Strategic Frame

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

The complexity of the world and multiplicity of perspectives can often stymie people's attempts to interpret it in ways that make sense and that suggest meaningful action. People often can't 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'd 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. In all of these cases, a poor understanding of strategic frames hinders their ability to make progress.


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.


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

People all over the world are confronted with events and information that they find overwhelming. Without "frames" people quite literally wouldn't know how to interpret the world. A frame provides a link between information and data and the way that the information and data is interpreted. Seen this way, 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." Recognizing the ubiquity of frames and the fact that multiple 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.

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 do frames work? How are they initially constructed or modified? What is the outcome when two or more frames compete?

Why does a frame work? It suggests action and shapes interpretation. When frames are shared with people or organizations they promote group action and similar interpretations — while acting to discourage disputes and incompatible interpretation. This discussion leads to types of frames, how they are formed, and how they are reshaped. Strategic frames work in two directions — they can channel action but can also constrict thought.

The framing lens can be turned around and focused on the elites and the powers-that-be as well. Mass media systems are an important subject of this. What frames are generally employed by, for example, local television news stations. A “strategic communication terms” web sites (cite) cites an example from Charlotte Ryan’s Prime Time Activism (1991) of three ways in which a news story of a child in a low-income neighborhood getting bit by a rat can be covered. Who, for example, should be blamed for this — if anybody? Is the child’s mother the culprit or should the apartment manger be held responsible or, even, society at large?

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.

When developed collaboratively, a strategic frame can also be a useful tool for groups. 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 title of a 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.


It is important to note that frames don’t really do the work by themselves. In addition to the important task of understanding frames that influence our actions and behavior, activists are interested in specific types of frames which have specific functions of interest, such as frames that help build coalitions; provide useful interpretations; “frame transformation” (Tarrow)] These frames must connect. In other words, the new frames must not reach too far beyond the capability of people to grasp and shape them.

Verbiage for pattern card: 

The complexity of the world with its multiplicity of perspectives can confuse our attempts to interpret it. A Strategic Frame is a word, phrase, or slogan that encourages people to see things in a certain light. When developed collaboratively, a Strategic Frame can also be a useful tool for groups. In addition to understanding frames that influence thoughts and actions, activists are interested in frames that help build coalitions or otherwise motivate useful mobilizations.

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