Frames of Reference

UpsideDownMap“They’re an hour behind.” Recently, landing in Des Moines on a flight from Charlotte, I overheard a fellow passenger say this to their seatmate. I often hear people describe time zone differences this way, so I might have ignored it; but on this occasion, the tone of voice implied something about the speaker’s attitude toward our destination. It sounded a tad condescending, as if the clocks might not be the only thing that was “behind” in this Midwestern city. Upon some reflection, though, even if I misread the background of the comment I realized this way of framing the Eastern vs. Central time zone difference (or the difference between any two time zones) reflects a frame of reference that puts one experience/way of life at the center and the other as “other.”

Making a similar point as a professor, I often used the “Upside Down Map of the World” to get students to think about the fact that their mental models cause them to make unwarranted assumptions. There is, of course, nothing that makes North be at the top of maps other than, probably, the fact that the makers of the first maps lived in the Northern Hemisphere. (Seen from space, there is no proper up or down.) Of course, calling this map “upside down” also reflects a Northern Hemisphere-centric view.

Such frames of reference are so deeply ingrained that we often do not realize they exist. I have written about the internal focus of the arts industry–its “artcentricity”–on a number of occasions. That self focus gets in the way of developing meaningful relationships and it makes thinking of arts experiences as opportunities for connecting and serving communities difficult. Like time zones and upside down maps, “outreach”–to use one example–suggests that the arts organization is at the center and we are seeking to draw people to us. (For more, see Outreach ≠ Community Engagement and Magnets and Oysters.)

One of the most important first steps in effective community engagement is seeing the arts enterprise in the context of the community–a participant in and contributor to community life, not as a separate inward-focused entity. The latter frame, while almost always unconscious, prevents us from seeing possibilities and is certainly a barrier to relationship building.


FWIW, Engaging Matters will be taking the July 4 week off.  The next post will be 7/9.




Photo: Attribution Some rights reserved by Chris Bruce
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