Substantive and symptomatic frames

Note: I wrote most of this as part of a chapter of a book (which never got finished) several years ago. Its content is complementary to and overlaps with the pages on>"Frames of Reference" , the "Theory of Theory" and "Content and Process". The references are dated, but still, I believe, valid. The distinction or construct is one I find increasingly useful, strange sad person that I am, but very difficult to explain. I can't really find it explored anywhere in the literature I have read, and yet most of the people I refer to here touch on it. Why is that? Have I missed something? (More than usual, that is)

I once did voluntary work in a mental health drop-in centre. One day, a young man rushed in, shouting that "they" were after him, and they were going to kill him. The staff, of course, decided that he was delusional and escorted him to an interview room, where a staff member listened to his agitated story and assured him that he was safe. In the meantime, another man burst into the reception area, carrying a knife, and demanding to know whether we had seen anyone fitting the description of our new client. (We got him off the premises and called the police � much against the will of the first man, who protested that it was a family matter)

The distinction between substantive and symptomatic frames is not easy to describe, but very easy to illustrate, as in the example above. The substantive frame is colloquially described as taking things at �face value�. When someone says something to me, I generally accept it at face value: if it is a statement about the world �out there�, it may be correct or incorrect, but it is to be judged by its substance.

The symptomatic frame is exemplified by the reaction of the staff to the first young man: they did not judge his claim at face value, but interpreted it as being a symptom of something else�in this case a paranoid delusion. Had the second man not turned up, they would have continued to interpret it thus. The symptomatic frame looks beyond the communication, taking it as evidence of something more significant. If a patient explains that he is being pursued or threatened, the psychiatrist hears what is being said, but may �dismiss� or "discount" the content as merely symptomatic of an underlying disorder, rather than accepting the substance of the communication. The substance with which the psychiatrist is working is his disease or disorder model of the patient. He may be said to be �inside� this model, and standing �outside� the world the patient describes. He is indeed sceptical of the veracity of the patient�s report, but he nonetheless takes it as a reliable symptom of the underlying disorder. It is the fact that the patient reports something which is important, rather than its content (so in this case it is also being framed in terms of Process rather than Content).

The critical features which distinguish the Substantive and the Symptomatic frames, therefore, are:

It is of course possible for the two to co-exist, and an action (or even a failure to act) does not have to be intended to communicate to count as a communication for these purposes. If I see you doing something, you are communicating to me, even if you are not aware of my presence.

Symptomatic framing can be very sophisticated, or it can be born of ignorance: it is certainly neither �better� nor �worse� than the substantive frame.

However, I think it is safe to claim that there is always a potential power differential between users of the symptomatic frame and those of the substantive. If the symptomatic frame has any claim to sophistication, it may be capable of �trumping� the substantive frame: this is the strength of Berger�s �closed systems� (1961), such as psychoanalysis and Marxism,  which claim to be able to explain away anything, including objections to themselves, within their own system of thought. Hence the use within institutions of various forms of authority and raw power, from management of the setting to physical coercion, to ensure that the substantive frame which characterises the institution is made obligatory, and the threat which is posed by �free speech�, and the potential of humour for subversion.

One person�s substantive frame is another�s symptomatic one: we are talking here not about belief systems as such, but about the relations between belief systems.

If you think that you know what I am talking about, you have permission to skip the next bit!

More technically...

Take this assertion in Jared Diamond�s fascinating Guns, Germs and Steel:

�The objection to such racist explanations is not just that they are loathsome, but also that they are wrong� (Diamond, 1998:19)

To label something as �wrong� is to fight on its own ground, as it were, and to discuss it substantively: but to call it "loathsome" is to adduce another frame of reference (in this case, moral), and to treat it symptomatically. If I were using the Diamond quotation directly to support my argument, I should be using it substantively. As it is, I am using it simply as an example of usage and treating it symptomatically (despite the fact that I agree with it).

In each case, the psychiatrist in the earlier example or the academic using material symptomatically, is disregarding the substance in favour of seeing the evidence (the communication) as pointing to something beyond itself. I do this elsewhere when I accuse various theorists of obscurantism. In this sense one could maintain that the evidence is being treated as �symbolic� or �iconic� or as a �signifier� for something else. That may be broadly the case, but the symptomatic frame is more specific than that, because it is always metonymic (or even more accurately synecdochic, except that is unpronounceable): the symptom points to the disease, but it is itself a part of the disease, rather than a more or less arbitrarily assigned sign for it.

The reference to symbolism requires that for the sake of completeness, and in view of the centrality of this argument, I should note that the literature of semiotics and ethnomethodology touches on the symptomatic/substantive distinction in the notion of �indexicality�, derived from Peirce via Garfinkel (1967). Once again, however, it appears that their usage obscures more than it illuminates: it broadly refers to the way in which linguistic usage serves as an index (both in the Peircean sense, and in the book/database sense) pointing the participant in a social situation to the context of the utterance and hence to how it should be framed. In ethnomethodology the sheer ubiquity of indexicality tends to devalue the usefulness of the idea: the framing of a perception or utterance as "substantive" in the present terminology would be seen as a special case of indexicality.

The fact that I am referring with seeming approval to this overblown charlatan [Derrida] is a serious warning that I may be stepping into total bullshit; that is up to you to judge!Representations as considered here are manifestations of pre-judgement, if not of actual prejudice. The pre-judgement lies in the construction of whatever it is which lies beyond its symptomatic expression. One cannot treat something symptomatically unless it is symptomatic of something. The symptomatic orientation is at the heart of the project of deconstruction (Derrida, 1976:99)

Inside and Outside

An alternative way of looking at this distinction is that between the view from the inside and that from the outside.

This concept has been explored in linguistics and anthropology in the notion of emic and etic (Pike, 1954; Harris, 1976; Headland, 1990), but this discussion owes more to the ideas of Szmidla and Khaleelee (really! Unpub. 1975, in Miller 1979). They point out that every conscious system (individual or group) has two boundaries, which they call the In-line and the Out-line. The In-line is what we think of ourselves: the Out-line is what others think we are. We can never know the In-line of another person, much as we may strive to do so through the practice of empathy. The only way in which we might possibly know the In-line of a group is by joining it (see Schutz, 1964). However, it is equally difficult to know the Out-line we present to others:

�O wad some Pow�r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as others see us!�

Robert Burns: To a Louse

The emic/etic distinction is very useful but contentious: see Pike's account here, and Headland's discussion here.

Much of the process of our social life is about managing the fit between In-line and Out-line, which is of course difficult because we have many Out-lines, depending on who is looking at us, and their expectations. We engage in activities such as �impression management� (dressing up for interviews) in order to bring about this fit to our advantage. If, however, our Out-line is that of a minority group, it may never be possible to make others accept our In-line. It is not that the In-line is necessarily �right� and the Out-line �wrong�: they are both valid views of our identity. I think I am committed to a cause: you think I am a bigot. Allowing for the evaluation in the Out-line, no account is more true than the other. Hence post-modernism.

Most texts on teaching assume an audience of teachers (as indeed does this), and construct an insiders� account, based on shared values and assumptions. The substantive frame of reference is therefore that of the teacher. An alternative is to take an outsider�s perspective, and to look at teaching as a phenomenon, trying to make sense of its rituals and practices without benefit of previous knowledge. (A wonderful example of this�in relation to bathrooms�is provided in Horace W Miner�s �article� Body Ritual among the Nacirema, in Stover and Harrison, 1972) Whatever frame of reference is adopted is therefore symptomatic.

Substance and Symptom in Teaching and Learning

Meanwhile, back in the classroom; what does all this have to do with teaching and learning? I hope that you will already have begun to make the connections in the light of your own experience.

As a teacher, you have to keep moving between substantive and symptomatic frames in relation both to your subject matter and your students.

In the case of the subject matter, your frame is substantive as you explain and expound it, but necessarily symptomatic as you consider the difficulties it may be posing for students.

With the students, you are both listening to their questions and their answers relating to the subject as substantive statements, and at the same time trying to work out the nature of their misunderstandings and assessing the impact of their contributions on the overall flow of the classroom conversation, which is to regard them symptomatically.

Students start by regarding the subject symptomatically, and indeed each new piece of it is seen in this way ("Uh-oh, this bit is going to be difficult!"). The challenge for them is to �get inside� it so as to be able to engage with it substantively. They may also take the teacher�s interventions symptomatically�criticism, for example, may be dismissed as simply "what teachers do" because they are "never satisfied", rather than "taken to heart" as a realistic (substantive) commentary on the work produced.

The case of Marking

However, the clearest instance of the use of the symptomatic frame comes in marking or grading work. When I read most of the literature connected with my job, I do so looking for new ideas, insights and research evidence. I may be critical of research methods or arguments, but I take the article broadly at face value.

When I sit down with a pile of scripts to mark, however, I adopt a symptomatic orientation: I look beyond their manifest content to what I can infer about the student's command of the subject, and in a sense I do not "trust" anything I read. The work almost ceases to have value in its own right: I may stop reading after 5,000 words, for example, simply because that is the word limit.

Personally, I find this necessity to judge universally, to discount the value of the particular work submitted, the hardest and even the most depressing part of my job (apart from quality assurance meetings, which treat my own initiatives symptomatically!).

I have to engage in the same cognitive shift which I learned when as a naive teenager who thought that I was going to university to read and learn from great literature, I discovered that instead I was expected to treat texts as symptomatic evidence for pompous critical theory. I lost the capacity to enjoy them: in the same way being required to mark students' work on a symptomatic basis robs us of much of the capacity to value their viewpoints. What is worse, of course, is when they start to write it in the full knowledge that it will be read that way.

See also Process and Content


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

DERRIDA J (1976) Of Grammatology (tr. Spivak) Baltimore; Johns Hopkins University Press

DIAMOND J (1998) Guns, Germs and Steel: a short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years London: Vintage

DUNBAR R (1997) Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language London: Faber and Faber

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

HARRIS M (1976) "History and Significance of the Emic/Etic Distinction." Annual Review of Anthropology  vol 5 pp329-350.

HEADLAND T (ed.)(1990) Emics and Etics New York; Sage

McHUGH P (1968) Defining the Situation: the organization of meaning in social interaction Indiannapolis: Bobbs-Merrill

MILLER E J (1979) "The Politics of Involvement" address to the Fourth Annual Scientific Meeting of the A K Rice Institute, Houston, Texas, 22-24 March, 1979. (unpublished, Tavistock Institute, London)

PIKE K L (1954) Language in relation to a unified theory of the structure of human behavior. Glendale, CA: Summer Institute of Linguistics. 170 pp. [preliminary edition, 1st part; 2nd part (1955), 85 pp.; 3rd part (1960), 146 pp.].

SCHUTZ, A. (1964) "The stranger: an essay in social psychology." in: Collected papers. Vol. II. Studies in social theory. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 93. [Also as I recall reprinted in M F D Young (1971) Knowledge and Control London; Routledge with Open University Press]

STOVER L and HARRISON H (1972) Apeman, Spaceman London; Pan Books

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

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