Initial Publication Date: March 9, 2021

Four Frames

See more Change Theories »Summary written by Daniel Lee Reinholz, San Diego State University,

The four frames model focuses on organizational culture, defining different lenses for making sense of an organization's culture. Recent work suggests applications of this theory to undergraduate STEM education.


The four frames -- structures, symbols, people, and power -- are different lenses for understanding an organization (Bolman & Deal, 2008). In particular, they can be used together as a way to operationalize culture within a STEM department, because they draw attention to key areas of focus (Reinholz & Apkarian, 2018). Structures focus on the concrete policies and practices that organize a department. These contrast the more abstract symbols, which are knowledge, values, beliefs, and stories, that provide meaning to a departments' structures. People are the members of the department with their own ideals, needs, and goals. How people interact is structured by power relations, governed by status, hierarchies, and coalitions. Using the four frames as a guiding framework, a change agent can help ensure that they do not overlook key aspects of a department that may influence a change process. Table 1 lists some key questions for change informed by the four frames.

Table 1. Key questions raised by the four frames (Reinholz & Apkarian, 2018).


  • What key structures determine department functioning?
  • Do existing structures support new goals?
  • What incentives and supports exist


  • How do data inform decision-making?
  • What are shared assumptions and values?
  • What constitutes evidence?


  • Who has agency?
  • What are their goals?
  • What identities do individuals have?


  • What power hierarchies exist?
  • Is there support for change?
  • How is progress communicated and coalitions built?

Example of Use

The four frames have been used on the project: Departmental Action Teams (DATs): Sustaining Improvements in Undergraduate STEM Education through Faculty Engagement (NSF 1626565; Reinholz et al., 2017). The four frames have been used as an analytic tool to understand how the DAT model can be used as a tool for promoting lasting cultural changes within STEM departments (Reinholz et al., 2019). By using the four frames to operationalize culture, the research team analyzed data collected over a decade from a single department, to understand the interrelation between different features of change and shifts in the four frames. This was then used to understand why some change efforts may be more sustainable than others.

Assumptions & Limitations

A key limitation of the four frames is that they are a framework, but not a full theory. What this means is that while the four frames draw attention to important phenomena, they do not make causal predictions on the interrelations between them.

Original Publication of Theory

Bolman, L. G., & Deal, T. E. (2008). Reframing organizations: Artistry, choice, and leadership. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Other References

Reinholz, D. L., & Apkarian, N. (2018). Four frames for systemic change in STEM departments. International Journal of STEM Education, 5(1), 3.

Reinholz, D. L., Corbo, J. C., Dancy, M., & Finkelstein, N. (2017). Departmental Action Teams: Supporting faculty learning through departmental change. Learning Communities Journal, 9, 5–32.

Reinholz, Daniel L., Ngai, C., Quan, G., Pilgrim, M. E., Corbo, J. C., & Finkelstein, N. (2019). Fostering sustainable improvements in science education: An analysis through four frames. Science Education, 103(5), 1125–1150.

Note: This summary is written as a secondary resource to help researchers and practitioners learn about potentially relevant change theory. We encourage authors to read the original references rather than citing this summary in published work or grant proposals.