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Metaphor Project (Explanations)

Governance: From governing metaphors to governance through metaphor

Metaphor Project

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1. Governing metaphors

At a time when there is much discussion of new paradigms, quantum leaps, breakthroughs and imaginative alternatives, it could be useful to explore collective and individual behaviour in search of the implicit metaphors by which they may be governed -- or govern themselves (Judge, 1987). Such exploration tends to take the form of identifying the "belief" or "value" systems within which people operate. And in these terms there has been concern in the international community as to ways of communicating more appropriate value systems -- especially those enshrined in human rights conventions. There are also many constituencies actively promoting particular belief systems.

Whilst promotion of belief and value systems opens opportunities for some, the track record of this approach does not suggest that it will make a difference in the time available. They also tend to be presented in relatively diffuse texts that call for special education processes before the full benefit can be derived from them. At the other extreme are the slogans favoured by political groups. In this case the difference made, if any, tends not to reflect the complexities of the situation -- thus engendering further difficulties.

There have been suggestions concerning the existence of "root metaphors" governing particular world views. Such root metaphors have also been noted in relation to images of social organization (Morgan, 1986). There is currently much emphasis, in the case of particular corporations, of identifying or designing an appropriate "corporate culture". In the past at least, great emphasis has been placed on family mottoes (at least amongst the western aristocracy). Such mottoes were also developed by guilds. In some non-western cultures totems have played an even more powerful role in providing a metaphoric view of the world (Cowan, 1990). In various religious traditions, phrases based on particular metaphors are used to guide personal transformation, often through meditation.

2. Enhancing conscious use of metaphor

In the light of the recognized cognitive function of metaphor (MacCormac, 1985), these examples suggest the possibility of encouraging more active use of metaphor by individuals in order to creatively "redesign" their cognitive environments so that new opportunities become apparent and acquire legitimacy. The role of metaphor in scientific and artistic innovation suggests that equivalent uses of metaphor are possible in the realm of social innovation.

It should be quickly noted that there are clearly limitations to any metaphor and that it is easy to get trapped in an inappropriate metaphor -- or rather in a metaphor that is inappropriate to the circumstances. Current entrapment by the switch metaphor (discussed earlier) might be an example. The challenge is therefore to provide contextual metaphors which enable people to shift around within a set of metaphors, where each is appropriate to different conditions (Judge, 1989b). This is especially important when it is becoming increasingly apparent that no one explanation, theory, model or paradigm can encompass the complexity within which people have to navigate. It would therefore be a mistake to imply that any particular metaphor can encompass more than an aspect of the reality with which people have to deal.

Given the increasing problems of the educational system, typified by the increasing number of functionally illiterate adults, it is necessary to look to other means of disseminating such metaphors. Of greater interest than such "dissemination from the centre" is the desirability of finding ways to encourage people to select or design their own metaphors using material natural to their own (sub)culture. It is more a question of enabling people to harness the social innovation potential of metaphors with which they are already familiar.

3. Governance through metaphor

Metaphor is widely used by politicians to communicate policy options -- both amongst themselves and to their constituencies. However it is used simplistically and in a rhetorical manner divorced from the written articulation of the policy and its implementation in practice. The metaphors currently favoured do not reflect the exigencies of sustainable development or the dynamics between the advocates of competing policy alternatives. (Earl MacCormac (cited above), who is both Science Advisor to the Office of the Governor of the State of North Carolina, and author of a book on A Cognitive Theory of Metaphor (1985) is deeply concerned with policy issues on the frontier between science and government. It is therefore strange that his book, and other studies, makes no reference to the possible relevance of metaphor for new approaches to development.)

The argument here is that governance could be more effectively based on processes facilitating:

The merit of this vision of governance -- whether of a society, a group, a family, or as "self-governance" -- is that it does not call for an improbable, radical transformation of institutions and programmes. Rather it calls for a change in the way of thinking about what is circulated through society's information systems as the triggering force for any action (Judge, 1987b).

Resources can be usefully devoted to identifying, selecting, designing disseminating and employing more appropriate metaphors in policy contexts. Such a shift in focus should open up new ways of reflecting collectively on the more complex, cyclic and incommensurable perspectives currently lost in the savage interactions between factions. It is such complex perspectives that constitute the real policy challenge.

This suggests that the design of a desirable policy forum would focus attention on the emergence and movement of policy-relevant metaphors, their relationship (as comprehensible meaning complexes) to more conventional forms of information, and their reflection in organizational form. Stewardship in the governance of a forum opens possibilities in the governance of society as a whole.

4. Integrative function of metaphor for governance

The use of metaphors for communicative purposes clearly has an important integrative function in relating the governors and the governed. But it is the initiatory function that is of prime importance to the internal processes of governance. In a sense metaphor here has a "keystone" function as the ordering pattern or matrix through which strategies, models and programmes take form. It provides the implicit bridge between the disparate tools of governance.

Governance, especially when faced with the complex challenge of sustaining development, makes use of metaphor (whether explicitly or implicitly) in ordering its priorities and strategies. It is such fundamental metaphors imposed upon the "hyle", which give form and stability to a "landscape" on which the hazards and opportunities of governance are mapped. A major attribute of governance is the skill required to traverse such a terrain, possibly whilst under attack from hostile or destabilizing forces. But of equal importance, especially in the long-term, is the ability to switch to a new metaphor through which the epistemological domain is ordered. For, given the inherent complexity of the "hyle", no one metaphor can adequately encompass the dimensions to which governance must respond.

To fulfil its functions governance must be able to orient itself in terms of a succession of more appropriate "landscapes". It is possible for a single root metaphor to last the duration of a period of government (and electoral period) and engender a variety of needed strategies. But in a highly turbulent socio-political context, such a single metaphor is more then likely to prove inadequate. Governance then requires the skill to move between a set of metaphors each capable of rendering comprehensible certain sets of dimensions of the hyle. For this skill to become communicable it must itself be embodied in a metaphor 


From Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential

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