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Governance: Governance through enhancing the movement of meaning

Metaphor Project


1. Beyond the movement of information

Much has been made in recent years of the emergence of the "information society". Enthusiasts have envisaged this resulting in a "global village", given the facility of information access and transfer. Great care should however be taken in building on such hopes in envisioning new forms of governance.

In order to identify the opportunity for the emergence of a form of governance which responds with requisite variety to the issues identified in this paper, it is useful to distinguish three major ways of exploring the potential of the information society (Judge, Reflections on Associative Constraints and Possibilities in an Information Society, 1987). These are:

  • an Adaptive Approach, anchored in existing mind-sets;
  • an Innovative Approach, committed to change (but without disrupting fundamental patterns); and
  • a Transformative Approach, specifically concerned with the ability to switch between fundamental patterns.
Most effort and attention concerning the information society focuses on the Adaptive Approach. Some effort is devoted to the Innovative Approach, whilst very little is devoted to the Transformative Approach.

For there to be a real breakthrough in processes of governance, there has to be a real breakthrough in the movement of meaning in society. The mere movement of information (as represented by the Adaptive Approach) will not suffice, even if its is described as the "dissemination of knowledge". It leads to information overload and information underuse (a project of the United Nations University).

2. Concept life-cycles

It is at the level of the Innovative Approach that new key concepts emerge and, in the case of the international community, result in new programmes and institutions with new emphases. The manner in which this occurs at the moment is inadequate to the challenge. One useful way to envision the governance of the future is in contrast to Johan Galtung's insightful but disillusioned analysis of "concept careers" within the UN system, meaning both how innovative concepts undergo a career of stages or phases, a life-cycle in other words, and how concepts may move from one organization to another. Thus, as to their life-cycle at present, he notes:

(a) a fresh concept is co-opted into the system from the outside (almost never from the inside because the inside is not creative enough for the reasons mentioned). The concept is broad, unspecified, full of promises because of its (as yet) virgin character, capable of instilling some enthusiasm in people who do not suffer too much from a feeling of déjà-vu having been through a number of concept life cycles already. Examples: basic needs, self-reliance, new international economic order, appropriate technology, health for all, community participation, primary health care, inner/outer limits, common heritage of mankind;

(b) the organization receives the concept and it is built into preambles of resolutions; drafters and secretaries get dexterity in handling it. The demand then arises to make it more precise so that it can reappear in the operational part of a resolution. A number of studies are commissioned, very carefully avoiding too close contact with people and groups behind the more original formulations as "they do not need to be convinced." The concept thus moves from birth via adolescence to maturity, meaning that it has been changed sufficiently to become structure and culture compatible (it will not threaten states except states singled out by the majority to be threatened); the idiom will be that of the saxonic intellectual style, rich in documentation and poor in theory and insights; very precise but limited in connotations and emotive overtones; "politically adequate" meaning that it can be used to build consensus or dissent; depending on what is wanted where and when.

(c) From maturity to senescence and death is but a short step: the concept thus emasculated can no longer serve the purpose of renewal as what was new has largely been taken a away and what was old has been added in its place - except, possibly, the term itself. Even the word will then, after a period of grace, tend to disappear, those who believe in it now no longer identify with it; those who did not get tired of saying "we knew it would not work, it did not stand the test of reality". In this phase outside originators of the concept may be called in for last ditch efforts of resuscitation, usually in vain. There is no official funeral ceremony as the concept will linger on in some resolutions, but there will be a feeling of a void, of bereavement. Consequently, the search will be on, by concept scouts, for new concepts to kindle frustrated and sluggish consciences. And as a result-

(d) a fresh concept is co-opted into the system from the outside, e.g. one that has already been through its life cycle in another part of the UN system. For the rest read the story once more.

Nevertheless, each concept leaves some trace behind, more than its denigrators would like to believe, less than the protagonists might have hoped for. If this were not the case the cognitive framework for the system would have undergone no change during the 35 years of its existence". (Johan Galtung, Processes in the UN System, 1980)

3. Encompassing conceptual renewal

In the light of the arguments of this paper, the weakness of the system highlighted by Galtung is that it is focused on concepts as they move into and out of fashion, rather then on the metaphor-models through which concepts emerge and may be associated. Effort is made to create the impression that such "concepts" as self-reliance should be understood as meaningful in their own right, as the product of academic, political and administrative expertise. At the same time, in order to communicate their significance and ensure support for them, they form the subject of public information programmes, documentaries, propaganda and sloganneering. Through this process they also become metaphors (as well as symbols of an approach which others attack).

The problem is that as such these metaphor-models are not very rich. As conceptual models, they may be, but those dimensions are not well reflected in the metaphorical presentation that migrates through the field of public opinion - they were not designed to be. They do not excite the imagination of many as metaphors can.

How are current preoccupations with the concept of "sustainable development" to be understood in this temporal context ? How long will the concept be able to sustain its "career" ? What factors will contribute to the emergence of a new concept ?

4. Sustaining the movement of meaning

It is a truism that development is an essentially dynamic process. It is however less evident that the modes of thought enabling that process need to be equally dynamic if that process is to be sustained (cf Ashby's Law). The dilemma is that any concrete action tends to have to be designed in terms of specific goals, models and institutions which must necessarily be characterized by a certain static quality in conflict with such dynamic flexibility. Loss of dynamism appears to be the price of concreteness. The argument here is that loss of specificity is the price of sustainability.

Earlier points make it possible to suggest that a desirable form of governance should focus its attention on the emergence and movement of policy-relevant metaphor-models in society. Instead of regretting or resisting the life-cycle that Galtung identifies, many possibilities lie in enhancing and ordering that movement, which is better conceived as the life-blood of the international community. The challenge lies in bonding metaphors to concepts to provide vehicles for the latter to move effectively through information and institutional systems - as motivating concepts rather than solely as part of the streams of information processed.

Governance is then fundamentally the process of ensuring the emergence and movement of such "guiding" metaphor-models through an information society, as well as their embodiment in organizational form. Such stewardship also requires sensitively to the progressive devaluation of any metaphor-model (at the end of its current cycle) and the need to adapt institutions accordingly. The stewardship required of the metaphor-model "gene pool" is analogous to that currently called for in the care of tropical forest ecosystems - as the richest pools of species and as vital to the condition of the atmosphere. There are conceptual "rain forests" which are currently endangered.

5. Reframing the movement of information

The merit of this vision of governance, as noted earlier, is that it does not call for a radical transformation of institutions. 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.

At present governance in the international community is haunted by a form of collective schizophrenia - a left-brain preoccupation with "serious" academic models and administrative programmes, and a right-brain preoccupation with the proclivities of public opinion avid for "meaningful" action (even if "sensational"). This schizophrenic battle between models and metaphors could be resolved by legitimating the metaphoric dimensions already so vital to any motivation of public opinion as a vehicle for the models. There needs to be a two-away flow however from model-to-metaphor and from metaphor-to-model, as in any interesting learning process.

In a sense this proposal is only radical in that it advocates the legitimation and improvement of processes which already occur - if only in the sterile and demotivating manner highlighted by Galtung. New metaphors are constantly emerging in the arts and sciences. They are used by politicians. Presumably some of them are used in the existing policy-making processes of governance. But the ecosystem of metaphor-models is an impoverished one. It is totally divorced from the cultural heritage of the world. There is a need to shift the level of analysis to the Transformative Approach. This shift is consistent with the analyses of the "post-modern" predicament (Hilary Lawson, Reflexivity, 1985).

6. Configurations of options: the contrast to relativism

This section is not simply an argument for relativism. The current approach to governance focuses on the attempt to achieve consensus on a single policy which is appropriate -- usually for an unspecified long-time. This does not correspond to the challenge of sustainable development in a learning society.

The next stage of development could well be described in terms of a configuration of metaphors -- each one of which is a distinct mode of perceiving the development process. Such metaphors are to be perceived as complementary -- appropriate to different conditions or different actors -- and implying the necessity to shift between them according to circumstance. No one of them reveals the whole truth, but the pattern of alternation between them provides a best approximation to appropriate action.

7. Resonance between alternative policies

The set of alternative structures, between which alternation takes place in any learning cycle, may be more clearly understood in the light of the theory of resonance. Johan Galtung first explored the possibility of using the organization of chemical molecules to clarify the description of social organization. He dealt with fixed structures and not with the transition between alternatives. The theory of resonance in chemistry is concerned with the representation of the actual normal state of molecules by a combination of several alternative "reasonable" structures, rather than by a single valence-bond structure. The molecule is then conceived as resonating among the several valence-bond structures, or rather to have a structure that is a resonance hybrid of these structures.

The best illustration of this is a resonance hybrid that is the form that best describes the dynamic structure of the benzene molecule -- basic to most organic substances.

8. Countervailing initiatives

In such a light, it would be important in policy-making to design a set of complementary policies that would be successively activated or deactivated according to circumstances. Some might be implemented simultaneously by organizations whose countervailing preoccupations would ensure an appropriate pattern of checks and balances. To ensure sustainability of development the focus would be on building complementarity into the design of the set. Such complementarity might necessarily entail that certain policies be opposed to one another or have opposite effects in order to respond appropriately to turbulent conditions in the social environment.

It could be argued that such a set would be increasingly appropriate to sustaining development to the extent that the number of complementary policies composing it -- namely the diversity of policies -- increased. The challenge is to design large coherent policy sets but in which the coherence is defined dynamically rather than statically. The dilemma is that the larger and the more diverse such a set becomes, the more difficult it is to comprehend, and the more difficult it is to understand the dynamics through which its coherence can be recognized. Hence the importance of metaphors to providing insight into coherent patterns of alternation between policies within the set.

9. Cycles of policies: illustrative metaphors

The difficulty in exploring patterns of alternation between modes of organization is the seeming lack of concrete (as opposed to abstract) examples by which the credibility of such patterns in practice may become apparent. In an effort to clarify the nature of such alternation, some 88 metaphors have been explored in Section MM.

In searching for appropriate metaphors to illustrate the need for cycles of policies there is a certain appropriateness to using a process which has traditionally been considered basic to sustaining the productivity of the land, namely crop rotation (see later note). The rotation of agricultural crops is an interesting "earthy" practice to explore in the light of the mind-set that it has required of farmers for several thousand years.

A cycle of seemingly incompatible practices, such as crop rotation, appears coherent to a large extent because of the establishment of a rhythm. Recognition of the complementarity over time is reinforced by the rhythm. Particular practices are eventually recognized to be appropriate to particular phases in the cycle. This sense has been lost in high-tech agriculture, just as it has in contemporary policy-making. Policy-making today, with its short-term focus, may be said to be essentially "sub-cyclic". As such it becomes the victim of cycles whose temporal scope it is unable to encompass. Focusing on the design of individual policies, rather than a cycle of policies, effectively builds inappropriateness and nonsustainability into the policy.

As an example, a recent newspaper article (entitled "Scandals grow when a party has been too long at the trough") states: "What the Reaganites face...is a growing national feeling that the Republican occupants of Washington's executive branch have been at the trough too long. They have become too caught up in self-interest to pay attention to the public interest". The same article notes a similar situation with respect to the Democrats in 1952.

10. Sustaining "sustainable development"

Sustainable development can only be sustained by a sustainable cycle of policies. This must necessarily encompass the necessary changes of particular policies associated with changes of government. Whilst government needs to be free to change policies in the short-term, a different attitude is required to cultivating and enriching the metaphors which give coherence to the cycle of such policies.

In a very real sense those metaphors symbolize for people the significance of the process of human development in which they are engaged -- irrespective of the phases of abundance or austerity by which the policy cycle may be characterized. Without such metaphors, abundance and austerity are simply associated with the promises and failures of different policies rather than as characteristics of a cycle of policies through which the society develops. 

From Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential

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