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Metaphor as an Unexplored Catalytic Language for Global Governance

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Paper prepared for the 13th World Conference (Finland, August 1993) of the World Futures Studies Federation (WFSF). Scheduled for presentation to the session on: 'Theories, methods and practices of futures studies' A version of this paper appeared in: Howard F Didsbury Jr (Ed). The Years Ahead: perils, problems and promises. Bethesda MD, World Future Society (WFS), 1993, pp. 201-207

A. Challenges of global governance

These may be usefully summarized through the following metaphoric expressions:

Individually these factors are each quite daunting. Collectively they mark a condition of devastating total gridlock.

Ways beyond such gridlock are considered in the following four sections:

B. Varieties of decision-making

Distinguishing decision arenas

One of the dangers in advocating 'new thinking' is the easy implication that everything that preceded it should be scrapped as inadequate. It is therefore useful to clarify the arenas in which conventional decision-making remains appropriate in contrast with those arenas where new approaches may prove more useful.

Table I is a tentative exercise in isolating 12 decision arenas or contexts. These are grouped into three clusters:

Most decision making tends to be associated with Group A. The argument here is that there are concerns which are more appropriately dealt with in the second or third clusters. The potential of the third cluster, Group C (especially Arena XII) is considered here as largely unexplored.

Collapsed decision-making

Part of the difficulty in giving space to 'new thinking' is the manner in which the arenas in Table I tend to be 'collapsed' or conflated. Several forms of collapse can be noted:

Complementarity of forms of decision-making

The point to be stressed is the complementarity between the different decision arenas in Table I. It is as much a mistake to apply complex tools to straight-forward decisions as it is to apply simple tools to complex decisions. Each arena reflects a necessarily different decision-making style. Problems are compounded when efforts are made to project the validity of approaches in one arena onto the preoccupations of another. The challenge is to understand this ecology of decision-making styles and the mutual dependence of its parts.

The argument of this paper is that the innovative group (Group B), and especially the transformative group (Group C), are inadequately reflected in current approaches to the more intractable problems at the international level. From this perspective, many of the obstacles to the emergence of more appropriate decisions result from the failure to make use of decision making styles associated with these two groups. There is thus an imbalance in the pattern of decision-making. The merit of Table I is to accord space to these groups, without in any way denying the significance of the predominant adaptive group. Table I thus identifies the locus of relevance of 'new thinking'. There may be merit, in ecofeminist terms, of considering Group A as the dominant patriarchal approach to decision-making, in contrast with a more balanced feminist approach associated with Group B (to be articulated). Table I can be used to avoid the trap of 'B is better than C'. Indeed Group C can be understood as the mode through which those of A and B are 'married', or reconciled.

In practice it is difficult, if not impossible, to rely solely on the decision-making style of a particular arena. Certain issues prove unresolvable leading to a decision- making crisis. Reliance on the approaches to decision- making in a particular arena are then recognized as inadequate to the challenge. The arenas may then be understood as 'feeding into' each other. These processes are indicated by the arrows between the cells of Table I. Thus concern with resource optimization (Arena I) in practice leads quickly to preoccupation with issues of human resource management (Arena II), and from there to issues of know-how development (Arena III), with the reverse process then determining new options for resource optimization. A similar chain from resource optimization through economic development (Arena IV), and on to issues of sustainable development (Arena VI) has been the preoccupation of the Brundtland Commission. The concern of the UNCED Conference (Rio de Janeiro, 1992) was with articulating the kinds of decisions appropriate to Arena VI, and their implications back down that chain to Arenas I and IV.

The basic argument here is that in the light of Table I, discussions about sustainable development will prove to be merely adaptive ('tinkering') and of limited significance unless they are fed by insights into new forms of transformative patterning (Arena XII) and the appropriately innovative styles of organization and programme to reflect that understanding (Arena X). However, those who are currently enthraled by the articulation of the concerns of Arena XII, need to register the challenge of the need for more appropriate styles of organization in order that their insights should prove of value in dealing more appropriately with the issues of sustainable development. It is not surprising to note that little of the available expertise on 'organizational transformation' (Arena X) has as yet responded to the challenges of sustainable development -- just as those preoccupied with sustainable development have failed to register the need for any such alternative organizational approaches. As an ecology, this suggests that there is a dangerous breakdown in the 'food chain' between species of preoccupation.

C. Governance and the challenge of insight cultivation

Dilemmas of insight acquisition

Those concerned with the crisis of governance at all levels of society are faced with a number of dilemmas:

The combined effects of the above dilemmas leads to a form of 'insight impoverishment' within the policy-making environment. The leadership is effectively starved of insights -- often without realizing this is the case. On the other hand, available insights of considerable value may well go underused. Efforts to remedy the situation are too often designed by those responsible for creating it in the first place.

Modes of response

There is necessarily a variety of ways of considering the above dilemmas. These can themselves become a reflection of the difficulties in designing an adequate response. One approach is to consider the appropriateness of responses in the light of distinct metaphors:

Metaphoric traps and opportunities

Each of the frameworks above has its strengths and weaknesses. Each may become a trap under particular circumstances and each may offer opportunities for effective governance. The challenge is to develop the quality of governance without developing undue dependence on any one of them.

Governance is above all not a static process. Situations are continually shifting. The media is continually offering new angles and images that exacerbate any potential instabilities. In recent years government has been to a large extent media driven. To recover the initiative, the processes of governance needs to be able to continually generate more powerful images -- or else these will be sought and generated elsewhere.

In a sense governance is in a permanent reframing competition with the media. The processes of governance recover the initiative when they are able to generate enthralling images or dramas of greater power than those generated by media ingenuity and creativity. How does governance acquire the creative independence in image work of policy relevance so that it is not totally a slave to media pressures?

Insight cultivation

There is an increasing tendency for government policy-makers to rely on special think tank units, whether internally set up or externally sub-contracted. The manner in which such units are sensitive to, collect, elicit, and are obliged to filter information is the key to insight cultivation. The need to flexibly open to information when there is relatively little and to close to information when there is too much is of course a survival attribute of any social or organizational unit, notably as studied by Orrin E Klapp (1978).

Several grades of response might for example be envisaged:

It is of course inappropriate to demonize the first responses in favour of the latter. All have their place in an integrated system of insight cultivation which urgently needs to be articulated. At present however, the last is significantly absent, whereas the others have significantly demonstrated their inadequacy in recent years.

D. Using disagreements for superordinate frame construction

Intractable disagreements

As an urban planner, Donald Schon (1979, 1987) provides a remarkable review of the reasons for intractable policy controversies, resistant to evidence, and unlikely to be settled by compromise. Any 'agreement' negotiated is then unlikely to hold, since implementing such an agreement usually gives rise to new conditions of disagreement. This was ignored in the Earth Summit (Rio de Janeiro, June 1992) pursuit of environment/development agreements charted by Jim MacNeill (1991). Conventional reasons for such differences are emotion, values or politics. Schon argues that these are 'junk categories' -- a category that can be used to explain phenomena that are poorly understood, without needing to question the validity of one's own approach. In his view these categories rest upon false dichotomies due to distortions of reason.

Conflicts of frames

In a much-cited paper Schon (1979) proposes that these policy conflicts be understood as involving conflicts of frames. Framing and naming are ways of setting boundaries to things, giving coherence where it would otherwise be lacking. He gives the example of a slum that could either be framed as a 'blight' (to be excised) or as a 'community' (calling for enhancement as a vehicle for social learning). Frames construct the phenomena the user takes to be 'there'. They provide ways of framing reality. Things are only seldom unframed. People are obliged to deal with realities that have already been framed. Through different frames different realities may be constructed -- leading to frame conflict.

Normative leap

Schon points out that 'One of the things we get when we get a frame is a way of thinking what to do -- a way of getting from data to recommendations, from facts to values, from is to ought'. He calls this the 'normative leap'. He notes that even where the facts are acknowledged to be different by policy-makers, they will leap to similar action recommendations within their chosen frame. It is the metaphor articulating the frame that carries over the logic from 'is' to 'ought' . For him the challenge is that there is no evidence with which a given frame is unable to deal - - if one is sufficiently attached to that frame. Disagreements can be settled reasonably within a frame -- it is between frames that lies the superordinate challenge.

Frame reflection

Schon shows the weakness of conventional approaches to negotiation (as practised at the Earth Summit), and the non- durability of the agreements that tend to be reached when dealing with intractable frame conflicts. He proposes a process of 'frame reflection' leading to a resolution of a conflict through reflection on that conflict. He argues that this offers the possibility of synthesizing a new frame out of conflicting ones, opening a wider range for informed choice. From a cognitive perspective, the process ensures a recasting and reconnecting of things and relations in the perceptual field. He acknowledges that this necessitates the acquisition by planners of 'psychological competences' of a very high order.

Window of opportunity

Without questioning the value of Schon's recommendation, it is worth exploring a window of opportunity which may well require a less time-consuming, interactive commitment than called for by his approach. There is the possibility that it may not be necessary to stress the 'falseness' of dichotomies or the 'limited' nature of particular frames. Rather than synthesizing a new frame from scratch, it may be possible to use the existing dichotomies and frames as structural elements -- to configure the elements of disagreement so as to bring into focus higher orders of agreement. Schon has not explored how frames might be juxtaposed in the light of dichotomies to encode the discontinuities between frames to which people will continue to cling.

Frame configuration

Given the importance Schon attaches to metaphor (1979), his concept of frame reflection might be looked at in terms of the metaphors on which it is based. 'Frame' suggests a scaffolding of interconnected structural elements, perhaps a 2-dimensional 'window', or possibly a 3-dimensional window. Within this metaphor, different frames might be related like 'panes' in a window, or as panels configured at different angles to provide a 3-dimensional framework around the user. In this way a superordinate frame is 'synthesized'. Rather than aiming to 'resolve' disagreements, the intention here is to 'position' frames so as to use the tensions and stresses of disagreement to give form to an encompassing structure. The challenge in configuring subordinate frames in this way is how to ensure that the patterns of tensions and stresses are appropriately distributed to guarantee the stability and durability of the synthesized frame.

Frame symmetry and reflection

In his use of 'reflection' to describe the dialogue between those using different frames, Schon again misses the insights emerging from the metaphoric significance of the term. He suggests that the dialogue process will lead to a new superordinate frame but does not discuss how it might emerge. Using the metaphor of a configuration of frames (eg of glass), one may however usefully ask how 'reflection' of insight can appropriately occur between them so as to reinforce collective understanding of the superordinate structure -- without denying or condemning the perspectives through any particular subordinate frame. In the case of light, it is best reflected between the facets of a structure only if that structure has an appropriately complex symmetry. Such symmetry is best seen in the polyhedral structures typical of geodesic spheres and cut precious stones. The stability of polyhedral architectural structures has been extensively studied (Fuller, 1975-9). The light enhancing qualities of precious stones require no comment.

Configuring globally and contending locally

An exercise was undertaken to treat the distinct issues of the Earth Summit as associated with frames in a single polyhedral structure (Judge, 1992). In order to move beyond the effort at negotiating individual agreements for each frame (which ignore the threats to the stability of such agreements from related frames) the challenge was to discover an appropriate 'design' for such a polyhedral structure. The design was required to juxtaposition the different frames to bring out a comprehensible pattern of mutually reinforcing relationships. It is the comprehensibility of such a pattern that ensures the coherence and stability of the global configuration of frame perspectives. In this sense, consistent with Schon's view, it provides the basis for a higher order of consensus which is less demanding of compromise than the haphazardly ordered pattern of bilateral bargains between frames that is currently sought (MacNeill et al, 1991).

Pluralistic perception

Non-tokenistic consensus is improbable in the case of intractable differences. Where integration of perspectives cannot be achieved through hierarchical structuring, depth psychologist Andrew Samuels (1989) introduces the concept of an 'imaginal network' to provide coherence to a set of seemingly disparate images (equivalent to Schon's frames). It provides the basis for a pluralistic psychology of perception. However he acknowledges that the 'giving and receiving of plural interpretations is a highly problematic technical issue.' Like Schon, he then emphasizes dialogue processes (unconstrained by urgency). But there remains the possibility of reconfiguring the imaginal network (itself a sight-oriented structural metaphor). Networks as a reaction to the ills of hierarchy have demonstrated complementary weaknesses, notably a marked tendency to 'flabbiness'. Tensional integrity structures (based on principles of polyhedral symmetry) suggest ways of 'tensing' networks to remedy such weaknesses (Judge, 1979, 1984). The use of such 'tensegrity' structures in social organization is currently being researched by cybernetican Stafford Beer (1993).

Metaphors of frame complementarity

The previous paragraphs have suggested symmetrical polyhedral structures as providing a stock of possible superordinate frames to relate apparently incommensurable perspectives, highlighting their different degrees of complementarity. Alternative superordinate metaphors could also be fruitfully explored to facilitate comprehension of how subordinate metaphoric frames can co-exist as an ecology of complementary perspectives. The integrity of such multi- frame systems is as important for global survival as it is for individual psychic survival.

E. Metaphor as a catalytic language for global governance

Metaphor as an unexplored resource

Since the 1970s there has been an explosion of interest in the cognitive role of metaphor in all areas, but especially in the language of disciplines. It is no longer considered merely a matter of rhetorical flourish or poetical imagination. It is now argued that our conceptual system is fundamentally metaphorical. It has even been suggested that the development of civilizations is essentially a progression of metaphors. Others have noted that if the present age faces a crisis of root metaphors, a shift in metaphors may open new vistas of human possibilities.

Metaphors are used to get a conceptual handle on complexity, notably in physics. They have a major role in psychoanalysis and psychotherapy. Educators make extensive use of metaphor, building on its traditional role in religion. Metaphor is fundamental to skilful advertising and image building. Politicians (and their speechwriters) are constantly in search of more powerful metaphors to position their proposals more effectively. Use of metaphor underlies discussion of organizational cultures and their ability to innovate. In that respect metaphor or guiding imagery (leitbild in German) is also vital to technological development. Computer software advances are keyed to new metaphors, such as 'Windows'. Breakthroughs in groupware await discovery of appropriate metaphors.

Despite its widespread use, notably at the grassroots level in many cultures, little has been done to explore its relevance to the challenges of the international community.

Donald Schon (1979) has argued that the essential difficulties in social policy have more to do with problem setting than with problem solving. For him: 'the framing of problems often depends upon metaphors underlying the stories which generate problem setting and set the direction of problem solving.' As noted above, he contrasts a housing problem where slum areas were defined as a 'blight' or 'disease' with one in which they were perceived as 'natural communities'. Using the medical metaphor the former justifies use of radical 'surgery' to excise the blight, whereas the other calls for ways of enhancing the life of those communities.

A metaphor thus provides a framework of credible associations that increases the probability that relationships in other domains will be conceived according to that pattern, rather than another. Most institutional policies are based on implicit metaphors which may be quite inappropriately simplistic in relation to the challenge of their mandate. Global governance could be said to be currently trapped in inadequate metaphors.

Opening new possibilities

It is not that traditional policy models are ineffective or inadequate. The difficulty is rather in the incompatibility of models, however useful in different specialized domains, and the resulting weaknesses which emerge in any supposedly integrated strategy. Suspicion concerning integrative models has become a wise precaution.

Beyond any structural modifications, the key to the success of future strategies appears to lie in the imaginative manner in which valid, but seemingly incompatible, initiatives are woven together. The challenge is highlighted by the absence of models adequate to the reconciliation of 'centralized' and 'market' economic strategies in the former socialist countries of Eastern Europe. There are no available models because the challenge to the imagination transcends the world of model builders by which strategies have been so influenced. It could be concluded that new possibilities for global governance are to be found beyond the strategic incompatibilities in which visions of its future tend to become entangled.

It is metaphors which provide the imagination with 'keystones' to balance the tensions between tendencies which, without such integrative elements, would appear incompatible. World governance in this sense is a question of 'imagination building' rather than 'institution building'.

Governance at the highest level should therefore focus attention on the emergence and movement of policy-relevant metaphors -- that are capable of rendering comprehensible the way forward through complex windows of opportunity. The challenge lies in marrying new metaphors to models to ensure the embodiment of new levels of insight in appropriate organizational form.

Exploration of metaphor needs to be liberated from the ghetto of literary studies in which it has languished. People at every level of society need to be empowered in their use of metaphor to reframe the challenges they personally face in exploring new opportunities unconstrained by the outmoded patterns of the past. Metaphors can become catalysts of self-organization. They can offer new approaches to intractable problems such as unemployment, drugs, discrimination, and misuse of resources.

A transcendental global identity

The identity of global civilization is thus closely associated with the 'gene pool' of metaphors. From this the global policy-makers may draw fruitful metaphors to guide their formulation of responses to new opportunities and crises. New metaphors need to be fed into this pool by those with the ability to identify them -- and that includes the poets of the world!

This vision of global governance does not call for radical transformation of institutions. Rather it calls for a shift in the way of thinking about what is circulated through society's information systems as the triggering force for any action and its integration.

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 quarrel between models and metaphors could be transformed by focusing more effectively on the metaphoric dimensions already so vital to any sustainable motivation of public opinion.

The identity of the global community should not be so closely linked to the seemingly impossible task of maintaining a consensus on particular solutions as appropriate, and therefore 'correct'. The identity to cultivate should be detached from this level of short- and medium-term preoccupation. This confusion favours tokenism and unimplemented resolutions which in turn reinforce cynicism, alienation and loss of credibility. In these times all simple solutions eventually become problems, just as all problems are in effect unpleasant solutions.

The creative opportunity is to cultivate instead an understanding of how incompatible solutions can be woven together as phases over time in a cycle of policies. It is metaphors -- such as crop rotation -- which make comprehensible and credible such a complex approach. It is at this level of conservation and generation of metaphors that may be found a dynamic pattern for global governance appropriate to sustainable development.

How to proceed ?

What approach should be taken to the possibility of choosing a metaphor to better articulate the future pattern of global governance? Five criteria could be considered:

(a) Variety capture: Clearly a metaphor must be rich enough so that each may find in it the dimensions to which he or she is sensitive. There is therefore advantage in highlighting those which reflect the most advanced thinking of our civilization -- those touching the frontiers of aspiration to explore our potential and articulating our comprehension of the most complex domains. But, although of necessary complexity, these metaphors must allow for simple comprehension, preferably permitting clarification by rich and evocative imagery.

(b) Option opening: A useful metaphor must avoid the problem of over-deterministic models which leave no 'free space' for the imagination to explore and make discoveries. Better than static metaphors, those which embody a dynamic reality open more possibilities to the imagination. They lessen the impression of exhaustiveness and determinism -- having less of a function of a conceptual straitjacket. Such metaphors 'seduce' and enchant the spirit. Their meaning can be 'mined' according to people's degree of need and curiosity.

(c) Limitation recognition: As with every model, a metaphor can only give a partial image of a complex reality. And like a model, a given metaphor may not be to the taste of everyone. A metaphor has a limited audience (or a 'market') which may be a function of culture, education or age. Consequently any effort to impose a single metaphor is therefore destined to failure (even though this may be disguised to the extent that there may be resistance to the meaning carried by the metaphor, which is then seen as a sterile dogma).

(d) Metaphor complementarity: The limitations of any given metaphor may be compensated, provided that it is seen as forming part of a set of complementary metaphors. Then the weaknesses of one are compensated by the strengths of others, and the dominating points any one metaphor is constrained or checked by the insights brought by others. In such a system of metaphors, each has more chance of finding an appropriate, and even seductive, perspective than through any single metaphor.

(e) Self-reflective metaphors: A complex dynamic system is always a challenge to comprehension. This is also true in the case of a system of metaphors. Such metaphors should therefore be chosen on the basis of their individual capacity to provide some comprehension of the system of which they are part. This criterion guarantees, to some degree at least, the integrity and the coherence of the system.

An example: crop rotation

Every peasant farmer understands the necessity of crop rotation in a field in order to avoid the accumulation of the negative consequences resulting from planting of any one species. The farmer knows that, to ensure the sustainable development of his field, he can grow one crop in that field for a period but must then replace it by a different crop to remedy the defects to the soil caused by the first. He may have to grow a third and a fourth species before finally returning to the first in his crop rotation cycle. It is the cycle which guarantees sustainability, not any particular crop.

This well-tested approach suggests the possibility that no one policy in a given domain can be maintained beyond a certain period without accumulating negative side-effects. And it is therefore with a distinct and complementary policy that these effects may be partially counter-acted. Thus to guarantee any form of sustainable development, a cycle of distinct policies is necessary in which each compensates for the action of others.

Mining cultural resources for global governance

The crop rotation metaphor is of course an illustration of the implicit message of democracy -- but what political party would publicly recognize the need for the policies of others to compensate for the negative side-effects of its own? The function of global governance must necessarily emerge beyond the concepts and positions of parties which each contribute to its definition. It is at the level of the appropriately balanced cycle that the nature of such governance may usefully be understood.

The system of metaphors, or of ways of thinking, may itself be understood as a cycle of metaphors, each with its strong and weak points. It is clear that the crop rotation metaphor will appeal most to those with agricultural concerns -- and especially those concerned with so-called organic agriculture. Equally powerful metaphors, capable of integrating complex policies, may be derived from traffic circulation or ecosystems of species. Other insights may, however, be captured through metaphors based on molecular resonance hybrids or nuclear fusion reactors. The art is to seek metaphors in domains of dynamic complexity which have attracted the most powerful thinkers (and research investment). The conceptual patterns they have developed may then be used as metaphoric templates to guide handling of the complexity of global governance.

How many complementary metaphors are necessary to sustain insight into the rich subtleties of the global governance of the future? Would it not be natural for a major metaphor to be associated with each domain with which a major policy or government ministry is associated -- or with each 'Specialized Agency'?

These arguments offer possibilities to every level of society, from the individual to the collective. The opportunity lies in effectively mining our cultural resources for metaphors to ensure our individual and collective survival. Is it not metaphor that can offer insights to bridge the relationships between competing models and policies? Through metaphor to a sustainable ecology of development policies!


Stafford Beer. Beyond Dispute (Team Syntegrity) (forthcoming, 1993).

R Buckminster Fuller. Synergetics: explorations in the geometry of thinking. New York, Macmillan, 2 vols (1975, 1979).

Anthony Judge

Orrin E Klapp. Opening and Closing; strategies of information adaptation in society. Cambridge University Press, 1978.

George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. Metaphors We Live By. University of Chicago Press, 1980.

Jim MacNeill, et al. Beyond Interdependence; the meshing of the world's economy and the world's ecology. Oxford University Press, 1991. (A Trilateral Commission Report)

Andrew Samuels. The Plural Psyche: personality, morality and the father. London, Routledge, 1989

Donald Schon:

Union of International Associations. Metaphors and Patterns. In: Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential. K G Saur Verlag, 1991, 3rd ed., Vol. 2, pp. 533-835 (Section M) [commentary]

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