Mel A. Topf
We tend to think of the purpose of writing as simply transferring information or expressing our opinions. We know, however, that exigencies affect how we choose to write. Likewise, exigencies influence how we design or “frame” what we communicate. Our choice of a frame for our discussion and arguments strongly influences how our audience responds. Indeed, communicating is framing. Rhetorically, framing works in the same way as a picture frame does. The frame around a painting or piece of art clearly identifies the boundaries of the subject painted, but it also helps us see the painting in a particular way. The colors and textures of the frame might emphasize particular aspects of the painting and minimize others, or it might draw attention to the painting, hung on the wall amidst numerous other paintings, simply because the frame is visually “louder” than the other paintings’ frames.
In writing, framing inevitably shapes a perspective on our subject—how we “see” the subject—all to help accomplish our purpose. We may frame an issue in different ways in order to affect or change the audience’s response to the issue. Arguments on healthcare policy, for example, may be framed in terms of human rights, fiscal responsibility, constitutionality, or ideology. The subject of sustainability could be framed to foreground environmental damage, a moral crisis, an economic opportunity, or a political issue.
Assume a writer is considering using the two photographs below in a paper on the environment whose purpose includes increasing readers’ awareness of less well known problems. One argument may be the sheer ugliness of pollution. The first photo offers a “close-up” of a discarded rusted container, framing the viewers’ perception to narrowly focus on that alone. Another argument may be that environmental damage requires all of us to address the problem.
The second photo frames the human side, singling out not environmental damage but rather human efforts to address it. Further, the scene is in a developing country, perhaps to signify the great harm done in locations less able either to prevent it or to control it.
As writers, we choose the words to frame an issue helps our readers see the issue from a particular perspective, just as the visual elements of these photographs help viewers see—and understand—lesser known problems pollution poses to the environment.
Let’s take another example relevant to college students’ experience. Say a student requests a deadline extension from two professors, one who freely gives extensions just for the asking, the other extremely strict, hardly ever granting extensions. The request—the objective information—is identical in both cases, but the rhetorical situations are different. In one case the student must address the exigency of audience resistance. To the easier audience (the professor who freely gives extensions) the student may just frame the communication as a simple request. (“Professor, may I have a three-day extension to complete the assignment that’s due Monday?”) The rhetorical choices can be limited to the direct request, the writer judging that the purpose—getting approval for an extension—requires no further persuasion. To the more difficult audience (the professor who resists giving extensions), the student realizes that the rhetorical situation requires that the communication be framed differently. For this audience, the request is framed to establish first the student’s credibility (ethos). The student begins by noting that they are aware of the professor’s policy and how important that policy is, in essence affirming that the student is not ignorant or uncaring about the professor’s standards. The student may next also make an additional appeal to engage the professor’s sympathy (pathos): the student may offer a narrative of how difficult it has been to complete work since their grandmother died. And only then the student may make the request for an extension. By creating a logical pathway (logos) from the appeal to ethos, to the appeal to pathos, and then to the actual request, the student strengthens the persuasiveness of the message.
Note how the exigencies of the two situations—addressing audiences with opposing views on deadline extensions—require designing different frames for the request. This contrast shows how framing opens up alternate discourses to accomplish a purpose or reach a goal that the audience in a discourse community will accept and act on. In professional and public contexts especially, where the exigencies are often complex and difficult to determine, we have the problem, but also the freedom, to choose among frames. After all, as Aristotle said in his Rhetoric, “most of the things about which we make decisions present us with alternatives. . . . All our actions have a contingent character.”
Aristotle’s remark points us to ethical issues that could arise when choosing how to frame a message. This issue of ethics has always been an undercurrent of rhetoric generally and not simply a question specific to framing. Socrates equates rhetoric with flattery and says it works best on the ignorant (Plato). Aristotle says that we “cannot do without” it (“unworthy though it is”) only because of “the defects of our hearers.” The concept of framing may make this ethical issue especially visible. Framing, however, should not be seen merely as one of a bunch of rhetorical tricks that are “added on” to a message merely to make it more persuasive.
We frame our discourse to signal that we are writing, ethically as well as professionally, to members of a community, as a member of that community. We may be members of many such discourse communities: a university, for example, or a profession, a family, a congregation, a soccer team, a political party. Indeed we often seem simply to be thrown into a discourse community, into the situation where we find ourselves and where we must frame our communication (Heidegger). “Audience analysis” sounds like a pretty mechanical process, but analyzing a professional or public audience requires taking into account the complex contexts and interests of that discourse community, and requires us to frame our discourse accordingly.
Aristotle, Rhetoric 1357a.
Plato, Gorgias, 463a6.
Aristotle, Rhetoric 1404a.
Heidegger, Being and Time (1927, 1962), 173-4 and 424ff.
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