On Learning to "See"

This is here for three reasons:

  • To explain what I mean by "Frame of Reference" in Tools for Thought
  • Reflexively, the very idea of a frame of reference (or its cousins, discourses) is an example of a tool for thought, and
  • Quite differently, as an example of a basic (rather than a critical) literature review, which may be of use to students trying to get their heads around how it works

"Frame of Reference: The context, viewpoint, or set of presuppositions or of evaluative criteria within which a person's perception and thinking seem always to occur, and which constrains selectively the course and outcome of these activities" Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought (2nd edn: 1988)

"We are told about the world before we see it. We imagine most things before we experience them. and those preconceptions, unless education has made us acutely aware, govern deeply the whole process of perception. They mark out certain objects as familiar or strange, emphasizing the difference, so that the slightly familiar is seen as very familiar and the somewhat strange as sharply alien ..." Walter Lippmann Public Opinion NY, Macmillan, 1922

The notion of the "frame of reference" has to bring together ideas from a number of disciplines.

...and the whole is informed by a basically phenomenological perspective, which is where philosophy gets a look in.

To start with Gestalt: the basic feature of optical ilusions such as the Necker cube and figure-ground pictures is the way in which they reveal the mind's insistence on structuring perceived reality (see Gregory, 1972; Hochberg, 1987). To put it a little too strongly or crudely, the mind imposes a frame on sense-perception to make it "make sense", insisting on seeing the cube in one perspective or another, or two faces or a vase, but not simply the ambiguous pattern with which it is confronted. Thus some frame of reference (however poorly developed), is not an optional extra but a necessity for perception.

The Piagetian model of assimilation and accommodation is based on the existence of schemata (Bartlett, 1932) in the mind, and the relationship to them of incoming sense-data. In assimilation, the sense-data is modified in order to fit the schemata; in accommodation, the schemata are modified to incorporate the new data. The two processes exist in a dialectical relationship (Piaget, 1973). The schemata may be regarded as low-level analogues of frames of reference.

This line of thought can take us in the direction of discussing prejudice (or at least stereotyping as its cognitive component), in which assimilative processes dominate, in regarding all members of a given class of objects or people as functionally equivalent (cf. Zimbardo and Leippe, 1991), and refusing to accommodate (to) variations. Prejudice is again a form of frame of reference. A similar process is identified by Festinger (1957) in the idea of cognitive dissonance: if beliefs are held sufficiently strongly, people may go through remarkable psychological contortions in order to assimilate new information to the existing beliefs, rather than accommodating the beliefs to the information. The belief system becomes a frame of reference within which all new ideas and information are located and evaluated.

It has been suggested that this process is facilitated or even compelled by the use of language, in the Sapir/Whorf hypothesis. This maintains that "we dissect the world along lines laid down by our native languages": linguistic structures and the terminology available to us constitute frames of reference which direct our attention to certain aspects of the world and hide others (Whorf, 1956). The "strong" form of this argument has been comprehensively demolished by Pinker (1995) among others, but its weaker and more sociological form is self-evident. We develop a vocabulary to serve our frames of reference, and to sensitise us to differences in our perceptions which we regard as important. (Incidentally, the umpteen Inuit words for "snow" are apparently a myth!)

Systematic discussion of framing as such is usually traced to Gregory Bateson (1954, in Bateson, 1973). In this discussion of play, he develops the idea that play activity is framed or categorised as such, and thus different from doing the same thing for "real". This applies to play activity among animals as well as human beings. Superficially similar patterns of behaviour then proceed according to different rules depending on their framing. Thus framing is the activity of categorising messages. As far as Bateson (1955, also in Bateson 1973) is concerned, failure to assign messages to their correct categories constitutes ego-weakness: by implication, ego-strength is the capacity to frame messages correctly.

This approach to framing has been developed in detail descriptively by Goffman (1975), who goes into most of the possible variations on the theme. It has also become a mainstay of discussions in post-structural literary and cultural criticism. Therapeutically, the value of "re-framing" problems has been explored by Bateson's followers in the Palo Alto group (Watzlawick, Beavin and Jackson, 1967; Watzlawick, Weakland and Fisch, 1973) and thus extended into family therapy by the Milan School (Palazzoli et al, 1978).

Starting from a different direction, but also paying attention to frames of reference in the form of over-arching non-rational belief systems which colour interpretations of the world, Ellis (1977) and Beck (1989) have developed other approaches to psychotherapy. The theory of personal constructs also impinges on this area of interest, although the sheer individuality of construct systems and the approach to their measurement makes it difficult to draw direct connections with frames of reference associated with particular groups (see Kelly, 1955). Nevertheless, the theory has been applied to education in general by Pope and Keen (1981), and to the training of adult educators by Candy (1981) and of social workers by Tully (1976): as a prescriptive theory of learning, of course, it has been developed by Thomas and Harri-Augstein.

The notion of frames of reference as attributes of professional disciplines has not been developed quite so systematically, although the roots of the idea are around in the original formulations of professional ideology (seen primarily as vested interest) (Mannheim, 1936). One of the clearest expressions of the idea, with particular reference to "closed" frames of reference, such as religion, Marxism and psycho-analysis, which are capable of explaining away all objections within their own frame, is found in Berger (1961).

The interactionists have developed the theme in their studies of socialisation into professional groups, particularly perhaps the less formal theorists, such as Becker (1980) in the case of medicine, and the notion is explored very explicitly by Buckner (1967):

"As he walks through the beat with a mature officer, persons who to him appear legit. are cast in the light of the illegal activities in which they are engaged ... The lovely young lady alighting from a cab is now observable as a call-girl arriving for a session. The novice is shown how to see the streets as, so to speak, scenes from a pornographic film"

Buckner (1967) cit. in Worsley(1970): 344

This process is taken further, into the realms of obscurity, in the work of the ethnomethodologists. Their main contribution has been to make explicit the link with phenomonological philosophy, particularly through the work of Alfred Schutz (1962-1966) and his notion of "typifications". Typifications may be regarded as similar to stereotypes, but whereas stereotypes have to be maintained by wilful ignorance, the argument seems to be that typifications arise from familiarity and extensive knowledge of the typified person or event, fuelled perhaps by defence mechanisms. Thus one dead body may be dealt with as "to all intents and purposes" the same as any other dead body, by a funeral director. Typifications have been studied in the juvenile justice system by Cicourel (1968), in coroner's services by Garfinkel (1967), in nursing and the police by Sudnow (1965, 1967), in hospital records by Garfinkel (1967), and in social work by Zimmerman (1969). In each case they examine how an informal system of categorisation of cases "for all practical purposes" grows out of the practical features of doing the job. It may bear more or less resemblance to the official typology, but it has practical implications in determining the orientation of the practitioner towards the case.

This comes close to my own work on working myths (Atherton, 1989), although the analogies on which I focus are naturally much less detailed than the typifications described in the earlier studies.

So what emerges from all this? Basically, in one way or another, the writers are exploring how a framework of pre-conceptions is built up for participants in given social situations, which include both sensitivities and blind spots, which colour their perceptions of those situations.

Parts of these frames of reference are technical, such as sensitivity to information gained through the stethoscope which means something to a doctor but not to a lay-person. Such a frame may be neutral.

Other parts are about vested interests, either explicitly as in the case of a businessman who sees a business opportunity where no-one else can, or more covertly. The psychiatrist who sees a patient according to a typification and selectively ignores complicating information may be using a covertly self-serving frame of reference. It is covert because the agenda is about fitting the patient into the frame of being "treatable", because one of the things which medics find it most difficult to accept is powerlessness: their professional frame of reference needs to emphasise their power and capability, both for reasons of status and to justify the invasions of privacy in which they indulge (not to mention its defensive function).

Former colleague Mitch Taylor pointed out to me that an important feature of such frames is that they are obligatory. He means this not only in the sense that sharing a similar frame is necessary in order to gain acceptance into a professional community; but also in the sense that once acquired, one cannot step out of them. Once one has learned to read, one cannot not read text. Thus it makes sense when a professional, caught out being professional in a social situation, says, "I can't help it."

...and that in turn suggests associations with threshold concepts.


I make no apology for the fact that many of these are "golden oldies". Just don't expect anyone to be impressed if you cite them in an essay.

ATHERTON J S (1989) Interpreting Residential Life: values to practise London: Routledge

BARTLETT F C (1932) Remembering Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

BATESON G (1973) Steps to an Ecology of Mind London: Paladin

BECK A T (1989) Cognitive Therapy and the Emotional Disorders Harmondsworth: Penguin (0-14-015689-5)

BECKER H S () Boys in White New York: Transaction Books

BERGER P L (1961) The Precarious Vision New York: Doubleday

CANDY P (1981) Mirrors of the Mind: personal construct theory in the training of Adult Educators Manchester: University of Manchester Department of Adult and Higher Education, Manchester Monographs 16.

CICOUREL A V (1968) The Social Organization of Juvenile Justice New York: Wiley

ELLIS A (1977) "The Basic Clinical Theory of Rational-Emotive Therapy" in A Ellis and R Greiger (eds) Handbook of Rational-Emotive Therapy New York: Basic Books

FESTINGER L (1957) A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance Evanston, Ill.: Row Peterson

GARFINKEL H (1967) Studies in Ethnomethodology Englewood Cliffs NJ: Prentice-Hall

GOFFMAN E (1975) Frame Analysis Harmondsworth: Penguin

GREGORY R L (1972) Eye and Brain: the psychology of seeing  (2nd edn.) London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson: World University Library (0 303 24011 3)

HOCHBERG J (1987) "Gestalt Theory" in R L Gregory (ed.) Oxford Companion to the Mind Oxford: Oxford University Press

KELLY G (1955) The Psychology of Personal Constructs New York: W W Norton

MANNHEIM K (1936) Ideology and Utopia London: Routledge and Kegan Paul

PALAZZOLI M S, BOSCOLO L, CECCHIN G and PRATA G (1978) Paradox and Counter-Paradox New York: Aronson

PIAGET J (1973) The Child's Conception of the World London: Paladin

PINKER S (1995) The Language Instinct: the new science of language and mind Harmondsworth: Penguin (0-14-017529-6)

POPE M L and KEEN T R (1981) Personal Construct Theory and Education London: Academic Press (0-12-561520-5)

SCHUTZ A (1962-66) Collected Papers, vols I - III The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff

SCHUTZ A (1970) On Phenomenology and Social Relations (ed. Wagner) Chicago: University of Chicago Press

SUDNOW D (1965) "Normal Crimes: sociological features of the penal code in a public defenders' office" Social Problems, Vol 12, Winter 1965 no.3 pp 255-268 : reprinted in Worsley et al (1972) Problems of Modern Society Penguin Education

SUDNOW D (1967) Passing On: the social organization of dying New Jersey: Prentice-Hall

TULLY J B (1976) "Personal Construct Theory and Psychological Change Related to Social Work Training" Brit. J. Social Work 6:4 pp 481-499 :  

WATZLAWICK P, BEAVIN J and JACKSON D (1967) The Pragmatics of Human Communication New York: W W Norton

WATZLAWICK P, WEAKLAND J and FISCH R (1973) Change New York: W W Norton

WHORF B L (1956) Language, Thought and Reality Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press

WORSLEY P et al. (1970) Introducing Sociology Harmondsworth: Penguin

ZIMBARDO P G and LEIPPE M R (1991) The Psychology of Attitude Change and Social Influence New York: McGraw-Hill

ZIMMERMAN D H (1969) "Fact as a Practical Accomplishment" in R Turner (ed) Ethnomethodology Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1974

To reference this page copy and paste the text below:

Atherton J S (2013) Doceo; [On-line: UK] retrieved from

Original material by James Atherton: last up-dated overall 10 February 2013

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License.

Search Doceo and associated sites:

Delicious Save this on Delicious        Print Click here to send to a friend    

This site is independent and self-funded. The site does not accept advertising or sponsorship (apart from what I am lumbered with on the reports from the site Search facility above), and invitations/proposals/demands will be ignored, as will SEO spam. I am not responsible for the content of any external links; any endorsement is on the basis only of my quixotic judgement. Suggestions for new pages and corrections of errors or reasonable disagreements are of course always welcome.

Back to top