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Project summary

Political actors do not present issues objectively. They emphasize certain aspects and deemphasize others and influence the way the audience thinks about the issue, which is called a framing effect. A forest, for example, can be framed as a resource pool to be exploited, a source of artistic inspiration, a fragile and complex ecosystem, or a threat that must be tamed. Each of these alternative frames points to a different policy prescription. Moreover, not every frame is equally influential on its audience. Existing research demonstrates that emotionally compelling frames with negative information are especially effective in changing people’s minds. In the recent decades, in most referendums relating to the European Union (EU), emotional arguments highlighting the risks of an increase in immigration played a significant role in persuading a segment of the public to vote against the EU treaty at hand. The importance of frames is evident in today’s world. The ways actors frame issues are shown to matter in the fields of elections, immigration policy, environmental politics, trade negotiations, global health, transparency reforms and more.

Although frames have been studied extensively in fields such as political psychology, social movements, international relations or political communication, the main focus of the existing research is their persuasiveness, in other words the factors that affect their persuasiveness. This project askes a neglected question: Where do frames come from in the first place? Why do actors choose the specific frames they use? The project thus aims to create a new, comparative research agenda that investigates when and how specific statements emerge in a political debate, by which kinds of actors they are proposed, and whether and how they diffuse to others. The project studies frames in five issue areas (trade, immigration, environment, global health, and transparency), with two carefully selected political debates in each of these issue areas.

The project takes four steps in order to achieve its aim. In a first step, it uses a new methodological tool called Discourse Network Analysis (studying the content of arguments together with the networks of actors), in order to trace the emergence of specific frames in a number of selected political debates, the most important actors involved in the process, and the diffusion networks involved. In a second step, it conducts interviews with these key actors involved in framing in order to investigate the most important factors determining their framing choices and whether their respective institutions have an impact on these choices. In a third step, the project studies whether and how these patterns vary from one issue area to another (trade, immigration, environment, global health, and transparency). As such, the project offers a comparative and comprehensive answer to a crucial but overlooked theoretical question, with an innovative and mixed-method methodology.

The fourth and final step of the project is to disseminate its findings to academic and non-academic communities, in order to raise awareness on the processes that produce frames in these five key issue areas in a globalising world, encourage policy and media elites to be better aware of how their framing processes and strategies impact the public debates on these issues, and to suggest innovative, inclusive and evidence-based communication strategies. Working in partnership with German Development Institute, one of the leading think tanks for global development policy worldwide, and a range of relevant governmental and non-governmental actors, the project integrates key beneficiaries at every stage of the research. These will be achieved through regular meetings, two policy events in Brussels and Geneva, various policy papers, and finally an analytical tool on our website that will visualise our findings so that policymakers, activists and the general public can easily understand them.