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The intersection of narrative and metaphor in the shaping of institutions

August 16, 2012

“Thinking of human beings as storytellers makes great sense for students of negotiation,” asserts Jayne Seminare Docherty; “The medium of negotiation is language, and primary among the types of language we hear in negotiation are stories. Mediation has been described as assisted negotiation, and many mediators are trained to begin by asking the parties in a conflict to “tell their stories.” One of the most powerful frames influencing negotiation behavior is the “whole story frame”-the way parties answer the question “What is this conflict about?” Yet, as a group, many negotiators pay very little attention to the nature of narrative and to the nature of human beings as story tellers.

Closely tied to storytelling is the use of metaphors. “The essence of metaphor is understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another.”  Many scholars have argued that human thought processes are essentially metaphorical; we can only make sense of something by comparing it to something else. Furthermore, metaphors shape our actions and our sense of right and wrong. A powerful metaphor orders the world in such a way that we can identify roles that are useful and actions that are prohibited or unthinkable because they fall outside the metaphor.” (p.847)

Docherty offers the following, excellent, example of how narratives and metaphors intertwine to shape institutions and professional practice:

Shared metaphors and their related stories validate (or stigmatize) particular social actions. For example, at the beginning of the twentieth century, through a contentious political process, Gifford Pinchot and his supporters convinced the government to create the U.S. Forest Service. The Forest Service is housed in the Department of Agriculture, primarily because the metaphor promoted by Pinchot was the forest is a farm.

The metaphor of the forest as a farm encapsulates a narrative about human beings as good stewards and farmers of the forest; it privileges careful management of resources, harvesting timber and other products from the forest, and nurturing good species, while suppressing weed trees and pests. It is difficult to stretch this metaphor and narrative to encompass the idea of designated wilderness areas, places where human beings do not farm. On the other hand, as farming moved from small family farms to agribusiness, forestry moved from careful, selective harvesting to clearcutting entire hillsides and replanting a diverse forest with a single species of tree. The world was literally reshaped as human beings enacted this particular metaphor and its related story.

Metaphors become invisible through habitual use and processes that institutionalize the story behind the metaphor. The forest-is-a-farm metaphor was new and different in the early twentieth century; it was being offered in place of the forest-is-a-mine metaphor that had guided logging practices for the previous hundred years. By the mid-to-late twentieth century, this metaphor had entered the culture and become normalized.” (p.848)

“The farm metaphor only became visible again when it was challenged by environmentalists and others who were unhappy with Forest Service practices. Now the forest-is-a-farm metaphor is under attack and is likely to be replaced by the forest-is-an-ecosystem metaphor.

Obviously, metaphors and stories, especially when they are shared by many people, shape and reshape the social and material worlds in which we live. They also shape our sense of professional practice. What is a good forester? She is a good farmer of the forest. But if we adopt and implement a metaphor and institutionalize it without careful reflection, we may take actions that do great harm.” (p.848)

I really enjoyed this article!

Ref: Jayne Seminare Docherty (2004) ‘Narratives, metaphors and negotiation’ Marquette Law Review 87; 847-851


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