Volume 1, No. 1, Art. 20 – January 2000

Notes Towards the Analysis of Metaphor

Rudolf Schmitt

Abstract: G. LAKOFF and M. JOHNSON's theory of cognitive linguistics and their definition of metaphor and metaphorical concepts have led to a variety of qualitative approaches whose common aim is to reconstruct metaphorical concepts and metaphorical reasoning in everyday language. Targets of these approaches were cross-cultural, cultural, subcultural, individual matters and metaphoric interaction. To illustrate this, two different strategies for a systematic procedure are briefly outlined.

Key words:

1. Yet Another Method?

2. Relevance to Social Sciences

3. Matters of (Non-) Method

4. Too Early for a Conclusion






1. Yet Another Method?

For almost all qualitative methods of research, language is at the same time both subject and medium. It is used above all as a material referring to content outside language—patterns of relationships, latent structures of meaning, communicative strategies etc. The fact that, in this process, structures immanent to language and their relevance are rarely made an issue and that debates from the discipline of linguistics—with the exception of conversation analysis—are hardly taken heed of, results perhaps from the division of labour within our specialised academic world. In particular there is a lack of theories capable of bridging the gap between disciplines. Such a theory was, however, formulated by LAKOFF and JOHNSON (1980, LAKOFF 1987, JOHNSON 1987) in the overall framework of a "cognitive linguistics". Their theory of metaphor has inspired a variety of approaches to the analysis of metaphor as a qualitative research procedure. [1]

LAKOFF and JOHNSON propose a comprehensive concept of metaphor which enables the reconstruction of cognitive strategies of action. We all know, for example, the image whereby problems are portrayed as a weight which "oppresses"1) a person. Thus in one interview, unemployment is stated to have "really weighed down on" ("ganz schön belastet") an interviewee. Or we find, as part of a philosophy of life, the formulation "Everybody has to shoulder his burden" ("Jeder hat sein Päckel zu tragen"). The corresponding moods are encoded as a metaphorical low: "to collapse, fall away" ("versacken"), "to be at rock-bottom" ("am Boden sein"), "to fall into a pit" ("in ein Loch fallen"). On the other hand, moods felt to be positive are described in terms of geographic height: to be "high" ("high"), "exulting to the heavens" ("himmelhoch jauchzend"), to be "on top of the world"/"on top of things" ("obenauf sein"). This metaphoric pattern is matched by one model of psycho-social help: helpers are said to retrieve the persons concerned from the depths, to save them from "a fall" ("Absturz"), or to "bolster" ("stützen") them, "support" ("unterstützen") them, "get them on their feet again" ("aufrichten"), or "build them up again" ("aufbauen"). Such metaphors, however, can also, somewhat confusingly, be found also in interviews concerning day-to-day use of alcohol: after drinking alcohol, "diverse problems are ... no longer so weighty" ("gewichtig"), one can "have less trouble getting into conversation with people" ("man kommt mit Leuten leichter ins Gespräch"), "things are simply less burdensome" ("es war einfach unbeschwerter"), and "it lifts the mood" ("das hebt die Stimmung"). We can formulate this metaphorical idea in the following way: "Being drunk makes the heavy things of life less weighty". Professional help and the consolation of the psyche by means of alcohol are united by the same, culturally typical metaphorical scheme of things—"GOOD IS UP" (LAKOFF & JOHNSON 1980, S.22). [2]

This example allows one to clarify the following assumptions of LAKOFF and JOHNSON:

2. Relevance to Social Sciences

The relevance of analyses of metaphor can be discussed on a variety of levels:

3. Matters of (Non-) Method

The above-mentioned analyses of metaphor reveal varying degrees of systematisation. For many linguistic studies, the systematic demands of qualitative research are an unknown factor; and equally in qualitative research one can often encounter an unsystematic emphasis on individual metaphors, which results in their being over-interpreted. Above all, the literature on the therapeutic use of metaphor reveals major conceptual heterogeneity. [5]

A systematic analysis of metaphor should be able to provide:

Currently, two systematic ways of implementing metaphor analysis are emerging: [7]

The above-mentioned BUCHHOLZ and von KLEIST (1995) employ a mixture of ethno-methodological and psychoanalytic procedures in the analysis of metaphors. Their attention to the sequentiality of speech utterance displays its merits in the above-cited analysis of therapeutic interactions. They eschew an overall analysis of all metaphors in a text with the attendant danger of the over-interpretation or over-hasty reconstruction of individual metaphors. [8]

A systematic analysis of all metaphors can be found in the procedure proposed by the author (SCHMITT 1997), where a rule-based and step-by-step approach is used to investigate a variety of text sources and thus not only interviews. The unwillingness to analyse sequential patterns means that this procedure appears of only limited use for the analysis of interaction. In this method, the limitations immanent to metaphor analysis (e.g. the non-registration of concrete, non-metaphorical information) show themselves more clearly in their pure form and suggest the desirability—depending on the particular task involved—of a triangulation with other methods of research. The procedure can be divided into five steps:

4. Too Early for a Conclusion

The development of a method or of methods of metaphor analysis has yet to be concluded—indeed, the discussion as to the scope and academic deployability of its results has hardly begun. [10]


1) For interview quotations see SCHMITT (1995, 1999b). <back>


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Schmitt, Rudolf (2000). Notes Towards the Analysis of Metaphor [10 paragraphs]. Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 1(1), Art. 20, http://nbn-resolving.de/urn:nbn:de:0114-fqs0001206.

Revised 3/2007

Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research (FQS)

ISSN 1438-5627

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