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Metaphors in peacebuilding: the need to take good care with our language

September 21, 2014

We use metaphor in language all the time, usually without noticing. That is the nature of language. But it brings risks of misdiagnosis and ineffective solutions in peacebuilding.

In the past I have blogged about the need for clarity in the analysis and practice of peacebuilding – and in other dimensions of activism for social change. Politicians can perhaps be excused being vague, as they often need to maintain a broad church, and peacebuilders at times need to keep some of their analysis to themselves, to retain their licence to operate. But both should surely be as accurate and precise as possible in the language of their analysis. Unfortunately this is not always the case, which brings risks of misdiagnosis. This blog post explores this issue.

But first, an amateur detour into linguistics. Back in the 1970s, Julian Jaynes published his fascinating The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, in which he proposed that for physiological reasons, humans did not develop a concept of self until around 2000-1500 BC. No doubt this has since been overtaken, and perhaps undermined, by later scholarship, but Jaynes’s thesis remains interesting. Not least in the way he calls Homer as a witness in support of his argument.

What I also found interesting in the book was his notion that at heart, almost all language is metaphor. He explained this by suggesting that the coining of new terms is therefore usually done with reference to existing words and terms, hence is by definition metaphorical. For example, if one already has the word “arm” for the human organ, one can use it to describe the (new) concept of an inlet in a lake; or one can use the existing term “island” in describing anything which is isolated (oops, I did it again!). Looking back at this and the previous paragraph simply reinforces the idea, from “detour”, through “overtaken”, “undermined”, “support”, “found”, “coining”, right through to “looking back” and “reinforces”….

Luckily for poets, metaphor is ubiquitous in everyday language. It follows, therefore, that as the terms of art evolve for specialised ideas and disciplines, they tend to borrow from existing usage. For example governance as a political concept was first described in terms of steering the ship of state – hence derived from the latin gubernator, or helmsman; and “elasticity” as an abstract economic concept is clearly rooted in a physical idea.

Bricklaying for peace?

I mention this here because it explains the inevitability of using pre-existing terms, hence concepts, in defining the terms of art for peacebuilding. The word peacebuilding itself is an example, and one which nicely shows the dangers, since “building” can straight away give the incorrect impression that peace can be constructed according to a pre-ordained blueprint. In reality, peace is an outcome of iterative, indirect, often meandering processes which defy linear models of cause and effect. Translation of the term into French serves to emphasise the problem: since construction in French does not carry the same metaphorical usage as ‘building’ in English, the term is often translated as consolidation de la paix, which brings new problems, as consolidation with its connotations of a mission already half-accomplished, implies a less complex and ambitious project than what is usually needed for sustainable peace to emerge.

Building is also problematic in other usage in the field. Resilience is a popularly used term these days, to describe the ability of polities, states, communities, businesses, organisations, cultures and systems to respond to and survive political, economic, social and environmental stress. It’s an apt metaphor, evoking elasticity and responsiveness, as opposed to brittleness and fragility. The difficulty comes when we rightly consider how to reduce fragility and increase resilience, and define this as “building resilience”: this mixing of metaphors may wrongly imply that we have tools (as a builder has) with which to add more resilience to a situation, just as we might add on a room to a house. Resilience is a function of the complex interplay between many factors, endogenous and external (human and social capital and other assets, the quality of governance, the nature of relationships, the openness of the economy, the degree of gender equality, and so on). So while it certainly can and does increase, this happens through relatively long-term processes which need to be teased, cajoled, enabled and promoted, rather than “built”. The idea of statebuilding is similarly problematic, as it tends to focus minds on the aspects of an effective state which can be constructed (technical capacity, physical infrastructure and systems) at the expense of equally important aspects such as civic engagement, leadership, ethics, and the culture of transparency and accountability – elements which need to evolve, and require the right circumstances in which to do so.

Lines, levels, scope – and lifting

As agents of social change we rely on metaphor to convert abstract ideas into a picture we can see and in which we can “intervene” – posit our agency. For example, we talk of “progress”, which derives from the idea of physical movement from A towards B. And the linearity of this image makes it very hard to avoid falling into the trap of seeing societal change in simple, linear form – even among those who know that is not how societal improvement processes occur. I see this problem repeated quite often in other metaphorical usage in the peacebuilding field.

It is very common, for example, for strategic analysts to examine a particular peacebuilding issue  from different perspectives. In doing so, they frequently speak of the “community level” and “national level”. This is fine insofar as what they actually mean is “as seen from grassroots level” and “as seen from the national capital/government”. Level is clearly a term – a metaphor – of vertical differentiation. But this is usually insufficient, and in fact the difference they ought to be considering is often one not of level but of scope, in which they need to understand their issue as seen from different perspectives across the community, or across the nation.

To illustrate, let’s imagine an analysis of land tenure. The analyst’s aim is to identify the conflicts associated with land, and possible solutions. By speaking of the “community level”, s/he is potentially missing some of the important differences of interest and perception which exist within local communities, in which herder-farmer, male-female, landed-landless, old-young and wealthy-poor distinctions will play an important role. And by using “national level” – implying the state and central government – s/he may miss some of the opportunities for linking issues and finding solutions between different communities within the country.

And finally, one more example which is a bête noire of mine. Government and non-governmental agencies around the world love to talk of “lifting people out of poverty”. It’s easy to see why, as it emphasises the agency of the lifter, not the lifted, and thus serves as a reminder that we should support whoever is doing the lifting. But it is completely misleading as it implies people can be dropped back into poverty at any time, and that poor people play no role in the process. In other words, the change risks being unsustainable. If improved income, wealth, living standards, justice, security and a greater degree of choice and freedom is the antidote to poverty, then presumably these goods must be accrued gradually by individuals and households at least partly by virtue of their own efforts, within a national and community policy framework which supports and enables them to do so. This is a very different picture from lifting them up, and is thus more likely to allow for the design of effective programmes.


None of this is to deny the power of aptly-chosen metaphors in conveying analysis. Perusal of the executive summary of a recent International Alert report revealed we deployed lenses, fragility, silos, shadows, nexuses, targets, rafts, networks, triggers, roots, joined-up responses and many other images usefully to get the point across well. But it is because metaphor is so powerful that we have to take extra care in choosing the right images, otherwise we inadvertently draw misleading charts on which to base our navigation of peacebuilding processes.


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