Dr Emo Gotsbachner,
Dept. of Political Science, Vienna University

The Frame Project investigates fundamental processes of understanding and alignment in public opinion formation. Effects of political rhetoric depend on how it is understood and reacted to by audiences, which are highly heterogeneous in terms of political orientation and socio-cultural background. Mediatized political discourses are thus subject to different reinterpretations by various audiences, because they are bound to a specific ‘Weltanschauung’ and perspective, which is recognizable and reacted to in quite different ways. Conventional discourse analyses rather had ignored or evaded that problem of often radically different interpretations by different social groups. Our research project, in contrast, made it the basic topic under investigation and developed a sophisticated methodology to elucidate the antagonistic ways how competing discourses structure people’s perceptions of a complex social and political world.

We have explored how political actors aim to establish their interpretive frames of political issues, and how socioculturally and politically diverse audiences make sense of these abundant, competing representations when watching political panel-discussions on the evening news of Austrian television (ORF). In televised live-discussions top political actors (ministers, political party leaders) regularly try to assert their views on current political events while competing with a political opponent about their definitions of the underlying social problem, their diagnoses of cause and effect, and their implicit remedies. We have presented such political panel discussions to different ‘organic’ groups of TV-consumers shortly after their original broadcast, at a time when the matters discussed were still new to them, and invited them to explain what is going on and how they make sense of it. Recording these rich accounts and analysing them meticulously by discourse analytic means enabled us to explore what is relevant to audiences themselves when assigning credibility and importance to different aspects of politically motivated representation. In subsequent analytical steps we used computer software for qualitative analysis (Atlas-ti) to review these extensive, complex materials in order to gain more fundamental insights: Which discursive propositions from the political discussants’ rhetorical strategies were ratified in which way, by which audiences, and what influenced their alignment of interpretative frames when adopting them as close-to-experience definitions of social reality.

Our innovative analytic methodology allows us to reconstruct from these reception-group-recordings, how audience members understand competing political representations, how they use their own social knowledge to reframe and rearrange them to their own, consistent picture, and even make reasonable statements about the aspects of some representations which resonate with their beliefs in a way that makes certain interpretive frames more acceptable to them then others. From a more general perspective those cases are especially interesting, where political actors successfully establish their interpretative frames beyond their ‘own’ constituency, because where interpretative frames become dominant and their definitions of social roles, problems and conditions spread to the wider public, one can expect to find a basic leverage point of social and political dynamics.