Challenges to Comprehension Implied by the Logo
of Laetus in Praesens
Laetus in Praesens Alternative view of segmented documents via Kairos

March 1990

Recontextualizing Social Problems through Metaphor

Transcending the 'switch' metaphor

Part I

-- / --

Paper prepared for the International Symposium 'How to Do Things with Metaphor', organized by the Revue Belge de Philologie et d'Histoire (Brussels, March 1990); and for the meeting on Demography Issues and Sustainable Development (New Delhi, March 1990) organized by Development alternatives with the Society for International Development. Originally published in Transnational Associations, 43, 1991, 1, pp. 37-46 [PDF version] and in Revue Belge de Philologie et d'Histoire, LXVIII,1990, 3, pp. 531-547

1. Introduction
2. Sustainable development and the individual
3. The implicit 'switch' metaphor
4. Ambiguity
5. Imaginal deficiency
6. Governing metaphors
7. Transcending the switch metaphor
8. Paradoxical context

PART II (separate document)

9. Problems as metaphors

10. Reframing problems: the case of 'overpopulation'

11. Conclusion


1. Introduction

This paper is based on the assumption that it is useful to question whether the many existing approaches to social problems and global management, however successful, are sufficient to the challenge of the times. Individually they may indeed be necessary and adequate to particular challenges, but there is every possibility that they may collectively be insufficient to the larger challenge. It is possible to adopt an optimistic attitude in order to safeguard the personal and institutional investment in such approaches. There are however sufficient dissenting views to suggest that it is at least worth devoting some effort to the exploration of much more radical approaches.

For space reasons, the paper will not outline some of the major constraints on global management and innovative approaches to it (Judge, 1987). Conditions, such as the following, have been noted by many authors in different ways: complexity (whether for management or modelling); incommensurability of many policy concerns; limits to comprehensibility by the human mind (possibly even the comprehensibility of appropriateness); multiplicity of perspectives concerning any issue or response; information overload; urgency; policy time constraints in relation to electorates; incommunicability of complex insights to those who must vote on them; irresponsibility, in some measure, of most social agents; corruption and deceit of many social agents. For the purposes of the subsequent discussion these can all be usefully treated as design constraints.

Experience of past development decades indicates that implementation of desirable institutional innovations is likely to remain limited however much lip service is paid to them. Part of the difficulty would seem to lie in imaginal deficiency on the part of both the innovators and of those to whom the innovations must be made credible. There is merit therefore in exploring radical approaches to ways of configuring the conceptual elements which are the basis for any social innovation -- and relating them to the forms of imagery currently favoured (for good reason) by politicians.

Within this context the paper endeavours to envisage the next credible steps that might be taken to provide a more fruitful imaginal framework to sustain more appropriate personal and institutional responses to the challenges of the times. The core question is whether initiatives can be recontextualized or reframed -- using more powerful metaphors -- in such a way as to offer new insight and greater degrees of freedom.

With this objective in mind, the term 'metaphor' is used broadly to denote any conceptual device which facilitates transfer of meaning associated with a phenomenological pattern in one domain to that in another. The term is therefore used as though the range of such devices constituted a continuum, however they might be distinguished or grouped by different schools of thought. The emphasis in this paper is on the relevance of this approach to very practical challenges (e.g. unemployment, drug abuse, overpopulation, etc). A more analytical approach has been taken in earlier papers (Judge, 1987, 1988).

This paper is part of a long-term exploration of the significance of information collected on the networks of some 20,000 international bodies described in the Yearbook of International Organizations (UIA, 1989), and on the 10,000 'world problems' with which they claim to be concerned, as described in the Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential (UIA, 1986). The latter includes a section on metaphors, with 80 examples.

2. Sustainable development and the individual

The image of an appropriate policy for the future is currently being carried within the international community by the term 'sustainable development', reinforced by the recommendations of the Brundtland Commission Report (World Commission, 1983). This concept is now the integrative carry-all for many more specific policies, which it is hoped can be interrelated through it in a fruitful way -- despite the apparent contradictions between some of them (e.g. environmental conservation and industrial growth).

Policy discussion of 'sustainable development' deals with macro-issues, despite the fact that the problems are not only experienced by institutions and governments as administrative and political challenges, but also by individuals personally faced with unemployment, environmental degradation, illness and the like. Such discussion thus cultivates a 'top-down' perspective, although individuals tend to have a 'bottom-up' experience of them. If the top-down policies did not call for a change of attitude on the part of individuals, such policies might prove adequate to the challenge. But since such changes of attitude are called for, a focus on the bottom-up perspective is appropriate.

In the macro-perspective of sustainable development, it is the sustainable development of human society that is the focus. But the kinds of sacrifices and life-style changes that are called for raise the question as to whether attention should not also be devoted to the nature of the sustainable development of the individual -- especially in a period when discussion of 'human development' is coming into fashion within the international community. It is indeed possible that the sustainable development of society may be impossible where the sustainable development of the individual is impeded.

In the following sections the role of metaphor is explored in sustaining the development of the individual faced with problems such as unemployment, discrimination, drug abuse and insecurity, and, as a special case, in relation to the opportunity of sexual intercourse and its consequences for further increase in population.

3. The implicit 'switch' metaphor

Much has been said in recent years about the inappropriateness of conventional western mind-sets in responding to the complexities of the environment. Particular criticism has focused on 'dualistic' and 'linear' thinking. 'Holistic' approaches are advocated as moredesirable alternatives, but unfortunately without any insights into the practicalities of their implementation. Metaphor may be helpful in this respect -- far more than through the above distinction based on the 'line' and 'hologram' metaphors.

Consider the implicit switch metaphor which governs much of our thinking concerning major problems of society:

Many advocated policies are explicitly designed to 'switch' individuals from one condition to the other in each case (e.g. from 'on' to 'off') -- from an undesirable condition to a desirable one. And once such a transition has been accomplished, the object is to prevent backsliding into the undesirable condition. The switch metaphor is a simple device through which ambiguity can be avoided (Levine, 1985).

Ironically this switch metaphor is also implicit in the thinking of those who identify most closely with a holistic, non-linear, appropriate and sustainable alternative. For them it is a question of how to switch from the inappropriate to the appropriate -- and stay there.

It would be a mistake to consider that this metaphor is 'just a way of thinking' without any concrete implications. Much legislation is designed around whether a person is in Condition A or Condition B of some such switch, with immediate consequences in terms of social security benefits, various forms of aid, and varieties of social sanction. An extreme example, the apartheid policy in South Africa distinguishing between 'white' and 'non-white', became administratively feasible following a seemingly innocent census in which people were requested to identify their racial group.

4. Ambiguity

It is important to recognize the extent to which this switch metaphor is natural to western modes of thinking. It is debateable how meaningful such polarities are in other cultures, or within many sub-cultures of western societies (Maruyama 1980, Hofstede 1980). Indications of this are to be found in the ambiguity of attitudes towards corruption in non-western society -- and even in western society. If comprehension of the issue is more complex than that implied by the switch metaphor, and if the dynamics associated with each problem dimension call for a more complex description, then unquestioning use of the switch metaphor constitutes a real danger at this time (Judge, 1986).

The issue of smoking is an extremely valuable illustration of many dimensions of individual and collective response to the challenges of these times. It is a neat metaphor of the experiential ambiguities in discovering a more appropriate relationship to these challenges. It is especially valuable because it offers us a framework withinwhich to discuss much more charged or controversial issues such as overpopulation and environmental degradation.

Consider as an illustration of switch thinking in public policy -- legislation on smoking vs. not-smoking (and ways of circumventing such restrictions in restaurants and the workplace):

Using this metaphor, it is much easier -- especially for smokers -- to understand the ambiguity of governments and industrialists in restraining their exploitation of the environment. For industrialists 'sustainable development' then lends itself to other interpretations far from those of conservationists, for example 'sustainable competitive advantage'. It is not simply a matter of the inherent logic of switching from unsustainable policies to sustainable ones. The assumption that industrialists will willingly espouse environmentally-friendly sustainable policies seems extremely naive in this light, even when all the arguments are clearly evident -- as the partial results of 'health warnings' to smokers illustrate. Can any smoker genuinely expect industry to stop air pollution through smokestacks ?

5. Imaginal deficiency

The previous section illustrates how individuals and groups escape into ambiguity to capture the wider reality on which the options of the switch metaphor have been imposed. There are obviously more degrees of freedom than are implied by the switch metaphor. People have direct experience of those opportunities even though they may be poorly articulated into sets of categories.

In the light of such arguments it is useful to explore further on the assumption that the inadequacies of existing strategies are partly due to poverty of the imagination -- namely to imaginal deficiency at the policy level. The question to be asked is whether there is some pattern to our thinking -- such as reliance on the switch metaphor -- which effectively limits the complexity of the policy options which tend to emerge, especially at the international level.

The concern of this paper is that, perhaps more crucially, the question should be asked whether such imaginal deficiency is not a prime handicap for those most vulnerable to the problems of our times -- unemployment, illness, etc. It is well-recognized that rich use of imagination is made by those in underprivileged circumstances, whether in the form of visual imagery or metaphor, and irrespective of educational background. So it is not imagination that is lacking. The question may be rather:

There are many signals that calls on resources are such that relatively little can, or will, be done for those in underprivileged circumstances -- to say nothing of looming problems of widespread famine, pollution, global warming, etc. Behind the scenes there is considerable doubt concerning the efficacy of conventional forms of aid. Of the 5 billion people in the world, 4.2 billion are considered 'unbankable' by western economists. Invisible social revolutions are taking place in the Third World through articulation of informal economies (De Soto, 1989). In these circumstances, people need to be encouraged to rely on their own resources -- rather than live in pious expectation that all will be solved 'by the year 2000'. And there is the nasty possibility that the prevailing wisdom in the international community is a direct inhibitor of the kinds of creativity which would enable them to do so.

6. 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 time. 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 politicians and politically oriented 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.

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 which is inappropriate to the circumstances. Current entrapment by the switch metaphor 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 culture and sub-culture. In fact it is more a question of enabling people to harness the social innovation potential of metaphors with which they are already familiar.

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. It has been suggested in earlier papers that governance could be more effectively based on processes facilitating 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.

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.

7. Transcending the switch metaphor

In the light of the above arguments it should be possible to look anew at many of the conventional problems with which people are obliged to deal personally. This process should be legitimated by the probability of detecting forms of response by individuals which are not captured by the categories that the switch metaphor reinforces. The existence of additional categories, however confusedly they are currently understood, would then call for richer, and less mechanistic, metaphors to capture the relationship between them. The issue is, as Mark Twain succinctly put it, 'If your only tool is a hammer, then all problems look like nails'. The principal tool of the international community would appear to be the switch.

Before considering the implications in response to real problems, it is appropriate to note the constructive criticism by Kinhide Mushakoji of what he calls 'binary' approaches in science and disciplines affected by its methodology. 'By the very nature of scientific logic which is binary, intellectuals tend to form bi-polar structures with twoopposed camps rallied under two paradigmatic banners. The polarization often takes place even within each of the two poles which then divide themselves into sub-poles, and so on...An inter-paradigmatic process should be able to break the bi-polarity of the intellectual community by introducing a third pole in the dialogical process... The role of such a pole is to introduce extra-paradigmatic considerations (into the discussion) and to break ;the dichotomic argumentation bringing into the discussion innovative ideas.' (Mushakoji, 1978). Edward de Bono has advocated the use of a special term 'po' to accomplish precisely this (De Bono, 1973).

But Mushakoji goes on to draw attention to the 'logico-real' problem of the relationship between the logical and the reality levels. He suggests that catastrophe theory can help to shed light on the different logical positions in the morphogenetic space by relating the continuous reality (i.e. signifé) to the discrete set of concepts (i.e. signifiant). This leads him to advocate a four-fold non-formal logic model to provide a logical basis for inter-paradigmatic dialogues. Such a logic emerges from another Japanese scholar, Tokuryu Yamauchi (Yamauchi, 1974) who interrelates oriental thinking based on 'lemmas' with occidental thinking based on 'logos'. Lemma concerns the modalities according to which the human mind grasps reality, rather than how human intellect reasons about it. Mushakoji sees the lemmic approach as offering a breakthrough in response to the static ontology of the West.

The tetralemmic model Mushakoji describes stipulates the existence of four lemmas: (a) affirmation, (b) negation, non-affirmation and non-negation, (c) affirmation and negation. Here (a) and (b) both belong to formal logic, whereas (c) and (d) are unacceptable to it, although they are necessary in theoretical physics. 'Only an acceptance of the third and fourth lemmas can allow a full representation of the contemporary world problematique in its totality since contemporary world reality is full of cases where a mere affirmation or negation does not make sense'.

As has been noted elsewhere, it is unfortunate that Mushakoji has limited his concern to representing or grasping reality for the purposes of revolution in thinking. This does not respond to the problem of how to intervene in that reality on the basis of any such conceptual revolution -- the vital preoccupation in furthering human and social development. And yet the four lemmas lend themselves to such an action-oriented interpretation as the basis for a more general 'action logic' discussed elsewhere (UIA, 1986).

Following Mushakoji's lead concerning catastrophe theory, essentially what we could usefully explore is the possibility of enabling people to recognize how they redefine the morphogenetic surface on which they function. The switch metaphor is associated with a surface with two focal positions (attractors or wells) separated by a 'coll' and surrounded by impracticable 'mountains'. The challenge is to modify that topography to offer a multiplicity of alternatives -- including the original positions.

The nature of this challenge has been well explored from a somewhat different angle by Edward de Bono, especially in his most recent book 'I Am Right; You are Wrong' (De Bono, 1990). The title is intended as an illustration of the thinking trap in which western-inspired cultures are caught. He clarifies the challenge admirably --making very extensive use of metaphors, but without referring to them as such. But although he stresses the importance of such insights for a more appropriate response to the crises of these times, his emphasis is on the need to teach people to think in morefruitful ways.

De Bono has been very successful in introducing his methods into the educational systems of a number of countries -- especially in the Third World -- although he is criticized by others for claiming to have 'the answer'. Whilst he would argue that such criticism is a symptom of the thinking trap, it is also a symptom of a dimension of the problematique with which his approach fails to deal, namely the failure of conventional 'delivery systems' to reach more than a circumscribed audience. It would be naive to expect that people in villages would read his books, or respond appropriately to educators who have followed his courses. The renowned lags in the education system following any innovation are measured in decades.

Hence the need to rely more on existing insights, which do not call for 'informing' people through initiates, and on communication systems such as those through which rumour and humour travel. The speed of such systems is renowned -- even across continents and even in Third World countries. And the challenge is not so much to deliver insights from a centre 'of excellence', through such processes, to various peripheries, but rather to encourage the cross-fertilization of insights moving between 'peripheries'.

8. Paradoxical context

Before exploring some possibilities for fruitful metaphors, it is useful to recognize the paradoxical context within which the present challenges have emerged (Barel, 1989). This can be summarized by the following:

Such avoidance mechanisms are important to personal and institutional survival. Too close a proximity to a problem -- with full recognition of one's own responsibility for its continued existence --is destructive of existing behaviour patterns with which one's identity is associated. An appropriate metaphor might be that of the Gorgon of Greek mythology -- the sight of whom froze people to stone. But unless we understand how we are part of a problem, we cannot understand the nature of the solution required.

In this context explanations (however insightful), recommendations and prescriptions (however innovative and resourceful), and proscriptions (with whatever degree of authority), are of limited value -- as the track record of the past decades has illustrated. The situation is getting worse.

Such a paradoxical context calls for paradoxical, counter-intuitive, strategies of a different quality (Gordon 1978, Hillman 1983, Seltzer 1986), such as might be suggested by 'setting a thief to catch a thief', the 'Zen of problem solving', and the lateral thinking of de Bono. In the case of the Gorgon, one device used was a mirror-like shield which allowed the Gorgon to be seen, and approached, without looking at it. Such a shield is not that of the rational mind (which cannot handle the complexity of our personal involvement in the problem), but rather of the imaginative mind (which can dance imaginatively with the horrors for which we are in some ways responsible).

In a situation in which prescriptions, even if insightful and appropriate, cannot be disseminated effectively to those who need them (despite hopeful technocratic scenarios of satellite education), it is not explanations and recommendations on which we can rely. The 'resource delivery system' is inadequate (as rising adult illiteracy in industrialized countries indicates) and it is very probable that what we think ought to be delivered is in fact inappropriate. Geoffrey Vickers, an early doyen of the policy sciences, noted that 'a trap is a function of the nature of the trapped' (Vickers, 1972). As a consequence it is to be expected that our society should be trapped by the very nature of the intellectual mode which is most dominant and on which we most rely -- what Konrad Lorenz has described as 'technomorphic thinking' (Lorenz, 1988). The switch metaphor is a typical product of such thinking.

But it is possible that evoking imaginative responses might allow people to redefine their problems in ways which open new opportunities to them. Evocation rather than explanations or prescriptions -- although all should occur where feasible.

Continued in Part II (separate document)

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

For further updates on this site, subscribe here