- Thomas Edison
Original Publication September 2003, updated June 2013 by Heidi Burgess
What Frames Are
Frames are cognitive shortcuts that people use to help make sense of complex information. Frames help us to interpret the world around us and represent that world to others. They help us organize complex phenomena into coherent, understandable categories. When we label a phenomenon, we give meaning to some aspects of what is observed, while discounting other aspects because they appear irrelevant or counter-intuitive. Thus, frames provide meaning through selective simplification, by filtering people's perceptions and providing them with a field of vision for a problem.
Frames can significantly affect the intractability of a conflict by creating mutually incompatible interpretations of events. Because frames are built upon underlying structures of beliefs, values, and experiences, disputants often construct frames that differ in significant ways. A simple example is attitudes towards abortion in the US. "Pro-life" advocates believe abortion is murder of an innocent, unborn child which has as much right to live as anyone else--thus they see the fetus as a person, and abortion as a willful act that murders a person. "Pro-choice" advocates, however, do not see the fetus as a "person" with human rights--not until it becomes "viable" outside the womb, at any rate. Before then, they focus on the rights of the mother, asserting that she should have ultimate control and "choice" about her medical decisions and what happens to her body.
This essay explores the nature of frames and the framing process. It seeks to
Differing conceptual frames held by the parties involved in a dispute form the basis on which they act. Each party to a conflict has its own perception and understanding of their agenda, the relevance of various issues, their priorities, and the opportunities and risks involved with different choices. This assemblage of factors can be considered as a set of lenses, or filters, through which the various parties view the conflict, and is called the frame or conceptual frame.
In the English language, the word "frame" can be used both as a verb (to frame) or as a noun (a frame). As a noun, frame denotes the boundary within which the whole picture is displayed (similar to a frame placed around a picture or painting), and is used as a tool for interpreting and understanding the perceptions and underlying objectives of the various actors in the conflict. As a verb, framing refers to the creation of frames, either from a simple reading of the situation or through a deliberative, analytic, or strategic process.
The concept of frames has been developed as a tool for analysis in various fields, including psychology and sociology, business management, artificial intelligence, decision-making, negotiation, and environmental conflict management. Relevant to understanding intractable conflict are definitions given by such scholars as Minsky, Tannen, and Gray, for whom frames are "cognitive structures held in memory and used to guide interpretation of new experience." Furthermore, "parties rely on these mental structures to interpret or make sense of ongoing events." Frames are also defined as "collections of perceptions and thoughts that people use to define a situation, organize information, and determine what is important and what is not." We create frames to name a situation in which we find ourselves, to identify and interpret specific aspects that seem key to us in understanding the situation, and to communicate that interpretation to others.
Why are Frames Important?
An essential element in conflict resolution is an understanding of how frames affect conflict development. In the context of a conflict, we create frames to help us understand why the conflict exists, what actions are important to the conflict, why the parties act as they do, and how we should act in response. During the evolution of a conflict, frames act as sieves through which information is gathered and analyzed, positions are determined (including priorities, means, and solutions), and action plans developed. Depending on the context, frames may be used to conceptualize and interpret, or to manipulate and convince.
Putnam and Holmer hold that framing and reframing are vital to the negotiation process and are tied to information processing, message patterns, linguistic cues, and socially constructed meanings. Knowing what types of frames are in use and how they are constructed allows one to draw conclusions about how they affect the development of a conflict, and can be used to influence it. Thus, analyzing the frames people use in a given conflict provides fresh insight and better understanding of the conflict dynamics and development. With such insight, and with the help of reframing, stakeholders may find new ways to reach agreements.
The Sources and Forms of Frames
Many factors influence frames and their formation. Intractable disputes are usually associated with a complex and reinforcing set of frames about oneself, the "others," risks, what information should apply to the situation, and how decisions should be made. The frames of most importance to intractability usually include identity, characterization, power, conflict management/process, risk/information, and loss versus gain. Their forms and most common sources are as follows:
Many other types of frames can be constructed, but these six categories stand out as particularly applicable to intractable disputes.
Within processes of reconciliation, negotiation, or joint problem solving, the explicit management of frames, and the framing process may lead to important shifts in both the frames themselves and in their impact on the conflict dynamics. This purposive management of frames is called reframing. Use of frame analysis and reframing processes have the following goals:
Thus, reframing, stemming from stakeholders' understanding of their own as well as others' expressed frames, may pave ways for resolving, or at least better managing, a dispute.
Figure 1: Frames and their role in conflict development
Figure 1 illustrates the roles frames and framing play in the dynamics of conflict development. It demonstrates how a frame change (or reframing) may cause a shift in conflict development, towards conflict management and/or resolution. Types of frame categories are numerous and coined differently by researchers in various fields. The categories cited in this diagram are: substance (reframing that affects how one views the world today or potential future states of the world), process (reframing that affects how one interacts with others in the dispute), values (reframing that allows parties to clarify the relationship between values and interests for both themselves and for other parties), and phrasing (the language used by disputants to communicate with one other).
Frame Analysis and Reframing as Conflict Management Tools
Frame analysis can be used by both third party interveners and by individual stakeholders and conveners to better understand conflict dynamics. Frame analysis has been used both retrospectively (to understand past conflicts) and prospectively (as a tool for better managing an existing conflict). Retrospectively, it seeks to better understand conflict dynamics in order to glean lessons for the future. Prospectively, it advances consensus building in both the conflict assessments and intervention stages.
Analytic techniques for frame analysis include interviewing the various stakeholders to ascertain their perceptions and interpretations, feeding back to the parties the resulting analysis, and then exploring with the parties the meaning and impact of these frames on the conflict dynamics. Particularly within the framework of conflict assessments,  frame analysis and the resulting understanding of frames can help the stakeholders to better grasp the conflict, including the factors and contexts that can lead to changes within a frame or changes to the frames themselves. In this sense, framing becomes a formative analytic technique.
In intractable conflicts, frames are often quite stable over time, even when specific individuals move in and out of the conflict. This stability comes both because various frames held by an individual tend to be self reinforcing, and because frames are often shared within a community and therefore are socially reinforced through story-telling and shared perspectives. Yet research into intractable conflicts suggests that in at least some conflicts, frames can be altered over time through intentional interventions, and that the shift in frames helps to render disputes more tractable.
At the same time, research shows that reframing is often not easy for parties. It requires taking on new perspectives, and often requires some degree of risk-taking on the part of the parties. As such, reframing works best when changes in the context of the dispute can be made, such that incentives to consider new perspectives increase, or in the context of careful and constructive dialogue, with a strong focus on improving communication and building trust.
A number of strategies and techniques exist in the use of dialogue to reframe intractable conflicts. These include:
Frames play a significant role in perpetuating intractable conflict. As lenses through which disputants interpret conflicts, frames limit the clarity of communication and the quality of information, as well as instigate escalatory processes. These frames, imbedded in personal, social, and institutional roles, are often quite stable over time, even through the ebb and flow of many dispute episodes. As such, they contribute to the intractability of the conflict. In addition, frames interact, often in ways that tend to reinforce the stability of other frames. Yet, in at least some intractable conflicts, changes in the context of the dispute or purposive interventions designed to alter frames have led to reframing that, in turn, has increased the tractability of the conflict. Strategies to accomplish this reframing include frame analysis and the construction of forums designed to enhance communication, understanding, and trust.
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 e.g., Minsky, M., 1975. "A Framework for Representing Knowledge," in Winston, P.H.( Ed.), The Psychology of Computer Vision, New York, NY: McGraw Hill, pp. 177-211.
 e.g., Kahneman, D. and A. Tversky, 1979. "Prospect Theory: An Analysis of Decision Under Risk, Econometrica 47, pp. 263-289.
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 Lewicki, R., Gray, B., & Elliott, M., 2003. Making sense of intractable environmental conflicts: Concepts and cases, Washington, D.C.: Island Press; Kaufman and Smith, 1999, op cit.; and Vaughan, E. and M. Seifert, 1992. "Variability in the Framing of Risk Issues," Journal of Social Issues 48 (4), pp. 119-135.
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 Gray 1997, ibid.
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 Elliott, M., Gray, B., & Lewicki, R., 2003. Lessons learned about the framing of intractable environmental conflicts. In R. Lewicki, B. Gray, & M. Elliott (Eds.), Making sense of intractable environmental conflicts: Concepts and cases (pp. 409--436), Washington, D.C.: Island Press at 420.
 ibid, at 425-434.
Use the following to cite this article:
Kaufman, Sanda, Michael Elliott and Deborah Shmueli. "Frames, Framing and Reframing." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: September 2003 <http://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/framing>.