Identity Frames

Robert Gardner

Originally published, June 2003; "Current Implications" added by Heidi Burgess in June, 2017.

MBI MOOS LogoCurrent Implications

Those of you who have been reading the Conflict Fundamentals Seminar consistently may find this entry a bit repetitive.  But it explains more about identity frames than our earlier posts have done, so we are including it here.More...

Defining Identity Frames

Drawing from the larger body of general research on conflict framing, the concept of identity frames illustrates the various ways in which people view themselves in the context of specific conflicts. It also allows us to think about how individuals who are part of a larger group are influenced by their affiliation with and participation in that group.

Why Frames Matter

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A frame is an interpretive device that all people use when making sense of the world around them. Because the task of processing information about our social world is difficult, complex, and often cumbersome, especially when addressing social conflicts, we must use devices that help us make better sense of any given situation. All individuals use frames to aid in deciding where and how we fit into a conflict and what, if anything we can do as a response. Using the metaphor of a picture frame, the concept of "frame" acts as a device to draw borders around what is and is not important. Just as a picture frame defines what is and what is not included in a picture, conflict frames define what is and is not important to consider when faced with a conflict.

The Importance of Identity Frames

The concept of identity frame is an important one because it allows us to analyze how individuals' identity and group affiliation influence how they view and respond to conflict. Because identity describes who we are as a person, we tend to protect those things (beliefs, values, group affiliations) that help create our sense of self. When individuals' identities are threatened or challenged through conflict, they respond in ways that reinforce their allegiance to these affiliations. In a nutshell, identity frames "crop" information and perspectives that do not align with or perhaps contradict features of an individual's core identity.

Where Frames Come From

Identity frames are created in a number of ways and are influenced by multiple factors. Individuals' understanding of their core beliefs, values, and sense of self influences how they will respond in a conflict. Often people see themselves as an advocate of a particular set of values (environmentalism, conservation, freedom, equality) and frame the conflict based on how the alternatives advance one or more of a particular set of interests.

Group Identification: The different groups of which individuals are a part also influence their orientation toward the conflict and toward other parties involved. For example, when deciding whether to support new legislation calling for prayer in public schools, one's identity as a fundamentalist Christian would result in a more favorable frame toward the policy. One would likely frame the conflict through the values of one's church community, rather than through the values of personal choice or preference. This framing, in turn, influences how the individual will consider the merits of opposing arguments and positions on the conflict. When people view themselves as a part of a larger group, position, institution, or set of values, they will behave in ways that protect these markers of identity.

In a nutshell, identity frames "crop" information and perspectives that do not align with or perhaps contradict features of an individual's core identity.

Social/Institutional Roles: One's role in society, as student, parent, friend, activist, victim, guardian, relative, boss, or employee, can dramatically influence one's identity frames. In turn, each of these societal roles can influence the options we see available. For example, when considering options for moving the boundaries of school attendance areas, thus changing which school particular children will go to, the way we frame the ensuing dispute depends on our particular social and institutional role. As a parent, people may view the dispute in terms of how the outcome would affect their children or perhaps their ability to parent. (Parents generally do not want their children to be forced to move, unless they are being moved into a better school.) School administrators may be more interested in how the outcome would affect teachers or the overall budget of the school system. As an employee, people may be more interested in how this relocation would affect their employment status. Based on our different roles, we will see and respond to (frame) the dispute differently based on the needs and interests of our particular role. Role conflict may occur when two of our roles clash (perhaps our roles as parent and administrator).

Additional insights into identity frames are offered by Beyond Intractability project participants.

Our institutional affiliation (logger, rancher, federal employee, state house representative, mayor, president of a chemical company, director of an environmental organization) may also facilitate or inhibit particular ways of looking at a conflict. For example, as a politician, we may evaluate first and foremost how the outcome of a particular dispute (or even the processes we used to address the conflict) may influence our ability to be re-elected. In this case, the politician would make choices based on a frame that considers only those behaviors that make good politics. A sound solution may not be considered because the "politician frame" did not allow that option to come into view.

Ethnic/Racial/Cultural Identity

Individuals' identity frames are also strongly influenced by their affiliation with a particular ethnic group (Polish, Irish, African, Peruvian), racial background (Hispanic, African-American, Asian-American), place (the South, the Midwest, Flowing Gardens subdivision, Los Angeles, Texas, South America) or participation in a particular cultural or sub-cultural group (hippie, retired, female, lesbian, lawyer, elderly, disabled). Members of a particular cultural identity group are likely to operate from a frame that evaluates how a particular conflict will affect members of the larger group.

In one case featuring a dispute over neighborhood redevelopment, different cultural groups may frame the same problem in drastically different ways. For example, a proposed development requires tearing down an old blues club to build a new set of apartments that includes a medical facility for the elderly. Certain African-American groups and the local musicians' guild are upset that their only form of entertainment in the community will be lost. However, the elderly population sees the conflict through a frame that considers the significant expansion of health services in the neighborhood. Still other, older members of the Polish community are concerned that the new buildings conform to the "old world" architectural style of the surrounding buildings. Based on the interests and needs of the larger cultural identity group, rather than on solely individual beliefs, their members are likely to use a frame that prioritizes examining the effects of the conflict on their specific group (see Cultural Frames).

Current Implications


Those of you who have been reading the Conflict Fundamentals Seminar consistently may find this entry a bit repetitive.  But it explains more about identity frames than our earlier posts have done, so we are including it here.

We also are including it because identity framing is so very important in explaining current political conflicts in the United States, as well as in many other places in the world right now.  People in the U.S. have become increasingly and distressingly polarized into one of two identity frames: conservatives who may (or may not have)  have supported Donald Trump when he was a candidate, but who are steadfastly defending him now, and liberals who are focused on resisting everything Trump and his Republican allies do.  Some of this polarization relates to traditional liberal/conservative differences over such things as the role of government in society, taxes, and fiscal policy.  Thomas Edsall asserts that those issues are fading in importance, and the new key difference is between globalists and nationalists...people, who like most of the elite of both parties favor global engagement, trade, and relatively loose immigration policies, versus nationalists, who, like Trump supporters, want to more strongly defend American borders by limiting interactions with the outside world as much as possible--pulling out of global treaties and trade agreements, building walls, slowing or even stopping immigration.

All of these issues are driven by their supporters' identity frames...people either identify themselves as "patriotic white Americans" who want to defend white America from what they perceive as an attack from "outsiders," or they see themselves as Americans and global citizens who want to interact effectively and cooperatively with people all over the world. 

Identity frames lead to many more differences as well...for instance, see the other examples provided in the original article.

Then consider for yourself what your identity is...and how that likely shapes the way you see the world and hope/plan for the future! 

--Heidi Burgess, June, 27 2017

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Use the following to cite this article:
Gardner, Robert. "Identity Frames." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: June 2003 <>.

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