Frame incommensurability

Framing theory is one of the bulwarks of communication scholarship. For social scientists, a frame is seen as the way that a person interprets and gives meaning to the world. They are filters that we use to make sense of events and make decisions. Think about yourself. You see the world through a lens that is not the same as others. You interpret events with a given set of schema and viewpoints. How these underlying constructs are put together is what framing theory aims to tease out.

One of the greatest insights from framing theory is from Gamson and Modigliani. In their famous paper, “Media discourse and public opinion on nuclear power: A constructionist approach,” they looked at the nuclear power debate, specifically before and after the Three Mile Island incident. As they explained, people who grew up in the 40s and 50s would have seen and constructed nuclear power as part of America’s larger project of progress, whereas after the incident, nuclear was seen as one kind of technology that has runaway from us or run amok. This remember was right around the time when the Cuyahoga River caught on fire and the Love Canal incident.

The frames shared by a generation creates different interpretations of the world. Depending on when you grew up, your relationship to nuclear power would have been completely different. This is not a huge insight, but it is worth mentioning that for nearly 40 years after the events, not a single new nuclear power plant was constructed. It is clear that the fear of technology “run amok” drove this policy decision. The same is true of nearly every major policy between generations. It cannot be said that those who are 20 now think similarly to those who are 80. The gulf between generations in terms of seeing the world is what I am calling  frame incommensurability. Before the industrial revolution, this was not a huge issue. The rulers and ruled didn’t differ much in world views mainly because there was not much change. (I should note that I would rather not deal with the social/political inequalities, that is for a different time.) Now with intense amounts of change, there is a gulf between the frames and thus the inner logics of the different generations.

For example,

Fully 42 percent of seniors say greed and speculation are behind higher gas prices, compared with just 13 percent of adults aged 18 to 29. Young adults are twice as likely as seniors to say economic factors and overseas developments are the primary causes.

Depending on the kind of logic of prices you profess, which is reflected in these stats, your policy solutions would differ. Series of tubes?

First published May 21, 2011