University of Earth
Projects Overview (Explanations)
World Problems Project (Explanations)

Comments: Problem metaphors

World Problems Project


The nebulous, shadowy nature of problems discussed earlier suggests the value of trying to understand them through metaphors. Not only can valuable insights be obtained, but this helps to comprehend how people acknowledging problems as understood through one metaphor have difficulty in attaching significance to problems as understood through another metaphor. The favoured metaphor may render some problems even more evanescent. There is also the possibility of considering problems as metaphors in their own right (see Section MZ).

1. Atoms, molecules

Problems may be considered as discrete entities, like atoms, having relationships to one another, like molecular bonds. This perspective corresponds to the simplest ways of portraying atoms and molecules (the solar system and billiard ball models) and is still in use for teaching and in graphic displays for research (see Section TZ). The structure of the information in this volume is effectively based on this metaphor. But although such models are useful, it is the implied discreteness of atoms which obscures their other properties, such as field effects (which are less easy to visualize) that may lead to alternative descriptions. Problems also have non-discrete characteristics which can better be understood as field effects.

In the light of this metaphor, the editorial process can be thought of as an attempt to discover the detailed structure of the macro-molecular complex which so strongly orders the life processes of society. It thus bears some resemblance to efforts to discover the structure of DNA or to the current Human Genome Project.

2. States of matter

It is useful to compare problems using the metaphor of the different states of matter. Solid: problems can be described as solid barriers, and rock-like obstacles. Liquid: the fluid, shifting, interconnected nature of problems can be understood using liquid metaphors. (In Section MZ, a chemical metaphor of problems dissolving into solutions and being precipitated out as solids is mentioned). Air: the manner in which problems "clamour for attention" or people are "bombarded by problems" can be understood in terms of the pressure exerted by molecules in a gaseous state.

In the light of this metaphor, the editorial process can be thought of as an attempt to collect and relate information concerning the different states in order to be able to plot out a phase diagram showing their relationship.

3. Topography and surveying

Problems are often described in terms of topographical features or geological processes. They may be compared to mountain barriers, earthquakes, volcanoes, landslides, or avalanches.

In the light of the topographical metaphor, the editorial process may be compared to a form of geological survey. An important concern is fixing positions of features relative to one another by the process of triangulation. Articulating the pattern of relationships between problems can be viewed in this light.

4. Weather and meteorology

Problems are often described in terms of weather effects. Crises can also be described in terms of storms and hurricanes, whether of wind or accompanied by waves (as in the phrase "making waves"), or in terms of severe extremes of temperature. A variant is the use of "high" to denote a positively valued personal condition and "low" to denote a negative, problematique condition.

In the light of the meteorological metaphor, the editorial process bears some resemblance to efforts to map and interrelate weather patterns. This metaphor might be used to suggest the futility of implying any permanence to a particular and temporary "low". But it might also be used to show that "lows" tend to arise in particular places and under certain conditions, however they shift thereafter. The high-low polarity has the great advantage of being able to encode the value-problem polarity and to suggest the level of complexity of the resulting system.

5. Ecology

Problems can be described in terms of ecosystems (jungle, desert, ice-field), wild beasts, insect pests, plagues or viruses.

In the light of this ecological metaphor, the editorial process can be viewed as an attempt to identify species and to map out food chains between them.

6. Disorders and diseases

Problems may be considered to be in some way the social equivalent of foreign bodies circulating in the human bloodstream (requiring the action of antibodies), or of different diseases affecting the different structures and processes of the human body.

In the light of this metaphor the editorial process can be viewed as an exercise in social pathology, an effort to identify the range of ills to which the human environment is subject. To some extent the product therefore has a function analogous to that of the WHO International Classification of Diseases or the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (of the American Psychiatric Association).

7. Stars and astronomy

Problems may be considered to be like stellar objects spread throughout the universe as "gravity-wells" and localized distortions of space-time. It is then as distortions that their problematique nature becomes manifest and that they exert effects on the social continuum. The metaphor may be pursued further by comparing the different kinds of problems to the different kinds of stellar objects, and even comparing their evolution to that of stellar evolution (as charted on the Herzsprung-Russell diagram). There is also the implication that under certain conditions problems can themselves become life-supporting.

In the light of this metaphor the editorial process can be compared to a star charting astronomical project. Of special interest are then the implications of the constraints in endeavouring to generate such charts from a single, eccentrically located position, when observations are further distorted by a variety of interference effects. The constraints are counteracted by establishing long base-lines and arrays, as in radio-telescopy. Networks of international organizations can be viewed as arrays of detectors from which problem information is derived by bringing that information to an appropriate focus.

8. Conceptual "anti-matter"

Problems bear a resemblance to "negative theories" (or "anti-theories"), namely they that exist in the same way that theories exist (bearing the same relationship to data and values), but instead of providing explanatory and predictive power to link related phenomena within a coherent framework, they mark the presence of confusion and unpredictable relationships between seemingly unrelated phenomena. They challenge and disrupt the conceptual frameworks which claim to be able to handle them. To the extent that they involve a comprehension vortex, with some form of "event horizon", they resemble "black holes" in the universe of information. Note that the supply of an adequate number and variety of problems may be necessary as a structuring device for a complex society since it provides a sufficient number of "sinks" (perhaps the psycho-social equivalent to the astronomers' "black holes") to absorb the excess energy generated by social processes.

9. Photography

Information on problems can be considered as detected by a process similar to that by which light or radiation is captured on photographic film. Whereas the normal investigatory procedure depends on the development of such film into "positives", problems are more appropriately viewed on "negatives".

10. Discontinuities

Problems can be understood as discontinuities in the seamless pattern of the known and predictable. As such they lend themselves to exploration as "catastrophes" using the mathematics of catastrophe theory, or as "strange attractors" using the mathematics of chaos theory.

11. Sins

Many problems can be viewed as sins of omission or commission on the part of humanity, especially since many of them can be held to derive from the fundamental ("deadly") sins, whether singly or in combination.

In the light of this metaphor the editorial process is equivalent to studying and cataloguing sins (in the Christian tradition) or afflictions (in the Buddhist tradition).

12. Demons and demonology

Traditionally, and from some psychoanalytic perspectives, there is merit in viewing problems as demons or gods of wrath. Different demons then manifest to humans through problems of different types. Classes of problems are then the work of classes of demons.

In the light of this metaphor, the editorial process then becomes an exercise in demonology. The product is thus equivalent to a Dictionary of Demons.

13. Monsters and bestiaries

Traditionally the unknown is indicated by the risk of encountering monsters and legendary beasts, to which problems can usefully be compared in the light of the devastation which both effect on societies. Ancient maps of the known world were traditionally bordered by regions inhabited by monsters. This is equivalent to the known and predictable world of routine from which problematique monsters must be kept at bay.

In the light of this metaphor, the editorial process can be viewed as an effort to document such beasts and monsters and to produce a "bestiary". As with such supposedly factual bestiaries, the information is based largely on travellers tales - the travellers being either ill-equipped to register unambiguously the nature of the beasts encountered or otherwise unable to confirm their experiences to communities insensitive to the rich variety of life. International organizations may be considered such travellers to distant and specialized domains.

14. Topography of hell

Traditionally Hell is the realm in which problems may be viewed as reigning explicitly supreme. In some cultures, this realm may be subdivided into many hells of different nature. Some forms of the board game "snakes and ladders", especially in South East Asia, are also used to indicate the transformational pathways to these distinct hells.

In the light of this metaphor, the editorial process might be viewed as an effort to provide a topographical map of Hell -- mapping the wrinkles on Satan's face. The hierarchies of problems detected might then be viewed as the skyscrapers in downtown hell. The challenge is to get a clearer sense of the relationship between such urban structures and to map the pathways on which resources flow to and from them.

15. Evils from Pandora's box

Problems can be viewed as the evils which, in Greek mythology, escaped from Pandora's box as a result of her curiosity and carelessness. They might be understood as having escaped because of the inadequacy of the mental framework with which she approached the original container. Hers lacked the requisite variety to contain the variety to which she exposed herself.

In the light of this metaphorical context, the editorial process might be viewed as an effort to create a framework or "box" by which the evils could once again be contained. At this point in time no such conceptual container exists. Different conceptual frameworks endeavour to contain different problems, but many escape any such efforts. (The challenge is reminiscent of the current technical challenge of designing an adequate container for plasma to derive energy from nuclear fusion reactions.)

16. Shape-changing monsters and protective devices

Greek mythology offers examples of monsters that shift their form once effectively attacked, or sprout additional heads if one is cut off. Problem complexes often appear to be of a similar nature, shifting their point of impact, disappearing to manifest in some other form, or multiplying in vigour in response to efforts to contain them. Greek mythology also offers examples of monsters, such as Medusa, which destroy or transform those who view them directly (eg into stone). The petrifying potential of such monsters seems to carry over into the superstitious fear that some have in exposing themselves too closely to problems in all their negativity. Such proximity is believed to undermine the positive energy necessary for social advance, or even to bring bad luck (possibly attracting the unwelcome attention of supernatural powers).

In the light of this metaphorical context, the editorial process may be viewed as calling for appropriate protective conceptual devices (analogous to the shield of Perseus) to avoid being transformed by the horrific nature of some of the problems. As in laboratories and surgeries, a certain form of conceptual hygiene is required to avoid being transfixed and traumatized by exposure to the problems.

17. Hallucinations and delusions

It may also be the case that the greater recognition of problems in an increasingly sophisticated society based on communications media, is to some extent a social equivalent of individual hallucination under conditions of prolonged sensory deprivation. The increasing proportion of the population living and interacting with, and through, a world of images reduces the collective daily necessity to relate directly to traditional grounded realities. In so doing it creates a generalized sense of eventlessness which provokes the emergence of compensatory collective hallucinations to which the collectivity can respond with positive activity.

From this perspective the editorial process is that of the psychoanalyst faithfully recording the patient's delusions and accepting them as realities as a prerequisite for fruitful and transformative dialogue.

From Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed by Anthony Judge
under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.