Fixing frames on the human ethos
‘ MUCH of what I learnt wasn’t written down in books.’’ So Eric Knight, a young Australian Rhodes scholar who has worked as an economics adviser to the OECD, World Bank and UN, describes the formative experiences behind Reframe.
It’s an unusual statement for a debut author to make, but one that goes to the heart of Knight’s refreshing thesis: he wants to ‘‘ reframe’’ the way we relate to books, particularly nonfiction ones, which usually trade on a degree of authority, a few quotable facts and some pithy, point-scoring lines, but suggest no real change in our behaviour or outlook.
Not so Knight. This book reframes the reading process by transferring authority to the reader. The weight of Knight’s argument needs to derive its substance from our lives and the way we conduct ourselves in the world.
The idea of ‘‘ framing’’ as an explanation for how we organise our social experiences, and adjust our individual behaviour therein, has dominated certain fields of sociology since the 1959 publication of Erving Goffman’s classic The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. More recently, Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow drew on a lifetime’s research into how this idea of ‘‘ framing effects’’ can be used in economics or the psychology of decision making.
Reframe: How to Solve the World’s Trickiest Problems works within this tradition. Knight uses the idea of framing to cast fresh light on contemporary political problems, such as financial crisis or terrorism. His chapters on climate change, which make up the bulk of this book, are worth reading on their own.
What Knight examines is not so much the content of these debates — although this is an important element — but the form in which they are conducted. He shows how the dominant frame for approaching political problems is often too narrow (‘‘We tend to view the world through a magnifying glass’’) and is usually directed towards only the obvious, visible aspects of a given situation (‘‘We tend to point the magnifying glass in the direction of shiny objects’’).
The result is such debates become reduced to simplistic, oppositional either-or posturing. This may give the participants a feeling of self-worth, a fiery glow of selfrighteousness, but is a hindrance in bringing their chosen problems closer to a solution.
Knight’s perspective on such intransigence is that it is the result of an ‘‘ intellectual choice’’ made by the participants themselves and is not an inherent quality of the problems being discussed. And this is what is refreshing about Knight’s book, because it puts the onus for change on ourselves rather than letting us off the hook by merely blaming our opponents for any stalemate.
This means we must be self-consciously aware of the frames in which we are operating. It follows, then, that if the frame we now occupy is not providing a way forward, we have the ‘‘ intellectual choice’’ to step back and reframe the problem. If each frame we deploy focuses on only some aspects of a problem at the expense of others, then reframing the problem allows us to consider some of these hitherto hidden possibilities.
Of course, the act of reframing (what Goffman calls ‘‘ keying’’) only ever provides a different perspective, not necessarily a better or even, finally, the correct, perspective. And certainly not the only alternative perspective. It may be a stretch to suggest