Last modified: 30.04.2013

As promised in my blog post MM2 I want to return to the issue of metaphors. The issue of metaphors in research is a rather old one, but I think still worth pondering on. If you think about it, quite a lot of our everyday communication relies on the uses of metaphors and these are equally prevalent in business, commercial and political discourse. In fact there is a position within cognitive science arguing that our mental faculties and the way our thinking works is metaphorical to the bone. I am thinking of Lakoff & Johnson’s eminent book from 1980 ‘Metaphors We Live By’. In this book they argue that metaphorical activity is much more than a strike of conscious communication strategy. By linking to our embodied sensing of the world they compellingly argue that notions like ‘up’ and ‘down’ have their metaphorical power due to their reference to our bodily engagement with the world (for example in the sentence ‘I am feeling down’ the notion of ‘down’ derives its meaning from being the antidote to the human upright position in time-space). I shall not claim to be qualified to assess if the arguments in that book are valid in as strict scientific sense but just mention that the book was a tremendous eye-opener for me many years ago. Other fine books are out there to engage with such as ‘The Metaphorical Society’ (2001) by Daniel Rigney, ‘Narratives in Social Science Research’ (2004) by Barbara Czarniawska (actually this is more about narrative but also rather inspiring), and ‘Metaforens Magt’ (2001) by Anders Fogh Jensen. But of course I shall mention the book that in many respect set off the ‘mobilities turn’; John Urry’s ‘Sociology Beyond Societies’ (2000). Chapter two is dedicated to metaphors and their role in thinking about mobilities. I cannot go deep into Urry’s arguments in this book but he points at the key idea that sociological thinking (as any other thinking … and thus also mobilities thinking) cannot be achieved non-metaphorically.

In this blog post I will rather move towards my own work utilizing metaphors as well as I want to offer a few critical pointers for reflection. Etymologically we may find help for a beginning reflection on the nature of metaphors. Thus in old Greek metaphor means ‘transport’. This speaks to a lot of truth to the very tangible way metaphors work; by ‘transporting’ meaning from one semantic domain to another. Let me give an example. The sentence ‘she is like a rose’ borrows meaning from the domain of plants and transfers it to the domains of humans. Thus ‘transported’ the term may also open up to new ways of thinking which is one of the metaphor’s primary and creative advantaged as far as I am concerned. Before explaining about my use of metaphor I think we may discriminate between at least two different perspectives on metaphors. Firstly, we may think about metaphors as analytical objects of study. This could for instance be in policy and planning analysis where we may find notions such as ‘the city’s traffic system is a complex machine’ or ‘traffic is the blood in the arteries of the city’ etc. Much discourse analysis often finds usefulness to include metaphors at such a policy level. This is partly because the metaphors lend themselves to interpretation of underlying ideas and norms that may not be articulated in the explicit. Often policy makers would refer to an instrumental metaphor like the ‘machine’ without necessarily to have pondered deeply on what a statement like that suggest about the speaker’s perception (in a world of spin doctors and staged policy making this privileged access to deeper insights are on the retreat however). The second perspective on metaphors is to understand them as parts of our conceptualization and theory-development. Seen this way a metaphor may be an analytical tool rather than an analytical object. It is in this latter sense of the term I want to discuss my work here (I have done plenty of discourse analysis applying metaphorical analysis and interpretation in earlier research).

One place to start would be with the root metaphor of ‘staging’ that I apply in my book ‘Staging Mobilities’ (Routledge 2013). This metaphor is borrowed from Erving Goffman who in a number of books utilized different metaphors like play, game, strategy, and drama. I pick upon the latter which he unfolded masterly in the book ‘The Presentation of Self in the Everyday Life’ (1959). In here (as well as in other writings) Goffman argues that the theatre may be useful as a metaphor for the social. Now the point is NOT that social life IS drama or theatre, but rather that social life may be analyzed AS drama or theatre. This distinction is crucial and much (Goffman) critique could have been avoided if that distinction had been addressed. It is a question of not conflating the epistemological with the ontological. Or put differently; to see society through the concept of ‘drama’ or ‘stage’ is not to argue that society is a ‘drama’ or a ‘stage’. It is to claim that something new and hopefully enlightening will occur in our understanding of the social if we change perspective. Goffman’s own research speaks to this, and the reason why he made such compelling and capturing writings and analysis of mundane and ordinary everyday life activities was because he was able to throw new light on these repetitious and mundane practices simply by suggesting new frames for interpretation (the notion of ‘frame’ being yet another metaphor to which Goffman dedicated a full book in his ‘Frame Analysis’ from 1974). I cannot go more into Goffman’s work on metaphors here but it is surely fascinating, so fascinating that I wrote a whole book inspired by this thinking. I came to the conclusion that Goffman’s drama metaphor might be useful for the study of everyday life mobilities and the more I worked with this, the more clear it became that this had to become the foundational idea and concept (I shall return to how the simplicity of choosing one metaphor as title also is tied into my reflections on good and short titles … but that’s another story). But before getting all too enthusiastic about the role and power of metaphors I should mention that they are also dangerous for the clear-sighted analysis. If we think that metaphors are innocent and transparent vehicles for reflection we are on the wrong track. Metaphors are compelling often due to their reductive nature. They are powerful in politics and elsewhere due to their rhetoric qualities. So if metaphors are applied in mobilities research one should be aware of their blind spots and their reductive capacities … but in that respect they are not necessarily different from all our other theories and concepts!!

In my analysis of a public space and its transit flows I used the two metaphors ‘the river’ and ‘the ballet’ as two distinct perspectives that had each their advantage, and needed to supplement each other rather than compete (and is also in coherence with the basic division of staging from ‘above and below’ … equally two metaphors). On the productive side of things, metaphors help frame and shape what we see. Thus we get closer to the understanding of what actually takes place when we start ‘seeing through’ the metaphor of the ‘river’ and the ‘ballet’. Conversely the coining of metaphors also carries the risk of oversimplifying the issue. And furthermore metaphors are always setting certain issues in the foreground and others in the background. In other words metaphors have ‘blind spots’ that might cloud our analysis. Having said this, the coining of the two metaphors of the ‘river’ and the ‘ballet’ have been found very useful for the analysis at Nytorv as long as one remembers that the flow of the ‘river’ and the interaction of the ‘ballet’ are only two dimensions of the complex transit space called Nytorv. For example will the notion of the ‘river’ reduce individual mobile subjects to a homogenous flow of similar ‘entities’. Equally important, the metaphor of the ‘ballet’ does not do away with power issues. People are not ‘dancing’ in one happy performance. Rather there are many direct and indirect manifestations of power and its relationship to mobility at Nytorv. Here is a description of the notion and how it works in my analysis of the public transit space ‘Nytorv’ in the heart of Aalborg:

‘…seeing the mobility practices at Nytorv ‘as a ballet’ means to be at the eye level of the moving urbanites. Seeing the mobility practices ‘as a river’ means then to aggregate and ‘look down’ at the mobile urbanites from above and thus create more abstract and generalized understandings and interpretations. When seeing Nytorv ‘as a river’ what becomes most clear is that objects (the actual layout of the site with curbs, basins, and urban furniture) create a ‘riverbed’ shaping the flows of people as water in a stream. Once accustomed to this perspective we start to see how we may discriminate between permanent ‘sedimentations’ that are long-time and enduring conditions shaping the flows and then the more temporary ‘obstacles’. From time to another we might experience the parking of a large truck e.g. in front of McDonalds unloading goods. With the arrival of such temporary ‘sediments’ the flow of the ‘river’ will be changed shortly, but with immediately observable consequences to the orchestration of the movement patterns and interactions. We might speak of permanent versus temporary ‘sediments’ of the ‘river’ and people themselves might of course also be seen as ‘sedimentations’ of the temporary sort. At Nytorv the presence of the global burger chain McDonalds has made a permanent impact on the ‘riverbed’ as the site in front of the restaurant is widely recognised as the central meeting point amongst young people in the city. Seen from the perspective of the ‘river’ the sidewalk in front of McDonalds has become an island of meetings and interactions … As we shift to the perspective of the ‘ballet’ we get at the eye level with the mobile subjects at the site and thus become able to actually see the gestures, gazes, and embodied negotiations and interactions that takes place ever so swiftly as people move into and out of Nytorv. Studying the ‘ballet’ it becomes clear that there are certain patterns and types of moving (tactics). These concern the nature of mobile interaction and power, and may be illustrated by the traditional ‘power of speed’ tactics as for example when cars gain predominance over bikes or pedestrians as a function of their relative ‘speed advantage’. However, more subtle interactional patterns emerge. One such example is the ‘I pretend not to have seen you’ tactic or what I term a tactic of ‘seemingly unawareness’ which is used in particular by pedestrians and cyclists. Such tactics has to do with ‘the burden of responsibility’. By this is meant that a mobile subject may deliberately give off the impression that she or he has NOT seen the follow urbanite moving into this person’s zone. The notion has been discovered elsewhere and is described in the literature by Vanderbilt with reference to Mexico City (Vanderbilt 2008:32) and also corresponds with the report from Kingwall stating that ‘running is a sign of failure’ when one performs as a pedestrian on the streets of New York (Kingwall 2008:41). Running across the street is considered ‘un-cool’ and is a bodily illustration that gives away that one has seen the ‘mobile Other’ and accepted their dominance. By adhering to the tactics of ‘deliberate ignorance’ the mobile subject puts the responsibility for stopping or diverging on the ones who have seen them. Needless to say this may be a risky tactic as people in fact might not have seen you! With reference to Schelling’s analysis if bargaining power Goffman points at this under the label of ‘avoidance of cooperative claims’ …The situation at Nytorv is highly dynamic as many cyclists and pedestrians in fact check and double check the ‘mobile Other’ a number of times and adjust accordingly (a mobilised and up-speed version of Goffman’s ‘body check’, Goffman 1972). Interestingly though, this only means that the ones that have perfected this tactic of ‘seemingly unawareness’ often comes out of the power struggle even more convincingly. I return to this particular tactic later. The perspective of the ‘ballet’ is also what makes us realise the ‘mobile withs’ and their interactional dynamics. Here the number seems to have importance. Two friends shopping perform a very different ‘ballet’ than the family or the group of youngsters out on the town. The latter often deliberately try to occupy as much space as possible to ‘claim territory’ whereas the others use a wide array of ‘sliding and evasion techniques’ to not interfere with the flow in direct bodily contact’ (Jensen 2013:145-146)

If you want to read more about my particular use of metaphor, either in studying is an analytical object or applying it as a theoretical construct I may recommend these publications: Jensen, O. B. (2007) Culture Stories: Understanding Cultural Urban Branding, Planning Theory, vol. 6(3), pp. 211-236 (seeing metaphors as analytical objects of study) and Jensen, O. B. (2010) Negotiation in Motion: Unpacking a Geography of Mobility, Space and Culture, vol. 13 (4), pp. 389-402 + Jensen, O. B. (2013) Staging Mobilities, London: Routledge (Chapter 7) (utilizing the river/ballet metaphor).

If you have followed me to this point you would probably also have noticed the rather large number of metaphors slipping into my text more or less unconsciously. Metaphors are hard to avoid, and neither should we. Perhaps because our mental faculties are organized metaphorically at the root (… ups another one!) but at least because they are the creative momentum of theorizing and contribute to the new perspectives on what we think we know so well.

… and doing so, is no small ambition for a social science of mobilities!

/Ole B. Jensen