FrameWorks has long argued for recognizing the duality of social issues, by which we mean the difference between the social science of a particular problem’s dynamics and what communications science can help us understand about how people conceptualize that same social problem. Put simply, while it is imperative that we understand what causes and contributes to a social problem, that knowledge is insufficient to resolve the expectations and associations people have developed of how that problem works.
I offer up here two case studies of that duality.
First, in a new article for the Nonprofit Quartlerly, I lay out what we would need to know in order to explain income inequality to the American public. As this issue rises on the agendas of the media and policymakers, it is imperative that those who engage the public have the translational tools they will need to help people understand how the economy works, how wealth is generated and how systems of inequity get built into multiple infrastructures over time, from housing to education. Without these translational strategies, FrameWorks’ research suggests that we run the risk of reifying foundational models of individualism and willpower that are at odds with experts’ views and will, at best, result in little policy thinking.
Second, an epiphany in one arena does not convey to the other. That is, figuring out how to talk about a problem does not mean you can solve it and vice versa. In this excellent enumeration of the economic case for comprehensive immigration reform, Adam Davidson underscores the faulty zero-sum economic thinking that impedes public policy in the country’s best interests. But again, knowing what you are up against does not equate to how to get out of that hole. Here, FrameWorks offers up some answers squarely in line with the expert analysis. In a new MesssageMemo and Toolkit supported by the MacArthur Foundation, we show how specific values and metaphors can overcome zero-sum thinking and succeed in making a strong case for a wide array of immigration policies.
There is a science of cognition that can help us take the next step in enacting meaningful social reforms. But only if we recognize that knowing what it is we want to communicate is not sufficient to the challenge of public explanation and engagement.
Susan Nall Bales