Fix­ing frames on the hu­man ethos

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Matthew Lamb

‘ 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

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