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Tufts OpenCourseware
Author: Kathleen Merrigan, Ph.D.

What is the significance of problem framing and issue formation?

Today we will read Lloyd Etheredge's clever article that demonstrates the importance of problem farming in the formulation of policy solutions. There may be no single or right way to see the problem of the unreturned cafeteria trays. To what extent is policy analysis dependent on how issues are framed and evaluated?

Quotes of the Day

Colin L. Powell served as U.S. Secretary of State from 2001–2005. He was a professional soldier for 35 years and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. During the Vietnam War, Powell asserts, the “problem” was often misframed.

"Readiness and training reports in the Vietnam era were routinely inflated to please and conceal rather than to evaluate and correct. Like the children of Lake Wobegon, everybody came out "above average." The powers that be seemed to believe that by manipulating words, we could change the truth. We had lost touch with reality. We were also deluded by technology. The enemy was primitive, and we were the most technologically advanced nation on earth. It therefore should be no contest. Thus, out of the McNamara shop came miracles like the "people sniffer," a device that could detect concentrations of urine on the ground from an airplane (brought to you by the same people who later came up with Agent Orange). If the urine was detected in likely enemy territory, we now had an artillery target. But woe to any innocent peasants or water buffalos that happened to relieve themselves in the wrong place. The people sniffer was a piece with McNamara's Line, a series of electronic sensors strung across the country that were going to alert us whenever an enemy force began moving down the Ho Chi Minh Trail, an idea stillborn."

Colin Powell, My American Journey, 1995, Random House Inc.

Discussion Questions

A frame is a boundary that cuts off parts of something from our vision. How did the framing of issues described by Powell contribute to problems in Vietnam? Deborah Stone describes numbers as a kind of metaphor. Every day The New York Times prints a box with the names of American service members who have died in the Iraq War. How might this kind of accounting influence U.S. policy toward Iraq? Are there other ways of counting that may frame issues differently?


  • Donald Schon and Martin Rein. Chap. 6, Homelessness in Mass., FrameReflection: Toward the Resolution of Intractable Policy Controversies. Basic Books, 1994.
  • William Browne, Jerry Skees, et al. Chaps. 1-2, Sacred Cows and Hot Potatoes. Westview Press, 1992.
  • Migues Altieri et al. Chap. 19, The Potential of Agroecology to Combat Hunger in the Developing World, in Per Pinstrup-Anderson and Rajul Pandya-Lorch (eds), The Unfinished Agenda, IFPRI, 2001.
  • Lloyd Etheredge. The Case of the Unreturned Cafeteria Trays. American Political Science Association, 1976.