Review: Framing and Change

Review of the Article Framing and Change: Switching and Blending Frames and their Role in Instigating Institutional Change (2014) by Miriam Werner and Joep P. Conelissen

Stella Rehbein

In their article Werner and Cornelissen address the question of Institutional Change and how it is and can be initiated and intentionally conducted and carried into execution by individual and collective actors. They chose a strictly theoretical approach and thus do not present empirical findings. The authors draw on the concept of Frame and Framing, originally introduced by Goffman, and aim to integrate it into neo-institutionalist theory. By this means they try to show how the micro and the macro level of analysis are interrelated when it comes to institutional change, how an individual actor can contest, question, and ultimately alter institutions, and when actors and their attempts for alterations are the most successful.

Frames, as cognitive schemata of interpretation, define social situations and thereby structure experience (cf. ibid.: 6f.). Frames link the individual and the structural level as they are on the one hand embedded in cultural knowledge and discourse, on the other hand individual cognitive perceptions that enables agents to contest and reframe institutional settings. In this perspective actors play an active part as they can question the legitimacy and taken-for-grantedness of institutions and propose different interpretation; they can participate in the “creation of a new ‘vision’” (ibid.:2).

This crafting of new visions takes place in micro-political struggles over frames, in “framing contests” (ibid.:1), where actors make practices that used to be perceived as normal or legitimate rethought and reconsidered through framing tactics. The two main framing tactics are outlined in the article: frame shifting and frame blending. The first one is characterized by a sharp contrast to existing frames, counterfactual language and the promotion of an alternative frame; the latter is described by conjunctive language, a less sharp contrast that is made and therefore a bridging and combining of old and new frames into hybrids (cf.:8f). The authors further differentiate between moderate (modification and integration) and radical (complete overhaul or sharp contrast) use of these two framing tactics (cf. 9ff.).

On the structural level the authors use ‘discourse’ as their starting point, meaning repertoires or systems of words, expressions and meaning that collectives use in their actions and communications in a certain institutional field (cf. ibid.: 12). Within these emerging and ever-changing discourses at some points “discursive opportunity structures” (ibid.: 13) open up and enable new frames – the reframing tactics of actors – to be seen as more plausible as old ones. It is these opportunity structures that determine if a new frame gains broader support and is taken up from the institutional field. The success and support, the appreciation as more legitimate, more reasonable of a new frame is called “frame resonance” (ibid.) by the authors. Within volatile and instable discursive opportunities – brought for example by sudden technological change – the tactic of frame shifting is the most successful to succeed, within stable discursive opportunities – as in long established and unquestioned discourses – frame blending has potentially a higher frame resonance (cf. ibid.:15).

With their article, Werner and Cornelissen provide a consistent and theoretically rich approach how to grasp the phenomenon of Institutional Change that also can serve as a heuristic for further empirical research. They work out in a plausible way how the micro and the macro level are intertwined and that none of the two sides – neither the individual nor the structure – can account for Institutional Change solely. Considering both the framing tactics on an interactive level as well as the discursive opportunities on a structural level as existential for Institutional Change they acknowledge that both sides have an important share in understanding and explaining Institutional Change.

By this means they neither follow a strict structuralism, but understand subjects as ‘creative actors’ nor do they follow a strict individualism that overestimates the scope and impact of a rationally and strategically acting individual, rather, they focus on the discursively embedded and actively sense making subject.

Yet, their linguistic approach remains underdeveloped, that is the assumption that the different framing tactics are accompanied by a certain use of language. The frequent but vague notion of ‘conjunctive’ and ‘disjunctive’ language is not furtherly explained and isn’t precise enough to translate this concept into one’s own research – the article is more a theoretical paper than concrete tool or instrument for empirics.

At some points, the line of arguments becomes over detailed with subcategories (radical and moderate frame shifting and frame blending; volatile and stable discourse opportunities; narrow and broad discursive opportunities) and their criss-crossing and thereby loses some of its plausibility, when the authors try to find an empirical example for each of the subcategories they developed.

For researchers in social, organizational and institutional change I would highly recommend the article as it gives a well-developed perspective on a complex phenomenon. For practitioners it is a challenging read with little practical and immediate use but still gives relevant insights.

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