Kate Holliday – Policy controversies and political polarisation: A dynamic frame analysis of the GRA debate
What makes a problem, a problem? How does the way we conceive of, and talk about, problems affect what policy solutions are proposed to resolve them? What could be revealed by unpicking representations of a problem, trying to understand what assumptions are being made, and what is not being considered? How would these insights aid in the understanding of political polarisation and enduring policy debates?
Frame analysis has proven a useful approach for studying ‘policy controversies’, characterised as enduring, seemingly unresolvable debates in which participating stakeholders disagree not only on the substance of the arguments about the issue, but on the interpretation and relevancy of the evidence put forward. An analysis of frames – a concept developed from Goffman’s seminal work, describing how we make sense of the world around us – within these debates can reveal how perspectives on and representations of an issue are shaped and underpinned by particular foundations of beliefs and knowledge, and how the language used to describe an issue conveys a number of assumptions about it, depending on which elements are emphasised and which are ignored. The frame through which a problem is perceived and represented then determines which policy solution will be seen as appropriate to tackle it.
Frame analysis methodology has been deftly and effectively applied to gendered policy cases, notably Erikson’s analysis of prostitution in Sweden. Considering Sweden’s criminalisation of the purchase of sexual services as an example of ‘gendered institutional change’, Erikson uses what she calls a ‘dynamic frame analysis’ to study how this change occurred, mapping out the different ways in which the issue of prostitution is framed, and how this has changed as certain frames have gained and lost institutional influence over time. Combining frame analysis methodology with an overarching feminist institutionalist lens, Erikson assesses how these frames consider and conceive of gender, and what kinds of gendered ideas are therefore institutionalised as certain frames gain traction.
My research focuses on recent debates in Scottish and UK politics over proposed reforms to the Gender Recognition Act 2004 (GRA), as a case study of both a ‘policy controversy’ and of ‘gendered institutional change’. This policy debate builds on long-standing disagreements over the concepts of sex and gender, with tensions between the view that gender identity is innate, self-determined, and should be recognised, and the view that gender identity should not take precedence over the immutable characteristic of sex. These conflicting perspectives have emerged and clashed in this ongoing policy debate over GRA reform proposals, with calls from trans rights groups to move to a self-declaration model, and both feminist support and feminist resistance to these campaigns.
The GRA was first introduced as a provision for transgender people in the UK to change their legal sex – if an individual can fulfil several requirements including having a diagnosis of gender dysphoria and evidence of living in the ‘acquired gender’ for at least two years, their application will be assessed by a Gender Recognition Panel, who may then grant a Gender Recognition Certificate, which allows the applicant to obtain a new birth certificate reflecting the newly recognised legal sex. Some trans rights groups and individuals have characterised this process as intrusive, demeaning, and difficult to access, and have therefore lobbied for reform to remove existing gatekeeping and require only a statutory declaration on a self-ID basis. Both the Scottish and UK Governments have since conducted public consultations on the issue, with the Scottish Government currently considering a bill for reform, which is supported by some feminist organisations. Other feminist groups have pushed back on these proposals, arguing that a self-declaration model will enshrine and legitimise a problematic and antifeminist conceptualisation of gender in law, rendering women’s single-sex spaces and services unworkable.
My research will investigate framing within the debates over these proposed reforms, both from the Scottish and UK Governments, and other participating stakeholders, through documentary analysis and interviews with key actors. I will consider how the framing and mediation of the issue may have shaped and constrained actors, debate, and the policy process, and how frames may create dynamics of polarisation and toxicity. The analysis will examine underlying (gendered) meanings and assumptions within frames, taking into account the silences within them, and how these frames could be – and have been – disrupted. Following Erikson’s approach, I will consider how certain frames have gained and lost influence over time, and what kinds of gendered ideas have been institutionalised as frames gain legitimacy. This research will therefore provide an in-depth analysis of an ongoing, far-reaching case, build upon and contribute to frame analysis and feminist institutionalist literature, and explore the nature of polarised, contentious, and complex policy disputes.
Donald Schön and Martin Rein (1994) Frame Reflection: Toward the Resolution of Intractable Policy Controversies. New York: Basic Books.
Erving Goffman (1974) Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience. New York: Harper & Row.
Josefina Erikson (2017) Criminalizing the Client: Institutional Change, Gendered Ideas and Feminist Strategies. London: Rowman & Littlefield International.
This blog post is inspired by a poster I presented at GENDER.ED’s Annual Research Showcase on 30 May 2022.
Kate Holliday is a PhD candidate at the School of Social and Political Science. Her research focuses on framing and political polarisation in contentious policy disputes, using the ongoing debates over proposed reforms to the Gender Recognition Act (GRA) as a case study. This research examines how framing is used and navigated by governments and organisations, and the resulting impact on policy and conduct of debate.