Widening the Lens

Susan Nall Bales, A Framer Reads the News

In a recent article in the New York Times,[i] economist Justin Wolfers called attention to the rise of economics as the “queen of the social sciences” – by which he meant, the go-to discipline for answers to most of the questions that most Americans ask most of the time. In an analysis of the entire Times archive, Wolfers found “around one in 100 articles mentions the term ‘economist’” while a similar search of the Congressional Record over the past 25 years “finds the term ‘economist’ most likely to be mentioned, followed by historians and psychologists.”

So ingrained in our culture is the economic perspective that it seems almost strange to question its relevance. But, as Wolfers points out, we could just as easily have adopted a sociological lens from which to view our society.  And he offers up his own theory about why this might be so: “Of course, sociologists, whose comparative advantage is in offering structural explanations, might point to the fact that their field has no equivalent of the business pages, that the president does not receive advice from a Council of Sociological Advisors, and that there’s little demand from Wall Street for sociological insights.” And, like a good economist, Wolfers concludes with an explanation of why this imbalance is so prevalent: “our popularity reflects the discerning tastes of our audience in the marketplace of ideas.” In all fairness, this may be Wolfer’s humor, as he offers a vigorous defense of what is lost when a sociological perspective is drowned out by the singular economic explanation.

FrameWorks sees evidence of this imbalance every time we engage Americans in thinking about social issues. The economic explanation is pervasive, but its real significance is in the way that it invites people to default to their most familiar ways of understanding the world—individualism. Seeing the world through a lens of individualism, outcomes are understood as the product of individual choices based on rational assessments of the costs and benefits of a given decision, multiplied by willpower and perseverance.

This imbalance between economic explanations and sociological ones should come as no surprise. It is built into our culture – a highly, individualistic culture in which securing goods and choosing wisely are promoted everywhere as the stepping stones to success. Those structural forces – embedded with impediments particular to race, age, class, gender, etc. – are largely invisible.  People aren’t just making this stuff up. It is reinforced by their mediated experience – the way that everyday discourse and news media tell them what social issues are about and how to interpret them. Systematic analyses of media coverage conducted by FrameWorks make clear that social problems are interpreted as resulting from individual acts far more often than they are attributed to societal forces. Obesity? A story about lack of willpower. Addiction? Ditto. Poverty? Bad pluck, bad luck. Poverty in old age? If you had saved and made the right financial decisions, you would be on a cruise by now.

There are profound consequences for our society from this imbalance of perspective.   Exposed to a daily diet of “news you can use” to improve your economic lot and your willpower, we are predisposed to use these explanatory tools to explain a wide range of socio-political phenomena. Borrowing C. Wright Mills’ terminology, Americans become quick to see all social problems as the result of “troubles” – or problems that occur within the character of the individual – and blind to “issues” or what he described as “public matters” because they have to do with the organization of society as a whole.

Reflecting what we know from an ever-expanding array of scholarly literature that demonstrates that the solutions people choose to address problems are tightly bounded by their problem definition, the vast majority of FrameWorks’ informants would prescribe individual behavior change to address everything from climate change to educational inequities and biases in the criminal justice system.

What is to be done to help people see sociologically? Many years ago, the Berkeley Media Studies Center began to draw a distinction between narratives that were constructed as “portraits” vs. “landscapes.” FrameWorks has attempted to make this distinction a part of experts’ and advocates’ storytelling repertoire by creating an online tool – Wide Angle Lens – that dissects just exactly how our habits of storytelling return again and again to the individual portrait – and what can be done to counter this tendency. Getting more context into the story is not easy – but it can be done. Showing how people are affected by environments, how as the California Endowment puts it “what surrounds us shapes us” is all about redressing the imbalance that our highly individualistic culture promotes. Try it on for size and see if your stories don’t fare better in evoking more systemic observations from your fellow citizens.

Keynes got it right: “Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.” By widening the lens, we can preserve the insights particular to economics but leaven them with observations from across the social sciences suitable to actually understanding how social problems work.

[i] Wolfers, Justin. January 27, 2015. How Economists Came to Dominate the Conversation. New York: New York Times.