as: What frames do people use? How are they initially constructed or modified? What is the outcome when two or more frames compete? When does it make sense to create new frames? How does one know when people are trying to manipulate you using frames or if the frames you use are impeding creative thought?


Although frames are powerful, they are not destiny. The first step towards changing frames is understanding the frames that influence our actions and behavior. Activists are interested in identifying and in some cases creating frames which have specific functions of interest. These strategic frames help build coalitions, provide useful interpretations, and promote useful "transformations” from one set of interpretations to another (Tarrow 2005). New frames are typically bridged from the old ones. In other words, the new frames must not reach too far beyond the capability of people to grasp and shape them.

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