Starting Points #2: Brain Frames

The same landscape can look quite different depending on who you are. That landscape may be an objective reality, but each person will see it differently. The hiker will observe the terrain, the planner will note the patterns of towns, the agronomist the crops, the artist the light, the forester the trees.

Our training in our chosen field often “frames” how we see the reality that is in front of us. In this series, we’re looking at how our personal starting points influence how we see rural regions, and how we understand regional development.

Our training is a key starting point: it is an important influencer of what we see, and what we fail to see. That is because training – of any kind, academic or professional or technical – teaches us to frame reality in particular ways. We hone in on certain things, and ignore others that are not relevant. We draw a boundary around messy reality, so we can analyse it and understand it.

Things that are inside this frame, we tend to see very clearly indeed. The forester can quickly spot a stand of trees that is sick. The agronomist can identify the best paddock for a crop. The artist can “frame” the most emotive image quite literally, capturing it in the rectangle of their canvas.

Inside the frame of our training, we can each see very clearly. We may, indeed, be experts. Others turn to when they need to be able to see and understand what we see and understand.

But there is often a trade-off. Outside of our training – the way our brain has been taught to frame things – we do not see so well. Indeed, we may miss things that are right in front of us.

This isn’t usually a problem. We don’t need to see everything or know everything; the brain will only take in so much, after all! We can rely on other people to see and know the things we miss.

The problem comes when certain frames become the only ones we use or value… and we start using them for everything.

Then our frames can become dangerous.

Imagine, for instance an engineer who builds an irrigation system without attention to which paddocks require water; or an agronomist who recommends growing a crop which nobody eats, and for which there is no market.

These propositions may seem ridiculous, but they are not far distant from many development fiascos that rural communities over the years have suffered. Experts bring their technical knowledge to rural regions, and they use this knowledge to frame regional development needs and actions. Too often, they fail to notice anything outside the frame.

I am, by training, an anthropologist; this frames how I see rural regions. Anthropologists are good at noticing how local communities work. Anthropologists can explain why local knowledge matters for rural development, and why projects that ignore local people don’t succeed. These ideas are inside our frame, in clear view.

Yet you would not ask us to build a bridge.

Every expert has their frame, and every frame is relevant to understanding rural regions. But no frame, on its own, is sufficient.

As professionals with particular training and expertise, we each have frames that shape what we see and how we can best contribute. But the people who live in rural regions don’t live in a frame.

They live on the landscape.

Local people may not be specialised experts. But going about their daily lives, they can see the connections that experts often miss. This is why local knowledge matters, and why the starting point for regional development must always be the region itself.

Published by The Bush Prof

Professor Robyn Eversole is a practical regional development academic based in rural Tasmania.

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