Book Report: Shaping Abortion Discourse

Ferree, Myra M., William A. Gamson, Jürgen Gerhards, and Dieter Rucht. 2002. Shaping Abortion Discourse: Democracy and the Public Sphere in Germany and the United States. Cambridge, UK & New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

The body of literature on framing has been growing since 1970s (Goffman, 1975; Bennett, 1975; Gitlin, 1980; Gamson 1980, 1992; Snow and Benford, 1988, 1992; Gernards 1995;  Oliver and Johnston 1999) , but few of them like Shaping Abortion Discourse offered us grounded comparative empirical research. This book is an outstanding empirical study on how actors frame abortion discourse in the public spheres across two countries. The authors provides us with an exemplar model of frame analysis for future similar work. As can be seen from their online notes of coding, they successfully operationalized the procedures of analyzing the explicit and implicit frames in news articles. The nuances in human language require researchers to carefully investigate the hidden meanings of various claims. In this specific study on newspapers, these researchers pay special attention to distinguish between the frame of journalists and frames of quoted actors in the same articles. The amount of work they have committed to this study is impressive and the end result is an influential work for future frame analysis studies.

Their comparative approach is the counter-argument to the sweeping globalization theories in the beginning of the century. They select the topic of abortion because it is highly contested in both countries, but transnational network on the same issue has not influenced their discourses in fundamental ways. By establishing the differences of the forces that are shaping the abortion discourse in these two mature democracies, the authors naturally lead our attention to the culture and history of specific countries. They describe how some absolute terms can be differentiated from a comparative approach, “By adopting a comparative perspective, we use each country as a lens through which we can make visible the assumptions of the other. The comparative perspective also provides a valuable standard against which we can measure the discourse in each country – not, for example, as ‘inclusive’ or ‘civil’ in absolute terms, but as relatively inclusive or civil compared to the other country.” The results of the frame analysis have supported the importance of the nation state in highly contested universal issues even in the age of globalization.

The authors accomplished two tasks in this book. The first one is that they bring up and test a theoretical model of the cultural contest in the abortion discourse. The second one is to discuss the quality of the discussions on the abortion issue according to four theories on democracy. I find the second part is less compelling than the first part or maybe they could split this one book into two if they intend to give more comprehensive analysis on how the reality of politics connects with theoretical conceptions. I will describe their questions, approaches, and findings of their two parts in the following paragraphs and come back to discuss their limitations at the end.

In the first part, they ask how key actors frame the abortion discourse in these countries and they come up with the concept of “discursive opportunity structure” to encompass the larger cultural or social structural reasons for the differences of the framing strategies.

In this theoretical framework provided by these authors, many concepts such as public discourse can be applied as other politically contentious issues in other settings. They describes “a forum includes an arena in which individual or collective actors engage in public speech acts; an active audience or gallery observing what is going on in the arena; and a backstage, where the would-be players in the arena work out their ideas and strategize over how they are to be presented, make alliances, and do the everyday work of cultural production.” The public sphere refers to the set of all forums in a society in their work. For them, the mass media forum is the main site where political forces that shaping the discourse take place. It also partially justify their use of influential newspapers as their data source to test their theories.

The most challenging part of their study is to measure how the frames are used in the public spheres. They randomly sampled over 2500 news articles from four quality newspapers in US and Germany in a period of three decades. They develop concepts of standing and framing as the measurements of actors’ success in the discourse competition. Standing refers to whether the actors have a voice in the public sphere, and framing is to examine how dominant the voice is in comparison with other rival voices. Linking these concepts with concrete coding process, they examine the standing and framing at two levels: the article and the utterance. At the article level, we can see to what extent certain types of actors have their presence in the media. At the utterance level, we would know specifically what statement is made by any single speakers. They also measure the idea elements in the utterances into eight large categories in which many sub ideas exist. For example, in the abortion discourse, many claims contain the idea element of “the fetus has a right to life”. By looking at how often a certain type of idea appears on the utterances by particular speakers, we will understand how strong a discourse is in this debate by which actors. Except for their large set of data from analyzing newspaper articles, they also conducted the survey with various institutions and organizations and interviews with journalists and participants in these organizations to reconstruct the backstage of the media forum.

Then they discuss their findings in the framework of “discursive opportunity structure” that the different cultural and political contexts have played a role in the difference of the outcomes of the framing by the players in the public spheres. For instance, the authors find the state, political parties and churches have higher standing in Germany, while civil society actors and individuals are more prominent in the United States. For the framing contest, the “fetal life” frame is more obvious in Germany than in the US. They also find “German discourse has generally moved toward a more anti-abortion framing of what the issues are and the American debate has moved in a more pro-abortion-rights direction from the beginning of the period.” From chapter seven to chapter nine they analyze the representation of the women’s movements, religious institutions and the tradition of the left in the public abortion discourses. I am not going to discuss more on these findings because the results are more useful for the researchers specialized in abortion discourse, but our focus is their frame analysis that can be used for other issues that involve the participation of these key players.

The second part of the book is about the evaluation of the debates to see how the democracy functions in these two countries. They layout four theoretical models of democracy in chapter ten: Representative Liberal, Participatory Liberal, Discursive, and Constructionist/Feminist. These models are the normative criteria about the desirable qualities in a democratic public sphere. In chapter eleven, they use their data to measure these criteria and compare German and the United States to see how well they met the standards. Their result of analysis is that Germany does relatively better on those emphasized by the representative liberal tradition, while the United States does better on those emphasized by the participatory liberal and constructionist/feminist traditions.

I find this part is less compelling than the first part. The models of democracy come from the abstraction of the political systems in different countries, and using one case(abortion discourse) to generalize the democratic model of a particular country is less convincing because another discourse analysis probably will attest the US as another model. The logic of the second part is to use one case for generalization, while the logic of the first part is to create a generalized analytical model for other examples to test, and they have already successfully tested one.

Another weakness of their theoretical framework is about the role of media shaping the larger culture. They expressed in their introduction that having the voices in the mass media is not only an indicator of success in framing, but also having the function to influence in the larger cultural change. However, their theoretical framework seems to have neglected this part, and judging from their empirical data, I find how much this change can be measured is still unknown. If including the analysis of the media’s influence, the study might turn into a massive work, but this direction is useful for future works.

In their theoretical framework, they see media as a space where discourses from different actors are contested largely because the mass media dominates the public spaces. A question I think we could discuss further is how the media in digital age challenges their theoretical framework. Since the professional journalists and news institutions are no longer directly serve as the gatekeeper in the public sphere, questions such as how the discourses are contested in this new age, who are the actors, and whether the metaphor of stadium as the public sphere is still useful, deserve much more observations.

When I look at their methods, the first questions come to my mind is why they select these newspapers rather than other newspapers, and why they do not include televisions which are also the most important players in mass media. Although I am not so sure about the hidden ideologies that the New York Times (liberal but a bit left?) has, my guess is that the selections are not strictly representative of the American mass media and the bias in the selection of the samples are inherently undermining the validity of their studies.

There are also some other criticisms I find in some reviews. For example, Staggenborg (2004) mentioned some sociologists are not satisfied with their broad use of “discursive opportunity structure” where all kinds of social and cultural factors are put. She also pointed out that “the book is less successful in offering potentially generalizable theoretical propositions, as those listed in the book are really findings specific to the comparison between Germany and the United States rather than more general hypotheses or arguments.” Chang (2005) also digs into their arguments on the abortion discourse itself, and challenges their analysis from a view of religious studies, “the researchers fail to mention U.S. Catholicism’s historically tenuous position as a minority religion.”.

Despite the existence of the criticisms, this book is still a great example of frame analysis and comparative studies. Also they provide us with the exceptional methodological model that inspires future studies to work on other issues of contentious politics.

Staggenborg, Suzanne. “Shaping Abortion Discourse: Democracy and the Public Sphere in Germany and the United States [book review].” American Journal Of Sociology 110, no. 3 (2004): 818-820.
Chang, Perry. “Abortion, Religious Conflict, and Political Culture.” Journal For The Scientific Study Of Religion 44, no. 2 (June 2005): 225-230.
Pfetsch, Barbara, and Silke Adam. 2005. “Shaping Abortion Discourse: Democracy and the Public Sphere in Germany and the United States.” Political Communication 22, no. 2: 250-252.

A website has brief introductions to frame analysis:


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