Frames for change

Last week we started looking at story and story-telling by exploring the ubiquitous and pervasive nature of story in our family life to our national identity. This week, I want to focus down on the shape of our stories – their frames. Much research and thinking has been looking at how the frames we use influence the power of our change efforts and I want to offer an introduction to that thinking in this post.

Frames by Bart Eveson CC FlickrWhen we think of a frame, most of us will have in mind a photo or painting on the wall. We may have some at home or on our desk at work. We see frames in many places – the TV at home acts as a frame, the bill board on our street, the screen on our phone. What they have in common is that they include some things and exclude others. They form a boundary around the object of attention. So it is with the metaphor of mental frames I want to introduce here. Of course we don’t use wooden or plastic borders to shape our mental world but we do chose particular ways of regularly organising our attention that include key elements and exclude other related material, giving a particular meaning to our perspective.

Frames help and hinder

Frames allow human beings to assimilate new information by fitting it into a framework that is already understood. They offer “organizing principles that are socially shared and persistent over time, that work symbolically to meaningfully structure the social world.” (Stephen D. Reese, Framing Public Life, 2001) Most people don’t think about most issues most of the time; they need to have a frame in which to hang their thoughts about each issue and this is provided by the controlling frame. This is mostly provided by the news media that gives many people their agenda (what’s important to attend to), their frame (the lens through which to interpret facts and events) and their priming (what is relevant to making judgements). Different frames make for different opinions and willingness to act.

Homeless Man in Tokyo by Tony Waghorn CC FlcikrFor example, an episodic frame gives portraits of particular human stories whilst a thematic frame will pull the camera back to show the landscape in which the individual story is set. Episodic frames deliver a series of disconnected episodes and random events whilst thematic frames provide context, trends and explore how the system more widely has contributed to the situation. The difference between the two frames is seen in the response of those reading them. An episodic frame will leave the responsibility with the person or family; the required response is with the individual to ‘do good’ or ‘act well’. The thematic frame points beyond the case study to the wider causes; it asks for social policy responses, for government action or collective challenge.

Understanding frames (and becoming astute at recognising them) makes the reading of novels, the news or advertising very informative. You can begin to see that stories embody fundamental principles or values. Aesop’s fable of the hare and the tortoise is not just about two animals in a race but expresses a view of (human) nature that encourages reflection, steady effort and an avoidance of flashy show. Similarly reading the frames involved in the Harry Potter novels provides important ideas about heroes being ordinary people made extraordinary by chance, fame that is not about celebrity but about heritage, loyalty and commitment and the recognition of a fundamental choice facing every human being: to be good or evil.

Frames express values

Schwartz’s value circumplex from The Common Cause HandbookThe importance of frames comes home when we look at research findings about values and motivation. In The Common Cause Handbook, the authors explore our growing understanding of human values and how they are structured. Over decades and across cultures, psychologists have found that the same group of ten repeatedly occurring values do not stand alone but each is related to the others as neighbours and opposites. The result of plotting these values on two axis – one about agency and the other about communion – is the circumplex, illustrated above. The findings show that values held on one side of the circumplex will be incompatible with values on the other. On the other hand, each value bleeds over from one segment to its neighbours, strengthening values on either side. Values are closely related to a person’s goals in life whether those are centred on external approval or reward or more inherently rewarding in their pursuit. For example some people seek social power or authority (extrinsic goals) whilst others are focused on creativity and a connection to nature (intrinsic goals).

Day 40/365 - Driving Home Through The Snow by Tobi Mattingly CC FlcikrNow values and the frames that express them are really important to community organisers. The way our people see their situation, the way they interpret the facts and figures, the meaning they place on events are all strongly influenced by the frames in use and the values that are triggered by them. For example, many people in my community see the council as just about the only body that can change their situation; they have never been exposed to a frame that suggests that any other agency can have an impact on their lives. So when I began to talk as though their own agency might be capable of delivering change, the frame was derided and laughed out of court. It was only as we worked together, as a few who shared the frame came together to make a start that the frame became more credible. As I shared my confidence in the ‘story’ I was telling them, shared examples from elsewhere and talked about the frame in many different ways, so people came to see they could be in the driving seat of their own lives.

The frames we chose to work with are really fundamental to the values we will illicit from the community. If we chose to use frames that focus on family security, honouring of older people and respect for tradition we will have problems drawing people into action that requires daring creativity, a broadminded acceptance of diversity and a sense of independence. The stories we tell ourselves do indeed determine what we can become! We can expect a wide diversity of values to be held by individuals in our work for social justice but the way we – as organisers and leaders – talk and act (our frames) will support a certain group of values to become the culture of our network rather than others. Being conscious about our choice of frame will ensure that our culture embeds values and frames to support our work and not undermine it.

Next time: the underlying structure of stories is important to appreciate so that we can develop narratives of our work that speak to the needs of communities for purpose and direction. In my next blog, I want to consider how the universal hero story underlies the life of communities getting organised and how the organiser themselves has to look to his or her personal narrative for inspiration.


Tim Holmes et al (2011) The Common Cause Handbook Public Interest Research Centre Available from

Patrick Reinsborough and Doyle Canning (2009) Re:Imagining Change: an Introduction to story-based strategy smartMeme Available both as a print edition and a pdf – highly recommended

Anon (2002) Framing Public Issues: A Toolkit The Framework Institute

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2 Responses to Frames for change

  1. Lee Baker says:

    Great, as ever, Mark. Interestingly, when I first started the year of training as a community organiser, I identified story-telling as something I saw important in this work!

  2. Pingback: Uncovering The Story of Self | Southwark Organising

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