Advancing the Value of Ethnography

3 Narratives that Stymie Social Change and What We Can Do About It


Social change requires culture change and social science can help.

“Context matters.” “It’s a systemic issue.” “It’s…complicated.” As ethnographers and researchers these are our mantras—but how can we communicate about social issues in ways that really make a difference?

Evidence shows that how we frame our messages can have dramatic effects on all kinds of outcomes that count. Real social change requires shifts in deeply ingrained cultural models: what people feel about society and social groups; how we understand problems and their solutions; and the degree to which we feel motivated and willing to engage in the social problems of our day.

I have studied nearly 40 different social issues, the cultural models people use to understand them, and messaging that can shifts those understandings. Across these diverse social issues, I have found three cultural models that stymie social change—and three research-based messaging strategies that can help shift them.

Three Models that Derail Change

These three interrelated cultural models derail public thinking and block the efforts of social change advocates:

  1. Individualism—the idea that the outcomes we experience are a narrow and exclusive result of the effort and drive we have and choose to exert as individuals. Educational outcomes? Well, those are the exclusive result of a student’s motivation and drive to learn. Crime? Well that’s the result of an individual making a rational and calculated decision, weighing the costs and benefits of an action and deciding to commit a crime when the latter outweighs the former.
  2. Fatalism—the idea that most of the problems we face aren’t addressable in a meaningful way given their scope and depth, especially given the ineptitude of our government.
  3. Us-vs.-them-ism—the idea that we exist in a state of zero-sum competition, where more for any person or group, by definition, means less for me and mine.

On individualism, I’ve seen that the same thinking about the supremacy and absoluteness of effort, choice, and drive that dogs the criminal justice advocate, also challenges the housing and neighborhood integration expert. The same lack of a sociological imagination that keeps the youth advocate from communicating about the importance of resources and supports blocks the addiction practitioner from pushing for better prevention policies.

On fatalism, the same emergency inflation, crisis fatigue and lack of solutions thinking that saps efficacy for the aging expert keeps the climate change communicator from boosting issue salience and engaging people in policy change.

And on us-vs.-them, the same thinking that keeps people from seeing the importance of the “public” in public education is wreaking havoc on support for immigration and human rights by pushing people to see these issues through the lens of competing interests.

I’ve come to the realization that these same deep streams of culture are keeping all the advocates we work with—across issues—from advancing their work. And I think that we can make a strong argument that these threads of culture are being woven tighter and stronger by the day as we’re inundated with political narratives about bootstraps, bunk systems, and isolationism.

That’s the bad part. That’s the cloud that hangs over my head.

But here is the silver lining. These cultural models that plague all the experts and advocates we work with are there because people have been fed a steady and heavy diet of experiences and stories over time. Switch the dose and change the exposure and you can bring other ways of seeing our country and society to the collective cognitive forefront.

Cultural Foundations

If those working on different issues could see the common streams of culture that are holding them all back and would commit to telling and sharing stories that contest the myopic narrative of fatalistic and antagonistic individualism, I feel confident that we would be better able to move forward on multiple issues. The bad news is that culture is strong and deep and durable. The good news is that it can and does change over time, and that it does so in response to stories we can all do a better job of sharing and telling.

I am trained as a psychological anthropologist and have had the opportunity to work with two fantastic professors—leaders in the field, top shelf theoreticians, careful methodologists and, most importantly generous and wonderful people. From one I have learned the power of thinking about and studying culture in mind.1 From the other, I’ve taken the idea that “applied anthropology” is a worthy endeavor—even more, an obligation of the socially conscious academic. These two mentors, Bradd Shore and Thomas Weisner, gave me the core elements that I have combined into a career.

I currently run a communications research think tank called the FrameWorks Institute. Together with 25 colleagues, I conduct social science research on public problems and work with researchers, advocates, practitioners and organizers to use this research to up their communications game. We use social science to help our partners achieve social change. At the core of this work is the conviction that theory and methods designed and applied in the academy can be brought out into the real world as problem solving tools (that’s Tom2). And that thinking about culture as a set of shared mental models and heuristics that we use to interpret information and make decisions is a powerful perspective to bring to this problem solving mission (that’s Bradd3).

Although our group draws on a host of theories and methods that have their homes in disciplines well beyond anthropology, the applied use of cultural models theory is the foundation of our work. Cultural models theory is the idea that culture exits in mind, not just in the material world, as a set of shared mental models, patterns of thinking, assumptions, propositions and heuristics that people implicitly use to make sense of and interact with stimuli in a Goffmanian interaction ritual way.4 As I try to figure out how people make sense of health equity or adolescent development and how to open up new ways of thinking about these issues, I work with linguists, political scientists, psychologists, cognitive scientists, and sociologists. One of them even studied on the floor right below me in Haines Hall at UCLA, and the fact that we didn’t know each other then but do now illustrates another hallmark of the work that I get to be part of: we truly, legitimately, sincerely and enthusiastically are multi- and trans-disciplinary in how we use research to help our partners shift understanding and garner support for progressive solutions to social issues.

Early in my career I worked on the Swahili coast of East Africa studying how families with children with chronic health conditions—I looked specifically at epilepsy—make treatment decisions. Why is it that so many of families choose the more expensive and time-consuming option of traditional healing over the completely subsidized and widely dispersed biomedical clinics throughout the district? Well, guess what? I found that culture matters—that the way that people think about what causes epilepsy is highly predictive of the treatments they seek, and that ways of communicating about these treatments dramatically affects people’s treatment seeking and adherence behaviors.

While there might not seem to be a lot of connection between studying epilepsy on the coast of East Africa and trying to figure out what drives public thinking about poverty or addiction, the work I did in Kenya is actually strikingly similar to the work that I do now—I study how culture in mind affects how we see social issues and consider their solutions. Applying this perspective has proven powerful in helping issue advocates do their work more effectively.

Three Strategies to Shift the Narratives

Moving back to those three stubborn and unproductive threads of culture, there is good evidence that they can be shifted. One recent example comes from work that we are doing with a group interested in changing culture around adolescence and adolescent development. They are on a mission to shift public understanding about adolescence as a time when we close our eyes and hope to make it through without getting pregnant, addicted to drugs or in jail, to a perspective with space to acknowledge the tremendous opportunity inherent in this open period of human development. It will come as no surprise that this an issue on which the trifecta of individualism, fatalism and other-ism are active and powerful.

Our research uses multiple methods to systematically and iteratively test the effects of different frames on outcomes like issue understanding, efficacy, engagement, attribution of responsibility and solutions support. We see the potential of reframing messages to counterbalance these strains of American culture.

Our research has shown that these three strategies help shift and counterbalance individualism, fatalism, and us-vs-them-ism:

Make context a character in the story

We are seeing the power of metaphors and narratives to focus attention on the importance of context, giving people a stronger sense that what surrounds us, shapes us. For example, in work designed to increase support for public policies that more fully support the country’s aging population, we found that stories with context as a character—where systems, resources and policies both cause and can help address problems—were significantly more effective than individual, close up, “episodic” stories that were void of social and systemic context.

Highlight solutions

We have also found that highlighting solutions and providing examples that explain how they improve outcomes can counter the strong tendency to think fatalistically when presented with social problems. This strategy has proven powerful on a wide range of issues—from housing to child abuse and neglect.


Us-vs-them-ism is perhaps the most difficult model to counterbalance. But we have found that metaphors that collectivize (“powering” national progress) rather than those that lead people to draw lines in their minds (“out of the shadows”) are highly effective in countering our tendency to differentiate between groups and see the world in zero sum terms. The use of pronouns—shifting from they/them/those to we/our—has also been shown to be powerful for messaging about issues from poverty and early childhood to immigration and community development.

It’s only a start, but advancing these contextual, solutions-oriented, and collective frames across issues has the power to rebalance culture and change the context in which people consider, support and enact solutions.

Culture matters, but it’s not set or static. Changing our frames is an important part of changing our reality.


1. For more on cultural models theory and methods see: Holland, D. & Quinn, N. (1987). Cultural Models in Language and Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

2. Yoshikawa, Hirokazu, Weisner, Thomas, Kalil, Ariel and Niobe Way (2008). Mixing Qualitative and Quantitative Research in Developmental Science: Uses and Methodological Choices. Developmental Psychology, volume 42, issue 2.

3. Shore, B. (1996). Culture in Mind: Cognition, Culture, and the Problem of Meaning. New York: Oxford University Press.

4. Goffman, E. (1974). Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience. New York, NY: Harper and Row.

Image: “Changing times” by ashokboghani via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Nat Kendall-Taylor is CEO of the FrameWorks Institute. Nat oversees the organization’s pioneering, research-based approach to strategic communications, which uses methods from the social and behavioral sciences to measure how people understand complex socio-political issues and tests ways to reframe them to drive social change. As CEO, he leads a multi-disciplinary team of social scientists and communications practitioners who investigate ways to apply innovative framing research methods to social issues and train nonprofit organizations to put the findings into practice. Nat is also a senior fellow at the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, a visiting professor at the Child Study Center at Yale School of Medicine, and a fellow at the British-American Project. His work has appeared in peer-reviewed journals such as Science Communication, Human Organization, Applied Communications Research, Child Abuse and Neglect, and the Annals of Anthropological Practice. Nat holds a PhD in anthropology from University of California, Los Angeles.


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Nat Kendall-Taylor, FrameWorks Institute