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Did you know that we utter about 6 metaphors a minute? James Geary explains in this TED Talk, how metaphor lives a secretive existence within our language. Geary argues that metaphor is a way of thought before it is a way with words.

It’s an interesting argument that I believe has some significant implications for the world of complexity and sensemaking. Our experience at The Narrative Lab suggests that the role of metaphors in understanding the behaviour of agents in a system is key. As we collect and make sense of more and more narrative from within organisations, the importance of metaphors has come to the fore as modulators of agent behaviour.

There are many types of metaphor. Trying to get to grips with the different types is a cognitively draining process that takes something away from the simplicity and reason behind why we rely on metaphors in our thinking and language. But let me draw from one piece of theory regarding metaphors that is vital, I believe, in making sense of agent behaviour in a complex adaptive system.

Hans Blumenberg, a German philospher, pioneered what is known as metaphorology, and his key concept was that of the absolute metaphor. An example of an absolute metaphor is describing truth as light e.g. “bringing light onto the situation. The distinctiveness of absolute metaphors means they cannot be reduced to a concept. Blumenberg had this to say about absolute metaphors:

The distinctness and meaning of these metaphors constitute the perception of reality as a whole, a necessary prerequisite for human orientation, thought and action.

These types of absolute metaphors pervade our existence, and one could argue that they are essential to making sense of the world around us. This approach to metaphors has a significant impact on understanding agents within a system: if absolute metaphors are prevalent in human systems, what are the absolute metaphors that are pervasive within an organisation AND how do those metaphors “constitute the perception of reality as a whole”?

Let me simplify all of this with a real example.

We’ve been doing some in-depth work within the mining industry here in South Africa – doing multiple narrative enquiries across different mining groups. As we’ve done this we’ve begun noticing a pattern within the stories about mine safety that seems to be persistent.

The language around mine safety is saturated with policing terms. We speak of safety officers, accident investigations and the list goes on.This language is entrenched in structures and is almost sub-conscious within the mine sector. Again and again, the policing metaphor has surfaced. So much so that we’ve begun to see it in the light of absolute metaphors, or what we call base metaphors.

Consider the implications of an unhelpful base metaphor of this nature in a South African context. If you’re a middle aged black South Africa the police have potentially very negative connotations. They were the people who invaded your houses at night, discriminated against you, abused you and sometimes were even people from your own community.

Consider the inverse. If you’re a young South African, your experience of police is likely to be one where corruption is rife, that they cannot be trusted and are often prone to laziness.

Now, if a new safety initiative is launched in a system where the policing base metaphor is prevalent, how would that affect people’s behaviour in light of the connotations associated with policing? You’re likely to be skeptical, see it as a corrupt process and unfair.

We have often found multiple base metaphors within organisations, not all of them as negative as the policing example. We believe an awareness of what the possible base metaphors are within your organisation is vital in the context of implementing interventions to shift negative patterns in a complex system.

Perhaps you would now like to be on the look out for the “6 metaphors a minute” that occur within your organisation? You may also want to find out the prevalence and pervasiveness of those metaphors, as well as explore how they are modulators of behaviour.