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Union of Intelligible Associations

Projects Overview (Explanations)
Metaphor Project (Explanations)

Significance: Generative metaphor and policy-making

Metaphor Project


1. Societal problem setting

In a key paper, Donald Schön (1979) argues that "the essential difficulties in social policy have more to do with problem setting than with problem solving, more to do with ways in which we frame the purposes to be achieved than with the selection of optimal means for achieving them." For Schön "the framing of problems often depends upon metaphors underlying the stories which generate problem setting and set the direction of problem solving."

As an example he explores the case of slum housing. If the underlying metaphor is a slum is a "blight" or "disease", then this encourages an approach governed by the corresponding medical remedies, including the surgery whereby the blight is removed. On the other hand, if the underlying metaphor is that the slum is a "natural community", then this orients any response in terms of enhancing the life of that community. The two perceptions and approaches are quite distinct and have quite different consequences in practice.

In this sense problems are not given. For Schön, they are constructed by human beings in their attempts to make sense of complex and troubling situations. Ways of describing problems move into and out of good currency." Furthermore, new understanding of problems does not necessarily result as a logical consequence of the success or failure of instrumental responses to problems as previously defined. Rather attempts at solutions, based on partial understanding, generate other kinds of problem situations, without necessarily resolving those that existed initially. For Schön, the "social situations confronting us have turned out to be far more complex than we had supposed, and it becomes increasingly doubtful that in the domain of social policy, we can make accurate temporal predictions, design models which converge upon a true description of reality, and carry out experiments which yield unambiguous results. Moreover, the unexpected problems created by our search for acceptable means to the ends we have chosen reveals...a stubborn conflict of ends traceable to the problem setting itself."

2. Metaphoric "spells"

There is a marked tendency to be unaware of the metaphors that shape perceptions and understanding of social situations. Although metaphors are at once tacit and often outside of explicit experience, they represent a special way of seeing, a way of selecting and naming "facts" that can filter or distort what is taken in. For Schön, if the metaphor remains tacit, it effectively exerts a "spell" that conditions the way in which a situation is perceived as problematic. The consequence of such tacit metaphors can be dangerously counter-productive. Metaphors can constrain and sometimes dangerously control the way in which people and groups construct the world in which they act.

If, however, the metaphor no longer remains tacit, because an effort is made to "spell it out", other possibilities emerge. The assumptions which flow from the metaphor can be elaborated in terms of the appropriateness of the metaphor to the circumstances in question.

3. Conflicting frames

From this perspective, the difficulties of collective response to societal problem situations are severely compounded by different perceptions of the nature of the problems. Society's ills receive conflicting descriptions, often couched as metaphors. For Schön, "Such a multiplicity of conflicting stories about the situation makes it dramatically apparent that we are dealing not with "reality" but with various ways of making sense of a reality." Some of these may be based on an inappropriate or simplistic understanding of the situation. Inadequate metaphors carry with them implicitly, and often insidiously, natural "solutions".

The disagreements may be more fruitfully understood as frame conflicts. Conflicts of frames, according to Schön, cannot be resolved by any appeal to the facts, because all the "relevant" facts have already been selected, filtered, and embedded in the metaphors through which the situation is variously perceived. The dilemma of such frame conflicts may of course be avoided, through a form of conceptual surgery, by deliberately omitting consideration of any inconvenient values that give rise to the dilemma.

4. Generative metaphor

A generative metaphor in Schön's terms is characterized by the carrying over of frames or perspectives from one domain to another. It allows for frame re-structuring when frame conflict exists. The notion of a generative metaphor may be extended to include a proposed metaphor that frames socially constructed reality in a new, more complex way (S Srivastva and F Barrett, 1988).

Not all metaphors are generative. Some merely capitalize upon existing ways of seeing things. In the case of generative metaphor, however, there is an actual generation of new perceptions, explanations and inventions. The sense of the obviousness of what is wrong in a problematic situation, and what needs fixing, is the hallmark of a generative metaphor in Schön's sense. A generative metaphor "derives its normative force from certain purposes and values, certain normative images, which have long been powerful in our culture."

For Schön, the notion of generative metaphor "then becomes an interpretive tool for the critical analysis of social policy". He argues that "it is not that we ought to think metaphorically about social problems, but that we do already think about them in terms of certain pervasive, tacit generative metaphors; and that we ought to become critically aware of these generative metaphors, to increase the rigour and precision of our analysis of social policy problems by examining the analogies and "disanalogies" between the familiar descriptions...and the actual problematic situations that confront us."

There is therefore reason to be wary of generative metaphors, especially when they carry their own solutions to problems. More often than not they will fail to present an objective characterization of the problem situation.

5. Frame restructuring

In the presence of generative metaphors governing perception of a problem situation, Schön advocates a process of frame restructuring. This involves the design of a new problem-setting story or metaphor. Under the new metaphor, an attempt is made to integrate conflicting frames by including features and relations drawn from earlier metaphors, yet without sacrificing internal coherence or the degree of simplicity required for action. He gives a concrete example involving a squatter settlement in a developing country.

He stresses that conflicting descriptions cannot be effectively mapped onto one another by matching corresponding elements in each. Rather it is restructured descriptions of a situation from different perspectives which are coordinated with one another: "some pairs of restructured elements now match one another, and others are juxtaposed in the new description as components of larger elements." The new description is also not a compromise or average of the values implicit in earlier descriptions. Rather "there is a shift in the meanings of these terms, and along with this, a shift in the distribution of the redescribed functions of initiative and control."

6. Transforming nature of metaphors in group development

Frame restructuring can be understood as co-inquiry. Experimental procedures have been developed by the Department of Organizational Behaviour of Case Western Reserve University (Cleveland, USA) to explore group development (S Srivastva and F Barrett, 1988; F Barrett and D Cooperrider, 1988). They put forward propositions concerning metaphor and group process that suggest how: paying attention to metaphors are indicators of a group's phase of development; metaphor facilitates learning and overcomes resistance to otherwise difficult subjects; metaphor facilitates growth and development of the group; metaphor enables the group to construct its own social reality.

They are currently extending this work to international associations (P Johnson and D Cooperrider, 1991).

From Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential

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