2002 | Uncompleted
Governing Metaphors: the new policy frontier
50 Current policy implications of metaphor in a media oriented society
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Already partly published in other docs
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
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
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
(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
(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.
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
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
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
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"
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