Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1998


Triandafyllidou, A. and Fotiou, A. (1998) 'Sustainability and Modernity in the European Union: A Frame Theory Approach to Policy-Making'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 3, no. 1, <>

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Received: 14/4/97      Accepted: 18/2/98     Published: 31/3/98


Frame analysis has been often used by scholars studying New Social Movements to analyze their discourses and their ability to mobilise people. This paper refers to the application of 'frame analysis' to a different context, namely to discourses of both social movements and institutional actors in the context of public policy-making. More particularly, the study is concerned with the discourses of social actors who participate in the making of EU environmental policy. The advantages and limitations of frame analysis as a method for analysing discourse in an institutional context are discussed. Two case-studies are used to highlight the pros and cons of the method. First, the competing discourses of environmental organisations, business associations, and EU officials with regard to environmental sustainability and the Fifth Action Programme are examined. The second case study addresses the issue of Trans- European Transport Networks (TEN-Ts) and examines different types of framing of sustainable mobility developed by policy actors. Conclusions are drawn with regard to the contribution of frame theory in the analysis of policy-making processes.

Environmental Policy; European Union; Frame Analysis; Qualitative Methods; Sustainable Development; Trans- European Networks


Discourse analysis has been an influential analytical and methodological tradition which may be related to a number of different disciplines ranging from linguistics to ethnomethodology and social psychology.[2] This study concentrates on a specific approach within it defined as frame analysis which has been developed since the early 80s. Research based on this approach has mainly been used to study political communication and media discourse (Snow & Benford, 1988; 1992; Gamson & Lasch, 1983; Snow et al, 1986; Gamson & Modigliani, 1989; Tarrow, 1992; Benford, 1993). More particularly, frame analysis has been adopted by scholars studying New Social Movements to analyse their ability to mobilise people. Relevant research is based on a constructionist approach towards reality; discourse is viewed as a language act through which symbolic constructs are made real. Social actors, thus, use these constructs not simply to make sense of reality but also to shape it in a particular way. Frame analysis is concerned with the negotiation and (re)construction of reality by social/political actors through the use of symbolic tools.

This study refers to the application of frame analysis to public policy-making. The paper is concerned with the discourses of economic actors, environmental organisations and EU officials who participate in the making of European environmental and transport policy.

Frame theory has been chosen as a potentially rewarding method for studying the process of environmental and transport policy-making for two reasons. On the one hand, it offers a cultural, discursive perspective for the study of social actor participation in the process of policy formation. On the other hand, it proves to be an advantageous method for the analysis of the EU institutional framework which requires problems to be solved through negotiation and thus constrains social and political actors to strive for consensus. Frame analysis will thus be used to study the discursive mechanisms through which policy options are (re)defined.

Two case-studies will be taken up in this research. First, the competing discourses of environmental organisations, business associations, and EU officials with regard to the concept of environmental sustainability and the Fifth Environmental Action Programme of the European Commission will be examined. Interview material will be used to investigate competing interpretations of sustainability adopted by different actors. The second case-study will address a specific policy domain, namely Trans-European Transport Networks [TENTs]. Different types of framing of sustainable mobility developed by environmental groups, economic actors and policy-makers will be analysed. Conclusions will be drawn from the findings of either study with regard to the contribution of frame analysis in studying policy-making processes and investigating the role that social movements as well as institutional actors play in these.

Frames as Cognitive Tool-Kits

The concept of frames is not novel in the social sciences. It has been used in the work of Goffman (1974) but also in psychiatry (Bateson, 1972) and in psychology (Piaget, 1954; Minsky, 1975). The concept of schema has also been adopted in cognitive psychology to account for similar functions as those of a frame (Kelley, 1972; Hastie, 1981; Marcus & Zajonc, 1985). Moreover, other terms such as script, scenario or package have been used to denote interpretive schemes used to make sense of one's environment.

Frames are defined as symbolic- interpretive constructs. They include beliefs, images or symbols shared by people in a given society. Each society disposes of a limited pool of such interpretive schemes which people use to make sense of the world. The concept of frames refers, thus, to the everyday use of such schemes which make social reality meaningful.

According to framing theory, people tend to order experience by relating it to an already known pattern. Perceptive elements are recognised by reference to a pre-existing cognitive structure. The tendency to refer to stable and recurring patterns in order to recognise new stimuli is confirmed also by psychological studies. Heider (1958) affirms that people perceive reality and form expectations with respect to it by linking temporary attitudes with pre-existing stable patterns of behaviour. Thus, diverse elements are linked to an already known and persistent background which becomes a point of reference for the individual.

This cognitive-psychological heuristics has two important implications. First, that people tend to perceive selectively since they are attracted by those perceptive elements that are more familiar to them. Furthermore, the elements that fit into pre-existing cognitive frames are more easily recognisable. They acquire prominence and distinctiveness with respect to other stimuli provided by a text/message. The second implication is that also conception and understanding are based on these pre-organised patterns. As Eco (1979; cited in Donati, 1994: p. 5) argues, people perceive the world through cognitive frames that are already present in the perceiver's (or reader's) culture or memory. Thus, meaning (of the world or of a text) is provided by culture (the culture of the user/perceiver/reader) more than by external objects (situations, persons or texts).[3]

The role of frames as a means to focus attention and selectively emphasise objects, situations or events has been shown in studies dealing with media discourse and newsmaking in particular (Tuchman, 1978; Gans, 1979; Gitlin, 1980). On the other hand, collective action research has highlighted the role of frames "as accenting devices that either underscore and embellish the seriousness and injustice of a social condition or redefine as unjust and immoral what was previously seen as unfortunate but perhaps tolerable" (Snow and Benford, 1992: p. 137). Collective action frames aim not only at problem identification but also at attribution of blame or causality (Snow and Benford, 1988: p. 200). Furthermore, scholars have investigated their prognostic function, namely their capacity to propose specific courses of action. Targets as well as strategies to achieve them are identified through collective action frames. Finally, they have mobilising potency because they launch a call for action and also offer a rationale for it (Snow and Benford, 1988: p. 202) which goes beyond the diagnosis and prognosis of a problem.

The frame analytic approach in the study of policy process can inform the traditional approaches on the analysis of policy making, in particular the rational actor and pluralist paradigms which have become increasingly popular among scholars studying public policy. By stressing only certain sets of factors both rationalists and pluralists produce different explanations of the problem of policy formation. Within the rational actor paradigm, the focal units of analysis are individual policy makers (Weale, 1993), who are assumed to have clear-cut preferences over alternative outcomes. The process of choosing among certain policies is thought to be based on the assumptions that, firstly, research and scientific evidence has clarified the consequences of a policy, rendering it an 'objectively (in)correct' policy; and, secondly, policy makers act rationally to the extent that they do their best to satisfy the combined welfare needs of those affected by their 'objectively correct' decisions. Owing to their clarity, policy outputs are not seen as resulting from serious conflicts of interest; they are rather the products of rational deliberations (Jones, 1994).

The pluralist paradigm, on the other hand, which arose in reaction to the econonomistic and a-political character of the rational actor model (Schön and Rhein, 1994), stresses the political conflicts involved in policy formation. Multiple interest groups, holding conflicting interests, compete for control over the definition of policy and the allocation of resources. Contrary to the rational actor paradigm, pluralists view policy outputs as the products of a competitive political game in which multiple interest groups strive to achieve their conflicting purposes. Pluralists switch the focus of attention from instrumental rationality of policy actors to political rationality of institutions and pressure groups in the policy game (Alford and Friedland, 1985; McLennan, 1989).

The explanations provided by either model are based on the hypothesis of preference satisfaction under the spectrum of the 'common good'. Rational actor analysts understand policies as the product of a process in which decision makers broke the policy problem into component parts and examined alternatives for each part of it, in each case choosing the best, 'optimum' alternative. Pluralist analysts, on the other hand, concentrate on the role of organised groups in focusing the policy process and assess the correspondence between organised preferences (ie. environmentalists, bureaucrats, transport industry) and policy outcomes (ie. policy on TENTs).

Even though concepts such as problem, intelligence, optimum, common good, rationality and preference occupy central positions in these models, they are usually striped off their intrinsic dynamism and cultural determinants. In the reality of policy practice, the quest for policy rationality can come easily to a nought. The prevailing models of policy rationality -preference, agrumentation, interest- can at best provide an incomplete framework for the analysis of policy practice. They cannot explain or respond effectively to the fact that inherently contradicting policy decisions are often adopted (cf. Schön and Rhein, 1994). Such cases remind us that the relevance of rationality in the process of policy-making is not only bounded, but also -when it does occur- highly dynamic and symbolically constructed. Thus, in the face of common framing over a policy problem both, rational actor and pluralist policy analyses, have a lot to offer. The same paradigms, however, in the face of frame change or frame conflict over the same problem and the inforrmation around it, offer almost nothing.

The discussion over sustainability and, especially, the problem of its realisation in the field of transport via the concept of sustainable mobilty, are highly contested issues, the discourse of which involves a wide range of frames and myths. Frame analysis contributes to the conceptual construction of the field of the symbolic struggles over such issues (Eder, 1996: p. 204). In order to explain inherently contradicting policies such as sustainable development, and to adequately analyse the impact of environmentalism on transport policy discourse in the EU, a frame analytic approach can be particularly fruitful. In brief, the argument here is that policy analysis needs to disaggregate and explore the frames involved in a specific policy.

The aim of this paper is to show how frame analysis may contribute to the understanding of policy-making processes and their dynamics. More particularly, the study examines the ways in which social actors use competing or convergent frames to (re)construct a specific cultural orientation which favours and justifies their own policy positions. Frames, in this case, are used to emphasise specific policy matters and offer a particular interpretation of situations and events as well as attribute blame and responsibility. Moreover, they suggest suitable courses of action to resolve and prevent relevant problems. Frame analysis is able to show how competing interpretations and perspectives may lead to dramatically different policy designs. Thus, for example, in the area of public health, the attribution of disease and illness to biological, medical, social or cultural factors influences significantly the choice of prevention measures (cf. Conrad and Kern, 1994).

This type of analysis of the policy- making process highlights the fact that public policy issues are not characterised by any objective condition, intrinsic to them, which assigns them the quality of "social problems". Their definition depends rather on the claimsmaking activities of individuals or groups within society who make "assertions of grievances and claims with respect to some putative conditions" (Spector and Kitsuse, 1987: p. 75).[4] Thus, the attempt to use frame analysis in the study of environmental policy aims at casting light on the role of the various policy actors in defining the problem in specific ways and proposing suitable measures for resolving it.

The approach in this paper, finally, although rests within the fields of social psychology, is more sociological than psychological in that its focus is not on each specific actor in isolation but rather in the interaction context of collective actors involved in the policy process.

Environmental Policy-Making in the EU: Two Case-Studies

The two case-studies presented in this paper examine the competing frames related by different social actors to the concept of environmental sustainability and to the equivalent to it in the transport sector - sustainable mobility. The notions of sustainability and sustainable development have been introduced by the Fifth Environmental Action Programme (CEC, 1992a) as the guidelines of future environmental policy within the EU. Sustainable development has been defined by the Brundtland Report (World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987: p.43) as "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." Thus, according to the same report, economic and social development must be defined in terms of sustainability. In conformity with these guidelines, the European Commission introduced the concept of sustainable mobility (CEC, 1992b) to inform future policies in the transport sector.

With regard to the first study, our aim has been to highlight the use of discursive frames in the general environmental policy debate. Sustainable development is by itself a broad concept, rich in cultural connotations and encompassing a number of policy areas including economy, trade, welfare, employment, tourism, culture and others. Moreover, it is a highly contested concept. Thus, in talking about their views and positions with regard to environmental sustainability and the Fifth Environmental Action Programme, our interviewees might refer to a variety of related concepts, arguments and discursive frames. Thus, we have gained an overall knowledge of their positions concerning environmental protection and a global view of the frames organising the environmental policy debate.

The second case-study, in contrast, refers to a highly technical issue, namely the development of Trans-European Transport Networks (TEN-Ts). The focus is clearly on transport needs and services, investments and profits, which, however, are linked to the overall environmentalist debate through the concept of sustainable mobility. This case-study offers the opportunity to examine whether the discursive structures and cognitive frames identified in relation to environmental sustainability are reproduced when the debate concentrates on a specific policy issue.

Overall, the two studies aim at showing how social actors re-define policy options and promote solutions that are favourable to their interests and/or views through framing sustainability and sustainable mobility in different ways. The analysis of actors' discourse, thus, highlights the cultural and symbolic dynamics which underlie policy decisions.

The Database

The texts used in the empirical research are based on interviews with economic actors, environmental organisations and officials of the European Commission. Interviews have been conducted on the basis of a guiding scheme which was used in a flexible way. Although essential points were discussed in all interviews, the order and phrasing of the questions did not always follow the same sequence. Interviewees were encouraged to express freely their opinions, ie. the opinion of the organisation they represented, with regard to specific concepts or policies. The main points taken up during an interview included sustainable development, sustainable mobility, subsidiarity with regard to sustainable development policy, voluntary approach/dialogue, responsibility/Polluter Pays Principle, technological vs. market instruments for the achievement of a sustainable society, the role of the public, and economic growth and sustainability.

The database[5] includes fourteen interviews (eight for the first case- study and six for the second) among which seven have been conducted with EU officials, three interviews have been conducted with representatives of the business sector, and another four interviews with representatives of environmental organisations.


Texts have been coded according to a coding scheme constructed for the purposes of the research. The coding scheme[6] is divided in three main sections. The first section (A) concerns the objective indicators related to the texts coded, e.g. the date, the name of the person interviewed and the organisation or service s/he works for. A second section (B) includes the policy issues referred to during the interview and associated with the need for sustainable development or sustainable mobility. The third part of the coding scheme concerns the frames (C) used by the actors in their discourse. In this section of the coding, segments of text (words or short sentences) which highlight the specific use of rhetoric devices or symbolic constructs in the discourse are inserted in the database.

Previous work on the different conceptions of nature in modern culture, in particular the value efficiency vs. equilibrium dilemma (Eder, 1990: pp. 72 - 76), the notions of science, progress and control over nature as well as their contestation by ideas of risk (cf. Beck, 1992; Lash et al, 1996) have led us to the definition of a set of initial coding categories. These included the frames of scientification/rationalisation, public vs. private interest, appeal to economic interests, mobilisation of anxiety and fear and aestheticisation. The frame of moralisation was added to the list, to account for the (supposedly) intrinsically moralising character of environmental communication (Eder, 1993). The frame of personification was added as a framing device used often in both media and policy discourse to provide simple accounts of complex matters through the identification of a specific problem or its solution with a particular individual (cf. Triandafyllidou, 1996). These categories have been slightly modified during the coding. The notion of partnership, for instance, has been added to the frame of public vs. private interest which has eventually been defined as "appeal to collective interest and partnership". In such cases, where changes were introduced into a frame category, the coder went back to look for passages in the interviews coded previously, that might have been included in the new category (cf. Reicher and Hopkins, 1996: p. 359). The final version of the coding scheme included the following frame categories: mobilisation of anxiety and fear; personification; moralisation; scientification and rationalisation; appeal to collective interest and partnership; appeal to economic interests, employment and growth; and aestheticisation. It is worth noting however that the computer application created for this scheme using Foxpro2 software allowed the insertion of new categories during the coding. Moreover, multiple coding was possible within each set of coding categories. Overall, the computer application of the coding scheme has facilitated data insertion and management.

The Frames

The section that follows concentrates on the analysis of the frames used by the interviewees. Three frames prevail in the interview texts: a) the strategy of rationalisation and scientification, namely the appeal to the "objective" validity of scientific knowledge on which modern society is based; b) the appeal to the common interest of the collectivity and the common responsibility of all social actors as partners-stakeholders; and c) the framing of sustainability with reference to economic interests, growth, employment and market expansion. Moreover, actors sometimes adopt a moralising viewpoint with regard to environmental concerns through appeals to ethical, religious or political principles. Finally, three of the frames included in the coding scheme remain completely marginal throughout the discourse: the frame of aestheticisation, i.e. the appeal to the beauty of nature; the mobilisation of feelings of fear and anxiety with regard to the depletion of natural resources; and the identification of sustainable development policy with specific individuals, i.e. the frame of personification, and will not, therefore, be further discussed in the study.

Frames of Sustainability in the EU Environmental Policy-Making


Moral claims hold a secondary position in the interview texts analysed. Although an appeal to the responsibility of contemporary society towards future generations is inherent into the idea of sustainable development, no such claim is used as a frame. The interviewees also neglect any appeal to religious or ethical responsibility. The strategy of moralisation is developed only by environmental actors with reference to the general political and economic responsibility of society towards its weaker members.

We were pointing since three years the importance of addressing the question of equity (..) because it is absolutely clear, you cannot expect to internalise the pollution and so on and so forth, if you are not taking care of the poor. (Environmentalist, 2 emphasis added)

Our interviewee does not clarify whether "taking care of the poor" means assisting under-developed countries or regions to catch up or whether it points to a system of social welfare or both. Nevertheless, it is clear that for environmental actors, sustainability is inextricably related to the principles of solidarity and equity. From this point of view, sustainable development is more than mere preservation of natural resources. It implies a twofold right to development and to a clean environment for all.

The frame of moralisation supports thus the idea of shared responsibility ('partnership') towards the environment. However, it is worth noting that economic or institutional actors mention no moral obligation of assisting the poor in their discourse. The principle of equity is pointed out by environmentalists only who seem to define sustainability as a new ethical code for society in general.


The appeal to science and rationality forms part of the grand narrative of progress which characterises modern industrialised societies. Technical knowledge, scientific expertise and economic rationality are central to the capitalist system of production. Moreover, trust in expert systems is one of the main features of modernity (Giddens, 1990). Not surprisingly, thus, the scientification/rationalisation frame is adopted not only by industry and bureaucrats but also by environmentalists.

However, different conceptions of rationality seem to lie behind the claims of each group of actors. Environmental groups link sustainability with instrumental rationality. "You have to have resources in order to use them," argues a Greenpeace representative. Economic actors, however, fight back putting forward a market perspective:

For me, those parts of industrial activity which can be changed to use less resources, to have less costs are the ones that are going to be implemented and those parts of environmental aspirations which are simply additional costs ... they are going to be bad for the environment as well. (Economic Actor, 2)

Their view of rationality lies in the feedback mechanisms of the market system. Environmental solutions will be promoted to the extent that they are economically efficient. Sustainability is secured by the adaptation mechanisms of the market.

Moreover, economic actors raise an objectivity claim with regard to their policy positions:

But if you are recycling in a logical way, you find where is the trickiest stream, then you find where is the biggest producers and you go to them and say: What are you going to do about that? That would be the sensible way. ... the biggest common ground would be the logical one which would be to incinerate with energy recovery ... from the technological and scientific and energy point of view this is a very logical conclusion. (Economic Acto, 2, emphasis added)

Industry representatives claim that there is a direct link between what is "logical" and what is "scientifically correct". Their understanding of sustainability, they argue, is in line with scientific findings and is therefore, incontestable.

Institutional actors affirm their faith in science rather than in the market. Regulation is based on accurate technical knowledge obtained from scientific research. In order to make a decision regarding a specific policy measure:

... what I want to know is what is the latest state of technology, what kind of projects could I finance, who could I impose on, emission standards on? ... my natural context is the expert. (DG-XI Official, 2 )

In conclusion, each actor frames his/her own viewpoint with a claim to rationality and scientific validity. Business actors emphasise economic rationality while bureaucrats point to their faith in expert systems. Environmental actors opt for pragmatism; "utility means that you have to preserve in order to use" (Environmentalist, 2), neglecting the complex nature of capitalism as a system of continuous growth and self-adaptation through the investment-profit- investment cycle.

Overall, the use of the rationalisation/scientification frame by all social actors suggests that sustainability is conceptualised as a strategy for making environmental policy more efficient. It also shows that sustainability is a modern concept which subscribes to the dominant paradigm of economic and technological development.

Appeal to the Common Interest and the Idea of Partnership

The Fifth Environmental Action Programme (CEC, 1992a: pp. 3 - 4) stresses the importance of equitable distribution of natural resources as a main objective of EU environmental policy. Moreover, it requires the sharing of responsibilities in accordance with the environmental impact of the various types of activities. In other words, nature is seen as a common, non-dividable pool of resources. In conformity with this view, social actors often frame sustainable development into an appeal to the collective good. Sustainability is related to the idea that business, consumers and the state, are partners-stakeholders in environmental protection.

The appeal to the common interest and social partnership is however developed in different directions depending on the interests of each group of actors. Industry associations, for instance, stress the importance of voluntary action. Their conceptualisation of sustainability is thus contrasted to a regulation approach in which the common interest is defined and protected by the law. For business actors, the starting point for sustainable development is the idea that "we are on the same boat as all our partners" (Economic Actor, 1) and, therefore, we have to "work together" (ibid). However, the voluntary approach here seems to be a free market policy in disguise. In the absence of environmental legislation, industry may compress environmental costs to boost its profits and competitiveness, promoting, thus, its specific group interest at the expense of the public good.

Environmentalists are also in favour of the notion of social partnership with regard to environmental matters but concentrate on the public interest and the role of public opinion.

Public opinion has a big influence but it should have bigger. ... People start to understand that if they do not make noise, they do not get anything. ... You have to mobilise people." (Environmentalist, 2)

Furthermore, they raise a claim for democratic policy-making:

We [environmental organisations] represent ... democracy. Because public decision-makers have turned the public policy-making into the private sphere, the private interest who only care for their short-term profit and do not care about the circumstances in which they make it (ibid)

The conflicting positions of industry and environmentalists are, to a certain extent, reconciled by the institutional actors' discourse. EU officials emphasise the importance of voluntary action:

If you have an informal network based on good will of everybody, then you can accept that sometimes some things are not happening. (DG-XI Official, 3)

while stressing the main problem of the partnership approach, ie. the fact that each actor opts for their private interest instead of searching for a common standpoint:

I think one of the big problems of the EU and the European Commission is that they should try to think in less absolute terms; because everybody in every DG is only looking for the maximum of its own policies, but not for the optimum for the Commission or for the Union. (ibid)

Even though the quest for burden- sharing seems a logical response to the globalisation and interdependence that characterise the modern world (Giddens, 1990: pp. 63 - 65), social actors do not agree on the policy strategies necessary to implement the common responsibility principle. Industry associations are reluctant towards the adoption of legislative instruments. They confide in a voluntary approach to environmental protection which, however, risks to be levelled out by market competition. Environmentalists, on the other hand, call for popular mobilisation in order to protect the public interest. They are diffident towards a non-binding regime. The EU bureaucracy concentrates on the technical details of the partnership approach. It thus seeks to reconcile the interests of economic actors with the public interest for environmental protection.

In conclusion, the idea of social partnership remains a contested framework for environmental sustainability although, in principle, all actors agree on the importance of sharing not only the advantages of nature but also the costs of its preservation.

Appeal to Economic Interests

The idea of growth is inherent in the concept of sustainability to the extent that the latter introduces a new model of socio- economic development. Besides, the preservation of natural resources is inevitably related to production and consumption patterns. Therefore, it is not surprising that the appeal to economic interests is a dominant frame in the discourse of all actors. Economic actors define sustainable development policies as a "business opportunity"; "it is all linked to making money" (Economic Actor, 2).

More specifically, environmental sustainability is framed within a marketing approach:

Car recycling has a fairly competitive element to it because the public would like their car to be entirely recyclable, at least that is part of the image of the market, and individual companies try to demonstrate that their cars are more recyclable than the next one. (ibid)

Thus, environmental protection creates a new field for marketing and opens up new possibilities for companies to gain a competitive edge for their products. This type of framing ignores the environmental component of sustainable development, namely the necessity to preserve natural resources. Moreover, it neglects the fact that environmental resources are a matter of public concern and cannot be commodified.

Contrary to this approach, institutional actors point out the significance of sustainability for the European economy in general. Commission officials emphasise the link between harmonisation of environmental regulation and the realisation of the internal market. Sustainable development is, thus, in the interest of all EU citizens, both consumers and producers, regardless of their country of origin and the economic sector they work in. The same approach is adopted by environmental organisations which promote sustainability as "the concept of a new development model" (Environmentalist, 1) which will create new jobs through a pattern of local, environment-friendly development. Sustainable development is framed as a new economic model which aims at promoting the collective interest. It is a means for combatting unemployment rather than a business opportunity.

The contrasted versions of this frame reflect the different approaches of the various actors towards sustainability. Industry associations define sustainability as a new marketing element. Institutional and environmental actors also view nature as an economic factor but they concentrate on the public interest, namely development and prosperity for all social strata.

A Synthesis

The aim of this case-study has been to analyse the frames related to sustainability by different policy actors. Three frames dominate the discourse overall. First, the frame of scientification and rationalisation is used to highlight the rational character of the market approach as well as the scientific basis of environmental regulation. Environmental sustainability conforms with one of the main features of modernity, namely the trust to abstract systems, in particular to abstract expert systems (cf. Giddens, 1990). Moreover, sustainable development involves the optimisation of economic rationality through the use of scientific knowledge and technological innovation. In other words, sustainability introduces no rupture with the capitalist mode of production.

Second, the appeal to social partnership is dominant in the discourse of each actor. Economic actors maintain that burden-sharing should be realised through voluntary action based on private initiative. Environmentalists, in contrast, relate social partnership to a liability regime imposed through environmental legislation. EU officials are concerned with the implementation of partnership as a concrete policy option.

Third, the appeal to economic interests, which prevails in the discourse of all actors, confirms that sustainable development refers to a more efficient management of natural resources. However, this frame involves contradictory perspectives. Business actors sustain that the optimal functioning of the market should favour private interests. Environmental organisations and institutional actors, in contrast, claim that it should promote economic development in general and thus, the public good.

The analysis shows that although environmental groups and industry agree on two main points concerning environmental policy, namely that the latter should go along with free market mechanisms and that it should entail the sharing of responsibilities, each actor frames his/her views in a different way. In effect, business associations indirectly promote the idea that natural resources should be privatised or, at least, commodified. The capitalist profit motive can be harnessed to produce environmentally beneficial results (cf. Saunders, 1995: p. 70). This 'green capitalism' model, although not incompatible in principle with sustainability, is however in contrast with the idea that nature is a common and non-dividable pool of resources. The increasing interdependence that characterises the modern world is promoted as a business opportunity while the quest for burden-sharing is downplayed.

Frame analysis has shown the diverging orientations that exist within the sustainable development approach. It has also highlighted the discursive means used by the actors to influence the policy process. Policy formation depends not only on the instruments chosen but also on the very definition of the targets which may vary even within a common conceptual framework as that of environmental sustainability.

Sustainable Mobility and the EU Transport Policy: The Case of Tents


The concept of sustainable mobility is strongly associated with appeals to rationality and scientific knowledge. This is understandable since TENTs are characterised by both their highly technical nature (need for technical knowledge) and their significant social and economic implications (need for rationality).

Environmentalists who generally adhere to pragmatic solutions would not react to on-going transport development which takes the environment seriously into consideration. If there are two means that can best lead to this goal, they would be strict regulation and a scientifically correct environmental impact assessment. A combination of the two would entirely fulfil their vision for sustainable mobility.

In order to affect policy outcomes, environmental actors adopt two kinds of discourse. Firstly, when operating in fields of common policy discourse (ie. conferences, meetings, written exchanges etc.), they tend to identify sustainable mobility with unbending implementation of Strategic Environmental Impact Assessment (SEIA). In other words, the focus of their programmatic discourse is on how SEIA can be both more effective and more widely implemented. SEIA nevertheless, is a process of a highly technical nature. Work on its methodology as well as the field of its implementation requires high expertise, technical language and most importantly the realisation of scientific consensus. Paradoxically, environmental groups are considered to be lacking these qualities and it seems as if they are aware of this, when EU officials exclude them from relevant talks. Thus, the high scientification of the sustainable mobility policy discourse is what accounts for the extended isolation of the environmentalists from the policy formation process.

Feeling incompetent on technical issues and lacking resources for undertaking their own research, environmentalists retain - and this is the second point - a strong political and ideological stance in understanding sustainable mobility and therefore tend to de-scientise the concept:

We haven't got any proof of those things, no, but neither has the Commission, neither has any official, really. And that's why we have a strategic impact assessment coming up. ... We don't really need proof. I mean, [name] thinks that it is good for the region that they build the road. That's what you're up against. You don't really... even if you had proof, it wouldn't convince him, because he knows it's good for his region. (Environmentalist, 3)

Scientification and rationalisation are dominant features in the discourse of the EU officials. The imperative for sustainable mobility, in their opinion, suggests a rational use of both existing transport infrastructure and remaining natural resources, supported by technological and appropriate regulatory means.

Economic actors adhere to a similar line of argument. They see sustainable mobility achieved through the integration of economic and environmental aims for transport policy.

... A better environment makes good business sense. Urban and rural environments which are cleaner, safer and quieter are also more attractive places to work and visit. ... (Economic Actor, 3)

However, the strategic framework, which they believe is required, is based on a scientific contribution provided by government and business institutions.

... the new investment required to raise the capacity of European infrastructure networks, and to adopt them to the new spatial realities of Europe, new technology, new environmental constraints and management innovation require applied intelligence - software and organisation - as much as cement, steel, and optic cables (ibid)

Ultimately, all actors tend to frame sustainable mobility in rational and technical terms. Environmentalists seem to do so in a desperate attempt to gain access and participate in the overall discourse, which is dominated by EU officials, economic actors and road experts and, therefore, is highly technicized. This confirms Beck's (1992: p. 162) argument about the dependence of lay-protest on scientific mediations. Although Beck argues that such dependence does not diminish the importance of public protest, scientific expertise here becomes a pre-requisite for the protest movement to influence policy outcomes.

Appeal to the Idea of Partnership

Actors frame sustainable mobility as the state-of-the-art in transport development from which all sections of society will benefit. The natural environment, the quality of life and efficient transport systems are considered as collective goods and, therefore, objects of common interest. Intrinsic to the idea of collective goods is the imperative for partnership. A concerted action undertaken by all the social partners towards environment-friendly transport is often implied - if not explicitly stated, in the texts. Nevertheless, the two main components of this frame, namely responsibility for and participation in the policy making process, are evaluated unevenly by different actors.

Like sustainable development, sustainable mobility also involves two processes which are apparently incompatible: the need for further transport development and the need for environmental conservation, given the scarcity of natural resources in Europe. Commission officials see themselves as the main actors responsible for bringing the two imperatives closer. This seems to be the reason why certain Commission departments, namely the Transport DG, opt for excluding environmentalists from policy discussions: fact, one must understand a little bit the psychology of people who work in transport (DG-VII). They see environmentalists as opponents. (DG-VII Official, 2)

At a very general level, business actors adopt an idealistically democratic view towards sustainable mobility. They tend to stress the need for "extended partnership", "strategic approaches", combinations of "top-down" and "bottom-up" decision-making patterns and "overall political consensus":

... social and economic issues of this importance cannot be advanced only through private discussions and negotiations among specialists. They require a public debate, a higher level of information and unconventional ideas. (Economic actor, 1)

When, however, it comes to specifying who are the main actors in these dialogical exchanges and who is responsible for the achievement of sustainable mobility, it becomes clear that, for them, only business and political actors qualify:

... As providers and major users of transport, business have a direct role to play in improving the contribution of transport to sustainable development. ... Further action is also needed ... by government and business ... to ensure that investment appraisal methods give proper weight both to environmental and strategic economic issues. (Economic actor, 3)

In fact, both institutional and economic actors avoid to associate the concept of sustainable mobility with the imperative of wider participation and extended dialogue. However, coercion exerted mainly by constitutional arrangements (eg. the Single European Act, or the Maastricht Treaty) as well as legitimising pressure is the most important feature behind the idea of partnership for DG-XI officials. Popular expressions among Commission officials are: "... DG-VII ... has to consult all the others ..." or "... there is a standard Commission procedure ..." and "... DG- VII was forced to consult and co-operate with us. ..." In this context, however, partnership sustained on the grounds of value consensus is barely the case. Besides, for some Commission officials, partnership is useless so long as cultural and behavioural changes in officials' minds and actions respectively, are non-existent. In this sense new forms of co-ordination are

... very much a second best solution. The first best solution is that everybody understands about sustainability and takes it into account. (DG-VII Official, 2)

For environmentalists, sustainable mobility cannot be achieved without wide participation, extended dialogical forms of co-ordination, and shared responsibility in formulating policies between all the parties of the society:

The Europeanization of infrastructure policy does pose a threat to the adequate representation of local and regional needs and interests. It is clear that while the environmental cost of new long-distance transport routes will be heaviest at the local and regional level, others, for the most part will reap the benefits of this development. (Environmentalist, 3)

All in all, everybody acknowledges the need for better co-ordination in the discussion on TENTs. The forces, however, that drive each actor to get into these symbolic alignments are qualitatively different and can potentially threaten to undermine the implementation of such forms of partnership in the actual policy process. In light of this, the frame of partnership may exist in the discourse of economic and institutional actors, however, their positions are anchored into a capitalist growth model based on the private profit motive. Since TENTs have serious economic stakes for the business sector, industry seeks to exclude the counter- challenge of environmental groups.

Appeal To Economic Interest

Although not in a similar way, all actors tend to identify the idea of sustainable mobility with an appeal to economic interests. The Commission, on the one hand, envisages sustainable mobility as a state in transport development which equally secures economic, social and ecological stakes. Although a set of policy imperatives were put forward in pursuit of sustainable mobility (CEC, 1992b), the paper fails to give any clear definition of the concept. However, three of the main imperatives stated in the document call for:

... the reinforcement and improvement of functioning of the internal market in transport, free movement of people and goods; ... [and] the role of infrastructure in contributing to economic and social cohesion. (CEC, 1992b)

Contrary to the use of the frame by the economic actors who stress narrow economic interests, Commission officials acknowledge in the idea of sustainable mobility the prospects of future welfare of the peoples of Europe through job creation and facilitation of the operation of the market.

Environmentalists, on the other hand, adhere to contradicting policy discourses. Thus, they may question the truth of the institutional and economic actors' discourses regarding the prospective welfare benefits but, at the same time, they also acknowledge and support the prospective economic (market profits) and social (job creation) benefits entailed in TENTs implementation They do, however, fight to make sure that both long- and short-term environmental damage caused by the construction and utilisation of TENTs will be at a minimum:

Sustainability is our aim that's by far the most important thing. We could even say that that should go at the expense of anything. But ... we also want people to have a nice life - that includes jobs - so a good balance between sustainability and employment. (Environmentalist, 3)

Although environmentalists highlight the problems that TENTs can potentially cause to bio-diversity and valuable natural areas, they are disinclined to adopt - or even pretend to adopt - any sort of sheer eco-centric approach to sustainable mobility. They use the concept to stress the need to develop moderate transport growth rates that conform with the availability and reproducibility of natural resources. However, they are also aware that the use of the idea of sustainable development in the transport sector has an intrinsic paradox because it involves two competing imperatives: the call for new road infrastructures and environmental conservation:

... in fact, the guidelines [for the creation of TENTs] state that one of the characteristics of the networks is that they should contribute to an improvement of the environment. ... Which could be possible, if you improve rail, and combine transport on the waterways ... but in the meantime, you build new infrastructure, which is very bad for the environment.. so there is a strange attitude towards sustainability ... it is a nice thing as long as it doesn't hinder economic growth. (ibid)

Economic actors understand sustainable mobility as the ideal state-of-the-art in a European economy where transport mobility can be secured for the future in order to consequently secure high rates of competitiveness and profits. The economic payoffs of good environmental quality become the main criterion for policy decisions.

All in all, it can be argued that the lack of proper definition of the concept of sustainable mobility leads to a state in TENTs policy discourse where each actor, while using the term on any possible occasion (papers, seminars, communications, reports, and the like), understands it in various different ways. Business actors regard sustainable mobility as a development process in the transport sector that secures sustained mobility with a minimum effect on the quality of life. EU officials have the same understanding except that when one focuses on those operating in green policy units of the EU institutions, the term quality of life is substituted by the more specific natural environment. Finally, environmentalists, without discarding the above line of understanding, promote the environment as dominant among all elements involved in the concept of sustainable mobility, be they employment or cohesion. But the adherence to a rather pro-development attitude for TENTs should also be seen in the context of the particular nature of lobbying and policy-making in the EU institutions. The director of the Transport & Environment organisation illustrates this better:

... T&E is probably, together with WWF and BirdLife, the most pragmatic of the six [environmental organisations], ... we say 'we're not against the TENTS; we're against excessive roadbuilding.' ... Greenpeace and ACD would be more extreme in their vision, saying no more roads at all, which is something I think is not always realistic. ... that was really never a point of discussion, because we were focused on lobbying environment and the main thing then was to improve the text, and that's what we did. (ibid)

In other words, accessibility to the policy process is limited for those who support non-pragmatic solutions.

A Synthesis

The TENTs case study was selected and designed to reveal and analyse the frames associated with the concept of sustainable mobility by the actors involved in the transport policy discourse in Brussels. Like in the case of the Fifth Environmental Action Programme, frame analysis of TENTs policy discourse identified three main frames which actors used in order to make sense of the concept of sustainable mobility. All actors understand sustainable mobility as a state in the transport policy-making where natural resources and technology are combined with one another so as to produce beneficial outcomes for everybody. However, they use different sets of assumptions to specify the character of such a condition in transport policy. In theory, individuals tend to integrate new and strange ideas into pre-existing cognitive frameworks (Farr and Moscovici, 1984). As the case of 'sustainable mobility' indicates, interviewees tend to reduce this new and rather vague idea into concrete, and to a certain extent pre-existing, policy paradigms.

Two paradigms have been identified. The first suggests practical solutions built around economic, legislative and technological means. Some actors talk about new economic models and pricing systems whereas others stress the importance of introducing new regulatory mechanisms in securing that the impact on the environment is assessed before new transport infrastructure is designed. Thus, they suggest, environmental goods will be priced and their cost will be properly weighed when decisions come to be made. Finally, there are not few arguing that only technological means and information systems can bring about sustainability in the transport sector. Trust in expert systems is all that is required for a successful transport policy.

According to this paradigm, sustainable development forms part of the growth dynamics of capitalism. "The best way to provide for future generations is to exploit resources, not conserve them" (Whelan, 1989: p. 29). It is through further economic and technical development that increasing wealth and innovation will solve environmental problems. The market is "much like an ecological system, for both involve perpetual adaptation to changing circumstances which is accomplished unconsciously without overall direction or control from above" (Saunders, 1995: p. 65). Clearly, this paradigm favours market solutions without intervention from above that might limit profit-making opportunities. Sustainable mobility, after all, is just a matter of trust to expert systems and, in particular, the market. Indeed, such trust is a major feature of modern industrialised societies (Giddens, 1990).

The second paradigm goes further and supports the idea of a cultural change which entails broad value and behavioural changes in policy communities, new institutional arrangements allowing wide participation in the policy-making process, and proposals for alternative transport systems. Such changes consequently would lead to the re-examination of social practices linked to transport and nature in the light of new information about those practices. Thus, transport policy would have to cope with a new social environment in which transport needs and environmental concerns would probably be radically different. This paradigm takes into account the "presumption of wholesale reflexivity" (Giddens, 1990: p. 39) that characterises modernity.

Within the two paradigms one can find more or less all three frames used by actors in their interviews, namely scientification/rationalization, economic interest and partnership. The first two are thought to derive from the former paradigm, and characterise the perceptions of those actors in policy communities which defend their arguments on the basis of economic rationality and scientific evidence. The frames of scientification/rationalisation and economic interest are, therefore, popular among business actors and the technocrats of DG-VII. The appeal to partnership, on the other hand, can be seen as an aspect of the latter paradigm and dominates the discourse of those actors whose rhetoric is based on arguments less amenable to empirical validation, on ideology rather than 'common sense'. DG-XI officials and environmentalists are among those who make the most out of an appeal to a reflexive policy-making.


In this paper, frame analysis has been applied to public policy-making with particular reference to issues of increasing public sensitivity or common interest- such as environmental preservation and transport. The study has examined the argumentation put forward by different policy actors. The analysis was based on Johnston's (1995) argument that it is through intensive discursive analysis that the mental structures of policy participants may be best reconstructed. In light of this, extracts from interviews have been used to re-construct the mental frames of the actors involved in the discourse on environmental sustainability and sustainable mobility in the EU. In our view, the relationship between cognitive-discursive frames and actors' opinions is one of interaction and mutual influence. In other words, the actors may perceive selectively and organise their opinions through cognitive-discursive frames that were already present in their minds but, at the same time, they also make use of such frames or construct new ones in order to promote their point of view and channel other people's understanding of it. Thus, in our analysis, we have tried to illustrate how policy actors anchor their view to existing cognitive frames and, at the same time, manipulate them to construct new frames that support their viewpoint.

The aim of the study has been twofold: firstly, we have concentrated on the different ways in which actors, particularly those representing the environmental movement, make sense of new concepts and adjust their discourse to new situations, defined by the institutional nature of the policy process. Secondly, by revealing competing and converging frames, we have attempted to explain why and to illustrate how frame analysis can be a valuable tool in the hands of scholars adhering to the cultural trend in the study of policy processes.

Frame analysis has the merit of offering a social and cultural perspective in the study of public policy at a time when scholars are increasingly attracted by rationalist and pluralist models of explaining policy behaviour and policy outcomes. The analysis of the discursive frames used within the policy-making processes goes beyond simple accounts of competing interests provided by rational choice models. It shows how policy actors seek to legitimise their positions by appealing to generally accepted norms and principles and by adapting pre- existing frames to their own views. The analysis of the first study, for instance, shows that although environmental groups and industry agree that environmental policy should go along with free market mechanisms, environmentalists see the market as a lever for economic development, which should however promote the public good, while business actors refer to the need for commodifying the environment, so as to integrate it into cost-benefit calculations made prior to an investment. Similarly, all actors are agreed that burden-sharing is necessary, but they attach different meanings to it. Thus, environmentalists envisage environmental cost-sharing by means of a liability regime, industry supports a voluntary action policy while the EU officials point to the advantages and weaknesses of either option.

Frame analysis offers also a better insight into the process of making policy rather than simply accounting for its final outcome. It shows, for instance, how specific discursive strategies can modify the process itself by means of excluding some actors from the debate. Thus, the increasing scientification of the sustainable mobility discourse prevents environmental organisations from taking an effective part in the decision-making. The same problem is identified with regard to sustainable development also: EU officials emphasise their dependence on industry for gaining access to the latest outcomes of technology. The role of environmental actors within this discourse becomes marginal and their position in the discussion table is de-legitimised.

Besides, by means of unveiling how actors can hold diverging understandings and orientations about concepts which apparently have an agreeing character, this type of analysis shows how actors manoeuvre within the policy-making process and often adapt to changing conditions. The second case-study, for instance, shows how actors, driven by their interests (ie. private and corporate or public) and the resources available to them (ie. scientific evidence, ideology), can move from one frame to another in order to have the most effective influence in a policy process where persuasion and rhetoric have become increasingly central. This aspect is particularly important in the EU context where conflict is constrained by institutional arrangements and where negotiation may greatly influence the final policy outcome.

Finally, frame analysis shows how the discourses of different actors are informed by wider processes of capitalism and modernity. It points to the links between the actors' specific positions and the notions of progress, science and rationality. Both our case-studies have shown that alternative lifestyles such as radical ecology have lost much of their impetus, at least at the policy level. The study on environment and transport in particular has demonstrated that actors are constrained to adopt realistic viewpoints if they want to stay in the discussion table. Moreover, according to the findings of the first case-study, environmental sustainability is fully integrated into the dominant capitalist paradigm. Disagreement exists only with regard to the level of priorities: business actors, and to a certain extent institutional actors also, concentrate on profit and the economic viability of environmental preservation while environmentalists, although accepting the free market principle, point to the need for protecting the public interest through sensitive, local-oriented, environment-friendly patterns of development.

In conclusion, the debate on sustainability and sustainable mobility brought together some of the European Union's most factually informed and instrumentally motivated policy actors. However, the participants dissimilarly based their arguments on broad assumptions unsubstantiated by empirical analysis. They promote those arguments through a variety of rhetorics ranging from "nature ethics" and "public good" to prosperity" and "democratic politics". Having less interest in policy outcomes, frame analysis has considerably contributed to decomposing these rhetorics and to unveiling the frames used by actors when transforming their discourse according to the institutional context they operate in.


1 This research has been conducted under the auspices of the research project "Environmental Sustainability and Institutional Innovation" funded by the European Commission, DG XII. An earlier version of this paper was presented at the Essex '96 Fourth International Conference on Social Science Methodology, Colchester, U.K., July 1-5 1996.

2 For a review and critique of methods and approaches in discourse analysis see Van Dijk (1985).

3 Eco (1979) speaks about encyclopedias that each individual has at his/her disposal in order to make sense of his/her world. These encyclopedias are provided by culture and previous experience of the individual. Thus, argues Eco, meaning is determined by social cognition which helps people in making sense of objects, texts or situations.

4 With regard to the cultural and symbolic aspects of public problems see also Gusfield (1981).

5 The list of the names of the interviewees as well as the complete interview texts are available upon request to the authors and after permission of the funding institutions.

6 The coding scheme can be made available upon request to the authors.


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