Poverty framing – discussion with JRF’s Chris Goulden
Dec 6, 2012 – Every news story requires a frame, and stories about poverty tend to reflect the politicians’ hackneyed narrative about “getting people back to work” – even though in-work poverty is rising, and even though “joblessness” seems low on the list of factors contributing to the big financial meltdown.
Over the years, I’ve found research from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) useful in countering dubious claims (eg from press/pundits) about UK poverty.
How does a group such as JRF address issues which are as much about moral framing as they’re about statistics? Chris Goulden (head of JRF’s poverty team) kindly agreed to discuss poverty framing with me by email…
•News Frames: You tweeted that “Work IS the best route out of poverty – half the time”, with a link to a JRF piece of the same title. I replied: “More precisely, ‘having an adequate income’ is the best route out of poverty”.
My intention was to contrast two different poverty “frames” – one focusing on the individual’s “responsibility” (direct causation); the other on social distribution of income (systemic causation). These tend to correlate, respectively, with conservative and progressive moral frames (according to George Lakoff et al).
You mention that it’s a cliché to say “work is the best route out of poverty”. I regard it also as a strong expression of the ‘conservative’ frame which has dominated thinking about work/poverty for decades (this frame/worldview is evangelised by the “self-made man”, industrialist Mr Bounderby, in Dickens’s novel Hard Times, for example).
The figures reported by your JRF piece are very interesting, and I thought they could have been framed in a very different way. Do you (and your JRF colleagues) normally consider framing, or do you regard your material as neutral presentations of findings, etc?
•Chris Goulden: Negative attitudes among the public, in politics and in the media towards people experiencing poverty is a key barrier. I agree that a different way of framing poverty is needed if there is to be more support for initiatives to reduce it.
But I don’t think what you call the progressive, distributive, systemic etc. frame necessarily helps. Or at least, simply presenting poverty as an issue beyond the control of individuals experiencing it is not persuasive. I believe there is, and needs to be, a third way (sorry) / synthesis between structural and individualised causes of poverty that is neither solely blaming the individual nor structurally-deterministic. Ruth Lister sets this out well in her book, Poverty (2004).
The role of science, research and evidence is interesting in this context yet also challenging. We and the researchers we work with are not often as explicit as we should be our underlying values and assumptions. This applies as much in natural as in social science. A common and more effective / “truthful” frame for the production of evidence and the discussion of its implications for poverty would be extremely useful.
I’m not sure what precedents there are for reframing issues in this way that could be drawn on however?
•News Frames: I think the ‘Frame Semantics’ literature does have much to contribute, but first I’d better clarify my terms to avoid misunderstandings.
By “progressive”/”systemic” I don’t mean “beyond the control of individuals”. To me, it seems undeniable that poverty in modern society is a matter of systemic causation. At its simplest: the individual controls some factors but not others (availability of income, costs of housing, etc). So, it seems clear that we should use frames of “systemic causation”. Yet the newspaper headlines have, for decades, presented an extreme form of “direct causation” (eg that the “workshy” are to blame).
I think it’s precisely this latter frame which leads to the “negative attitudes” that you mention. And it’s not just the tabloid newspapers which feed into this. For example, “work is the route out of poverty” is an expression of the same metaphorical frame as blaming the “workshy”.
Lakoff et al have shown how, across many complex issues (from climate to war to welfare), conservative moral frames tend to use the “direct causation” metaphors (eg “Bush toppled Saddam and freed the Iraqis”). So much political debate appears to have followed this kind of direct-cause metaphorical mode, and for so long, that we usually don’t even notice it operating. (I think this is particularly the case with the issue of work/income/poverty).
But the “progressive”/”systemic” alternative isn’t at the other end of a linear scale from the “conservative”/”direct-causation”. They are just two very different modes of thought which we all have “instantiated in the neural system of our brains”. In fact, the notion of a linear political scale (eg left-right) with extremes at the ends, and “moderates” in the middle, is itself a misleading metaphor, according to the cognitive scientists. Or as Lakoff says, there aren’t really any moderates. That’s another debate, of course, but it possibly has a bearing on your point about a “third way”?
•Chris Goulden: Ok, I think we basically agree then. But by framing it as ‘systemic’ or ‘progressive’ (and I’m not sure those two are synonymous), you are implying it is beyond the control of individuals, in the same way that ‘individualised’, ‘regressive’ or ‘conservative’ imply it is only the individual actor who counts. If all parties could agree it was both structure and agency, then we could focus debate on where the balance lies and implications for policy and practice. At present, there is just division and a debate about what’s different not the commonalities of view.
And then there is the issue of the causative route – you say “the frame leads to the negative attitudes” but, in part at least, the negative attitudes lead to the frame. Which came first?
Regarding the issue of the use of cause as a metaphor, I agree that’s a general problem. The way we all talk is based on thousands of underlying assumptions and theories about the world that are more or less plausible or supported by scientific method or layers of personal experience. I don’t see how this is just a conservative moral frame. What’s the alternative? Socialist chaos theory? :)
However, the biggest issue remains – leaving aside what would be a better frame for poverty in this country for a moment – how do frames change and how do people who want to instigate those changes best go about it? That’s what I am really struggling with. Simply saying, as we often do in JRF reports, that there are bigger forces at play – the nature of jobs available, the cost of housing – doesn’t make people believe it and change their opinions.
•News Frames: If you think “systemic” framing implies a denial of individual “control” or “agency” (as factors), then I can see you’d have problems using it on poverty. I just hope you don’t have a “society made me do it” caricature in mind. (By the way, I don’t think “progressive” is synonymous with “systemic” – but the frames tend to correlate).
I’m talking about multiple, complex causation misleadingly reduced, via metaphor, to single, direct causation (eg “hard work leads to prosperity”) – whereas you’re talking in terms of “where the balance lies” between “structure and agency”. Your idea of “balance” appears to make sense (sort of) when you put it in those terms. But if the reality is systemic causation (as it evidently seems to be with UK poverty), then where is the “balance” between appropriate systemic framing and misleading direct-cause framing?
For example, how close are the following statements to your balance point?:
You ask why I lay the blame on conservative moral framing in particular. This comes mainly from my reading of Lakoff’s cognitive-linguistic analysis. Here’s a quote from a Lakoff article (2009) which puts this into accessible language:
“Conservatives tend to think in terms of direct causation. The overwhelming moral value of individual, not social, responsibility requires that causation be local and direct. For each individual to be entirely responsible for the consequences of his or her actions, those actions must be the direct causes of those consequences. If systemic causation is real, then the most fundamental of conservative moral—and economic—values is fallacious.
“Global ecology and global economics are prime examples of systemic causation. Global warming is fundamentally a system phenomenon. That is why the very idea threatens conservative thinking. And the global economic collapse is also systemic in nature. That is at the heart of the death of the conservative principle of the laissez-faire free market, where individual short-term self-interest was supposed to be natural, moral, and the best for everybody. The reality of systemic causation has left conservatism without any real ideas to address global warming and the global economic crisis.”
I also think Lakoff answers (much better than I could) your question on how to instigate changes in framing. He’s written books specifically on this subject. ‘Don’t think of an Elephant‘ is a good starting point, if you haven’t already read it.
Incidentally, I assume that your chicken-and-egg question (“Which came first?” – the negative attitudes or the frame?) wasn’t serious, as the context was decades of headlines blaming the “workshy”, etc. But if you are serious, I’ll return to it.
•Chris Goulden: So, maybe my joke about socialist chaos theory was actually closer to the truth than I thought? I think it’s an important point to unpick about whether “systemic” is correlated with progressive or not. I don’t see why they should be. “Systemic” is an objective description of how we think reality works. “Progressive” is a value system.
But this does go to the heart of the methods of social science, and indeed of natural science. I’ve no doubt that reality is systemic and that simple direct causes are uncommon if not non-existent in terms of explaining human behaviour. We, I hope, are taking a systemic approach in our new programme that is aiming to develop an anti-poverty strategy for the UK. It aims to show what it would be like to live in, and what it would take to reach, a UK without high levels of poverty.
I think the statement ‘work is the route out of poverty’ by itself doesn’t imply structural or individual causes. Or even non-systemic ones. We always argue that it’s not just the fault of individuals and that all our opportunities are restricted by structural circumstances. If you tried to maintain a systemic approach to all discussions about policy and practice then I fear you wouldn’t ever be able to say anything. We need heuristics not exact models of reality.
What might a systemic description of poverty and its solutions look like to you and would this frame by itself help to reduce negative attitudes? I think negative public attitudes have complex causes and are not just the direct result of decades of headlines (and there is a strong current going in the other direction). Aren’t you reverting to a ‘morally conservative/direct causation’ frame there?
•News Frames: On your last point: I think you’ve misread – or misunderstood – my remarks about “negative attitudes” (towards the poor). I wrote: “it’s not just the tabloid newspapers which feed into this”. I referred to a culturally dominant frame (on work/poverty) which has complex historic causes – eg: I mentioned Dickens’s Hard Times, which contains a virtual taxonomy of this metaphorical framing.
The frame manifests as negative attitudes to the poor (among other things) – the frame being the cognitive underpinning of the attitude. Negative attitudes towards the poor are generally inseparable from the frame of poverty as moral failure of the individual. Decades of newspaper headlines (among other things) reinforce this moral framing. I see no single, direct cause here.
I’ve already provided pointers to Professor Lakoff’s work. I think it would yield diminishing returns to revisit (again) the point about “progressive”/”systemic” correlations – at least while you’re unfamiliar with the body of research I’m referencing. However, I’ll briefly address your question on “systemic” approaches to poverty.
One obvious example is the frame of poverty as social harm. Responsible society has a moral obligation to protect people from harm. We already have the metaphor of a “safety net” – as well as numerous examples, from other domains, of public funding of public safety. Note how this contrasts with the (‘conservative’) frame of poverty as moral failure of the individual. In extreme cases of the latter, the individual’s poverty isn’t regarded as harm, but as tough medicine, or as an incentive for market discipline, etc – and the notion of a safety net (such as welfare) is regarded as immoral, since it makes people “weak and dependent” (in this moral scheme – for more details, see my ‘Essentials of framing’).
Given that you’re looking for “a different way of framing poverty” – and given that JRF seems to take a broadly “progressive” stance – I’d have thought Lakoff’s work would be of enormous practical benefit to you. If there’s a more substantial body of work on social-political framing out there, I haven’t seen it – and I’ve certainly looked.
But I’ll leave it at that, as overselling these things can be a kiss of death.
•Chris Goulden: I think it might be helpful to try to sum up where we agree and where we disagree (or are yet to agree)?
Here’s what I think anyway – let me know if you agree with what I think we agree on :)
- Systemic understanding and causes are better depictions of reality than direct causes
- The dominant frame around poverty in the UK is negative and a barrier to progress on effective action to reduce poverty
- A more positive framing would be helpful but it is very difficult to change this but we should try; and we should watch out for repeating negative framing in JRF’s treatment of poverty and related issues
- I need to read some Lakoff
Here’s where I don’t think we agree
- Systemic understanding naturally goes together with a ‘progressive’ approach (I don’t see how that is logically possible)
- A ‘agency within structure’ framing could be more helpful than a systemic one (although I still don’t quite get that – see point 4 above)
- Individual actions, behaviours and attitudes still matter – obviously that doesn’t just apply to people experiencing poverty, also employers, politicians, research funders etc. By trying to remove victim blaming, you risk denying agency, free choice etc.
- Within a systemic frame, direct causes still have a place (otherwise we wouldn’t be able to understand anything (“it’s all too systemic”))
•News Frames: Only one point stands out, to me, as a real disagreement. This is where you write: “By trying to remove victim blaming, you risk denying agency, free choice etc” (point 3). I certainly disagree with this. I don’t think it follows at all – and the absurd implication is that since we shouldn’t deny poverty victims free choice, we must therefore blame them for their poverty.
Here’s an alternative (“systemic-causation”) frame: Poverty as a result of multiple, complex causes, which may include the actions of the individual experiencing poverty (among other interrelated factors). Simple enough. It avoids “victim blaming” (single, direct cause); it avoids presenting work as “the route” out of poverty (single, direct cause) – but it doesn’t deny individual agency/free-choice.
Note: I offered to give Chris the final word, but he said he was happy to leave that last reply of mine as the final thing. Many thanks to him for taking the time to discuss this issue. I recommend both his regular JRF blog and his Twitter account (a good source of links to poverty studies and news articles, etc). – BD