Monday, April 11, 2005

Lakoff - XVII: reference frames versus framing

Coturnix, in an extremely interesting post on the current discussion of Lakoff, makes the point that there is a difference between systems of government and (what he calls) "personality traits" (by which I take him to mean the preference for one or another hierarchy of moral values, in Lakoff's sense). He also implies another (unintended) distinction: political science (the study of systems of government) versus "the psychology of ideology" (which explains why he calls this "personality traits").

What makes this particularly interesting is that I often think of the distinction between clinical medicine and public health as related to whether the object of study is the individual (clinical medicine) or the population (public health, particularly epidemiology). For me there is an isomorphism here between the pair, clinical medicine/public health and the pair psychology/sociology, the latter also two complementary but different ways of looking at people (singular and plural). Note that we also have political science or government, referring to particular social structures, and anthropology, the study of human culture and cultural roles, germane to the question of where "family" and gender roles fit in, issues that Lindsay and Ezra Klein raise. So some of the confusions that seem to be swirling around how to treat the Lakoff issue may be related to the disciplinary frame of reference/vocabulary we use (i.e., the disciplinary frame of reference about Lakoffian frames).

Coturnix is probably closer to Lakoff himself in using psychology as a reference point. Lakoff's work is quite psychologistic (pardon the ugly neologism), which might account for some of the difficulties when it is applied to settings where political science or sociology seem relevant (voting patterns, systems of government) or where anthropology intrudes (gender roles, family structure). Coturnix is also correct that Lakoff conceives of Strict Father and Nurturant Parent as psychological prototypes or ideal types (the center of radial categories), not types of people. As I pointed out in an earlier post, most of us are complicated mixtures of these two ideal types. Their use by Lakoff and Coturnix refer to some kind of average or central tendency that a person might exhibit (Coturnix's "personality trait").

Coturnix further asserts these personality traits do not determine ideologies. This is a more complicated question related to how psychology determines ideology or vice versa. This is pretty deep water and different disciplines approach it differently. It also suggests that cookie-cutter Lakoffianism is pretty naive and that maybe Lakoff himself is naive about some of this. But whether the latter is true or not, it doesn't mean we have to reject some of the extremely valuable insights Lakoff has produced in the course of his work in cognitive linguistics, particularly the unrecognized (by progressives) role of unconscious metaphor in making political inferences. It does mean that we have a lot of tough theoretical labor before us, labor I believe the Left has been too lazy to perform. We have subsisted on slogans, slogans that don't even work for us anymore.

Coturnix also has an extremely interesting list of differences in Conservative and Liberal ideologies which he presents without argument, inviting us to peruse his site for past posts on the subject. Here is a request: can you set out an index of links to allow us to do this? Some of the entries seem quite plausible while others (e.g., concepts of "time" which is one of Coturnix's special interests) are opaque to me.

Coturnix ends with the "parable of the public park" which seems completely wrong. In his parable, the Conservative architect designs a public park in a top down fashion and then wonders why people don't use it as anticipated while the Liberal waits to see what people want and achieves acclaim. But the real world is often just the opposite. The Conservative does market research and designs things according to the results, while Liberals design things according to desirable principles that are then subverted by forces that prevent their operation.

Let me advance an alternative view. Lakoff's method has identified a number of primary metaphors he believes are nearly universal across cultures. They have a basis in behaviors that have evolved to respond to common situations in a way that optimize species survival and are embodied in neural structures. Some of these behaviors are more compatible with Conservative tendencies (the value of reward and punishment, obedience to authority) and others with Liberal ones (the value of nurturing, the importance of cooperation and altruism). How these are balanced in terms of species survivability will depend on historical contingencies. I believe it is "Liberal" belief that at this stage in human history the balance must tip in favor of Liberal behaviors and values or the species will not survive. This is argued in moral terms but is at root a question of empirical fact that history will decide. Whether we will be around to appreciate the answer is the question at issue.

If this is correct, the "framing" question involves finding language that activates these Liberal-oriented primary and complex metaphors. I have earlier suggested phrases like "We are all in this together" and "None of us are safe until we are all safe" as candidates for expressing the public health realities of responding to the threat of an influenza pandemic in a "liberal" way. I am sure there are many other or better examples if we put our minds to it.

This is an extremely important discussion and I worry that the Lakoff business will be facilely dismissed on superficial grounds (for example, that Lakoff himself is a bad "framer" or that "framing" is just spin). If that happens, we will be missing an important opportunity and slide back into a lazy intellectual position: that we understand things sufficiently.

We don't. Look around you.