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Significance: Root metaphors and social organization

Metaphor Project


1. Root metaphors

There is of course a multitude of metaphors on which politicians draw to increase the power of their communication and these have been extensively studied (see Van Noppen, 1985), including metaphors implicit in the Communist Manifesto (Angonet et al, 1980). It has even been said that "The politician without metaphor is a ship without sails" (Fairlie, 1979). But such uses of metaphor tend to correspond to the communicative or illustrative function.

There seem to be very few studies of the use of metaphor in economics (Asheraft, 1977), public policy-making (Rosenthal, 1982), strategic planning (Solesbury, 1981) or decision-making (Maranda, 1980), namely the internal, initiatory processes of governance. The challenge for governance is to discover whether there are not some key "root" metaphors, each especially applicable under certain circumstances. Of even greater value would be the existence of any systematization of them relevant to the problems of governance. The existence of such root metaphors has been reviewed in work by the geographer Anne Buttimer (1982, 1983).

Buttimer examines geographic thought and practice in terms of a contemporary trend away from observation (of reality) to participation (in reality). This trend is not so much a linear or chronological progression as a conceptual (even ideological) transformation, involving epistemological, dialectical and hermeneutical phases. Her basic approach is inspired largely by Stephen Pepper's theory of world hypotheses (1942) by which four distinct world views are claimed to have stood the test of time in Western intellectual history: formism, organicism, mechanism and contextualism.

Each of these hypotheses about the nature of world reality grounds its claims to truth, and its categories of analysis, on a "root metaphor". As an example, in geography she sees a reflection of these macro world views in the root metaphors of "map", "organism", "mechanism" and "arena".

Thus: formism grounds itself on the common sense experience of similarity and a correspondence theory of truth, expressed in the case of geography in a preoccupation with mapping. Mechanism, based on a causal adjustment theory of truth, takes the machine as root metaphor, resulting in a preoccupation with special systems and functional mechanisms in the case of geography. Organicism, based on a coherence theory of truth, regards every event as a more or less concealed process within an organic whole. Finally, contextualism, based on an operational theory of truth, sees the world as an arena of unique events.

Buttimer points out that creative thinkers move quite freely between the different styles of these root metaphors. Each of them "spells a distinct design for the physical and functional arrangements of space, time, and activities on the ground; their often incompatible demands eventually becoming legible in the texts and textures of urban life. Which metaphor, or combination of metaphors, will endure or dominate at any particular will, of course, be a function of economic and political power interests..." (1982).

2. Metaphoric networks

The concept of a root metaphor has acquired importance since the 1970s. Thus according to Gibson Winter (1981): "The human species abides in its world through the meanings borne in thought and discourse. This is not to suggest that the world is merely a mental phenomenon, for by the way people treat things and others, by the way they organize work and family life, people express their understandings and feelings. At the same time, ways of working, acting, loving, and fearing shape ways of understanding and interpreting. To this extent, the comprehensive metaphors that give clues to the coherence of things serve to shape human activities even as they are reshaped by patterns of life and work."

Root metaphors may be related to the notion of a metaphoric network of which Paul Ricoeur (1976) states: "Metaphorical functioning would be completely inadequate as a way of expressing the different temporality of symbols, what we might call their insistence, if metaphors did not save themselves from complete evanescence by means of a who array of intersignifications. One metaphor, in effect, calls for another and each one stays alive by conserving its power to evoke the whole network. the network engenders what we can call root metaphors."

3. Societal coherence and the war of worlds

Gibson Winter (1981) points out: "However, root metaphors furnish important clues to the institutional; struggles and symbolic clashes.. This is a war of worlds, for it is a contention between total views of life and foundational symbolizations of the world. Root metaphors furnish important clues to such totalities. In fact, it is only though such clues tat one can gain a sense of the coherence of the total world that encompasses thought and life. There is no way to subsume one's total world under a concept. Only a comprehensive metaphor can guide thought toward that totality. In this sense the root metaphor is the first step toward foundational understanding." Following Pepper (World Hypotheses, 1961), he argues that "certain metaphoric networks become dominant in a total society, shaping modes of thought, action, decision, and life."

He continues: "comprehension of the clash of worlds invites retrieval of a more encompassing symbolic heritage and its conversion to an emerging,; more human world. The artistic vision opens the way to such a retrieval and creative transformation."

On this basis he further argues that "if one assumes that comprehensive metaphors furnish coherence in a people's world, there is no way to reduce such metaphors to rational formulae or systems of thought. a people may shift its organizing metaphor over time, but it cannot dispense with a comprehensive metaphor without losing a sense of coherence.."

4. Influence of natural symbols on social organization

Such an approach is not as incongruous as might be suspected. Mary Douglas, an anthropologist, has argued that the organic system provides an analogy of the social system which, other things being equal, is used in the same way and understood in the same way all over the world. The human body is capable of furnishing a natural system of symbols, but the problem is to identify the elements in the social dimension which are reflected in views of how the body should function or how its waste-products should be judged (Purity and Danger, 1966). In a more recent study she points out that according to the "purity rule": "the more the social situation exerts pressure on persons involved in it, the more the social demand for conformity tends to be expressed by a demand for physical control. Bodily processes are more ignored and more firmly set outside the social discourse, the more the latter is important. A natural way of investing a social occasion with dignity is to hide organic processes." (Natural Symbols, 1973, p.12)

But such dignity, despite its value, is essentially static and conservative, denying the dynamics of development, decay and renewal - more effectively contained by the essentially human folk rituals of carnival, etc. It is then easier to understand how oversimplified and "inhuman" our highest ideals become when they reject such bodily functions as digestion, excretion and intercourse. Douglas points out how uncomfortable some religions are with the association of such processes with a deity and consequently the difficulty they have in dealing with whatever they reject. Similarly in society's major institutions, there is no explicit conceptual link with that of themselves that they reject. The attitude towards bodily waste products is indicative of the degree of creative acceptance of the "loss" portion of any learning cycles.

As might be expected from arguments in Section KD, she identifies four distinctive systems of natural symbols, namely social systems in which the image of the body is used in different ways to reflect and enhance each person's experience of society:

(a) Body conceived as an organ of communication: "The major preoccupations will be with its functioning effectively; the relation of head to subordinate members will be a model of the central control system, the favourite metaphors of statecraft will harp upon the flow of blood in the arteries, sustenance and restoration of strength."

(b) Body seen as a vehicle of life: As such "it will be vulnerable in different ways. The dangers to it will come...from failure to control the quality of what it absorbs through the orifices; fear of poisoning, protection of boundaries, aversion to bodily waste products, and medical theory that enjoins frequent purging."

(c) Practical concern with possible uses of bodily rejects: As such it will be "very cool about recycling waste matter and about the pay-off from such practices...In the control areas of this society controversies about spirit and matter will scarcely arise."

(d) Life seen as purely spiritual, and the body as irrelevant matter: "In these types of social experience, a person feels that his personal relations, so inexplicably unprofitable, are in the sinister grip of a social system. It follows that the body tends to serve as a symbol of evil, as a structured system contrasted with pure spirit which by its nature is free and undifferentiated. The millennialist...believes in a Utopian world in which goodness of heart can prevail without institutional devices." (p.16-17)

Clearly such distinct attitudes can well determine the kinds of political tendencies discussed earlier. It is unfortunate that Douglas did not broaden the scope of her study to include sexual behaviour. For although she recognizes its fundamental importance (p.93), she confines her concern to the significance of attitudes to the waste-products (of a single body) in determining behaviour within family systems. An equivalent focus on sexual behaviour would provide insight into the ways in which attitudes to alternation are similarly encoded and into the possibility of employing courtship and sexual symbols to enrich understanding of alternation processes in society.

Another bodily activity that encodes alternation is of course respiration, a favourite preoccupation in eastern philosophies. Again, however, this is focused on a single body and is therefore far less controversial and "seductive" as a form of presentation. This is the price of being less rich as a substrate for the generative dynamics of the relationship between opposites.

5. Family structure and social organization

Emmanuel Todd has explored the hypothesis that family relations constitute a model for the socio-political relations in each society. He points out that until recently this old hypothesis has proved quite useless due to the embryonic state of social anthropology. He argues that any such comparisons have lacked significance because of the narrowly eurocentric (cf Herb Addo, Beyond Eurocentricity, 1985) concept of valid socio-political forms: "Est-il difficile d'admettre que la répartition mondiale des idéologies politiques et religieuses ne définit pas une structure dichotomique mais un ensemble multi-polaire et dont tous les poles - communistes, libéraux, catholiques, sociaux-démocrates, hindous, musulumans, bouddhistes - sont également normaux, légitimes et dignes d'analyse." (Emmanuel Todd, La Troisième Planète, 1983, p.12)

For Todd the family structure is an infralogical mechanism governing the reproduction of specific human values. This leads him to question the "grande illusion" that politics make society rather than the converse. Each culture, founded on a specific anthropological base, then engenders an ideological form of its own family values (p.24).

6. Images of social organization

In a much-lauded book Images of Organization (1986), Gareth Morgan considers the challenge to managers, administrators, organizational consultants, and others concerned with the effective functioning of organizations. The more proficient, he argues, develop a skill in the art of "reading" the situations that they are attempting to organize or manage. This skill usually develops as an intuitive process, learned through experience and natural ability. Such skilled readers develop the knack of reading situations with various scenarios in mind, and of forging actions that seem appropriate to the readings thus obtained. By contrast, less effective managers and problem solvers seem to interpret everything from a fixed standpoint with the consequence that their actions and behaviours are often rigid and inflexible and a source of conflict.

The basic premise of Morgan's approach is that "our theories and explanations of organizational life are based on metaphors that lead us to see and understand organizations in distinctive yet partial ways. Metaphor is often just regarded as a device for embellishing discourse, but its significance is much greater than this. For the use of metaphor implies a way of thinking and a way of seeing that pervade how we understand our world generally." He points out, for example, that organizations are frequently discussed as if they were machines, designed to achieve predetermined goals and objectives, and which should operate smoothly. As a result of this way of thinking, attempts are often made to organize and manage them in a mechanistic way, forcing human qualities into the background.

His book explores and develops the art of reading and understanding organizations: "First it seeks to show how many of our conventional ideas about organization and management build on a small number of taken-for-granted images, especially mechanical and biological ones. Second, by exploring these and a number of alternative images, it seeks to show how we can create new ways of thinking about organization. Third, it seeks to show how this general method of analysis can be used as a practical tool for diagnosing organizational problems, and for the management and design of organizations more generally." So, by using different metaphors to understand the complex and paradoxical character of organization life, it becomes possible manage and design organizations in ways that may not have appeared possible before. Morgan devotes separate chapters to the understanding of organizations in the light of the following metaphors:

(a) Organizations as organisms: From this perspective different types of organization are seen as belonging to different species, each suited for coping with the demands of different environments. This encourages the exploration of the relations between such species of organization as well as the evolutionary patterns in inter-organizational ecology.

(b) Organizations as brains: From this perspective organizations are seen in terms of information processing, learning, and intelligence. It provides a frame of reference through which such qualities can be enhanced. Some of the different metaphors already used for understanding the brain may also then be used, such as the brain as a computer and the brain as a hologram. The latter indicates principles of self-organization.

(c) Organizations as cultures: From this perspective organization is seen to reside in the ideas, values, norms, rituals and beliefs that sustain organizations as socially constructed realities. It focuses on the patterns of shared meaning that guide organizational life.

(d) Organizations as political systems: From this perspective, using a political metaphor, it possible to focus on the different sets of interests, conflicts and powerplays that shape organizational activities. Organizations can then be explored as systems of government based on various political principles through which different kinds of rule are legitimized.

(e) Organizations as psychic prisons: From this perspective organizations can be explored as places where people become trapped by their own thoughts, ideas, and beliefs, or by preoccupations originating in the unconscious mind. This offers insights into the psychodynamic and ideological aspects of the organization.

(e) Organization as flux and transformation: From this perspective the organization is understood in terms of the different logics of change shaping social life. Examples given are: organizations as self-producing systems creating themselves in their own image; organizations as produced through the results of circular and negative feedback; and organizations as the product of a dialectical logic through which every phenomenon tends to generate its opposite.

(f) Organizations as instruments of domination: From this perspective the potentially exploitative aspects of organization can be explored, especially in order to facilitate understanding of the ways in which management-labour relations have been radicalized and of the attitudes of exploited groups.

From Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential

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