Framing Theory Research Paper Starter

Framing Theory

(Research Starters)

This article introduces social movement framing theory. It discusses the development of social movement framing theory in relation to other social movement theories, and identifies key elements of collective action frames, including discussions of diagnostic framing, prognostic framing and motivational framing. The article also discusses variable aspects of collective action frames such as the interpretive scope of frames and frame resonance. The relationship between political opportunities and framing is also addressed. The article closes with a brief discussion of applications and critiques of social movement framing theory.

Keywords: Collective Action; Collective Action Frames; Constituencies; Contentious Politics; Diagnostic Framing; Frame Resonance; Framing Contests; Motivational Framing; Prognostic Framing; Social Movement Organizations (SMOs)


Social movements have played and continue to play a significant role in many societies. They can range from reform oriented, to conservative and even revolutionary. Social movements can be found in open and democratic societies to authoritarian societies. Indeed, many social movements have been responsible for democratic transformation of their respective societies (Tilly, 2004). Some social movements attempt to change political systems while others seek only to reorient adherents' worldview. Because social movements are so widespread and can potentially effect great change, they are of interest to many sociologists. Social movement scholars have noted that despite the variation between location and goals social movements share many similarities.

Although there is no single definition of what constitutes a social movement there are some general agreements among scholars about what a social movement looks like. Charles Tilly (2004), for example, argues that social movements are their own unique form of contentious politics. He states that all social movements display key characteristics:

  • The campaign. All movements carry out sustained actions with an orientation toward specific goals;
  • Social movement repertoires. A standard set of actions that are used by social movements i.e. protests, rallies, etc. and,
  • Displays of worthiness, unity, numbers and commitment (WUNC). WUNC displays are carried out by social movements and social movement organizations (SMOs) in order to legitimize themselves in the eyes of potential adherents and target authorities.

De la Porta and Diani (2006) explain that social movements are "involved in confliction relations with clearly identified opponents; are linked by dense informal networks; [and] share a distinct collective identity" (p. 20). A social movement, then, can be considered a unique form of contentious politics, which is goal-oriented and which is carried out by individuals and/or organizations that act outside of formal political or social institutions.

Social Movement Theories

Early scholars of collective action and social movements often focused on broad social conditions which they thought produced social movements. Inherent in much of this work was the assumption that social movements were a result of individuals' sense of alienation from society. Scholars theorized that people were drawn into social movements or collective action because they were not adequately integrated into the existing social structures. Scholars believed mass, industrialized society led to social alienation and isolation, which in turn, led people toward revolutionary social movements that sought to undo the existing order (Hopper, 1949-50). Later social movement scholars focused on deprivation as a theory for social movement participation. This theory assumes that the people who feel deprived in some way participate in social movements.

As scholars studied social movements more closely and as social movements became less stigmatized, research began to focus on how rather than why social movements occur. Resource Mobilization theory emphasized the need for resources in successful social protest. Theorists pointed out that for any social movement to be successful it needed access to resources such as money and man-hours. Later, Political Process theorists argued that not only are resources needed but so is the opportunity to use those resources. This theory combined the internal movement dynamics with external conditions. Political opportunities are seen as moments that movements can take advantage of for some political and or social gain. For example, a report about the increasing cost of a war, or the publishing of gruesome pictures of the war would be an opportunity for anti-war activists to mobilize. The problem with this approach, as Gamson & Meyer (1996) point out, is that "…opportunities are subject to interpretation and are often matters of controversy. Political opportunities are subject to framing processes and are often the source of internal movement disagreements about appropriate action strategies" (p. 276). In other words, there is no fixed "opportunity." People interpret what is an opportunity and what to do with that opportunity. Social movement framing theory attempts to address this issue.

Framing Theory

Social movement framing theory attempts to understand the way in which social movements and social movement actors create and use meaning, or how events and ideas are framed. This work has become a key way in which social movements are understood and analyzed. Benford & Snow (2000) point out that "framing processes have come to be regarded, alongside resource mobilization and political opportunity processes, as a central dynamic in understanding the character and course of social movements" (p. 612).

The idea of frame analysis comes from the work of Erving Goffman (1974). Goffman argued that people frame experiences in order to organize and understand the world around them. Much like a picture frame excludes things while focusing attention on others, so does framing. Framing helps people interpret the world based on their social position and their previous experiences. Every social interaction that occurs is understood through a frame of reference within which people react based on their perception of the situation and the way they perceive the people with whom they are interacting. In the study of social movements, collective action frames are used to bring people together and incite them to action. Benford and Snow (2000) explain, "collective action frames are action-oriented sets of beliefs and meanings that inspire and legitimate the activities and campaigns of a social movement organization (SMO)" (p. 614). A social movement organization is a formal group that functions as part of a broader social movement and that often provides the resources for the broader social movement. SMOs deploy collective action frames in order to create a set of meanings which will inspire people to act collectively toward some goal.

Social movement framing analysis focuses on four broad areas: 1). the creation and use of collective action frames, 2). framing processes, 3). opportunities and constraints, and 4). the effect of framing on movement outcomes and other processes (Benford & Snow, 2000, p. 612-13). Within each of these broad areas there are sub-categories of analysis.

Further Insights

Collective Action Frames

Collective action frames are an important part of any social movement mobilization. As Gamson and Meyer (1996) explain, "collective action frames deny the immutability of some undesirable situation and the possibility of changing it through some form of collective action. They define people as potential agents of their own history" (p. 285). Collective action frames, then, define a situation as problematic, but also give people a sense that a problem is something that can be overcome through concerted efforts therefore leading to collective action. Collective action frames are understood as having three core framing tasks:

  • Diagnostic framing,
  • Prognostic framing, and
  • Motivational framing (Benford & Snow, 2000, p. 615).

Diagnostic Framing

Diagnostic framing refers to the identification of a problem. In order for any social movement to be successful to any degree a problem must be identified. If there is no perceived problem then it is difficult if not impossible to mobilize potential adherents. Framing theory, like Resource Mobilization theory, assumes that at any given moment there are enough grievances in the world to incite people to action. Unlike Resource Mobilization theory though, Framing theory assumes that it is not solely about the SMO's leaders' ability to garner resources which contributes to growth and mobilization of social movements, but instead it is about their ability identify — or frame — problems correctly. As Jenness (1995) explains, "One way in which social conditions come to be seen as social problems is through the work of social movements" (p. 146). Jenness notes that the Gay/Lesbian Rights movement, like the Women's Movement, successfully framed violence against gays a as a social problem, thus creating a powerful diagnostic frame for the movement to use. After having diagnosed the problem, the movement was able to move forward toward solutions.

Many diagnostic frames include what has been referred to as an injustice frame. Injustice frames identify victims of some injustice and amplify the victimization (Benford & Snow, 2000). Injustice framing is more successful if there is a specific target — someone or something that is responsible for the injustice and at which...

(The entire section is 4249 words.)