Frame-Restructuring as a Value-Critical Approach to Information Policy

In analyzing various research tools and methodologies for application to the study of information policy, Ian Rowlands concluded that research tools were needed that could provide a “value-critical and paradigm-critical approach to the study of information policy.” Rowlands recognized that policy makers should take careful consideration of the variables and assumptions used in determining the “right” answer (Rowlands, 1996, p. 23). The implications of using incomplete methodologies in the study of information policy, an area of study which encompasses a wide variety of disciplines and societal influences, can be far-reaching. The rate of change and complexity associated with information policy necessitates frameworks that policy-makers can use to retain focus on values while accommodating new and often conflicting perspectives. Donald Schön describes such a framework in his essay, “Generative Metaphor: A Perspective on Problem-setting in Social Policy” (Schön, 1993). In this paper, I will explore what Schön means by generative metaphor and the framework that he described. From there, I will examine how his framework is applicable to the examination of US Federal information policy.

Schön asserts at the beginning of his essay that metaphors are central to the task of accounting for our perspectives on the world (1993, p. 138). Metaphor ascribes properties from one concept to another by invoking an image in the mind of the receiver which, in turn, allows the receiver to understand the point of view held by the creator of the metaphor. In essence, metaphor is a means to communicate understanding from one frame of reference to another.

In a more technical sense, a concept, “A”, when associated with concept “B” via metaphor, allows the receiver of the metaphor to “draw upon a repertoire of additional ways of perceiving and understanding both A and B” (1993, p. 149). Through a process of “naming and framing,” the metaphor is used by policy-makers to construct a frame consisting of selected pertinent aspects of the experience that are determined to embody the desired focus (p. 146). In this way, metaphor is effective in communicating the essence of a perspective without becoming otherwise burdened by the complexity of the experience. When used in the generative, or hypothetical, case, metaphor serves an instructional purpose as a powerful means of introducing or extending the scope of a complex topic to an uninformed listener.

The instructional nature of generative metaphor is well suited to the framing of problems. “Problem settings are mediated... by the 'stories' people tell about troublesome situations – stories in which they describe what is wrong and what needs fixing” (p. 138). Schön asserts that stories are told to describe perspectives in a problem-setting context. Problem-setting – the ways we frame the purposes to be achieved – is considerably less effective without the benefit of clarity and focus that is imbued by the use of metaphor (p. 138).

During the process of problem-setting, complex phenomena are related by policy-makers through metaphor. The tendency for policy-makers is to view the problem-setting and related assumptions as static and secondary in importance to finding the obvious solution. Schön states that “[i]f problems are assumed to be given, this is in part because they are taken always to have the same form” (p. 143). Problems cannot be assumed to remain unchanged over time, which establishes a key consideration in the development of Schön's method: that problem definitions that remain tacit are potentially incomplete and may lead to the development of inadequate solutions.

To address the difficulties inherent in the solution-centric approach to the study of public policy, Schön defines a narrative-sensitive approach which he calls “frame restructuring” (p. 152). “Frame restructuring and the making of generative metaphor are closely related processes” (p. 159). Frame restructuring is a recursive process of integrating otherwise unresolvable and conflicting frames into a new problem-setting story while guiding policy-makers to resist the tendency to adopt “ready-made category schemes” (p. 152). This approach mitigates the tendency of policy-makers to be locked into frame conflicts, which are often unresolvable by appeal to facts (p. 150).

Another aspect of the frame-restructuring approach, and one of its greatest strengths, is its ability to accommodate changes of problem form. Problems, as it is told by Schön, “are not given,” particularly because they are the result of the interactions of people and inherently unpredictable (p. 144). When policy-makers reflect on a problem, they interact with an information-rich environment in which they “are experiencing the phenomena of the problem” and creating a new frame from the experience and through critical assessment of assumptions (p. 158). This helps the participants realize the implications of change on the problem-setting. Policy-makers shift away from seeking the solution implied by an otherwise inflexible problem definition, and the policy discussion becomes flexible enough to incorporate the new features, thus changing the problem-setting to reflect changes in form.

The frame-structuring approach also addresses another value-critical tenet in the consideration of a multiplicity of value judgments. By recognizing that problem-setting is not immutable, and through critical questioning of the basic assumptions, the potential exists for policy-makers to incorporate perspectives that may not have seemed obvious at the outset. “One is not limited to the features captured by the category-schemes with which one began” and can include values that were not initially considered (p. 158). By integrating and maintaining values, frame-restructuring adds flexibility and utility to the policy-making process.

Additionally, Schön addresses potential weaknesses or misuses of his method of frame-restructuring. First, he warns that there is a tendency for the opposing sides to attempt “the mere recasting of a problem-setting story so as to escape a dilemma.” By invoking this strategy, the dilemma is often not dissolved, but simply omits values that were accounted for earlier in the process (p. 155). A second weakness is the tendency for the parties involved to perceive the process as desiring a “compromise, [or] an average or balance of the values” discovered during the process (p. 159). Another weakness occurs when the inquirers fail to retain the richness of their experiences during an attempt to move forward in the process by developing a coordinated model of the earlier descriptions (p. 159). A final weakness involves a more fundamental human trait, that people under difficulty or stress fail to “draw upon existing cognitive capacity” (p. 161). Each of these weaknesses implies that policy-makers and analysts must show diligence and perseverance to ensure that the frame-restructuring technique performs correctly.

Finally, having analyzed Schön's approach and its inherent strengths and weaknesses, we can ask about what insights the approach offers for U.S. federal information policy making.

First, Information policy is implicitly related to social policy in that information policy has significant effects across many different areas of society outside of the technology industry. Schön states that the intent of his inquiry is to improve the “capacity for engaging social policy dilemmas,” which implies that the process is equally suitable for analysis of information policy dilemmas (p. 161).

Second, when Schön says “[w]e find closely related versions of [the frame-restructuring] process in the problem-setting inquiries central to technological invention and to social-policy debate,” he confirms the linkage of his technique to information policy through the experience of social policy. Schön further implies that his process is suited to inquiries into technological development – a field that is enmeshed within the information policy debate and is as rapidly changing and mutable as information policy itself (p. 160). The problem-setting is malleable based on the occurrence of changes in the policy environment and related assumptions. By accommodating changes in problem form, frame-restructuring is a beneficial tool for policy-makers who address information policy dilemmas.

Third, the frame-restructuring process informs policy-makers of the basic assumptions that define the frames under consideration. These assumptions, which are derived from the generative metaphor, embody essential values which the participants intend to maintain while resolving the policy dilemma. Retaining values is crucial to information policy because it tends to have such a deliberative effect upon many aspects of a society.

In conclusion, Schön provides us with a value-critical framework for engaging social policy discussions that lends itself well to the field of information policy. Frame-restructuring, as I have shown, can accommodate the pace of change found in technologically-focused discourse while maintaining contact, through the application of generative metaphor, with the range of values that information policy represents.


Rowlands, Ian. (1996). Understanding information policy: Concepts, frameworks and research tools. Journal of Information Science, 22(1), 13-25.

Schön, Donald A. (1993). Generative metaphor: A perspective on problem-setting in social policy. In Andrew Ortony (Ed.), Metaphor and thought (2nd ed.) (pp. 137-163). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.