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Framing is a rhetorical tool used by communicators to delimit the scope of a situation or argument and is a critical element in constructing social reality because it helps shape perceptions and provides a context for processing information. As a surrounding picture frame delimits a landscape painting, so frames add salience to certain elements of a topic by including and focusing attention on them while excluding other aspects.
Anthropologist Gregory Bateson (1972, 191) first defined a psychological frame as a “spatial and temporary bounding of a set of interactive messages” that operates as a form of meta-communication. Erving Goffman later used ‘frame’ to describe social scenes as “schemata of interpretation”. Framing of attributes is a fundamental strategy in promotional communication. Marketers, for example, have a choice of promoting ground beef as either ‘75 percent lean’ or ‘25 percent fat.’ Evidence suggests that positive framing of attributes such as these almost leads to more favorable responses. In the arena of news, attribute framing forms the basis for ‘second-order agenda setting,’ which claims that media can tell people how to think about a topic, not merely what topics to think about (traditional or first-order agenda-setting). Framing of risk or potentially risky choices is grounded in prospect theory, which posits that people tend to avoid risks when a choice is stated in terms of gains but will take greater risks when choices are stated in terms of losses (Kahneman & Tversky 1979).
In the health arena, for example, patients are willing to select greater risks if their decision means saving a life or reducing suffering. Framing of actions in terms of negative consequences similarly appears to be more effective than posing positive outcomes.
Framing of issues or social problems is used by social movement activists who build their agenda for change by engaging in diagnostic, prognostic, and motivational framing processes and mobilize support through frame enterprise, sponsorship, alignment, bridging, amplification, extension, and contests.
Framing of responsibility draws from attribution theory and suggests the cause of events can be alternatively ascribed to different causes – such as a social actor, the object upon which the action is taken, or the environment or circumstances in which the event occurs.
- Bateson, G. (1972). Steps to an ecology of mind: Collected essays in anthropology, psychology, evolution and epistemology. San Francisco: Chandler.
- Gamson, W. A. & Modigliani, A. (1989). Media discourse and public opinion on nuclear power: A constructionist approach. American Journal of Sociology, 95(3), 1–37.
- Hallahan, K. (1999). Seven models of framing: Implications for public relations. Public Relations Review, 11(3), 205–242.
- Iyengar, S. (1991). Is anyone responsible? Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Kahneman, D. & Tversky, A. (1979). Prospect theory: An analysis of decision under risk. Econometrica, 47, 263–291.