November 8, 2019, by Brigitte Nerlich

Metaphors and society (and Brexit)

I have been interested in metaphors and society for a long time. My thinking has been influenced mainly by people who wrote about metaphor (and society) at the end of the 1970s and early 1980s; for example, Susan Sontag, Donald Schön, Andrew Ortony, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson and others, who examined ‘conceptual’ or ‘generative’ metaphors that influence thinking, acting, policy making and so on. I later worked on merging metaphor analysis with discourse analysis, media analysis, visual analysis, social representations theory, corpus linguistics and more. I also tried to dig deeper into the history of metaphor research, which proved to be quite fascinating.

The metaphorical structuring of social perceptions

In all that time I never came across one article that I discovered recently, by a developmental biologist who is still musing about science and society issues today, namely Scott F. Gilbert. In 1979 he wrote a paper entitled “The metaphorical structuring of social perceptions”, which appeared, I should stress, in a rather obscure journal called Soundings: An Interdisciplinary Journal. Since 1979 it has been cited a mere 19 times, another reason why I might have overlooked it. However, those interested in metaphor and society or society and social representations should not neglect it. It is really interesting!

How does Gilbert define metaphors? He writes: “Analogy, including simile and metaphor, is a way of making oneself familiar with novel or complex situations. To say that the mind ‘filters’ information or that ‘all the world’s a stage’ is to put into familiar terms experiences and processes about which we know very little.” (p. 166). He points in particular to science and religion as needing metaphors, as they deal with “matters complex and unseen”. But he stresses that “Society, too, develops its own metaphors, and like those of science and religion, they are apt to change and confront one another.” The aim of his article was “to show that certain of these metaphors are critical to the perceptions of society and the self-perceptions of individuals within it and that changes in these analogies reflect, and in part, create, changes in society itself” (ibid.).

The article goes on to examine various all-encompassing metaphors, what Stephen C. Pepper called in 1942 ‘root metaphors’, through which we think and talk about society or, as Gilbert also calls it metaphorically, ‘the body politic’, from infectious disease to cancer. While dissecting these and related metaphors (for example, war metaphors) of society, the author discusses how we perceive and think about ‘social menace’, such as, for example, the ever topical issue of immigration. He then studies various metaphorical representations of nature (or of what’s going on inside the body) through the lens of the civil rights movement, the women’s rights movement and the emergence of ecological consciousness. In a third part of the article, Gilbert looks at metaphor or models of humanity; as the aggressive ape, the caring creature and, most interesting nowadays perhaps, the machine.

Metaphors, society and… Brexit

I would love to see an update of Gilbert’s article in light of the political, medical and ecological changes that have happened between 1979 and 2019! Metaphors are structuring social perceptions, perceptions of self and society, as we speak. We need to keep track of them. As Brendon Larson has pointed out (quoting Gilbert): “Particular metaphors may thus reinforce prevailing cultural values” (Larson, 2006) or even create them.

Many of you will remember the metaphorical framing of immigrants flooding the country, most prominently in a famous poster of a column of men walking along a road captioned “Breaking Point” created by Nigel Farage’s grassroots Leave campaign. This framing has brought about radical changes in how we perceive our society and our selves; it has in fact inflicted wounds on the body politic that will need decades to ‘heal’. This will not be easy, as metaphors are still flooding in, especially during an election campaign.

Some people are trying to monitor such metaphors that structure social and political perceptions. For example, Veronika Koller and her colleagues at the University of Lancaster have recently published a book on Discourses of Brexit. And if you want to know more about metaphors of the body politic, of Europe and of immigration, you should consult the long-standing work by my colleague Andreas Musolff. (In 1985, he did his MA at the University of Düsseldorf and I did my PhD – ah, good old times!)

In an article discussing this type of work, David Shariatmadari worries about the weaponisation of metaphors in the context of Brexit, and rightly so. I’ll leave you with some good advice from Veronika Koller, quoted in this article, about what to do in a context where social and political perceptions are inevitably structured by metaphors, most of which are misleading:

“Is there any way to reverse Brexiteers’ weaponisation of metaphor? ‘First of all you need to understand what you’re up against,’ Koller advises. Metaphors will always be with us, she concedes, but they can be challenged. One way to do this is by elaborating them. ‘So we can say things like: ‘Ok you say we’re trapped in the backstop and we’re shackled to the EU. So let’s imagine we break out of this prison Great Escape-style, what then? Who will be with us, where will we go?’’ Another is by replacing one metaphor with another. Rather than thinking of no deal as breaking free, could it be more like getting lost in the wilderness, without a map or compass?”


Image: Pixabay: Fractal render (don’t ask me why I chose that!)


Posted in LanguageMetaphors