Understanding Activists’ Political Theories: A Hermeneutic Methodology for Frame Analysis

Paper presented to 57th Political Studies Association Annual Conference, University of Bath, April 2007.

At the heart of social movements lie structures of beliefs and values that guide critical action and aid activists’ understandings. These are worthy of interrogation, not least because they contain points of articulation with ideational formations found in both mainstream politics and academia. They offer an alternative view of society, economy and polity that is grounded in protagonists’ experience and struggle. However, the ideational content of social movements is often obscured by a focus on particular, immediate goals; by their orientation to certain forms of action; and by the mediated, simplified nature of their communication. Additionally, recent social movements display a tendency to coalitional action, bringing a diverse set of political understandings in concert on highly specific campaigns.

This conceptual paper seeks an approach to identifying the messages within social movements that remains sensitive to their complexity, dynamism and heterogeneity. Through a critique of the concept of ‘interpretative frames’ as developed in social movement studies, I describe the novel concept ‘orientational frame’. In contrast to social movement scholars’ tendency to focus on instrumental claim-making by movement organisations, I emphasise deeply held, relatively stable sets of ideas that allow activists to justify contentious political action. Through an engagement with Michael Freeden’s morphological approach to understanding ideologies I attempt to draw frame analysis away from the positivistic attempt to delineate general processes into a hermeneutic endeavour more suitable to understanding the context dependent, specifically realised ideas of particular social movements.

The full paper may be downloaded here: A Hermeneutic Methodology for Frame Analysis