Metaphor, Across Data Sets and Methodologies


In Fall 2015, Social Science Matrix will launch a new seminar focused on “metaphor studies,” a field that traces its modern origins to the UC Berkeley campus in 1980, when George Lakoff and Mark Johnson published Metaphors We Live By, thereby launching a wave of interdisciplinary studies on metaphor, language and cognition.

“We know a lot more about what metaphor is—as a human cognitive capacity—and how it is manifested socially and linguistically, than we did 20 years ago,” the seminar’s organizers explain in their proposal. “Metaphor studies have in the last couple of decades become a hot topic in a wide range of disciplines, from corpus linguistics to lab psychology to political science to natural language processing to cross-cultural cognitive and linguistic comparison, and more recently beyond language to co-speech gesture and visual metaphor.”

“The Berkeley campus has unique potential to be the place where these varied strands of research come back together,” the organizers note. “One can now find sessions on metaphor at conferences on linguistics, computer science, cognitive science, psychology, education, and even mathematics. But those of us around in 1980 could never have foreseen the wealth of knowledge, ideas, questions and research methods concerning metaphor which are currently gathered on the Berkeley campus.”

Among the questions that will be considered in this seminar: How is it that the human mind is capable of very diverse metaphoric structures, and yet manifests strong preferences about metaphoric patterns as well? How is metaphoric language use linked to bodily experience and to culture? What are the different political uses of metaphoric framing, and what are the effects of differing metaphors on interpretation of texts?

Among the seminar participants are Eve Sweetser, Professor of Linguistics who is coordinator of the Berkeley Gesture and Multimodality Group, as well as co-leader of the MetaNet Project, a research program funded by IARPA to build a structured database of metaphors about economics and government; Mahesh Srinivasan, who heads the Language and Cognitive Development Lab at UC Berkeley, and studies how metaphor sheds light into the thinking of children, depressed individuals, and others; and Teenie Matlock, from UC Merced, who focuses on metaphor in language processing and political discourse, and who founded the Center for Climate Communications, which examines the use and understanding of language about climate issues. Members of UC Berkeley's International Computer Science Institute in Berkeley will also be involved.

“As a group, we feel that we are uniquely positioned to help our various fields move forward in the study of metaphor…and to help the overall study of metaphor move forward," they write. "Social Science research inevitably involves careful analysis of language, and of its social effects. And particularly when it comes to 'abstract' social issues and entities (law, government, poverty, rights), the language is inevitably metaphoric. The entire social science world would profit from clearer understanding of the relevance and nature of the metaphors used in our data."

The seminar group's goal is to organize a year-end conference, and produce a published volume. “Most social science research deals with metaphor as if it were something transparent, and not requiring analysis in itself,” the proposal explains. “It does not recognize the deep impact of metaphoric structure on human cognition and culture. This volume would be aiming to change that, and bring metaphor systematically into social science research."