A Goffmanian Thought on the Climate Change Debate

One of the questions that plagues good liberals is, why are some people so resistant to the notion of anthropogenic climate change? There are many answers to this question, of course, and I certainly don’t claim to have a good handle on all of them. Naomi Oreskes has done some fascinating work on the subject, first showing that there is in fact a scientific consensus on climate change and then continuing to try and see how it is that so many people still think that the science is out. Some of that analysis focuses on how certain industries adopted the tactics used by Big Tobacco in its war against public health. Fascinating, and depressing, stuff.

Re-reading Goffman’s Frame Analysis, I was struck by another explanation rooted at a slightly different level (although compatible with the other stories floating around). In the first chapter of the book, after the fabulously reflexive and humorous introduction, Goffman introduces the notion of a “primary framework”: “[A] primary framework is one that is seen as rendering what would otherwise be a meaningless aspect of the scene into something that is meaningful.” (p. 21) Goffman goes on to suggest that there are two broad classes of primary frameworks: natural and social. Natural frameworks are defined by the lack of an agent: “It is seen that no willful agency causally and intentionally interferes, that no actor continuously guides the outcome…. An ordinary example would be the state of the weather as given in a report.” (p. 22)

So, following Goffman, one of the central problems facing climate change activists is to convince people that their primary framework for understanding weather itself is wrong – willful agents have been causally and intentionally interfering with it for hundreds of years, although not in a planned manner, and thus the weather needs to be in the “social” rather than “natural” primary framework. Either that, or we need to abandon the distinction entirely – humanity has gotten too big for its britches, and “‘Away’ has gone away”.



  1. I wrote a term paper on this, it is posted on my blog: http://lostinliminality.wordpress.com/2009/09/10/old-papers-series-global-warming-beyond-the-science/

    I did a survey of internet forum users in 2007 on global warming “belief” and “trust”. I cited a few other interesting studies you may want to check out if you are interested.

  2. I’m not sure the distinction between ‘either’ using the natural/social distinction or abandoning it is very useful.

    Apparently the Latin roots of the work ‘simulacrum’ are in the stage – ie. the challenge is one of actually (or, more precisely, virtually) assembling a stage in which ‘action’ can take place. Two articles from very different political perspectives illustrate the scale of the metrological problem:

    1. Larry Lohmann’s (2005) Marketing and Making Carbon Dumps is a classic critique of Kyoto using Callon’s framing/overflows distinction http://bit.ly/29tmcx

    2. Paul Waggoner’s recent discussion paper for RFF on forest inventories http://bit.ly/2rVMLd

    They both show, in their very different ways, that establishing plausible apparatuses distinguishing natural from human interference with the climate system is not simply a matter of political agreement as some liberals naively seem to believe but requires immense sub-political coordination at the level of bureaucracies on issues like standards, equipment, audit routines and so forth.