Thursday, March 8, 2012

Metaphors of Buying and Owning

Over the past weekend, I attended a conference focused on increasing undergraduate access to and participation in research. The topic was interesting and worthwhile, though I was repeatedly struck by the sort of language used to positively connote the benefits to students participating in research. Repeatedly, presenters spoke of community college faculty and administration needing to “buy in” to supporting undergraduate research. In another vein, speakers discussed the benefits of students gaining a sense of “ownership” of research. Metaphors of private property and consumerism were fully visible.


My thinking quickly went back to Metaphors We Live By, by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. In that book, they provide a detailed examination of how metaphors structure much of human communication, providing many specific examples along the way. They argue that metaphor does not only add rhetorical flourish, but is fundamental to human existence,

metaphor is pervasive in everyday life, not just in language but in thought and action...(if) our conceptual system is largely metaphorical, then they way we think, what we experience, and what we do every day is very much a matter of metaphor [Lakoff and Johnson 2003:3]

In the first two chapters, they begin with the familiar use of metaphors of war to describe arguments and money to describe time. Again, such metaphors don’t simply spice up language but are at the core of human communication and experience, “the essence of metaphor is understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another” (Lakoff and Johnson 2003:5).

Returning to the conference that reminded me of the centrality of metaphor, the two examples--”ownership” and “buy in”--both are clearly metaphors drawing on qualities of a consumer economy. Both terms can be thought to describe two of the most important relationships in such an economy. The primary social relationship is that when one “buys” a product or service from another. “Ownership” refers both to a relationship with a thing and by extension many relationships to all other people in a society. The classic definition of ownership being the legitimate right to deny all others use of a particular thing or resource. In that way, ownership defines an owner’s relationships with all others.

So, in their primary usage, both terms refer to fundamental kinds of relationships central to the working of a market and private-ownership based economy. I’m not going into it here, but I and many other anthropologists/social scientists have some reservations, to put it absurdly lightly, about the basic human fairness inherent to such a system.

However, their metaphorical use during the conference was clearly to communicate a highly positive meaning. To “buy in” to an idea means to fully commit and support an idea. To have a sense of “ownership” of a research project means to be fully invested (ahhh! I can’t get away from it) or take great care with and put effort into a project.  Both are incredibly positively charged...to engage in a relationship akin to an economic one is the apex of commitment and engagement.

In retrospect, I’m not really all that surprised that such metaphors are used to produce those meanings. It’s another example of how fully embedded a specific economic ideology is into many other kinds of discourse.

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