Relational Frame Analysis: Finding People and Politics in Interpretive Frame Theory

A Paper Presented to the Alternative Futures and Popular Protest Conference, at Manchester Metropolitan University, April 2005

The first aim of this paper is to explore the current state of knowledge represented by the framing approach to social movements. The second aim is to describe a particular approach to understanding the political significance of cycles of contention in terms of the way activists come to understand the world and their place in it. What I will term ‘relational frame analysis’ (RFA) is a conceptual structure that aims to develop that side of the framing approach that aims particularly at understanding the ideas and debates represented by movement activity. I hope to explain the merits of this approach in terms of its ability to pull together a number of key concepts for understanding movement culture, and to give a philosophically coherent understanding of the connections between various levels of analysis.

Through relational frame analysis we aim to understand social movements as an ideational phenomenon. We ask questions such as:

  1. What does this movement say about the political and social world?
  2. To what degree is there diversity in a movement’s understandings?
  3. To what extent may differences within the movement be overcome? What are the key points of contention?
  4. How are its understandings linked to broader traditions of thought?
  5. How do movement understandings respond to political events?

Fulfilling the second aim is dependent on fulfilling the first. Many of the weaknesses in frame analysis to date (as will be described below) originate from a lack of clarity in conceptual distinctions, both within the approach, and in its connections to other modes of understanding. Seeking a higher level of conceptual clarity from work so far will bring to the fore the need for those aspects of movement understanding that RFA attempts to highlight.

Introducing Interpretive Frames

To specify the character of interpretive frames we can begin with this definition from a recent overview of the literature:

“’Frames’ are collective patterns of interpretation with which certain definitions of problems, causal attributions, demands, justifications and value-orientations are brought together in a more or less consistent framework for the purpose of explaining facts, substantiating criticism and legitimating claims.” (Rucht & Neidhardt, 2002: 11)

This draws our attention to three important elements: first, frames are generally conceived of as an entity belonging to the collective level; second, frames have a range of content consisting of beliefs and values, structured in a way which fulfils certain functions for those using them; third, frames are employed by agents (both individual and collective) for various social movement tasks.

There are understood to be two sides to the frame, metaphorically distinguishable as being akin to a picture frame and a house frame. The first defines boundaries around what is important, thereby allowing a group to focus on the ‘relevant’ detail. The second provides a basic structure, on which more detailed arguments and information are hung. (Davies, 2002: 270-1) The key functions of frames can be related to this metaphorical distinction. Frames situate information, that is, when a frame is available to both speaker and listener then adumbration of one or more parts by a speaker increases the salience of other elements and their connections in the listener: frames offer discursive shortcuts (Fisher, 1997). In social movement conversation frames avoid the need for old arguments by referring to a point in the frame development where parties agree, or perhaps, by avoiding the vocalising the frame elements where parties have ‘agreed to disagree’.

Of all the generic frame concepts, which seek to define the structure of ideas that constitute a social movement frame Gamson’s ‘collective action frame’ has been possibly the most influential. He suggests that a collective action frame exists when people articulate three ideational components. First, an injustice component is required which defines a problem in an emotion-laden way. Second, an agency component refers the possibility of political action having an impact on the problem. Third, is an identity component, which defines both the ‘we’ of interested people, and perhaps more importantly, the ‘they’ who hold opposing values. (Gamson, 1992: 7-8)

Frames and Framing

There is a relatively clear distinction within empirical applications of the phenomenon of interpretive frames between those who treat the interpretive frame as an object and those who focus on interpretive framing as a process. In relation to the former, empirical work takes the view that the precise characteristics of particular and generic interpretive frames may help us to understand the political content of social movements. This paper notes the difficulties in discerning the object-ness of interpretive frames, whose content is so varied as to defy generalisation. Repeated description, as has been noted by others, is of limited utility. (Benford, 1997: 414)

When treating interpretive framing as process, the literature bifurcates again. One the one hand, the process is treated as socio-psychological in nature, highlighting the concrete connections between the claims movements make and the willingness of people to participate. On the other hand, the bulk of the literature considers the act of framing as a more or less conscious strategy within the SMO’s armoury aimed at mobilisation and policy change. The latter work rests on assumptions that the former is trying to tease out. This two-pronged approach lends credibility to the endeavour of frame analysis but in certain important respects has led to confusion around key concepts. I will demonstrate that achieving a greater understanding of both the efficacy of framing and the ontological status of various frame concepts makes it possible to consider the problem of specifying frame content at the collective level. I will argue that by shifting our focus from the particular frames that particular movement activists and intellectuals may enunciate, to a broader constellation of ideas we can better understand the plethora of messages presented by any given social movement. It will become obvious that the particular mode of analysis we choose for a movement will depend, in part, on its political project. Hence, I propose a flexible ‘relational frame analysis’ (RFA) that, combined with a willingness to travel the hermeneutic circle between possible interpretations of any particular movement, may help to focus the researchers’ activities on the most relevant and novel political content of a movement, situating it historically, and offering convincing answers to the questions listed above.

Explaining Mobilisation I – Organisations’ Framing Strategies

Strategic Framing

The bulk of social movement frame analyses have, in either historical or contemporary context, concentrated on strategic framing by social movement organisations (SMOs) that in some way connects the movement’s beliefs and values with a broader cultural theme, thus drawing in broader participation and potentially gaining some influence on policy decisions.

Perhaps the most productive strand is that examining the use of framing processes by social movement organisations in particular campaigns. Generally, the social movement organisation (SMO) is considered to be a conscious agent of framing; demonstrating varying degrees of skill in manipulating the presentation of particular issues in order to bring bystanders to their view, make some positions appear illegitimate and ultimately force policy change. Indeed, the manipulation of discourse through strategic framing maybe the central role of social movement organisations:

“We assume that social movements cannot exist in the long term without the promotion of convincing movement-specific frames.” (Rucht & Neidhardt, 2002: 11)

Snow et al. (1986) influentially outlined four ways in which SMOs attempt to align the frames of bystanders and their organisations. Bridging is the process by which social movement organisations link their collective action frame with other prevalent frames in the surrounding culture. Amplification is that which leads to the reinvigoration and clarification of frames; highlighting either beliefs or values that bear on a particular issue, and distinguishing them from opposing interpretive frames. Extension is the shifting of the boundaries of relevance of the frame to encompass a broader set of concerns, thus potentially bringing a new set of individuals within the scope of the collective action frame. Finally, transformation is the redefinition of events, analyses and so on, in order to garner greater support.

There are three clarifications of alignment processes that I would like to make, before considering the explanatory utility of this common strand of work. First, as social movements depend on the spread of particular interpretations of the world, groups that do not choose consciously to frame its issues with an awareness of frames beyond the group are unlikely to grow. This understanding is quite common among some types of organisation, and those groups that do not engage in frame alignment processes are consequently rare. However, the definition of a social movement as ‘aiming’ at spreading ideas is an academic one; participants in some groups may be less interested in gaining support, and more interested in targeting their opponents in a forceful, direct manner. An example would be the ‘extremist’ animal rights activists who harass and assault individuals involved in vivisection. The way one is understood to be acting may be less important to participants, than the concrete results of their actions. Alignment processes do not, therefore, seem to be a ubiquitous feature of social movement activities, merely a common one. Because part of the content of a collective action frame is seen to be a conception of agency (‘how we can change the world’) the content of the frame itself is likely to determine to what degree a movement group aims at alignment.

Second, as Gamson and Mayer note, a movement is “a field of actors, not a unified entity”. While we might admit of consensus on a frame existing within particular organisations, these cannot be assumed to be representative of a movement as a whole (1996: 283-4). Individuals may, therefore, come across a range of collective action frames within a single movement. This is strongly the case with the current global movements for social justice. (Welsh & Chesters, 2001) Thus, strategic framing by SMOs is only part of the story of alignment between collective action frames and individual’s understandings; the implication being that examining the frames utilised in strategic framing will not give us access to the range of political beliefs and values within the movement.

Third, individuals’ access to collective action frames, if they are not already participants, is usually mediated through some third party. Many SMOs are dependent on mass media coverage. The knowledge of mediation, has a strong affect on both the actions and statements coming from SMOs, and the possible interpretations for bystanders and constituents who become aware of such activities through mass media. (Zald, 1996: 270; Rohlinger, 2002: 482-4) SMOs find themselves in a relationship of ‘asymmetrical dependence’ when attempting to utilise mainstream media, and it is apparent that the nature of the political project that a group is engaged in, that is, its political content, determines the strategies available to the group when dealing with this unequal, structured relationship. (Carroll & Ratner, 1999: 29-31)

In sum, strategic ‘frame alignment’ undoubtedly captures an essential part of the activity of some (though by no means all) SMOs although its focus on strategically created frames may mislead us as to the actual political beliefs of participants. Successful frame alignment is generally considered to be that which produces mobilisation, this causal process is further specified in the work to which I now turn.

Master Frames and Cycles of Protest

At the macro-social level Snow and Benford take their path-breaking work on frame alignment further, attempting to offer a solid explanation of how exactly frame alignment can produce positive movement outcomes. They develop the concept of ‘master frames’, which are simply a larger scale, more generic form of collective action frame: “master frames are to movement-specific collective action frames as paradigms are to finely tuned theories.” (Snow & Benford, 1992: 138)

The particular explanatory potential of the master frame is laid out in connection with Sidney Tarrow’s work on cycles of protest. Tarrow, among others, found that protest movements occur clustered through time, and spread geographically from what might be considered to be the epicentre of protest and Snow and Benford suggested that this could be explained by the rise of a particular master frame developed by ‘early riser’ movements. The development of the master frame (‘civil rights’ is perhaps the most solidly applied example) offers a cultural tool which could then subsequently be used in different contexts by different social movements. That is, other SMOs, having perceived the success of the master frame then build their own collective action frames with direct reference to that master frame. Given the nature of interpretive frames it was expected that the master frame would have a level of stability that, while enabling subsequent movements’ emergence, would also constrain their possibilities in terms of frame creation and innovation.

The work on master frames makes a number of useful connections. By, first, connecting the claims made by a movement to the wider culture it can offer a partial explanation of the success or failure of a movement in achieving its goals. This carries the assumption that the closer a frame is to the broader culture, the more likely it is to have influence within the relevant decision making arenas and is thus located at the intersection between the meso level of group activities and the macro level of social structures. Because we assume that elements of broad cultural themes are shared by individuals within the culture, the concept, second, offers to explain success or failure in mobilisations. We assume that the closer a frame is to the broader culture, the more it keys into the ideas that individuals already hold, thus gaining a degree of consensus. Because this connects with individuals’ interpretations, this links the meso level of group activities with the micro level of individual action.

A couple of problems with the theory are immediately worth noting. First, a problem noted for movements themselves is that as well as plugging into culturally accepted ideas, they also have to be able to transcend some elements of that culture in order to make any contentious claims at all. (Tarrow, 1998: C7) This highlights the partiality of the theory as it depends on the general acceptability (or cultural resonance) of a master frame to explain the outcome of highly mobilised protest. A second is the overemphasis of the role of early risers in the creation of the master frame. What is actually being described in reference to examples such as movements for civil rights and for national self-determination, are that SMOs make their claims with references to norms that have been defined and given their power by mainstream political institutions.

These problems highlights what is wrong with the assumed link between interpretive frames (i.e. either master frames or collective action frames) and individual action. It is clear (as suggested above) that individuals do not simply internalise a collective action frame presented to it by an SMO, even if they do share some core elements that may be summarised by a broad master frame. Individuals’ personal understandings of the world are highly complex mixes, the sum of which relate to SMO produced frames in a dialectic negotiation. To determine whether the public enunciation of a novel frame will have its desired mobilising effect we need to consider what politically relevant ideas the individuals who access that frame already have. Furthermore, SMOs in their strategic work make use of guesses about the current beliefs of their target audience. It is this that allows them to use master frames generated by political institutions, and yet retain a critical edge. To dig further into the nature of individual frames, and SMOs expectations of them, we need to shift the focus from framing by organisations to the frames of individuals, and so it is to the psychological literature that I shortly turn.

Structuring Cultural Production

The potential for a bridging effort between structural theories of social movements, and those that emphasise their cultural role has been raised with some frequency. Some notable efforts in this direction have been made (particularly McAdam et al., ed., 1996, whole volume). This paper does not have the space required for a detailed consideration of the link between structure and culture. Three points are immediately noteworthy however. First, for many authors coming out of the resource mobilisation perspective, framing is a way of bringing culture within the purview of resource mobilisation theory. Master frames may be treated as cultural resources, and framing a process by which organisations are more or less successful in utilising them, largely depending on other, material and structural, resources (Morris, 1992: 369).

Second, following a useful discussion from Gamson and Mayer (1996: 283-4), there have been a number of interesting applications examining the relationship between framing and political opportunities structures (POS). In this context we see that SMOs decisions to alter, or realign collective action frames are heavily dependent on shifts in the POS in the field in which they are active (Cornfield & Fletcher, 1998; Stanbridge, 2002). Given that the affects of POS on activism are mediated by their understandings of the opportunities they face, consideration of POS will come into the primarily culturally focussed mode of analysis outlined as RFA below.

Third, a second strand of research connects mobilisation structures (i.e. the material, organisational aspects of social movements and SMOs) and framing. Where we are trying to understand the success or failure of mobilisation, various aspects of mobilising structures have been demonstrated to be crucial (Nepstad, 1997; Poletta, 2000; Nathanson, 2003); however, in RFA such effects are largely externalised.

Explaining Mobilisation II – Connections with Social Psychology

The following considers the social psychological foundations of the framing approach to social movements and compares this with notions of identity coming from the former field. The brief exposition of ‘social identity’ that I offer also gives some indication about the possible relationships between identity and frames in social movement contexts. I also express scepticism about the potential for directly analysing micro level ideational constructs, and the section as a whole offers the grounding for section three, where I will argue that we need a new frame concept that plays an analogous role to that of social identity within social psychology.

Schemata in Interpretation

The interpretive frame was first defined for application to social movements, using a concept borrowed from Erving Goffman’s (1974) Frame Analysis by Snow et al.; quoting Goffman they explain frames as:

“’schemata of interpretation’ that enable individuals ‘to locate, perceive, identify, and label’ occurrences within their life space and the world at large.” (1986: 464).

The language of ‘schemata’ and the related concept of ‘scripts’ remain central to understanding cognition in social psychology where they help to explain how actors decide on appropriate behaviour in novel situations. Schemata may cover a myriad of topics from the stereotyping of ethnic minorities to the mundane activities of our everyday lives. (Baron & Byrne, 2003: 80-82) The interpretive frame building on this literature is, therefore, presented as something utilised by the individual to order their perceptions of the world: a cognitive shortcut (Johnston, 1995: 235-7). As Paolo Donati explains,

“objects or events are never cognized by working from the identification of their component parts to the reconstruction of the whole, but rather by assigning a satisfactory definition to the complex totality, so that the component parts come to acquire an understandable meaning… perceptive data are ‘grouped’ together under the heading of one subsuming category, a larger ‘frame’ which provides them with a recognizable structure and meaning” (Donati, 1992: 140-1)

There are dangers in the sociologist taking too readily from ideas coming from psychology. It is ontologically attractive to think that there might, at some deep structural level of the brain, be a physical representation of an interpretive framework. However, it is impossible to simply assume an isomorphic relationship between enunciable ideas and physical brain structure. Perhaps more importantly for the student of social movements the idea is epistemologically and methodologically troublesome. An individual interpretive frame (schema) is, by definition, privy only to the individual; and even for them the effects are indirect, rather than resulting from conscious knowledge. One cannot become, as it were, part of that individual to learn the frame as one can (with some methodological caveats) become part of an organisation that shares a collective action frame. What we can tell, and numerous applications of the framing approach have shown, is that collectives in social movements appear to come to a degree of common understanding about particular salient issues. This understanding, we, as researchers or as activists, can attempt to access.

The solution for students of social movements is at present to seek understanding of interpretive processes in movements as if the individual holds certain, reasonably structured interpretive frames. It is certainly the case that individuals come to communication with certain preconceived beliefs, values and so on that affect their subsequent communications. However, the only context we have for examining frames is communicative, and that we cannot escape. The impact for the study of strategic framing is that its assumptions about the efficacy of frames when explaining mobilisation or movement are just that, tempering, somewhat, the claims of those engaged in the approach to solidly link the micro and the meso levels of analysis.

What is Identity?

Within psychology and sociology there is a raft of different conceptions and components of identity, conceived as having different sources, though broadly similar effects. At the individual level identity may be referred to as the self-concept, and is a schema in itself. (Baron & Byrne, 2003: 164-5) That is, in the same way that we frame information about the world around us into structured packages, we do the same for our self understanding. The schemata that were described in the section above, and that are the root of the interpretive frames we describe in social movements, are externally focussed schemata. The individual’s self-concept, conversely, is an internally focussed schema (self-schema). The latter gives us the capacity to maintain a consistent and coherent conception of the self over time, albeit one that reacts to environmental stimuli in both short term and permanent ways (Melucci, 1988: 341-2). We can take this (somewhat simplistically) as a psychological need, the fulfilment of which may be aided by belonging to various types of group.

Social identity is an umbrella term for the effects of group membership on the self-concept. One’s social identities are constructed from the groups that one is a member of. Identities may be related to more diverse aspects of life such as hobbies, friendship networks or shared experience of collective action (Klandermans & de Weerd, 2000: 68). The content of one’s social identity may be created and recreated in the context of group activities, in direct contact with others who share the same social identity and in contestation with those who form an out-group. The content of social identities are seen to vary across the individuals in any group, and across time, depending on experience. (Drury & Reicher, 2005)

Within social identity we may find aspects related to different sorts of groups to which we belong. Role identities, for instance, related to everyday institutions such as family or work, knowledge of which is learned through socialisation processes. Ethnic, national and gender identities (for which I will use the term, ‘unchosen identities’ ) are examples of those that, while they may have an aspect of socialised prescription (as role identities do) may also have an aspect of small group negotiation about them (as social identities do). It is, perhaps, the high visibility of such identities that is important because it allows the perceptions of outsiders of the nature of that identity to have a large influence on the life experiences and self-understanding of those that share the identity. Value identity is sourced in the political, religious and ideological groups to which we claim allegiance; they contain both the instrumental and end-goal values that we might find within an ideology. (Gecas, 2000: 98) As with other social identities, value identities are effective through internalisation of expectations about beliefs and behaviour. They further define boundaries, and those outside the group generate stereotypical expectations of group members.

It seems clear that for the individual, identity is a complex of different, and potentially conflicting, loyalties, beliefs, patterns of behaviour and external expectations that stem from the various roles and social groups in which the individual is located (Drury & Reicher, 2005: 53). It is through the concept of collective identity that we may investigate actions and beliefs at the group level. Collective identity is the meso-level companion of social identities in as far as the collective identity is defined by a group in regular interaction. In other words, “collective identity is a collective belief; social identity, an individual belief” (Klandermans & de Weerd, 2000: 69). While all individuals may have markedly different self-conceptions flowing from the other sources of identity in their lives, with collective identity we indicate what is shared by particular groups. The focus, when examining collective identity, is on the ability of the group to negotiate the content of such identities, within the constraints of their social context, such that collective identity is often seen as a process rather than a product.

It is the concept of ‘collective identity’ that is most often referred to in social movement scholarship on the subject. However, it is not entirely clear what precisely the identity component is supposed to signify (Klandermans & de Weerd, 2000: 68). The focus maintained within the work of Alberto Melucci on these issues would suggest that it is here we might be able to distinguish exactly what collective identity relates to. He suggests that this mode of analysis must establish:

“the capacity of the actor to (a) maintain a unity and a consistency that enable him to compare expectations and rewards at different times; (b) relate his deprivation to an identifiable agent of the environment toward which the protest or mobilization can be directed; and (c) can recognize the expected benefit as not only desirable but due.” (Melucci, 1988: 341-2)

It is the first of Melucci’s questions that most obviously seems to be within the purview of theories of identity – the ability of the individual to recognise themselves in the future and in the past, with some consistency, is precisely what identity refers to. While it is the construction of a complex personal identity (self-concept) that achieves this end in the individual agent, collective identity is a similar process applied to a collective agent. Somehow the process must continue the definition of a ‘self’ despite the fluctuation of individual membership, the changing perceptions of outsiders, and the changing position the group has in a wider social context.

The second question, referring to the definition of an opposition, also has an identity component. The definition of the self implicitly includes the definition of the other. But collectives can define themselves without necessarily defining an antagonistic relationship with the other. That is, an oppositional collective identity, or oppositional consciousness (Morris, 1992: passim), which implies the third question, that of injustice, and also a conception of agency. It is not enough to identify the self, and an opposition, even an unjust opposition, without an empowerment as an agent of one’s destiny. The conception of the self as a being through time, that allows for expectation, prediction, and the placing of ones actions in context is necessary, but not sufficient, for the creation of a belief in the power of one’s agency (Gamson, 1992: C4).

However, if we follow Melucci’s contention that collective identity should encompass all these needs then collective identity and interpretive frames appear to refer to essentially the same sets of processes. Some of the same insights have appeared from both bodies of literature and Snow & McAdam (somewhat tautologically) claim that, “Framing processes that occur within the context of social movements constitute perhaps the most important mechanism facilitating identity construction processes, largely because identity constructions are an inherent feature of framing activities.” (2000: 53). This is hardly surprising given their parallel developments in application to the same sorts of movements, and similar research questions. It is, again, hardly surprising, that it is difficult to tease the distinctions apart given the various appeals to different forms and sources of identity in different movements. However, most of these can be considered in relation to the various forms of social identity described above. Social identities generally lend to a movement organisation the potential to carry out specific kinds of strategic framing work. However, what I believe Melucci to be focussing on, is the identity work essential to in-group processes. So within a movement organisation or collective, maintenance of the ‘we’ may have a positive effect on, for instance, members’ willingness to participate in group work. Further, bringing group histories and common personal characteristics into a collective self-concept may aid decision making around contested issues; striving for some level of consistency reduces choice, thereby enabling action. Such a construction (for it is very difficult to conceive of collective identity having a ‘reality’ beyond particularistic group processes) may be useful in examining group dynamics. However, this is somewhat tangential to the purposes of this paper, so I will now move to some of the other forms of identity work that happen in social movements.

Framing Identities and Identifying with Frames

When we talk of the different sources of social identity one might find in society, and of the ways they might affect the individual we are talking about an abstraction, which we make no existential claim for. We identify a particular social identity from the relevant memes available in public discourse. To say that an individual has internalised a particular social identity (or parts of it) is to express an expectation that given certain sorts of questions they will express some of those relevant memes. We cannot describe their personal identity as a whole, it is a self-schema, and by the very processes that make schemata a valuable cognitive phenomenon our discussing identity will instantly bring particular aspects to the fore, leaving others in the background. A different discussion, in a different context, would discover different aspects of personal identity.

However, the analytical distinctions made by the abstractions of ‘social identities’ are valuable when considering the framing of identity. If we consider that the interpretive frame is common to communicative life, and not something that exists in social movement alone, we can see that framing as a process occurs in connection with all forms of identity. Around any role identity, ‘Doctor’ for instance, we can see a broader framework of interpretation; there are a complex of ideas about what constitute ‘doctor-ness’, both positive and negative stereotypes, expectations by ‘outsiders’ about what somebody’s experiences are as a doctor, what they may be interested in, how they may react to certain situations and so on. To the extent that these ideas are cohesive, and are enunciable by those who do not take on the role themselves, we can abstract an interpretive frame of ‘doctor-ness’. That is, we can see a broadly shared set of ideas and values relating to one key theme that, through the regularity of their formation, aids cognition in communicative settings. Exactly the same could be said about the social and unchosen identities that I described above. Many identities are relatively politically neutral, and are unlikely to lead to any contestatory collective action. It seems that some types of identity may be more open to politicisation than others. Klandermans and de Weerd’s comparative study suggests that there are a variety of responses available to those who identify a grievance with a social identity to which they belong: rejection of the identity in favour of some other (i.e. switch groups); redefine the grievance as a positive by changing the measure by which one is comparing different groups; or collectively try to affect the source of the grievance. With unchosen identities the first is particularly difficult, the identity is connected to a ‘low-permeability’ group – one cannot simply switch groups when group is defined by the colour of one’s skin. The second strategy may be difficult or undesirable depending on the nature of the grievance, if it is, for instance, one of low material conditions of life through perceived discrimination it is a weak argument indeed that simply looks for alternative positives. Thus, with unchosen identities we see a high rate of politicisation and as a consequence the much documented rise in identity politics is usually connected with specifically unchosen identities. We are likely to find a number of common claims in the framing of political contests based on unchosen identities. An attempt to reconstruct, through strategic framing, the public image of the identity (with consequences for its internalisation) is common, as seen in Black Pride and Gay Pride movements for example. A large number of studies of framing within movements based on unchosen identities have found a number of other common elements of such strategic framing work, such as the appeal to rights based master frames discussed previously.

Value identities have a different, and perhaps closer, relationship with framing. Indeed, it seems that a value identity is a full internalisation of some particular, usually stable, interpretive framework or ideology. For Gecas, “the power and persistence of ideologies … Are in the identities and values they provide for the self. These value based identities give meaning, purpose, and direction to individuals, thereby motivating individuals to maintain and protect their ideologies” (Gecas, 2000: 98). I will turn to a detailed discussion of ideologies shortly, for the present, we can see the idea that frames provide an identity component. However, this is a more nuanced claim than previously. Here, frames provide one type of input to the social identity that informs an individual self-concept. This is a relationship that requires further study, but we can guess that in moving aspects of an individual’s understanding of the outside world into their self-concept, their views are likely to become more entrenched given the strong self-preservation tendency of the self-schema. Certainly, in my empirical work on the UK anti-war movement I have found many individuals explaining and justifying their specific beliefs with reference to their (value) identity.

The preceding discussion describes two instances where we see on the one hand, the framing of identity for political goals, and on the other, an identification with a frame that may contain political content. These serve merely as an indication that there is more to learn in looking at the relationship between identities and interpretive frames, and highlights a notion that clarity about what sources of identity are available may offer productive avenues of research that truly bring frames and identity together in examining both the phenomenon of mobilisation and the discourse of movements.

Understanding Movements – Explorations in Relational Frame Analysis

The social movement literature has focussed predominantly on strategic framing work by social movement organisations. Collective action frames can be seen in the temporary outcome of such work and can be perceived in the platforms and manifestos of SMOs, and their press statements, leaflets and slogans. Perhaps the least confusing use of collective identity may be to consider it as the identity component within collective action frames, bearing in mind that as such it constrains the degree to which other frame elements may be altered without challenging that collective identity, which is strongly effective in movements built around identity politics in its various guises. I have expressed scepticism, above, about the ability of social movement scholars to access the precise content of schemata held by the individual in a way that is useful to determining precise political statements and beliefs. A similar scepticism may be appropriate for the self-schema of any individual, i.e. we cannot know the full content of their complex of identities. However, through the concept of social identity, as we have seen, we can made educated guesses to some of the components of individuals identities (self-understanding). At present, however, we do not seem to have an analogous abstract concept to personal interpretive frames (understanding of the outside world). ‘Master frames’ are an abstraction that attempt to describe societal norms and values, or cultural themes, in terms of the pattern of ideas that tend to hang together under a particular heading. ‘Collective action frames’ are a more concrete expression, at the level of small groups and organisations, of what that group has agreed to. By implication we tend to assume that the majority of individuals in that group also hold the ideas within the collective action frame, within their schemata, but that is an assumption that needs empirical testing. In the remainder of this paper I propose that we use a concept, that I will term ‘orientational frames’, to relate to personal schemata in the way social identity relates to personal identity. The concept refers to an abstraction of individuals’ ways of interpreting the world around them, through gaining an understanding of complexes (of people, relationships, processes, structures), and fitting an understanding of component parts within that. Methodologically, I claim that we can establish convincing abstractions through a hermeneutic approach to ideas in movements. From observing movements as a whole, to talking to individuals, to looking at related ideologies and collective action frames we traverse the levels of analysis until we find a pattern of ideas that seem to fit.

In what follows, I will examine the relationships between different frame concepts within a web of ideas. I will lead with a discussion of ideology, suggesting that in many ways we can consider this as a broad level interpretive frame, and that through examination of orientational frames we can understand the relationship of ideologies to individual interpretations. First, however, I would like to give some indications of why it is important to consider frames in this objectified sense.

Frames Over Framing

The framing approach, as described above, has done much to bring the concrete ideas that drive movement participants back into our sociological understandings. Having problematised the ideational construction function of movements, where previously perceived grievances and political alternatives were seen as the more or less constant backdrop against which organisational change was causally effective, we have some strong indications of how such work is carried out, and some of the reasons it may be successful. With ‘signification work’ now in the foreground of social movement studies, I would argue that it has become even more important to consider the signified itself. Our understanding of social movements, and of the societies in which they arise, will become richer if we accept the importance of the content, along with the process. My primary justification for this is simply that what we are examining are political, as well as sociological phenomena. Echoing the Meluccian distinction between the how questions and the why questions of social movements (1989: 21-2), it is still the case that the former have received by far the greatest body of systematic study. The framing approach offers the beginnings of a new, more sensitive, way to ‘listen’ to social movements; their reflections on the power structures in which their participants find themselves can offer valuable lessons. In a brief examination of ideology below, I hope that this case will become clearer.

Secondary justifications for the importance of the message of movements come from several directions, but all hang on the potential to increase our sensitivity to the multiplicity of messages within any movement. From the sociological angle understanding the various bases of the political projects in which movements engage will feed back into our attempts to understand the processes – the how questions – of social movements, sharpening our analysis with useful distinctions; the content, as argued above, affects the process. From a public policy angle it is necessary to accept the social movement as an institution of social change (or resistance to change). (Nathanson, 2003). Yet the multivocal nature of social movements makes it difficult to predict their reactions to policy innovation and implementation. Hearing the many messages from social movements engaged in an issue area (often with institutions inside influential policy networks) ought to aid the creation of policy in contentious areas, and the understanding of the process in hindsight. From the perspective of the engaged researcher the focus on message (and particularly the relationships between different messages) offers interesting potential for ‘action research’ within the current movements for social justice. Elements of these movements, most visible in the social forums, are consciously striving to bring together and debate a variety of political positions. Relational frame analysis offers a system by which one can gain deeper understanding of a range of perspectives in relation to each other, highlighting what is at stake in competition between the ideational patterns, which differences between positions might be central, and which are peripheral (or surface) differences.

Ideologies and Frames

It is undoubtedly the case that interpretive frames have a very close conceptual linkage with ideologies. Snow and colleagues use the terms almost interchangeably, and consciously develop their description of three key framing tasks (diagnosis, prognosis and motivation) from Wilson’s (1973) decomposition of ideology. These authors and others have been criticised for failing to distinguish between frames and ideologies, resulting in conceptual opacity. (Fisher, 1997)

Following the work of Paolo Donati, Fisher sees the frame as one specific kind of ideational construct among many. For him, therefore, the distinction seems relatively straightforward: “ideologies do not generate frames, and frames do not depend on any specific ideology”. (Fisher, 1997, 5.2) For Fisher, a frame is conceived at the very specific level of particular metaphors and arguments that may have widespread application. Thus, within any culture there is a vast array of frames available to the producer of a text, with some expectation that the presentation of one or more frame elements will bring the whole frame to the fore. However, this definition of ‘frame’ necessarily sweeps aside much of the empirical investigation done within the approach, without making any attempt to explain how some of these explanations have been so compelling, nor offering an alternative way to discuss their findings. In doing so it loses the possibility of examining the conversation between different ideational constructs at different levels of generality. Looking a little deeper into ideologies, therefore, may help us to specify frames in a way that retains both its distinctiveness and its utility for RFA.

In this context it is necessary to simplify what is a massive area of study, and to choose a movement focussed criteria by which to judge conceptualisations of ideology. I’ll outline three distinguishable viewpoints and assess their utility for frame analysis: the political science approach, the critical approach, and the ‘morphology’ approach.

The political science approach, (probably the one to which Snow and colleagues are most familiar; see Zald, 1996: 262) sees ideology as, “idea complexes containing beliefs – encompassing consciously or unconsciously held values, understandings, interpretations, myths and preferences – which support or contest political arrangements and processes, as well as providing plans of action for public political institutions; and in doing so they act as devices for mobilizing mass political activity” (Freeden, 1998: 16)

As Freeden explains, this conception has been utilised in order to bring a positivist stance to the cataloguing and classification of various ideological traditions, utilised at various times. This definition would leave us very little to distinguish between ideologies and interpretive frames. But, ideologies, in most uses, are considered to have a weight and tradition that, collective action frames (and the orientational frames that I conceptualise here), at least by their application in the literature, do not have. More importantly the ‘cataloguing and classification’ project from which this conception stems aims to create from a multiplicity of ideas, a single, coherent thread that can pass judgements on a huge range of political issues. In the context of social movement studies, however, by papering over the cracks of ideational debate we get drawn into treating the movement as a unified political actor, with unified aims and strategies. This severely hampers our potential for understanding the processes by which a movement finds its voice, articulates its message, and ultimately meets success or failure. (Melucci, 1988; 1992)

The second approach to ideology is a critical one and has, in truth, had as many guises as it has proponents. That the critical edge remains central to conceptions of ideology is witnessed by the dictionary definition as: “a collection of beliefs and values held by an individual or group for other than purely epistemic reasons” (Railton, 1995: 392). Jorge Larrain extensively charts developments in the concept, finding that it has been considered an antithesis to science as it lacks positivistic standards of rationality and objectivity with regards to accepted knowledge. Alternatively, science has been branded as a form of ideology itself, but where it has been (within a Habermasian tradition of thought) it is as a criticism of science for the instrumental nature of its work that focuses on particular techniques rather than the acceptability of the ends to which it is put. Another strand sees ideology as a form of knowledge that stems from class position. With roots in Marx the pejorative conception of ideology has been variously considered to apply to all class-based thinking or to bourgeois science as distinct from the thinking of the conscious working class. (Larrain, 1979: C6) What ties these approaches together is the perception of ideology is an aberration of rational thought. While this aspect may be usable to highlight one component of ideology (that it can be coherent without being strictly logical) the critical conception would require some stretching to be applicable to the sets of beliefs carried within current social movements. Against the latter strand, it is obvious that social movements take a huge range of bases, and participants may be consciously opposed to a class based analysis. Furthermore, as they are intrinsically in conflict with the status quo, ideologies in social movements clearly do not take, as their source, attempts to justify the current distribution of resources. Against the former strand, in social movement studies we need not seek a rationalisable understanding of any particular ideology, but to treat them as unique analytical categories that inform an actor’s judgement.

A third conception of ideology – the morphological approach – was developed by Michael Freeden. This steers a course between the positivist and the critical positions; on the one hand trying to avoid either a normative or epistemological critique of ideologies, and on the other insisting both that ideologies contain necessarily non-rational precepts and that the study of ideologies must take a hermeneutic viewpoint, which admits the effect of the researcher on the object of study. His ‘morphological’ analysis of ideology insists on their ever changing nature, thus bringing this much closer to the idea of framing than the somewhat monolithic view of ideology coming from mainstream political science. In doing so he develops a very useful focus for his analysis, namely decontestation. Parties to the creation and development of ideology decontest specific concepts – that is, they imbue them with a specific meaning that works within the particular ideational configuration of their own ideology. This helps to explain how it is so common that opposing ideologies can carry what are in name the same values such as ‘liberty’ or ‘democracy’.

Where does this conception fit in with our various frame concepts? Freeden’s seminal statement of ideological morphology, certainly brings ‘ideology’ closer to ‘interpretive framework’ than may obviously be the case, and bears further discussion. The fragmentation, flux and pervasiveness that he describes of ideology all bear comparison with our conception of frames. Freeden argues that it is very difficult to identify specific ideologies in the modern world because so much is in the air in the current political situation, so much is changing, hence arguments about the end of history/end of ideology.

Michael Freeden argues explicitly that “not all patterned sets of ideas are ideologies, though they may be parts of ideologies” (2004). The trick is, of course, to tell them apart. He admits that: “the balance is between what is conventionally accepted and what the researcher thinks is a useful categorization. Nevertheless, there needs be a significant weight to an ideology, a holistic attempt to deal with all or most of the significant issues that a society pontificates on, and not just a very limited collection of ideas and proposals that lacks the mass to be socially significant.” That is, to retain meaning, then it must have a broad political scope, a certain degree of cohesion. However, while ‘interpretive frame’ no doubt refers to a similar politico-linguistic phenomenon, we may choose not to insist on such a rigorous sytemacity. Indeed, to do so would risk the relationship between the authentic analyses coming from social movement actors and our abstracted frame definitions. To define common activist framings with reference to specific political content is notoriously difficult, and studies that attempt to do so lose their conviction to the extent that they claim to be generalisable; in fact their analyses potentially remain trapped in a parochialism bordered by the limits of their empirical experience. My claim that forming ideologies should be separable from interpretive frames in this way rests on the assumption that we do not, typically, find such logically ordered, broad scoped frames in activist communication. To say so is not to insult activist thinking – to brand it illogical or narrow minded – but to realise the different contexts in which interpretive frames and ideologies are conceived. Freeden attempts to narrow the gap between deep political theory and popular ideologies, claiming that ideologies inform the politically aware about their daily lives. Yet Freeden’s focus is frequently on the ideological work done by political parties and intellectuals, missing any ideational work done ‘on the streets’. It is precisely the latter that interpretive framing captures: iterated experience of real-life situations and the accumulation and selection of knowledge of specific world events informs the practice of activism. The abstraction of this knowledge happens in the transformation of popular framings into ideologies and is work consciously done by the political theorist, movement intellectual or historian of ideas. Within the abstraction process the entire conceptual structure typically takes on a more rigorously logical coherence and systematic scope. Examining the relationship between specific ideologies and specific interpretive frames may greatly aid our understanding of a movement.Ideology does appear to fulfil a function of stabilisation for the interpretive frames I have studied. It may be that this is through the internalisation of a value identity pertaining to the ideology. Of course, it may also be through activists’ conscious testing of ideas in relation to political theories and political parties. These activists’ reflections, informed by ideology in its institutionalised form, impacts on activist framing on the ground. The existence of bodies of thought around particular ideational constellations therefore reinforces the formations of ideas in use in everyday political activism. Ideology can, in both these ways, form a part of the framing process. Through examining the relationship between activist framing and the ideological thought to which these seem connected helps us locate key ideas, beliefs and values in a broader tradition. Nevertheless, in doing so we must take care not to simply read activist ideas as those of the scholars, to decontest concepts in an identical manner. Indeed, in switching from examining frames or ideologies individually, by focussing on the relationship between them we turn from decontestation to contestation, thus sensitising ourselves to innovation and change in the here and now.

Levels and Boundaries in Frame Analysis

An attempt to specify the content of movement interpretive frames offer two related problems for social movement scholar. On the one hand there is a levels of analysis problem: are we trying to specify individual activist frames, or organisations’ frames, or the messages of an entire movement? On the other is a serious boundary drawing problem, even when identifying an obvious SMO involved in a movement we are dealing with individuals who have other commitments, other beliefs and other identities. At a more complex level, if it is desirable to attempt to analyse a movement to find its central messages, we need to identify where that movement begins and ends, who is outside and who is inside, and what the temporal boundaries of the movement are.

Relating to the former problem, other scholars have enunciated the need for a multiple level approach to frame analysis:

“The most promising direction for framing research would thus involve deploying the notion of master frames in a multilevel analysis that links individuals, groups, and structures.” (Buechler, 2000: 199)

To a certain extent, the research agenda that Buechler proposes here had, in fact, already been carried out. The initial argument around the concept of master frames was, as has been seen, to examine the way that the cultural context of a movement affected its framing decisions, including goal setting, and tactic selection, and the effects of this on mobilisation. The assumptions carried in these arguments are that it is through the enunciation of culturally resonant interpretive frameworks that individuals are mobilised, by groups, to take part in a broader movement for social change. Social structures are implicated in this process because a frame is not created at random, but is done so specifically to link to grievances that may be interpreted as structurally created.

The laudable desire for a ‘complete’ multi-level frame analysis is difficult to satisfy for the simple reason that among the concepts enunciated in the framing literature, there are no simple, hierarchical relationships. The most microscopic of the ideational constructs developed in the literature apply to metaphors, images and the like , while the most macroscopic might be ideologies or master frames. Clearly, these end points, and all the constellations of ideas that lie in between can be utilised by individuals and groups alike, in furthering their understanding or to strategic ends. It may seem that ideational constructs can be hierarchically arrayed according to certain criteria. We might try to do so by the general applicability of their content, or the diversity of the uptake. We would find a certain degree of overlap, which is probably acceptable given the relatively novel, and certainly analytically constructed nature of the subject. In table one (below) I compare the interpretive and identity concepts that I have discussed above.

While this description of concepts does highlight a potential hierarchy we need to be careful not to misrepresent the nature of ideational pattern as tidily structured along dimensions of what are, after all, analytical distinctions. The most studied relationship here is that between the collective action frame, at the organisation level, and the master frame at a societal level. However, in truth (as is obvious from the rich description of many empirical applications) SMOs construct collective action frames from many parts, which will include perceptions of the social identities of their audiences, ideological traditions within which the organisation locates itself, the common metaphors and issue packages that are available to the framers as cultural tools, and the organisations’ own collective identity (and therefore its interpretation of those outside the group).

Table 1: Comparing Frame and Identity Concepts

Frame Concepts Identity Concepts
Schemata (personal interpretive frames)
  • We take these to be components of the individual cognitive capacity.
  • Schema is outward facing, while self-concept is inward.
  • The two inform eachother.
Self-schema (personal identity)
Collective Action Frame
  • These are ideational/cultural components of a group or collective.
  • Both may be enunciated in programmatic statements, and as such are subject to conscious ‘signification work’.
  • Collective action frame defined to include collective identity as a component, however, identity also likely to constrain realignments or transformations in collective action frame.
Collective Identity
Orientational Frame
  • These are analytic categories by which researchers try to describe the individual level cognitive schemata.
  • Orientational frames may include identity components and are conceived to be political in nature.
  • Different forms of social identity may be included in orientational frames, and affect the type of political project signified by presence of the frame.
Social Identity
Master Frames, Ideologies
  • These concepts reflect social structures, and the ways they impact on individual frames and identities.
  • As such, these may be considered as the different kinds of inputs to frame creation at both individual and group levels.
  • We use orientational frames and social identities to trace the impact of these inputs on the individual.
  • Conscious framing and identity work appeals to the contents of such constructs.
Unchosen Identity, Role Identity, Value Identity, etc.

This suggests that framing does not respect hierarchies. In fact, the network serves as a more interesting and useful representation of the field of ideational constructs within which framing work takes place. For instance, schemata refer to self-schemata, and vice versa for how can one produce an understanding of oneself (that always includes ones relationships to various groups) without an understanding of the world in which one is located?

Attempting to visualise the structures of relationships is valuable because the structure should add to our understanding. What characteristics we gain from a network structure can be illustrated with reference to the study of social networks. This field tends to focus on the ties (relationships) between nodes (usually individual agents), rather than the nodes themselves. Mathematic analyses are carried out on the distance between nodes (measured in number of links), the strength of ties that together allow us to consider the density and connectivity within the network. Metaphorically, let us consider the individual idea (belief or value) as a node and the ties to be determined as the number of agents we find, in some population, that hold the two connected ideas. By examining them we would locate different clusters of ideas that relate to ideologies, orientational frames, collective action frames and so on. That is, the frames identify those sets of ideas which have strong relationships with each other, and short distances between nodes, i.e. they would be dense areas of the ideational field. The point is, however, that their boundaries are created by the density of internal links but are, in principle, completely porous. In my empirical work on the UK anti war movement and the social forum movement it has become obvious that individual actors hold many varied mixes of ideas simultaneously, that rarely fit into the neat categories of frames that sociological studies have developed. But at the same time, there are strong tendencies to link certain kinds of ideas and not others. These tendencies are doubtless created through several processes including the actors’ rational capacity to avoid inconsistent or contradictory ideas and the reinforcing of particular links through SMOs framing work and through the media.

Frames vary along at least two obvious dimensions. First, the content of the frame may be more or less comprehensive, thus we see ideologies as a particularly comprehensive frame, moving through orientational frames to collective action frames and issue packages. Second, the uptake of the frame may be more or less popular, so we can see that master frames, while often having quite specific content, may be called upon within a variety of other frames, whereas very specific issue packages might only be called upon by a very narrow band of people. In other words, the degree of connectivity that is evident for elements of certain types of frame may vary. In general, scholars who apply framing ideas in empirical studies take the social movement organisation as unit of analysis, and investigate how the organisation deploys particular frames for various instrumental goals. Thus, they investigate the particular functions of frames. This has had some interesting results, with lessons about the cultural work done by social movement organisations. The problem comes when we want to investigate a social movement as a whole. The social movement organisation becomes an inappropriate unit of analysis because there is too much flux in the organisational make-up of a movement. This seems particularly the case with the present movement: affinity groups come and go without making public statements or press releases; the influence of more formal organisations waxes and wanes; and individuals make an impact through countless acts of resistance and face-to-face ‘micromobilisation’ efforts. The changing make up of the movement presents a serious boundary drawing problem to attempts to find a suitable unit of analysis.

Utilising frames may appear to help us in drawing these boundaries. If we can argue that there is one movement frame that people either adhere to, then we’ve found a way to decipher who is in and who is out of the movement. There are two major problems with this approach. First, in this ‘movement of movements’ there are many different strands and it is impossible to claim they all adhere to one collective action frame. At the level of master frames, certainly many, if not all, movement activists, at different times, make use of some major frames concerning injustice, democracy and human rights. However, when we specify these frames at a level general enough to include all activists, then we find that their opponents may also ‘adhere’ to these frames. These are the major discourses of the liberal-democratic world and can be used to many different ends. When we specify at a more specific level we find differing understandings about the goals, acceptable means, and targets of mobilisation. The second problem with this boundary ‘solution’ is that frames change. Framing is a process that affects mobilisation, drawing people into the movement or pushing them away. The processes change the way people behave and react, but they also change the content of the frames. So, when we specify a frame we distil the momentary beliefs of a social movement.

When we use the social network metaphor to visualise frames, and thereby appeal to examine frame contents through their relationships, we achieve a number of benefits over previous incarnations of the approach:

  • We escape the tendency to conflate social movement organisations and ideational networks.
  • We begin to see the importance of the ‘conversation’ between different frames in the movement context.
  • We can better conceptualise the relationships between frames at different levels, which are dialogical but not hierarchical.
  • We can temporarily tie the boundaries of movements to the interconnection of ideas, the movement becomes a series of interrelated messages rather than a falsely unified, reified phenomenon.

Conclusion: An Agenda for Relational Frame Analysis?

The foregoing analysis has hopefully clarified the key concepts in utilising frame analysis for studying social movements. It makes the following concrete proposals:

  • The concept of ‘orientational frames’ is a useful analytical bridge between the individual level interpretive frame and the cultural inputs that individuals may come into contact with. It thus massively broadens the scope from the standard relation of collective action frame (group level) to master frame (specific cultural level).
  • Further sensitivity to the multitude of sources of identity is required if we are to seriously understand the myriad of ways in which identity can be the locus of political contention.
  • If we are to seriously heed the call for a multi-level approach to framing then it must focus on the relationships between different ideational constructs, the essential ingredients of which – ideas – are related in a messy web of connections that reach outside of any of our empirically identified generic or specific frames.

Taking these three related concerns on board would, I hope, allow us to offer convincing answers to the list of questions presented at the beginning of this paper, in relation to any particular movement. The latter calls for a joining up empirical research in the various key concept. Any of these (outlined in table one, above) could potentially be the subject of relational frame analysis. Two points may be illustrative.

First, the study of social movements is about more than social processes, it can and should reflect the political battles of the day. The connection of orientational frames to ideologies is one way of generating a set of viewpoints that are likely to be identifiable within social movement activities. This would be a valuable (though partial) way of attempting to identify the messages of a movement. It would also connect with political theory and political science. The study of ideology has been invigorated in recent years, with the realisation that, even if the traditional categories of ideology were becoming rather staid, ideological (re)construction continues apace. Yet its traditional mode of understanding is insensitive to change and innovation, whereas RFA can highlight exactly that. By comparing really existing sets of ideas, utilised by those taking part in political activities to understand the world they interact with, to more traditional systems of thought, we can highlight those ideas that have been blown away by real political contest, which have become stronger, and which novel ideas have been formed.

Second, a number of scholars and commentators consider the current cycle of contention a ‘movement of movements’, marked by diversity above all else. This raises a number of questions around the potential for those working from different perspectives to work together, especially considering the long-time focus of social movement studies on focussed campaigns with apparently broadly shared views. Are diversities really working together? It this always based on shallow, negative points of agreement? Can this ever forge unity? Is unity desirable? By comparing the range of orientational frames identifiable within a movement we can begin to answer some of these questions.


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