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March 1990

Recontextualizing Social Problems through Metaphor

Transcending the 'switch' metaphor

-- / --

Part II of a 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)

Contents Part II (Part 1 / Full contents list)

9. Problems as metaphors

10. Reframing problems: the case of 'overpopulation'

11. Conclusion


9. Problems as metaphors

As has been noted by a number of authors, part of the thinking trap is perceiving the challenge as being one of 'problem-solving'. To avoid this it is useful to reframe the approach by asking what a problem is 'trying to tell us' -- or, better still, is the problem as understood in effect a metaphor for something we would prefer not to understand ? From this perspective 'institutionalized' problems may in effect be a sort of metaphorical euphemism -- a package which it is better not to unwrap. For problems are not only nasty in themselves, they are also nasty in what they imply about ourselves -- however saintly we might wish to appear as disinterested change agents, victims or innocent bystanders. Through this approach the problems themselves may be able to tell us something about the way forward.

It would be totally presumptuous to assume that much could be accomplished along these lines in a paper like this by a single author. The following is therefore intended merely as a biased indication of a fruitful line of inquiry. Examples might include:

(a) Substance abuse (including drugs and alcohol):

Is it too trite to suggest that substance abuse is signalling a desperate need for different modes of thinking, feeling and experience than those sanctioned by a society governed by antiquated thinking patterns which have been only too effectively institutionalized in 'acceptable' modes of work and leisure ? Again, since many in key positions in such institutions also use drugs or alcohol 'to relax', what should be learnt from the level of stress -- and schizophrenia -- at which theprevailing mode of thought is requiring them to function ? Is substance abuse not effectively offering a remedy for the imaginal deficiency and mechanistic patterning characteristic of 'acceptable' individual and collective behaviour ? And consequently would not substance abuse become less necessary if society acknowledged more imaginative opportunities ? What is the incidence of substance abuse in cultures whose languages make very extensive use of metaphor ? Too what extent is it useful to perceive our relation to the prevailing thinking pattern as a form of 'addiction' -- a habit that we do not know how to kick, even if we wanted to ?

(b) Unemployment (including underemployment and absenteeism):

It is no longer fruitful to argue that a significant proportion of unemployment is simply due to laziness, reluctance to learn new skills, lack of initiative or lack of opportunities -- whatever truths these may imply. Is it possible that the prevailing mode of thinking is inhibiting peoples ability to imagine new forms of action of value to others, encouraging people to perceive existing employment opportunities as worthless both to themselves and to others, as well as impoverishing the manner in which people consider what to do with their lives ? Is unemployment telling us that much of the work on offer is not worth doing -- and that much which is done is pointless ? This would certainly be consistent with many criticisms of the consumer society and of industrial exploitation of the environment. Perhaps it is also saying that what we value doing, or are obliged to do, is not appropriately valued (as 'work') in an economic system governed by an inadequate mode of thinking. This would certainly be consistent with the debate about the economic value of housework. Contrasting employment with recreation (as opposed to unemployment) is somewhat ironic in that unimaginative leisure opportunities are increasingly incapable of offering 're-creation' -- despite the degree of economic investment in them. Is the level of unemployment also indicating that we really do not know to what society could usefully devote its human resources ? Worse still, is it indicating that we have dissociated the challenges to human society from opportunities for 'work' because of the way such challenges are perceived within the prevailing pattern of thinking ?

(c) Ignorance (including functional illiteracy):

Is the level of ignorance, even in industrialized countries, telling us that much of the information on which that judgement is based is not worth learning ? This concern has certainly been expressed in debates about existing curricula. Is it suggesting that for their psychic survival people are educating themselves along pathways which are not considered meaningful, or indicative of intelligence, within the prevailing pattern of thinking ? This is suggested by the immense resources devoted to music and to 'alternative' therapies and belief systems. Is it suggesting that people feel deprived of an imaginal education, faced with the formal (even rote) learning so frequently considered most appropriate (especially 'to the needs of industry') ? This is suggested by the enthusiasm for graphics, cartoon books, science fiction, fantasy and the archetypal portrayal of cult figures in music. Is our concern with the ignorance of many concealing the fact that those with most expertise and power are really quite ignorant about how to navigate through the current crises and those on the horizon ?

(d) Homelessness:

Is the lack of appropriate shelter, even in industrialized countries, indicating that with our current pattern of thinking we are ineffective in our ability to provide, construct, or acquire cognitive and affective frameworks to shelter us appropriately from the turbulence of the times ? This would be consistent with concerns about alienation in modern society. Itwould also follow from the recognition that many traditional frameworks and belief systems have been torn down or discredited. Even where people are well sheltered, it is often in houses or apartments which reflect an impoverishment of architectural imagination as reinforced by unimaginative building regulations and construction economics. Are our imaginative lives so impoverished by the media that the ability to provide a hospitable 'interior decoration' for our psyches has been degraded ?

(e) Illness:

Disease as a metaphor has been explored, especially by Susan Sontag. Nevertheless the preoccupation of the World Health Organization with 'Heath for all by the Year 2000' fails to address the increasing prevalence of stress, neurosis and personality disorder --especially in industrialized countries. Just as the range of individual diseases provides admirable metaphors for a taxonomic study of the world problematique, so it might also be used to explore the diseases of the imagination and of imaginal deficiency.

(f) Hunger (including malnutrition):

At the time of writing some 4 million people are threatened with death by starvation in Ethiopia alone. Is this problem not signalling the existence of a subtler and more widespread form of deprivation -- a malnutrition of the psyche and a spiritual hunger which we are even less capable of addressing ? This would be consistent with concern about the artificiality and superficiality of experience offered in the emerging 'information society' or 'global village' -- and with the desperate attempts to increase the level of 'realism' by increasing the quantity and degrading quality of violence portrayed in the media. To what extent are our imaginations appropriately nourished at this time -- despite the surfeit of imaginative material (junk food ?) available and to come ?

(g) Wastage (including environmental degradation):

Is our insensitivity to the processes of wastage and pollution, for which we are individually responsible, signalling the existence of an indifference to the 'salubrity' of our imaginative lives ? This would be consistent with the concern expressed by some non-western cultures and constituencies at the indifference to 'spiritual purity'. There is little consensus on what is or is not healthy for the psyche -- just as we are no longer clear, with the increasing scope of pollution, to what extent which foodstuffs are safe. The depletion of natural resources associated with wastage calls for reflection on the possibility that western-inspired culture is depleting its psychic resources in ways that we have yet to understand ? Can the imaginative resources of a culture be depleted to a point of 'bankruptcy' and how can such resources be conserved and 'recycled' ? Do empires fall through imaginative failure ?

(h) Corruption (including crime):

A major criticism of the development aid process is that the resources are diverted away from those most in need, despite agreements to prevent this. Various forms of bribery or 'commission' are a common feature, even in industrialized countries. In any position (including intergovernmental agencies), people endeavour to obtain perks and privileges for themselves, for relatives or for friends -- whether this is limited to pilferage of office supplies, extended into the imposition of a 'socially acceptable taxation' (or 'sweetner') on any transactions which they control, or developed into a full-blown criminal activity. What can be learnt from this degree of self-interest and the associated rule-breaking propensity ? Is this an indication that people cannot survive within the mechanistic regulations which emerge from the current pattern of thinking -- or at least choose not to do so, and feel free not to do so when possible ? This would beconsistent with the admiration for people who can get things done despite the rules, because they are capable of imagining more subtle opportunities. To what extent is corruption associated with a more creative world view -- as reflected in the term 'creative accounting' ?

10. Reframing problems: the case of 'overpopulation'

The previous section has indicated how problems may be seen in a new light by exploring the implications for the sustainable development of the individual -- through the individual's eyes. This provides an integrative focus which is absent when such problems are projected onto the global level, where mutually exclusive perspectives retain some measure of credibility. But, however valuable, it is not sufficient just to see such problems in a new light. The key question is whether they enable some new approach to them. The ultimate test is the case of 'overpopulation', which many would argue to be at the origin of the problems outlined above.


There are many well-known difficulties in approaching this problem as opposed to those above:

Family planning and sexless euphemisms

Because of all the above factors, even discussion of the 'overpopulation' issue takes place through euphemism and indirection. This is compounded by the tendency, reinforced by intergovernmental agencies, to discuss problems through terms denoting programmes to solve them or through the values enhanced by solving them. Examples include: the 'peace' and 'youth' problems, literacy (instead of illiteracy). In this case we have 'familyplanning', 'demography', 'fertility', 'population dynamics', etc. Programme agencies favour this approach because it lends itself to upbeat reporting concerning their programmes, whatever relationship they have to the problems. Academics favour it because it emphasizes theoretical and methodological issues, irrespective of their relevance to any substantive problem.

Use of such sanitized terms to refer to an extremely charged issue may undoubtedly be appropriate under many conditions -- just as any reference to sexual relations tends to be avoided in the presence of children. It is questionable whether the discussion can be confined in this way in attempting to respond to the problem in a more innovative way. The sanitized terms, which are in effect euphemisms when they are not deliberate avoidance mechanisms, can be viewed as a sort of 'metaphorical dissociation'. The term used provides an uncharged metaphor through which to view an uncontroversial aspect of the problem. In this sense metaphors are being used to distort perception of the problem.

In discussion of the population issue there is in fact remarkably little discussion of sexual relations (especially the individual's perception thereof) -- as though one had almost nothing to do with the other. This is all the more remarkable given the importance of sex in the media and especially in advertising -- and, much more explicitly, in worldwide warning campaigns concerning AIDS. Advertising has made an art form out of metaphoric references to sex -- reinforced by visual metaphors in product design and packaging. In contrast, and paradoxically, there is a sexless quality to 'family planning' which impedes any imaginative response to the issues involved --especially to those aspects exacerbated by advertising, given the natural interest in sex.

This sexless quality is rendered even more unrealistic to the popular imagination given the widespread and extensive use of sexual metaphors in informal discussion. This is most remarkable in many job situations, including those at the highest level -- as President Richard Nixon demonstrated in his choice of expletives. Such metaphors are a basic characteristic of management dialogue in most corporations, as well as on the shop floor where things get done. Some people make use of them in every sentence. For example, other than its use as a simple expletive, 'fucking' ('screwing', etc) is widely used to articulate an attitude to a group (another department, clients, competitors, etc) to whom one is doing something or by whom one is being manipulated.

The question which merits exploration is how the tremendous amount of psychic energy articulated (however inappropriately) by this metaphor is related to the 'fertility' issue. Is it that the use of this basic metaphor for 'doing' or 'being done to' channels -- as a form of sublimation -- some of the energy which would otherwise go into sexual intercourse ? The contexts in which the metaphor is used must certainly feedback onto the perception of sexual intercourse.

The challenge of 'family planning' and 'contraception' is that these are essentially processes of 'not-doing' and as such do not excite the imagination -- except to those inclined to philosophies of inaction (and action through inaction). It is questionable whether the metaphors for such processes are sufficiently meaningful in competition with the richer sexual metaphors. It could be argued that the 'contraception' issue involves only the prevention of contraception, not the prevention of sexual intercourse, and therefore does not detract from the energy of sexual relations. This brings into focus the core issue of whether 'contraception' calls for anymodification in the attitude to sexual relations in order to be successfully implemented by those gripped by a variety of powerful metaphors of sexual relations. Specifically is there a possibility of discovering metaphors which would enable people to articulate their attitudes to sexual relations in a manner consistent with the objectives of 'family planning' ?

Sexual intercourse as a metaphor

It would be presumptuous to hope to explore here this central theme in literature, psychoanalysis and advertising techniques. But some questions can be touched upon as they relate to the 'overpopulation' issue.

In social conditions widely characterized by turbulence, insecurity, savage competition for resources, deprivation and the like, the privacy and intimacy of sexual intercourse creates a world in which individuals can experience a sense of security, caring and personal value, whilst at the same time offering them opportunities for imaginative self-expression and enjoyment away from the censure of wider society. It is a world in which they have a real opportunity to fulfil their desires, to experience a sense of personal integrity and to repair the psychic damage suffered in daily life. But as a metaphor this 'world' also encodes many of the problems and dilemmas of the 'sustainable development' of wider society -- the macrocosm mirrored in microcosm. It is a world in which one partner may seek to dominate and subjugate the other, a world of resources which may be exploited until they are depleted beyond any measures of conservation, and a world in which the frustrations of wider society may be given a new, and often crueller, focus --often without any court of appeal. The shared intimacy may decay into alienation.

It is into this world that 'family planning' endeavours to insert 'contraception'. But little is said concerning the implications for the psychic life of the individual. The matter tends to be discussed and described using plumbing metaphors, in 'practical, down-to-earth' terms. And undoubtedly this may be totally appropriate for those of unimaginative temperament who believe that problems can be 'fixed' with an appropriate device -- or for those who are so desperate that they will use anything provided it works. It is not clear that this approach is appropriate to others, and especially to those for whom contraception acquires some symbolic significance. In this sense it is useful to consider how contraception can function as a metaphor. Understanding its potential, and limitations, as a metaphor may suggest other approaches. Lines of investigation might include:

(a) Preventing, or aborting, completion of a process: With the increasing mechanization of society, and the increasing fragmentation of fields of activity, there are few integrative processes of which people are personally aware. The processes to which people are exposed in society are increasingly embedded in bureaucratic procedures, manufacturing cycles or information systems. Most processes are subject to 'production deadlines' --including academic research. There are few opportunities for process completion, which it could be argued are vital to the psychic integration of the individual. Even in manufacturing there is increasing recognition of the merit of allowing people to personally complete a process (eg assembly of a car). For those for whom the significance of the sexual process is not limited to the act, but includes the socio-biological consequence (and possibly religious implications), to what extent does contraception become a metaphor for a restraint which is increasingly intolerable in an alienating society?

(b) Rechannelling sexual energy: Does contraception have no effect on sexual energy and the way it is channelled ? It can easily be argued that it is a liberator of sexual expression. It is less clear how it affects the quality of that expression. It is possible that exploring the limitations of the 'channel' metaphor, and that of contraception in relation to it, might suggest a more appropriate approach. The use of such mechanistic metaphors, of the same class as the switch metaphor discussed earlier, inhibits recognition of less polarized insights into the movement of sexual energy (such as through diffusion or resonance processes, for example). The standard argument that access to a television at home reduces fertility needs to be explored in this light. What function is the television exploring and how is it affecting the imaginative life in relation to the need to fulfil sexual desires ? Is the television an example of a wider class of opportunities for the movement of sexual energy that obviates the need for sexual intercourse ? What is the function of dance and partying in this respect ? Do these suggest the existence of processes which are metaphorically equivalent to intercourse, but diffused beyond the confines of the switch metaphor (making-it, or not) ?

(c) The 'developer mentality' of family planning: The community of international development agencies seldom accords attention to the 'developer's' view of development -- by which land, for example, is 'developed' when it is 'cleared' of unproductive trees and wildlife, drained of unnecessary surface water, and segmented by access roads permitting construction of any required buildings. In arguing for greater literacy for women, UNICEF indicates that four years of schooling enables women to plan smaller families, to space the children for the better welfare of all, and to make use of preventive health care. It is quite unclear what effect the rationality of such procedures has on the imaginative life of those who accept them, and whether any resistance to them arises from a repugnance analogous to that of 'romantic' conservationists towards the initiatives of developers. To what extent is psychoanalytical expertise used in population programmes ?

The above possibilities raise the question of whether other kinds of metaphor might prove more appropriate as a way of articulating the imaginative life of sexually active people. Or rather, whether they have access to other metaphors which conflict with those implicit in their perception of contraception and 'family planning'. And how a greater proportion of sexual energy might be expressed through activities which are metaphors for sexual intercourse -- a concern close to the interests of advertising agencies endeavouring to market products which effect this transfer. Can the objectives of 'fertility reduction' be served by a transfer of this kind. In this light something as simple as more cafes (social 'intercourse') and dances might achieve more than strenuous attempts to extend family planning programmes -- however ridiculous this might appear to those seeking a technical fix.

As with the other problems, discussed above, it might then be possible to move on to the metaphoric implications of the global dimensions of 'overpopulation'. Somehow the proliferation of the species has become an absolute good. The action of any inhibitory feedback mechanism has itself been inhibited. The same phenomenon may be seen with the proliferation of information and products -- and any form of creativity. All such processes could be explored as metaphors of a human attitude in which withholding or holding back is inhibited. This suggests the need to discoverattractive metaphors for 'withholding', but without becoming trapped in the switch metaphor. An early, and perhaps inadequate, example is the increasing fashionability of 'soft' sex (as opposed to penetrative sex), as a result of the rising threat of AIDS.

The creative value of exploring such metaphors of relationship is well illustrate by a study of metaphorical theology, namely of possible new metaphors of a person's relationship to God (McFague, 1983). The justification is a similar one.

11. Conclusion

This paper evokes the possibility of shifting the centre of reference from which we respond to the challenges of our times. Currently it is associated with explanation, recommendation and proscription --flowing from centres of authority to those who ought to respond for their own good. Without denying the value of such expertise and the associated resources, circumstances suggest that more might be accomplished by shifting the centre of reference to the imaginative level to which most people have access. Reality will not be effectively trapped by rhetoric governed by the switch metaphor. That metaphor, as with any tool, remains very useful but richer metaphors are needed to carry more complex patterns of activity. Thus sustainable development itself may become more realistic if understood as a sustainable ecology of development policies --rather than as a naive attempt to 'have one's cake and eat it too' (Judge, 1989a).

A world in which metaphor came into its own as a continuing articulation of a dynamic reality would constitute a direct challenge to the imagination -- transcending the procedural and methodological red tape which currently disempowers any attempt to effectively harness the energy of individual and collective imagination. Recognizing the need for discipline and rigour, these should not however function as conceptual contraceptives. A world governed explicitly through metaphor -- rather than implicitly as at present -- would offer new possibility for unity and diversity, and for a new relationship to problems, however they can be most fruitfully understood. Metaphor is not 'the solution'. It is not a 'silver bullet' to ensure the final demise of all our ills. But it does create a bridge between the creative imagination and the fields of technical expertise which we have been unable to use effectively either in isolation or in relation to other disciplines. Metaphor has the power to reframe our use of such resources -- for better and for worse. To break out of our conceptual totalitarianism, let a 100 metaphors bloom !

The references on the policy-related use of metaphor in the papers by Judge (below) are presented in a bibliography, with some of that material, in the 1990 edition of the Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential (below).


Ron Atkin. Multidimensional Man : Can man live in 3-dimensional space? Penguin, 1981.

Yves Barel. Le Paradoxe et le Système: Essai sur le fantastique social. Grenoble, Presses universitaires de Grenoble, 1989.

Frank J. Barrett and David L. Cooperrider. Using generative metaphor to intervene in a system divided by turfism and competition : Building common vision. Case Western ReserveUniversity, 1989.

Richard J. Bernstein. Beyond Objectivism and Relativism. Oxford, Basil Blackwell, 1983.

Henry Bourgoin. L'Afrique Malade du Management. Paris, Editions Jean Picollec, 1984 (Collection Perspective 2000).

James Cowan. On Totems. Resurgence, 138, January/February 1990, pp. 30-34.

Edward de Bono:

Hernando De Soto. The Other Path: The invisible revolution in the Third World. Harper and Row, 1989.

Andreas Fuglesang. About Understanding : Ideas and observations on cross-cultural communication. Uppsala, Dag Hammarskjold Foundation, 1982.

David Gordon. Therapeutic Metaphors. Cupertino CA, META Publications, 1978.

James Hillman. Healing Fiction. Station Hill, Barryton NY, 1983.

Geert Hofstede. Cultures Consequences: International differences in work-related values. Sage, 1980.

Anthony Judge:

Donald N. Levin. The Flight from Ambiguity. University of Chicago Press, 1985.

Konrad Lorenz. The Waning Humaneness. Unwin, 1988.

Magoroh Maruyama. Mindscapes, social patterns and future development of scientific theory types. Cybernetica, (1980), 23, 1, pp. 5-25.

Earl M. McCormal. A Cognitive Theory of Metaphor. MIT Press, 1985.

Sallie McFague. Metaphorical Theology : Models of God in religious language. London, SCM Press, 1983.

Gareth Morgan. Images of Organization. Sage, 1986.

Kinhide Mushakoji. Scientific revolution and inter-paradigmatic dialogues. Paper for the United Nations University, Human and Social Development Programme, Geneva, 1978.

Leon F. Seltzer. Paradoxical Strategies in Psychotherapy : A comprehensive overview and guidebook. Wiley, 1986 (Appendices: Examples of planning and execution; Checklist of symptoms and problems treated paradoxically; 500-item Comprehensive bibliography).

Suresh Srivastva and Frank J. Barfrett. The transforming nature of metaphors in group development : A study in group theory. Human Relations 41, 1988, 1, pp. 31-64.

Yamauchi Tokuryu. Logos to Lemma. Tokyo, Logos and Lemma, 1974.

Union of International Associations (UIA):

Jean-Pierre Van Noppen (Comp.). Metaphor: a bibliography of post-1970 publications. John Benjamins, 1985 (Amsterdam Studies in the Theory and History of Linguistic Science).

Geoffrey Vickers. Freedom in a Rocking Boat: changing values in an unstable society. Pelican, 1972.

World Commission on Environment and Development. Our Common Future. Oxford University Press, 1987.

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