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Opportunity: Metaphor as an unexplored resource for transdisciplinarity

Metaphor Project


In Julie Klein's review of interdisciplinarity (1990) she devotes a chapter to the phenomenon of borrowing of conceptual tools, models and theories between disciplines. She notes:

"Inevitably borrowing invites speculation about the metaphorical nature of interdisciplinarity. Metaphors may be didactic or illustrative devices, models, paradigms, or root images that generate new models. Some metaphors are heuristic, whereas others constitute new meaning...Borrowing is metaphoric in several ways. Theories and models from other disciplines may sensitize scholars to questions not usually asked in their own fields, or they may help interpret and explain, whether that means a framework for integrating diverse elements or hypothetical answers that cannot be obtained from existing disciplinary resources. When a research area is incomplete, borrowing may facilitate an inductive open-endedness. It may function as a probe, facilitating understanding and enlightenment. Or, it may provide insight into another system of observational categories and meanings, juxtaposing the familiar with the unfamiliar while exposing similarities and differences between the literal use of the borrowing and a new area." (p. 93).

Klein then points that borrowers have been called translators, clarifiers, who interpret one discipline to those in another.

1. Metaphor and comprehension

Metaphor has often been viewed with disdain by academics, administrators of programs, and documentalists, even when they find themselves obliged to use it. It is seen as implying intellectual sloppiness, an inability to be rigorous, and even basic incompetence. This perception is increasingly challenged by those exploring the cognitive role of metaphor, namely the fundamental manner in which metaphor enables and conditions most thought processes (Lakoff, 1987). Of immediate relevance, this is seen in the root metaphors governing different styles of organization (Morgan, 1986) and management (Belbin, 1981; Handy, 1979).

From this perspective metaphor provides the patterning by which categories emerge and are organized. This has always been relatively clear to those engaged in any form of creative activity, whether artists, advertisement designers, educators or fundamental physicists. As Anne Buttimer (1982) notes: "Metaphor, it has been claimed, touches a deeper level of understanding than 'paradigm', for it points to the process of learning and discovery -- to those analogical leaps from the familiar to the unfamiliar which rally imagination and emotion as well as intellect."

2. Metaphor and categorization

The authors most closely associated with the exploration of the cognitive role of metaphor are George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (1980), notably in their collective work on Metaphors We Live By and in subsequent studies (Lakoff, 1987). The processes of categorization are now being shown to involve metaphor at the most fundamental level, implying an organization of knowledge by cognitive models. Thus the "conduit" metaphor, implicit in much discussion about communication, maps knowledge about conveying objects in containers onto an understanding of communications as conveying ideas in words.

As with other memorable metaphors, the "container" metaphor, implying a boundary distinguishing an interior from an exterior, defines the most basic distinction between "in" and "out", notably in transactions between organizations, economic sectors or conceptual frameworks. The container schema is inherently meaningful to people by virtue of their bodily experience. It is through that bodily experience that the schema has a meaningful configuration. Whilst this may be relatively obvious in dealing with physical concepts, the mode of understanding is also carried over to the understanding of abstract concepts. It thus conditions ability to elaborate and comprehend complex structures and policies. The challenge is to discover how to overcome the habitual cognitive constraints implied by these insights, especially as they effect the capacity to formulate more appropriate, and possibly counter-intuitive, transdisciplinary frameworks.

Points made about the container metaphor suggest the need for a review of the somewhat similar metaphors implicit in the discussion of disciplinarity -- especially those associated with "inter", "cross" and "trans".

3. Metaphor and conflicts between worldviews

Oscar Nudler (1988) has explored the use of metaphor as applied to conflicts between worldviews or frames, namely the sets of "assumptions or principles which enable us to structure situations and, by the same token, make them real for us". He concludes that: "Metaphor dialogue opens the possibility of fully profiting from the heuristic potentiality of metaphors as "condensed" forms of thought, while at the same time helping to overcome the limitation imposed on our vision by our own preferred metaphor."

4. Metaphor and problem generation

Donald Schon (1979) has most closely linked this perspective to the appropriate formulation of (and response to) social problems in policy-making: "the framing of problems often depends upon metaphors underlying the stories which generate problem setting and set the direction of problem solving". He explores the case of slum housing, contrasting the use of slums as a "blight" (implying remedies based on medical metaphors, including "surgery") with slums as a "natural community" (implying the need to enhance the life of that community). Such insights have been further explored by Judge (1991).

Aggressive use of metaphor is widely used to stigmatize the policies of opponents. Thus Boris Yeltsin attacked Michael Gorbachov's proposals as "an attempt to marry a hedgehog to a snake". Such use of metaphor probably dates back to the origin of politics and policy-making. Advisors and experts have long been obliged to make use of metaphor to communicate the intricacies of emerging options to their patrons, who may even be content to see the world in such metaphoric terms.

The extent to which policy-making is now media driven, or led, has been widely remarked. Policies are, to some extent at least, defined and epitomized for the public through "photo opportunities" and "sound bites". If a policy cannot be articulated successfully through the media, increasingly it can only be implemented covertly.

5. Metaphor and political inquiry

The language of political inquiry would seem to be inescapably metaphorical. "Metaphor is essential to political inquiry, because it permits us to extend our knowledge from our familiar world to a region that is not open to immediate experience....Metaphor is necessary to political knowledge precisely because the meaning or reality of the political world transcends what is open to observation" (Miller, 1979). (An international symposium on "Political Metaphors in Historical Perspective" was organized in Naples in June 1991.)

Especially with the constraints of media communication, politicians in particular resort extensively to the use of metaphor as a means of explaining complex policies, whether to their peers or to their constituencies. Thus, for example, in June 1991 those involved in the EEC Commission efforts to articulate the new treaty details for European economic and political union were clarifying alternatives amongst themselves using code words, including "pillars", "hats", "temples", "trees" and "ivy". The pillars were separate chapters of the treaty, the hat was the prologue creating a European union embracing three pillars. The alternatives were described in a "temple-versus-trees" debate in which the Commission argued that the treaty should look more like a "tree trunk with branches" than a "shaky temple supported by pillars". Others criticized a revision as "pillars covered in ivy", namely with largely cosmetic change's (Independent, 17 June 1991). Are these metaphors of the requisite richness to handle the complexity and opportunities of such challenges?

6. Metaphor in international organizations

Within the corporate world, much use is made of military, sporting and sexual metaphors in daily management language (whether with or without presidential expletives) to articulate tactics and strategy: "eliminating" the opposition, "target" audiences, "ammunition" for advertising "campaigns", "keeping the ball in play", "running with the ball", and the like. Much of this language has been taken over by international organizations where it is especially ironic to find the "mobilization" of public opinion with the use of "ammunition" in "campaigns" with "target audiences" to promote peace and cooperation.

It is appropriate to note the manner in which Japanese management language is currently influenced by such classical texts as The Book of Five Rings (Miyamoto Musashi, 1982 tr) which is a treatise on swordsmanship expressed in poetic metaphor. It may be argued that whereas Japanese strategy is also articulated through military and sporting metaphors, these are more subtle and less mechanistic than those of the West -- leading to subtler and more sophisticated strategies in which the principles of flower arrangement (ikebana) and warfare are mutually reinforcing. A study by a political scientist of the influence of chess- and go-based strategic thinking on the USA and Vietnamese respectively, in the Vietnam conflict, reflects such differences. Such richer metaphors might naturally be expected to permit the credible articulation of more complex policies. Along these lines, well-documented counter-intuitive approaches have been developed as "paradoxical strategies" by a number of psychotherapists (Seltzer, 1986). How might the conceptual frameworks and policies of sustainable development be approached in the light of metaphors from the "martial arts"?

7. Metaphor as a language of appropriateness

These examples highlight the important distinction between isolated metaphors of essentially ephemeral value (the hedgehog/snake case) and the extensive use over time of a pattern of metaphors -- a rich metaphoric "language" (as with the use of military metaphors in business). The first are primarily of rhetoric value in contrast to the fundamental cognitive influence of the second.

Whether because of the media constraints experienced by politicians, or in the light of the fundamental cognitive role of metaphor, it would appear that there is a strong case for exploring metaphor as a decision-making resource. The challenge is to discover whether judicious selection and design of metaphor can be used to uncover and articulate more appropriate strategies and options for institutional organization. Above all, perhaps, is the question of whether existing strategic options are not emerging because of the widespread use of inadequate, simplistic metaphors (including nuclear "shields" and "umbrellas") -- rendering the long-term success of such options quite dubious.

8. Metaphors for survival

It can be argued that the selection and use of metaphors by individuals and groups to reconfigure their environment and its challenges offers new degrees of conceptual freedom. In this sense metaphors are an empowering device that allow people to adjust and modify the conceptual patterns by which they are surrounded. They provide a means for handling the kinds of conceptual inconsistency, dynamism and paradox on which disciplines have few comprehensible insights to offer. They may also be used to handle the many difficulties of reconciling part-whole and local-global relationships -- reconciling global integration with local relevance. In this sense a metaphor can be used as a temporary cognitive discipline.

9. Visual metaphors and adequate conceptual complexity

A concept structure of adequate complexity may pose the same problems of comprehension as a spiral staircase when explained through words alone. By the time the explanation is complete the audience is bewildered if not alienated. A visual presentation ("worth a thousand words") instantly clarifies the simple elegance of the concept, subsuming its necessary complexity. The vital importance of the latter dimensions to those who mould the major policy options through various processes of governance has been strongly emphasized by Harold Lasswell (1968): "Why do we put so much emphasis on audio-visual means of portraying goal, trend, condition, projection, and alternative? Partly because so many valuable participants in decision-making have dramatizing imaginations. They are not enamoured of numbers or of analytic abstractions. They are at their best in deliberations that encourage contextuality by a varied repertory of means and where an immediate sense of time, space and figure is retained".

Some academic disciplines make extensive use of graphic presentations, especially the natural sciences and various forms of engineering. However the social sciences, and notably political science, tend to avoid such presentations. There is even a tendency to disparage such use of visual displays as an indication of incompetence, if only in verbal skills. The lack of any need for visual aids to explain sustainable development policies suggests that they may be of a level of complexity inadequate to the challenge.

The great developments in computer hardware and software for the generation and manipulation of graphic images have been principally applied to special media effects (notably advertising clips and science fiction movies), to computer-aided design (architecture, engineering, etc), and to representations of systems (process control, chemical molecules, physical systems). No effort has yet been made to use techniques of this sophistication to represent social processes in all their complexity as an aid to more appropriate forms of decision-making. These techniques have become so sophisticated that they can now generate comprehensible visual representations of dynamic structures that could not exist under the laws governing physical space. They are also used to enable people to experience, explore and generate "virtual realities" (Helsel, 1990) -- if only as a leisure experience (currently recognized as the major market for which such products are being developed).

It is quite possible that the more readily accessible metaphors may themselves be of insufficient richness to encompass the conceptual complexity of processes on which decisions are called for at this time. Or if they are rich enough, in a period of increasing functional illiteracy, they may be essentially incomprehensible to the constituencies from which mandates for new strategies are sought. There is therefore some probability that the metaphors required to sustain the conceptual frameworks for new strategic options may only be expressible through dynamic visual forms generated by the computer techniques noted above. It would be deplorable if techniques of great value to new forms of decision-making were only developed for (and accepted in) video parlours and home entertainment especially favoured by the functionally illiterate -- as has already been the case.

From Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential

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