Framing and Strategic Narratives: Synthesis and Analytical Framework

Project Muse
September 27, 2019

Standard journalistic tropes were of little use after the 2016 US elections. Talk of blue and red states was eclipsed by distressed discussions (or out-of-hand dismissals) of Russian troll farms, bots, and hacked DNC email servers. The new president's peculiar obsession with the size of his inaugural crowd and his baseless claims of massive voter fraud only deepened the sense that America had awoken to both a new president and an altered sense of reality. When examined in a global context, Trump's victory could also be seen as part of a distressing pattern of surging right-wing populism and a growing number of illiberal regimes.1 In Hungary, Poland, Austria, the Czech Republic, India, the Philippines, and most recently Brazil, authoritarians emerged by gaining power through the ballot box, only to systematically dismantle their country's liberal democratic institutes once in office. How are scholars to make sense of such an addlepated political landscape?

We offer a synthesis of two analytical devices found in political communication scholarship: framing theory and strategic narratives. Both emphasize the role of language and ideas in international affairs, and in that sense build on Alexander Wendt's observation that anarchy is "what states make of it." By this he meant that ideas and language shape outcomes in international affairs.2 Framing and strategic narrative theory share in Wendt's constructivist orientation. Our argument is that the current political communication framing literature, which was developed in the 20th century to analyze mostly domestic debates over foreign policy, struggles to explain the complexities of 21st century communication systems and international affairs.3 Frame contestation models are hindered by a focus limited to national political institutions, including legacy media organizations, rather than today's globally networked flows of conflicting narratives among adversarial states. More recent strategic narratives scholarship, with its focus on digital information exchanges in the international system, is better suited to understanding current circumstances.

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