Framing and the health policy process: a scoping review

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Abstract

Framing research seeks to understand the forces that shape human behaviour in the policy process. It assumes that policy is a social construct and can be cast in a variety of ways to imply multiple legitimate value considerations. Frames provide the cognitive means of making sense of the social world, but discordance among them forms the basis of policy contestation. Framing, as both theory and method, has proven to generate considerable insight into the nature of policy debates in a variety of disciplines. Despite its salience for understanding health policy debates; however, little is known about the ways frames influence the health policy process. A scoping review using the Arksey and O’Malley framework was conducted. The literature on framing in the health sector was reviewed using nine health and social science databases. Articles were included that explicitly reported theory and methods used, data source(s), at least one frame, frame sponsor and evidence of a given frame’s effect on the health policy process. A total of 52 articles, from 1996 to 2014, and representing 12 countries, were identified. Much of the research came from the policy studies/political science literature (n = 17) and used a constructivist epistemology. The term ‘frame’ was used as a label to describe a variety of ideas, packaged as values, social problems, metaphors or arguments. Frames were characterized at various levels of abstraction ranging from general ideological orientations to specific policy positions. Most articles presented multiple frames and showed how actors advocated for them in a highly contested political process. Framing is increasingly an important, yet overlooked aspect of the policy process. Further analysis on frames, framing processes and frame conflict can help researchers and policymakers to understand opaque and highly charged policy issues, which may facilitate the resolution of protracted policy controversies.

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