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

2002 | Uncompleted

Governing Metaphors: the new policy frontier

50 Current policy implications of metaphor in a media oriented society

-- / --

Already partly published in other docs

Unsustainable policies

Policies and issues move into and out of fashion according to the vagaries of the political process and the priorities of the moment. This is true even within the international community, as noted by Johan Galtung. There is a "flavour-of-the-month" quality to policy-making, however serious the long-term issues may appear to be. Governance suffers in consequence through lack of any conceptual continuity. Past policy flavours within the international community, according to Galtung, include basic needs, self-reliance, new international economic order, appropriate technology, health-for-all, community participation, primary health care and common heritage of mankind. The current flavour is sustainable development. It is useful to ask how sustainable is the concept of sustainable development, and what dimensions does it fail to take into account.

In the light of the series of integrative foci of the past decades, "sustainable development" can be considered humanity's best and latest effort to reconceptualize "the good, the true and the beautiful" for the international community. Given the responses to past efforts, notably the Brandt Commission, it is fruitful to ask how sustainable over time is the concept of "sustainable development". Already there is evidence of multiple interpretations (Pezzey, 1989), some of them quite incompatible, just as has been the case with "development" alone. In any policy forum, such differences are immediately apparent through the factions and coalitions to which they give rise. As with past foci, there are those who perceive it to be totally legitimate to "milk" a concept to their own benefit whilst it still has "mileage" left in it. Johan Galtung has described the life cycle of such concepts in relation to the international community. The position in the life cycle determines how the theme is handled within policy agendas.

It is not fruitful to view such concept cycles cynically, although exposure to them can justify this. The challenge is to identify how the development of any such insight can be sustained, especially in a policy forum. The difficulty lies in assumptions made by those actively involved in promoting or clarifying such an insight. These include:

(a) a tendency to consider it the only valid integrative concept that has ever been formulated. This ignores the history of previous concepts which have created the context for the emergence of this latest one. It also ignores what happened to the previous ones and the nature of the relationships they established with other competing policy concepts.

(b) a tendency to consider that no further valid integrative concepts will emerge to replace the current one. This structures reflection on the concept to preclude the future emergence of more appropriate concepts. It engenders dogmatism and identification of heresies. (Do the advocates of sustainable development have the right conceptual posture to respond appropriately to the policy insight which will succeed it -- or will there be no such innovation?)

(c) a tendency to believe that the concept is inherently credible and desirable to those who have not been involved in its formulation. The step beyond this is to assume that they ought to be persuaded to that conviction if they do not hold it.

(d) a tendency to believe that policy insights of requisite variety can be adequately embodied within a single policy framework.

(e) a tendency to fail to recognize that groups are sensitive to quite different forms of information in relation to any issue, and frequently consider other forms as having marginal significance, if any.

As more people and groups are touched by the insight, they reinterpret it to better reflect their own understanding. This leads to factionalism and multiple interpretations which may be highly critical of each other, even to the point of subverting each others initiatives in competition for resources. "Sustainable development" has to survive in this environment. To be of any significance, policy forums must respond effectively to such factionalism -- whether or not they are effectively represented at any forum.

Policy implications of metaphor in a media-oriented society

There is little need to remake points concerning the role of the media in politics or the problems of information overload. In such a context a vitally important issue for policy acceptance is the process whereby policy proposals are communicated for clarification and approbation. The constraints and opportunities are most evident in the case of politicians and political parties concerned to "get a message across". The same may be said concerning the communication of any proposal in a policy forum (Majone, 1989).

Much has been written about the deliberate cultivation of an image by politicians and their increasing investment in media consultants and image makers, following the example of corporations. It has been argued that image is becoming as important as content in politics, if not more important. The need for visionary leadership is stressed (Dror, 1988a). Given the intimate relationship between policies and the politicians presenting them, it is appropriate to ask to what degree policy-making is now "image-led" as opposed to "content-led". For whilst it is possible to formulate policies based on the most appropriate scientific models and the greatest of expertise, it is increasingly recognized that if such policies do not communicate well they have little chance of being either understood or approved.

These points are made, not in order to denigrate sophisticated models and conscientiously articulated policies, but in order to suggest that the leading edge of the policy approval process is now the image through which the policy is envisioned and presented. The widespread use of metaphor is increasingly a subject of study (Van Noppen et al., 1985). An extensive description of the 1988 summit conference was made in terms of a yachting metaphor. Conflict between policies is increasingly resolved through image or metaphor. For example, Margaret Thatcher's privatization policy was severely criticized by Harold Macmillan, an earlier UK Prime Minister, as "selling the family silver". Thatcher later replied (possibly after consultation with Saatchi and Saatchi) that indeed she was "selling the family silver" but that she was "selling it back to the family".

In the corporate world, very extensive use is made of metaphor to communicate the essence of policies and strategies and responses to competing initiatives. It is interesting to note that in the West, favoured metaphors are derived from ball games (football, cricket, baseball, etc) and military combat, whereas in Japan a required management text is the art of swordsmanship (Musashi, 1982). It is fairly evident that the latter provides more subtle, sophisticated, non-linear metaphors compared to the somewhat mechanistic and linear metaphors of the former. It is appropriate to note that a study has explored how the USA forces were defeated in Vietnam because of their dependence on military strategies modelled on chess in comparison to the Vietnamese strategies modelled on go.

Beyond method and explanation: the new frontier

Many studies contributing to policy proposals continue to be made totally independently of any consideration of the imagery through which they may ultimately need to be presented. Many disciplines have a strong bias against imagery of any kind as well as against any consideration of the process whereby insights are communicated.

Such biases are inappropriate if only because of the recognized importance of metaphor and imagery in creative thinking (Van Noppen at al., 1985) even in the hardest of sciences such as fundamental physics (Miller, 1986). It is clear however that within any disciplinary framework or jargon there is little need for imagery because the practitioners share a common imaginal framework. There are terms for everything that needs to be communicated.

The situation is quite different when dealing with policy proposals emanating from different disciplinary, political, cultural and ideological contexts. In such settings each faction tends to view the methods and explanations of others with suspicion or contempt. The language and concepts used communicate increasingly poorly according to the conceptual distance between them (Feyerabend, 1987). In parliamentary debate this is frequently signalled by the use of "absurd", "irrelevant", "naive", "irresponsible", "incomprehensible" and "ridiculous" in referring to proposals from opposing factions.

"Interdisciplinary method" is at this point a contradiction in terms. A discipline is characterized by its methods. Despite three decades of general systems, no interdisciplinary method appropriate to the complex challenge of the times has achieved any degree of acceptance. Where such "methods" have been used in very specific situations, they take the form of administrative procedures for ensuring that a succession of experts comment or discuss issues, but without any pretence at conceptual integration in the final report. Integration is left to the end-user, as exemplified by a term in German translating as "book-binding synthesis".

Since this situation has prevailed through several development decades, during which "interdisciplinarity" and "integration" have been favoured buzz words, it is worth asking whether a more radical approach could not be fruitfully explored. Is it possible that the functionality which "interdisciplinarity" and "integration" endeavour to denote is to be found at a different level, and in a different form, than that at which the methodological and other differences are so evident?

Specifically, are there comprehensible images or metaphors, of requisite complexity, onto which the insights of different constituencies of expertise can be mapped so as to establish the dynamics and boundaries of their relationships without eroding or destroying their identity? This possibility, explored by Bateson (1987), appears to call for much comment and detailed explanation in the light of this or that methodology. But it could be argued that any such explanation would merely be a further contribution to the existing communication problem. A more fruitful route forward would be to consider ways of identifying, designing and testing such metaphors in practice.

This proposal is not as radical as it might appear. The most advanced thinking in many disciplines is expressed in terms of objects and surfaces in a complex space. In some cases computer techniques are used to assist visualization of such spaces as a guide to further theoretical development. The suggestion is that some effort be devoted to "marrying" such uses of imagery with those developed by animators or with those based on features of the environment with which people have a familiar relationship.

Policy forums as metaphors

The organization of a meeting and its processes in fact provide a remarkable metaphor of wider society and the challenge of using resources more appropriately. To use Gregory Bateson's insight, "we are our own metaphor" (Bateson, 1972). The challenge of formulating more appropriate policies is highlighted by the difficulties in meeting design:

(a) Building constraints: The constraints of the building and the regulations governing how it is to be used, including simple questions like the ability to reconfigure the seating arrangement in the light of the emerging processes of the meeting. These are a reminder of the constraints imposed by existing physical structures and regulations in wider society.

(b) Protocol constraints: The protocol constraints necessitating special focus around certain individuals. These are a reminder of the constraints imposed by existing social structures, whether relevant to social change or not.

(c) Meeting procedures: Meeting procedures based on rules of order (Robert, 1985) which have not changed to any significant degree throughout the 20th century and which fail to take into account the best thinking on self-organizing systems. These are a reminder that "plus ça change...", as those with revolutionary inclinations delight to point out.

(d) Meeting agendas: Meeting agendas designed months (or years) before the event, thus to a large degree pre-programming the process and outcome and blocking any unplanned initiatives in the light of emerging opportunities. This is a reminder of the dead weight of prior commitments under which policy-makers operate. The structure of such agendas also tends to reinforce linear thinking and fails to reflect the non-linear relationships between the items -- a reminder of the clumsiness with which we endeavour to respond to the cyclic complexities of the social and natural environment.

(e) Hidden symbolism: Much more controversially, except for those acknowledging the implications of Freudian symbols and sexual politics, is the body-language of speakers, especially in relationship to the microphone and any proscenium, and that of the audience seated in expectation of stimulation. This is a reminder that unconscious factors may play a determining role in meeting processes.

(f) Misuse of attention time: Use and abuse of one of the principal resources in meetings, namely time, especially in the form of the attention time of a captive audience. This is a reminder of how policy-makers tend to exploit their position in relation to the resources of captive constituencies and markets, whether this takes the form of "cartel formation", "asset stripping", "environmental degradation" or "resource depletion".

(g) Limitation on forms of presentation: Obligation of the audience to accept the form of presentation favoured by the speaker, with little recognition of the need to translate the content into other modes (except in the extreme case of language interpretation, but not including that between disciplinary languages). This is a reminder of the widespread assumption that people are all naturally capable of processing a complete spectrum of information forms, unless they are of reduced mental competence.

Again it is not the purpose of this paper to explore such intractable issues further. They must be circumvented by other means if there is to be any hope for timely breakthroughs.

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 the time available. 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 (discussed earlier) 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.

Governance through metaphor

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 elsewhere (***) 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 (Judge, 1987b).

Resources can be usefully devoted to identifying, selecting, designing disseminating and employing more appropriate metaphors in policy contexts. Such a shift in focus should open up new ways of reflecting collectively on the more complex, cyclic and incommensurable perspectives currently lost in the savage interactions between factions. It is such complex perspectives which constitute the real policy challenge.

This suggests that the design of a desirable policy forum would focus attention on 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. Such stewardship in the governance of a forum opens up new possibilities in the governance of society as a whole.

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 versus a right-brain preoccupation with the proclivities of public opinion avid for "meaningful" action (even if "sensational"). This schizophrenic battle between models and metaphors could be reframed by legitimating the metaphoric dimensions, already so vital to any motivation of public opinion, as providing vehicles for models. However, there needs to be a two-way flow from model-to-metaphor and from metaphor-to-model, as in any interesting learning process.

Appropriate metaphors of sustainable development

In response to the challenge of sustainable development, this perspective may be used to redefine the challenge, both in conceptual and policy terms, as being one of designing metaphors to give form to a "sustainable ecology of development policies"(Judge, 1989***). In relation to the issues raised by Srivastva and Barrett (1988) and Barrett and Cooperrider (1989?), it could be appropriate to use richer metaphors to integrate, and render comprehensible as sets, the individual metaphors which govern groups over time, or which govern opposing factions during the same period.

A simplistic metaphor of the relationship between "environment" and "development" is that of "having one's cake and eating it too". It makes a critical difference what metaphor is used, whether implicitly or explicitly, to view the relationship between competing policy concepts:

(a) From a particular concept: From any given policy concept other concepts can only be viewed as threatening since that concept provides no sense of context, other than itself. "Enemy" is then an appropriate metaphor. Such defensive postures are not uncommon in policy forums. "Sustainable development" can be perceived in these terms with any other policy perspective as the enemy.

(b) As a group of competing concepts: Here context is provided by the sense of a "marketplace of ideas" in which the most appropriate products survive, if the market mechanism works satisfactorily. A more powerful metaphor is that of the "gladiatorial arena", in which one concept strives to emerge triumphant at the expense of the others, possibly learning from them in order to do so. Metaphors of this type, including those based on competitive sports, are widely used as noted above. "Sustainable development" can then be perceived as a set of competing concepts from which the most appropriate will emerge triumphant -- as the ideal result of a policy forum.

(c) As a homeostatic ecology of concepts: The two previous perspectives can however be perceived as subsystems or processes within an "ecology" of policy concepts. Here there are a variety of relationships between alternative policies (including "predation", "parasitism", and "commensalism"), but these function such as to maintain a balance between the different "species" of policy within the ecology (see ****). "Sustainable development" can then be perceived as a stewardship function of ensuring the stability of an ecology of policy concepts in which each fulfils particular developmental functions under particular conditions and there is a niche for developmental policies of all sizes and orientations.

(d) As an evolving ecology of concepts: Of greater interest is the possibility of perceiving "sustainable development" as an evolving ecology of developmental policies. Here there is a maintenance dimension corresponding to a homeostatic ecology as well as a longer-term evolutionary dimension as the various species adapt and evolve to emerging conditions, with new species emerging as the creative result of mutation processes.

If "sustainable development" is associated with metaphors of the first two kinds, its long-term value is questionable. If it can be perceived through metaphors of richness equivalent to the last two kinds, it can perform the integrative function necessary to incorporate both the policy priorities of "development" (in its many forms) and of "environment" (in its many forms). Note that only the last kind encompasses the continuing proliferation of alternative interpretations through a recognition of "speciation" processes.

There is an attractive conceptual elegance in endeavouring to use the natural environment as a metaphoric map to provide conceptual handles on the many policy dimensions of sustainable development. It suggests the need for a certain isomorphism between the pattern of development policies and the structure of the natural environment within which (and in response to which) they are implemented (Judge, 1984c). The ecological metaphor is explored further in *****.

In any policy forum the question may then be asked as to to the nature of the metaphor used to sustain the relationship between the range of policy perspectives represented? If that metaphor is not of requisite variety any result of such a forum can only be of value limited in time and space. The insight of "sustainable development" cannot be satisfactorily embodied in a single policy or set of policies if no coherent context is provided for those who have to understand or approve it. Whatever the multiple, alternative or competing articulations of "sustainable development" at the conceptual or policy level, the insight integrating their dynamic relationships can only be adequately communicated at the metaphoric level.

In the light of the challenge of sustainable development, the question might well be asked as to how many metaphors people need to ensure their survival -- and especially their psychological survival? Is there a problem of metaphor impoverishment and deprivation associated with both ineffectual policies and individual alienation? Is it possible that a metaphoric measure is necessary as a complement to the questionable value of current social indicators and the questionable educational role played by the exclusive use of the IQ measure of intelligence? To the extent that we ourselves are metaphors, do we need to develop richer metaphors through which to experience and express our self-image?

If individual learning is governed by metaphors (as a number of studies indicate), how is it that metaphors governing societal learning and development have not been studied? In the light of Andreas Fuglesang's severe criticism of western assumptions concerning communication in developing countries (**), would it not be more useful to conceive of different cultures as operating within different root metaphors? Is it possible that social transformation is essentially a question of offering people (and empowering them to discover from their own traditions) richer and more meaningful metaphors through which to live, act and empower themselves?

Conclusion: policy implications

In any policy forum, integrative breakthroughs are facilitated by:

(a) recognizing the implicit or explicit metaphors favoured by the factions represented, namely what imagery they use to communicate within their group and with their constituencies;

(b) recognizing the implicit or explicit metaphors of the policy forum as a whole, namely what imagery is acceptable and how that may relate to that of any subsequent public relations campaign;

(c) encouraging the deliberate selection and design of more powerful metaphors to encode the dynamics of the relations between incompatible perspectives and especially between the factions represented. For if one faction perceives the other as "sharks", and are perceived by the latter as "sheep", no amount of rational discussion will overcome the "ecosystemic" constraints on their harmonious relationship. The same may be said of "hawks" and "doves"; both know who "eats" whom.

Metaphor is widely used to communicate policy options. However it is used simplistically and in a rhetorical manner divorced from the actual written articulation of policy. The metaphors currently favoured do not reflect the exigencies of sustainable development or the dynamics between the advocates of competing policy alternatives. Resources can be usefully devoted to identifying, selecting, designing disseminating and employing more appropriate metaphors in policy contexts. Such a shift in focus should open up new ways of reflecting collectively on the more complex, cyclic and incommensurable perspectives currently lost in the savage interactions between factions. It is such complex perspectives which constitute the real policy challenge.

This suggests that a desirable policy forum design would focus attention on 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. Such stewardship in the governance of a forum opens up new possibilities in the governance of society as a whole.

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