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Framing the Economy
How do the UK public think and reason about the economy? What shapes and informs our idea of how the economy works, who it serves and how it could be changed? How can civil society construct new and compelling stories that shift thinking and call for a more equitable and democratic economy?
Framing the Economy set out to answer these questions.
Framing the Economy is a collaboration between PIRC, the New Economics Foundation, the New Economy Organisers Network and the FrameWorks Institute. Over two years, we have worked together to find out how people across the UK think about the economy – and how civil society campaigners can use this understanding to better communicate. During this project we’ve run in-depth interviews, surveys, focus groups and literature reviews. We have worked with a network of campaigners and spokespeople, and we’ve designed and facilitated participatory workshops to help campaigners and communicators apply this research to areas such as housing and regulation.
The economy is a collection of a human systems, invented to help us harness resources to provide for human needs, inside or outside the marketplace. Through different stages of research and consultation, we have found that the way people think about these systems is deeply affected by which stories of the economy are told, how often, and by whom. For example, metaphorical language that likens the economy to a weather system (e.g. ‘waves’, ‘tides’, ‘plunge’, ‘storms’) suggests that the economy is a self-governing and somewhat mysterious force best left to its own devices – a way of thinking that can justify a laissez faire approach to governance.
During the latter stages of our research, we focused on creating and testing new stories that shift thinking and build support for a new economy. We found that metaphorical language implying human intervention and design (e.g. ‘reprogramme’, ‘building economic tracks’) can overcome people’s fatalism and motivate support for progressive policies.
Our Framing the Economy report outlines how the British public think about the economy and offers two new story strategies to bring about change. We are continuing to carry out research and training to help civil society groups organise and frame more effectively: if you want to find out more, get in touch!
Today PIRC, the New Economics Foundation, NEON and the FrameWorks Institute are launching two story strategies that progressives can use to shift thinking on the economy. They’re built on values and metaphors that encourage the hope that change is possible and increase people’s support for progressive policies.
Dominant economic narratives have gripped the public imagination and paved the way for regressive economic, social and environmental policies. Without the framing resources and co-ordination to challenge these narratives, campaigners often score own-goals when they talk about the economy.
The austerity story, based on the belief that Labour’s overspending ‘maxed out’ the nation’s credit card and left Britain in a mess, has been used to justify a regime of cuts to public spending that persisted in spite of the horrific social consequences and sluggish economic performance. More recently, the Brexit story has harnessed an unholy alliance between anti-immigrant sentiment and an aspiration for national self-reliance in order to ‘take back control’ from distant Brussels elites.
In the face of these stories, campaigners have often been on the back foot, using language that they haven’t shaped (like ‘Labour’s mess’), relying on oppositional politics (e.g. anti-cuts) and experimenting with frames (e.g. the ‘game is rigged’) without knowing how to use them most strategically – rather than asserting their own vision of the economy. Read more
“If you think about it, the economy is rigged. The banking system is rigged. There’s a lot of things that are rigged in this world of ours… and we’re going to change it. You know, the system, folks, is rigged. It’s a rigged system.”
If we take the word ‘folks’ out, this quote from Donald Trump could just have plausibly been from the British Prime Minister Theresa May or leader of the opposition Jeremy Corbyn. In her speech to the Lord Mayor’s Banquet in November 2016, May said that “a minority of businesses and business figures appear to game the system and work to a different set of rules”, and in his address to the Fabian Society this January, Corbyn used the word rigged in relation to the economy or the system no less than ten times, concluding that he stood “for a complete break with this rigged system”.
‘The system is rigged’ is a frame that implies a minority of elite humans who have intervened to twist the economy to their own advantage, and it brings to mind the corruption of supposedly faraway governments, and the imagery of seedy casino interiors where money sloshes around and the house always wins.
This a) captures something true about our present economy and b) connects with public opinion in the UK and US. That means it’s effective, right? Not necessarily…Read more
PIRC, New Economics Foundation, NEON and the Frameworks Institute are starting an 18 month project on Framing the Economy, helping social movements tell a better, more compelling story about what our economy is for, how it’s broken, and how we can fix it. It’s an ambitious project and we want to kick off with a review of what research is out there already so that we don’t reinvent the wheel.
Can you help?
The big question we’re asking is: How does the British public think about the economy? And, to break that down ever so slightly: what do people think, and why? We’re trying to understand how people interpret new information on the economy, through the filter of existing knowledge, beliefs, values and emotions.
If you have access to any reports or research findings on this (rather broad) topic, we’re casting the net wide, so please help us by filling out this quick and easy form!
These are some of the specific areas we’re interested in:
Beliefs – what beliefs do people use to interpret information on the economy? i.e. beliefs relating to society, human nature, ethics, wealth, power etc.
Trust – who is trusted to talk about the economy and where do people typically get information and news about it?
Moveability – when do opinions about the economy shift, and why?
Audience – how does thinking about the economy change, based on people’s demographic or economic background?
Framing – what research has already been done to understand the stories that are told (or stories that could be told) about the economy?
Please send us what you can. We’re focusing on the British public in particular, but do send us sources from other cultures if you know of something excellent that we should be aware of.
The binary rhetoric that currently surrounds the welfare state reflects a deep moral narrative with a crippling social impact. ‘Strivers’ and ‘skivers’ are two sides of the same coin. That coin is shame.
One side represents the deserving, and the other side the undeserving. Rachel Reeves, the UK Shadow Work & Pensions Secretary, recently said that: “We [the Labour Party] are not the party of people on benefits.” She faced some criticism for these words, but these are messages we hear daily, from government and opposition alike.
We’re here for hard-working families. We’re here for the taxpayer.
In this narrative, employment equals worth, while unemployment casts you into the world of the untouchables.
Economic policies are created around this notion of worth. Unemployment must be a choice—you’re shirking—so let’s coax you out of it. You don’t need benefits in your first week of unemployment since you should be looking for work. We’ll put sanctions on you if you’re unemployed for too long.
Research SummaryMoney talksThe impact of economic framing on how we act and feel
We’re ‘consumers’ or ‘taxpayers’ and we care about things like ‘pay-off’, ‘return on investment’ and ‘growth’: that’s the bottom line. Right?
Well, I’d put my money on it.
But, actually, when did that happen? When did we start to pepper our meetings, our work, and even dinner conversations with such words and phrases? Sometimes, our use of economic framing has an obvious trigger; take ‘credit crunch’. In one of the recent economic crises, journalists repeatedly used it (with a straight face), and then before you knew it, the 2008 edition of the Oxford English Dictionary carried a new definition of the word ‘crunch’, as meaning “a severe shortage of money or credit”. It was always pretty difficult to pass that particular term casually into everyday conversation, but now we officially associate crunch with economic recession, as well as biscuits.
Economic frames easily creep into everyday language via news media, or advertising, or political rhetoric, but we have little awareness of the effect that might have on the way that we think and behave. Psychological research is finally shedding light on this.