Markets, Local knowledge and Centralized Justice: Frame Negotiation in Educational Policy Discourse


Most approaches to policy analysis inspired by cognitive linguistics adopt a line of inquiry essentially inspired by Lakoff and Johnson’s position on the conceptual underpinnings of speech and thought. The assumption, exemplified among others by Lakoff (1996), Chilton (1996), or Charteris-Black (2004) is that cognitively minded analysis can bring something new to policy analysis, namely a theory of mind, that is better suited to dealing with complex issues than traditional objectivist theories steeped in correspondence theory of meaning and rationalistic rules for determining truth. That assumption, of course, is largely warranted. However, this relationship has been mostly perceived as a one-way street. Research presented in this paper indicates that engagement with the field of policy debates can offer valuable insights into cognition and might even contribute to a reassessment of some of the central theoretical assumptions behind cognitively-oriented approaches to discourse.
To start with, it is not true that policy studies have been exclusively the domain of objectivist philosophies. Schön’s (1963) theory of the displacement of concepts foreshadowed many of Lakoff and Johnson’s insights by nearly two decades and notions of semantic frames can be found in the work of Chicago sociologists of the 1960s (e.g. Becker et al., 1977 [1961]) influencing Goffman and others in the 1970s. Furthermore, work by policy studies researchers such as Gamson (1992) has shown that traditional assumptions about modes of reasoning among voters do not apply. Schön’s and Rein’s (1994) work on frames and policy is further exemplification of this tradition.
Research reported in this paper suggests that one of the central premises of cognitive approaches to rationality (from Lakoff and Johnson, 1980, to Fauconnier and Turner, 2002), namely that the most important property of cognitive processes is that they are unconscious, is not correct. This is not to claim that most of cognition does not take place below the level of conscious reflection. However, it appears that this may not always be the case in high-stakes discourse, such as policy discourse. And it is this kind of discourse that could be argued to contribute the most to the entrenchment of complex mental space mappings. Careful analysis of policy discourse reveals that mental space mappings (from metaphors to folk theories) are subject to hypostasis (also called metacognition) and subsequent negotiation. This negotiation can take place over extended discontinuous discourse such as newspaper debates or internet memes but it is nevertheless present. The crudest form of the assumption that the cognitive foundations of policy are unavailable to discourse participants can be seen in Lakoff (2004) who claims the inevitability of certain mappings is equivalent to not being able to suppress the word ‘elephant’ from one’s mind when commanded “Don’t Think of an Elephant”. Some discontent with this position (co-incidentally shared by much of critical discourse studies) was voiced by O’Halloran (2007).
The current research offers evidence that nothing could be further from the truth. Conceptual frames, including metaphor mappings are constantly being negotiated; sometimes in book-length treatments. For instance, Henig (1994) is an extended plea to limit the mappings of the domain of education to the domain of the marketplace. And there is ample evidence in the associated discourse that participants are able to enter into quite sophisticated negotiations about the limits of metaphor. The fact that this does not lead to predictable voting or policy-making behavior is another matter entirely.
This paper will present further evidence from the area of the debates between central and local control over educational policy. Here, instead of mappings, discourse participants engage in the negotiation of scenarios that structure their conceptual frames. Stories are told in support of one policy position or another that can then be mapped on a particular policy proposal. The standards being applied seem to be ones of topological similarity (not unlike in sympathetic magic) rather than abstract causal criteria.
Final note: This position has a good psychological pedigree in the work of scholars following in the tradition of Vygotsky, Bruner, and others. It also resonates with what has been called ‘the social turn’ in cognitive linguistics.
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