Friday, 27 November 2015

Strategic Frame Analysis, Lecture by Dr. Brad Shore (Emory University)

Strategic Frame Analysis, Lecture by Dr. Brad Shore (Emory University)


Last week (Nov 19, 2015), Dr. Brad Shore visited the University of Alberta to give a lecture on Strategic Frame Analysis, entitled “Frames of Mind”. The U of A is presenting a course this upcoming February in this subject, so Dr. Shore was presenting an introductory lecture to introduce potential students to the theory and to drum up business for the Faculty of Extension. Dr. Shore works with the Framework Institute of Washington D.C. on this specialty, as well as teaching and researching at Emory University (in Atlanta).
This blog represents my notes of Dr. Shore’s lecture. No doubt I got some things wrong, so I certainly won’t claim this to be an entirely accurate representation, though I hope it captures the spirit of the talk.
Strategic framing is a way of looking at how people think - the mental frames that they bring with them, both genetic and culturally determined. It is cross-disciplinary, incorporating findings from social sciences such as anthropology, sociology, political science, psychology, and economics. Professor Shore is himself a theoretical anthropologist.
As well as helping us to understand communications, strategic framing can also help in forming and communicating public policy (and marketing, of course). In terms of public policy, the essential point is that the way in which issues are framed can hugely influence the way in which issues are perceived. For example, the framing of tax policy in terms of “tax burden” is very different than “public investment”. This comes as no surprise to skilled politicians and political advisors, of course. But, besides those occupations, the subject is of interest to teachers, public health professionals, marketers, and anyone involved in mass media and communications, not to mention individuals who want to understand how they are being nudged in certain directions by all of the above.  That would, of course, also include people involved in social media, especially professionals.
The cornerstone of the Frameworks approach is known as Cultural Models Theory. The key point here is that people bring their own cultural models to issues, cultural models which are generally implicit or under the surface. Understanding and working with these cultural models is therefore a key to effective communications. The Frameworks approach therefore crosses boundaries from the theoretical (“thinking about how we think”) to the practical (understanding and influencing communications in public issues).

How do we know what we know?

This has been an active area of inquiry for philosophy and science, for thousands of years. Some alternative theories:
  • The mind is a tabula rasa (blank slate) or a camera. Two prominent figures in this school are Aristotle and John Locke. Sensory impressions fall on the mind directly, which it then interprets.
    • But who or what does the interpreting?
    • Why do people see and interpret things so differently?
  • The mind is a filter. A prominent figure here is Immanuel Kant.
    • The mind plays a role in what it lets through.
    • In neuroscience this is known as schema theory.
    • Kant said we know the world through innate mental categories.
    • This is similar to Noam Chomsky’s theories about the human brain having an innate facility for grammar.
    • Bartlett, construction of memory:
      • Cultural differences.
      • Cognitive filters.
      • Our culture implants these during development, they are not necessarily innate.
    • Piaget
      • These schema can be changed and reorganized during development.
  • We are not aware of how we think. Explicit knowledge is the tip of the iceberg. Under that is tacit, “invisible” knowledge.
  • We need to understand tacit knowledge and its sources to improve our ability to communicate, to work with the tacit knowledge.
  • There are various levels at which models or schema are at work:
    • The universal level - for example babies recognize smiles and quickly “know” their significance.
    • The individual level - we create schema or models specific to our own individual selves in our heads e.g. artists.
    • The collective level - collective schema or cultural models. There are some fundamental issues about the meaning of “culture” and how it is transmitted.

Culture and Models and Cultural Models

  • Culture has a double existence. It exists in the mind (as beliefs) and in the world as material objects and social institutions. (I am reminded a bit of Karl Popper’s ideas of World 1, World 2 and World 3).
  • These cultural aspects in the world at large are implanted in our minds as we grow and learn. They become a stock of models and scripts (i.e. a set of rules about how things work).
  • The mind both creates and reads models all the time, analogously to how the brain creates neural networks all the time.
  • There are many types of models. For example:
    • Maps
    • Objects
    • Equations
    • Musical notation.
  • We simplify the world via our models, though that doesn’t mean that our models are simple minded.
  • Models help us focus on different aspects of reality, highlighting some dimensions and reducing others.
  • This helps us to think of different things, to manipulate reality and to imagine different alternatives.
  • Models are durable, they persist through time. Without them reality would be confusing, a parade of sensations. They provide stability.
  • They orient us in time, physical space, social space and our interactions.
  • Some models are diagnostic (not just medical models). They help make tasks easier and assist in organizing knowledge.
  • Some models conceptualize the world for us in high level ways, such as ritual, art, theory and science.
  • Some models are used in efforts to persuade. Among these are:
    • Iconic images.
    • Body language.
    • Various sounds (e.g. a siren) and smells (e.g. perfume) are implicit in some models.


  • The most complex models are communicated via language.
  • Language itself is a model or modelling engine.
    • Language models at all levels.
    • This varies from the simple to the complex:
      • sound (hmm),
      • syntax (grammar),
      • tone (angry, sarcastic),
      • metaphor,
      • parable,
      • story (possibly epic).
  • Story
    • Stories are memorable.
    • People pay attention to stories (“let me tell you a story…” gets people to lean in).
    • Stories have conventions. This allows us to say things and teach lessons that might otherwise be not so well accepted (e.g. children and bedtime stories).
    • Stories help us to understand and make sense of things.
    • Interestingly, expert knowledge is not usually communicated as story (e.g. math or science, university lectures).
  • Metaphor is at the heart of linguistic models, and is very powerful. This isn’t just the high school definition of metaphor (comparing one thing to another), but deeper metaphor that is embedded in language.
    • Language embeds metaphor so deeply that we are often unaware of it.
    • For example, we embed metaphors of space and distance to understand time (we arrive “on time”, we “map out” our schedule, we do things “in steps”).
    • This helps us to grasp things via different conceptualizations (e.g. the metaphor of a container for the mind includes the notions that we “fall in” love, we “go out of” our minds, we “go to pieces”, we “think out of the box”, and so forth).
    • Metaphors help us to reason, by replacing the abstract with the less abstract (e.g. nebulous versus concrete, which are themselves metaphors).
    • “Language is metaphor all the way down”.
  • Metaphor helps us to frame communication.
  • Framing helps to change the conversation - i.e. change the metaphor and you change how people see something.
    • Learning as a weight (“heavy course load”, “a big idea”) versus learning as a light (“a bright student”, “a light went off”).

Frameworks Institute and Framing

  • Framing Analysis (Frameworks Institute) involves 5 steps:
    • Examine the “lay public” model.
    • Examine the “expert model”.
    • Determine how they differ.
    • Simplify communication, based on this knowledge.
    • Reframe the conversation.
  • For further information, consult the Frameworks Institute website:
And here's an XKCD comic about framing; comic strip characters of course “literally” live in frames – wow, talk about metaphor overload.

And if you are interested in some unique cultural framing, check out “On the Road with Bronco Billy” which is just chock full of the stuff, as it is a detailed look at the long-haul truck driving culture, from the point of view of a ride-along by a office-bound professional.
Or, just think of it as a nice road trip story, for a mere 99 cents.
Amazon U.S.
Amazon U.K.


  1. Very interesting, Dale. Relates to the work I do;though I often term it as a lens.

  2. Well, you frame a picture, and capture it via a lens, so the extended metaphor works either way.