Last autumn I was invited to organize, in cooperation with a social media marketeer, a workshop for people working in the genetic modification of plants. The initiating organization wanted to provide its members with tools to participate in the discussions held in their field of expertise, and mainly the discussion held with the general public. Those take place on forums, in newspapers, through the news and more media tools. During my first lecture we came to the topic of what people actually thought of issues and how we could anticipate with their knowledge and through that make sure that they understood our points as well. The lecture ended in a discussion on how to handle framing and how to anticipate on the presence of different definitions and viewpoints in a discussion. That is why I would like to use this blog to give a bit more a detailed description on how the situation of framing works in the light of this problem. So I will reflect on the possibility of discussing and changing frames between public and the sector on the topic of GMO (Genetically Modified Organisms, in this case plants).

First for those of us not so known in the world of debating and the concept of framing. Framing is the way in which people define a certain topic, this definition is dependent on your reference (in Dutch: referentiekader). Aarts and van Woerkum (2006) explain on a more scientific level how this works. In everything that we do and experience we gain information. This information is stored somewhere and can be used as a building block to later respond to another situation. Mind that experiences in this mean almost everything that you do, it might be me going to Bolivia but it might just as well be you falling with your bike because you missed a wet, slippery spot on the road or the two-word conversation that you had with the cashier this morning. All these so-called cognitions are kept in your mind. Some of them are cold cognitions, just stored as you had to, while others are hot and define your emotional actions. Certain situations might cause cold cognitions to be hot. So for example you would only think to watch out for slippery roads when the temperature is low. Mind that the way in which this information is used is dynamic and just as much are the cognitions. New experiences might add or change building blocks, the way in which they are used and how they form the frames.

Framing in interaction is important for two reasons. The first is that through framing one would select certain aspects of a perceived reality and make them more important in the communication process, by that they promote a particular idea on for example the problem, interpretation, moral aspects and more (Aarts and van Woerkum, 2006). So you steer the conversation and by that become an active agent in the process of interaction. The second reason comes from this and is the way in which two frames might clash in the case of an interaction. Because no interaction or exchange of ideas can happen efficiently if any of the parties differ in frames, this leads to misunderstanding and a lack of engagement.

It is very hard to engage in an interaction if you have different frames. Van Herzele and Aarts (2013) explain this by means of organization and making sense. The use of framing should not only be seen as a way of defining and steering a conversation. Rather it should be seen as a way in which we make sense of the world. We can only interpret and understand those things if we can link them to any of the cognitions already present. Think of when you don’t understand something, the one explaining it will remain using different terms and expressions to explain what they mean until you hear something that you know and through which you can understand the concept. The same way works with framing, it helps us to understand the world around us and the things that happen. And if someone else is working with another frame, it is then impossible to understand his point until it refers to something in your frame. And at that point you start to construct new frames that are shared and which can be the basis for a conversation.

So two things we’ve seen now, an understanding and addressing of framing is necessary to share information and think of solutions and this understanding can only happen through interaction (Van Herzele and Aarts, 2013). Important is to understand that reality is then created through interaction and communication.

Moving on to the case I wanted to talk about, GMOs. The first thing that we have to recognize in this issue is that the frames that people have of GMOs are not necessarily created by the experience people had personally. It is important to bear in mind that frames do not only have to come from memory, but that they can also be instrumental, as in constructed by media, public opinion and so on. And this is what we see happening in the case of GMO. Van Herzele and Aarts (2013) refer to this as discursive re-circulation. This means that the same cognitions are used for different, widening frames and repeated many times. Therefore people at a certain point create a rule but they don’t know why they created it, because the frame is too wide to link it to the real information that triggered the cognition. An example might be why we ignite fireworks on new years eve. But the same is happening with GMOs and the perception of people with it. The media disperses only a certain kind of information that people use to make their frames. Once this standard is set, namely that GMOs are a treat to biodiversity and the health of people (to take the most obvious), a sort of boundary is created. A group of people has formed itself that draws a boundary between what they do (within the system) and what happens on the outside (environment) (Aarts, van Lieshout and van Woerkum, 2011). This is a logical step since it creates the possibility to select what information is important and what not and by that limit the options for framing. The problem in this case is that so-called resemiotisation takes place. The system (people against GMO) use all that happens in the environment (the rest of society) only in a way that it supports their system. This is logical because through the selection of frames are only those found that define them in relation to the other group, we have seen in my previous piece that this is a natural response of groups. So the information is redefined and selected in such a way that it fits within the internal organization of the system and is thereby manageable.

If as a person, in this case, from the outside you want to start co-creating frames and sharing information with the above defined system, you might run into more that just a few clashes. The question first of all would be if there is at all a possibility to negotiate on the framing. If so, the first step would be to work on what the system and the environment have in common in order to refer to those cognitions in the new framing. Then work on extending the knowledge based on that frame so people can understand what is going on.

A striking example of this, now I come to think of it, is one of the blogs that the participants wrote as a final assignment of the four evenings. The situation was a person going to the market square and asking for red tomatoes. I won’t recite the whole story here, but the idea was that the writers referred to a shared cognition of traditional breeding methods. You know, yellow flowers with white flowers gives 75% yellow flowers and 25% white flowers, which is Mendell’s experience. Or even better, I have the smile of my mother but my mathematical intuition from my father. The same with tomatoes and traditional breeding. From there on the blog referred to different members of the tomato’s familie from far away that had abilities that would be useful for tomatoes here. So the only thing we did was move those abilities to cope for example with diseases or to increase the taste, to that juicy tomato here in on the market square.

I won’t say that it is that easy, for this example assumes a) that a common frame is easy to find and also directly competing with the already existing frame and b) that the reasoning from that common frame to the wider acceptation of GMO is accepted without any additional questions. But I would say that especially in this case, the most important thing is not to agree on a full scope of elements and the corresponding frame. In this particular case, the possibility to talk about the way in which things are done or why things are done is way more important. Because currently people do not know how to work with the system of frozen frames and resemiotisation of all the information that might potentially lead to interaction. Only if the boundaries between system and environment start to change and the door is starting to open, can people start sharing information in a non-biased way.

Aarts, N., & C. van Woerkum (2006). Frame Construction in Interaction. In Gould, N. (ed.) (2006). Engagement. Proceedings of the 12th MOPAN International Conference. Pontypridd, University of Glamorgan, 229-237.
Aarts, N., M. van Lieshout & C. van Woerkum (2011).Competing claims in public space; the construction of frames in different relational contexts. In Donohue, W., S. Kaufmann & R. Rogan (eds) (2011). Framing Matters. Perspectives on Negotiation Research and Practice in Communication. New York, Peter Lang, pp. 234-253.
Van Herzele, A. & N. Aarts (2013). “My forest, my kingdom”- Self-referentiality as a strategy in the case of small forest owners coping with governmental regulations. Policy Sciences, 63-81.