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Metaphors Matter

Some decades ago, there was an influential book that labeled academic disciplines as “tribes.” The metaphor generated offense because of its implication about savagery and unsophisticated cultures. But the authors were promoting the idea that the disciplines had unusually strong control mechanisms defining what were legitimate research questions and research methods, powers to rate publication outlets, and general influences over reward systems. Another metaphor that became popular was one of “silos,” which connoted narrow, impermeable structures of thought.

Much has happened in the decades since the book was authored. There are more academic units, programs, and fields now than before. Many of these are the result of disaggregation of disciplines. There are PhD programs that have defined new combinations of traditional disciplines. There are more research institutes on university campuses that are problem-oriented (e.g., environmental research).

Further, many disciplines permit and reward combining their traditional knowledge with other fields. As disciplines have evolved, there appears to be more acceptance of fluidity of methods and questions. Disciplines change over time in what questions are legitimized. There seems to be evidence of several disciplines taking on similar problems (e.g., decision making under uncertainty of interest to political scientists, economists, and psychologists).

In short, the metaphor of “tribes,” or of “silos,” may not be fit to the modern academic work.

I recently read a nice piece1 that suggests a different metaphor – one of an ocean. Water merges together naturally. But inside an ocean there’s variation – in temperature and salinity. Combining water differing on those attributes creates new temperatures and salinity. Some academic fields, close to one another in topic areas and methods, blend together rather fluidly. Scholars in the two fields sometimes publish in each other’s outlets.

Oceans have currents; portions move at different rates. The currents pull along adjacent portions of water. Speeds blend together. When academic fields are combined, it’s often the case that both fields are changed because of the combination.

Oceans have tides that raise and lower their levels in different areas because of external forces. Over the decades, academic fields gain and lose prominence. They become viewed as more or less important to the problems of the day.

Oceans are fed by rivers coming from land. The fresh water from diverse rivers blend into the oceans, eventually to be indistinguishable from the rest of the ocean. As new observations arise from outside academia, they are gradually absorbed inside the academy. They are mixed together with the knowledge of existing disciplines. They become part of accepted knowledge.

Well, I’m not sure how far I can push the ocean metaphor, but it has some attraction. It implies that academia is not crippled by active resistance to combining knowledge from multiple disciplines; it’s more a problem of conceptual distances among fields (just as distances across oceans). Advances from combining knowledge from multiple disciplines require an environment that encourages interactions among them, reducing the conceptual distances. Bringing together diverse approaches, as a way to bridge those distances, ought to be our focus.


Manathunga, C., and A. Brew, “Beyond Tribes and Territories New Metaphors for New Times,” Chapter 4, pp. 44-56, in Trowler, P.; M. Saunders, and V. Bamber, Tribes and Territories in the 21st Century, Routledge, 2012.

4 thoughts on “Metaphors Matter

  1. Metaphors certainly do matter, as both poetry and strategies of persuasion have known from the beginning of literacy, since the very etymology of the term implies an ability to ” carry beyond “, beyond the formal strictures of concept, with direct connection with reported human experience. Personally, I am delighted to see fluvial and oceanic metaphors come to the fore since they are often compelling in their direct appeal to our imagination in the service of deeper understanding.
    I offer the following example based on many decades initiating students to the central processes that Stage Acting sets in motion :
    The Actor, I suggest, can be imagined as standing In the middle of a bridge spanning the mid-point of a river. Turning first upstream toward the source of the river, he or she receives the energy of the theatric text and of the character, to then send the transmuted form thereof downstream to the audience lining the river banks. In turn, members of this latter will nourish what the river will spill into the ocean of aggregate mentation we call Culture, thanks to what the performance of the Actor will have inspired.

  2. Beware of making the metaphor so accurate in its portrayal of the complex system that the observer feels “lost at sea!”

    Sometimes, a look through a porthole is all that the observer can stomach.

    Roger’s positioning of the observer at a particular spot in order to anchor the metaphor within a frame of reference makes a lot of sense. Einstein would approve!

    Confirming to the concept of having form follow function, it could be helpful to have different frames of reference for different academic purposes (basic science, policy development, product invention, introductory instruction, advanced mastery, …).

  3. Also it reminds me of the philosophical and or scientific question can you put you foot in a river more than once because the river has changed? . Or the even more difficult question can you put your foot in a river even once as the river you put it in is not the same river you take it out of ? Your post reminds me of that required philosophy course freshman year at Georgetown over some 54 years ago. Great memories. Great courses to get us to think.

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