A couple of posts ago, I commented slightly negatively on George Lakoff’s frame theory, but I actually think it is very valuable, so here is an example of how one might make use of the theory.
In today’s New York Times business section, Robert J. Shiller has a column addressing the idea that the experts could have or should have known the current crisis could or would happen. Shiller’s column illustrates a particular set of frames that are sometimes found in business writing.
In 1989, Shiller heard an expert (Lawrence Summers) muse on his speculations that although nobody thinks it could occur, “a severe contraction, even a depression, could indeed come again.” This is the people think a certain huge problem can never occur again, but in fact there is no reason to think the world has changed frame. The state of affairs it describes may well be true, for any given situation, at any given time—but often it sounds alarmist, and one is tempted to think it has some of the attributes of a stopped clock.
The fictional scenario began with “lawyers and dentists explain[ing] to one another that investing without margin was a mistake.” This is the problems are caused by certain kinds of licensed professionals who think they know something about a different field but really are ignorant frame.
The fictional crisis was then triggered when “a major Wall Street firm was forced to merge with another after a poorly supervised trader lost $500 million by failing to properly hedge a complex position.” This is the problems are caused by subordinates’ failures to follow instructions frame. There was no real problem, either with the regulations governing Wall Street firms, nor with the way executives were running the company, but only because a small number of employees were insufficiently disciplined.
All of these frames have one thing in common. They all exonerate the people on top before the fact. They all find problems only at the very bottom of the hierarchy. They might permit a problem to be found just one level up from the very bottom—in the supervision or hiring of the lowest rank—but never explicitly put the blame on first-line managers.
None of the frames states ideas that are 100% inaccurate. Sometimes people don’t follow the instructions given them by their managers. Sometimes dentists and medical doctors misunderstand the ideas they hear coming out of other disciplines. However, these frames do make it nearly impossible for any systemic issues to be identified publicly, not only by anyone who feels constrained to stay within the lines they indicate, but also by anyone who is dependent on information provided by those who feel so constrained. Merely reversing the frame doesn’t work either, in part because the only information that can be provided is what fits into the frame. It is not an unfair criticism of the New York Times to say that it reuses a limited set of frames over and over again, and that these frames very often indicate a neoliberal point of view.