The Metaphor is not the Concept

Over the course of this blog, we’ll be talking quite a bit about social theories and theory making. These theories have some similarities to scientific theories, but also some differences, so it’s worth stepping back for a moment and contemplating them. In particular, I think it’s productive to reinforce the idea that the theory is not the concept.

What is a theory? In these circles, in these uses, a theory is similar to scientific theory. It is a model used to discuss a concept or body of facts. Unlike scientific theories, social and critical theories reach their best when they explain a large body of observations and are contradicted by no repeatable, empirical observations, but they remain “theories” when they have not yet reached this pinnacle. Science has a separate category, hypotheses, for unconfirmed but educated speculations whose merits are debated in an academic community. Social critics? Not so much.


In the messy lives of human beings, thoughts and behaviors are not merely occasionally, but are typically overdetermined. This means that while it is possible to create simplified models in social studies in the same way it is possible to create simplified models in physics, the physicist has an advantage in knowing which factors must be constrained in order for the model to hold true. F=MA? Sure, so long as mass does exceed a certain value, gravity doesn’t exceed a certain value, velocity doesn’t exceed a certain value, and measurement doesn’t exceed a certain precision. Possession and display of art = greater social standing? Well, okay, except that might not hold true always. For instance, in certain Jewish subcultures, you would lose social standing by choosing to possess & display certain sculptures. But I don’t know all the complicated factors that might cause exceptions to the rule. I don’t get to list a finite, relatively small number of factors and have confidence that otherwise my equation holds.

Thus our social theories have the advantage and disadvantage of being able to survive in the face of evidence that would appear to refute it. This is true for a physicist’s hypothesis as well, to a degree: we still teach Newton, after all. The difference is that we have a greater degree of both confidence in and clarity about when conditions exist that will cause a hypothesis to fail. The net result is that while social theories and scientific theories are all simplifications, social theories, because they deal with the overdetermined phenomena of thoughts and behaviors, will nearly always be undersimplifications.

While the weaknesses of physicists’ hypothesizing is often satirized, physicists amongst themselves do not have to assume that they are computing a solution for a spherical cow in a vacuum in order to solve the problems that they do: non-spherical rockets send non-spherical payloads through two different atmospheres and a couple hundred million kilometers of low-density charged particles to land within a couple city block-lengths of a chosen point on Mars. They make simplifying assumptions to teach or communicate about a topic in physics, with the luxury of having lessons on gravity entirely separate from lesson on magnetism.

Social theorists don’t have the luxury of discussing gender without the influence of, say, religion, because all of these forces interact, none is separate. If we wish to discuss race at all, we have to discuss it in the context of wealth and government and (sub-)urbanization. Thus in creating models that help to discuss or explain colonization, our model-creators inevitably include situations dramatically affected by language. While it might be nice, for purposes of discussion, to simplify things further, to make it possible to exclude all situations that involve language, it simply is not possible to do so and yet have any useful body of thoughts or behaviors left to discuss or explain.

And so, traveling from different directions, social theorists and scientific theorists arrive at the same conclusion: a metaphor is not merely to keep your spherical cows in. We create models that are not reality in order to teach, to learn and to discuss reality. As we move forward, we must keep this in mind: our models are not material facts and our metaphors are not the concepts we are attempting to communicate. If they were, they wouldn’t be metaphors.





  1. janicot says

    I don’t know what to say except that I agree with you. I can’t remember who said that everything in physics is a model. Some of the models just happen to be useful.
    As a non-philosopher’s comment — I suspect that social constructs are not all that different. We create models and theories to try to make sense of situations that for whatever reason (too complex or whatever) we aren’t confident that we understand or that we’re unable to explain reasonably.
    I was recently reading a summary of the HANDY (Human and nature dynamics) study where they tried to use a predator-prey model with ‘Elites’ and ‘Workers’ to predict the survivability of various societies. It struck me that on the one hand their idea was fascinating — but on the other hand making useful predictions about the whole world based on a handful of differential equations is by necessity so vague as to be pretty much useless.
    For me, it all comes down to picking your battles. The whole game is to structure your models with relevant criteria while excluding distracting ‘criteria’. Will you be able to reach the right level of complexity to create useful models?
    I think you may have the background and point-of-view to provide some useful and interesting ideas and maybe even start a few initiatives. Good Luck.

  2. says

    I had to look up “overdetermined”, so if you intended a deeper meaning than I’d find in a dictionary, you might consider elaborating.

    Based on my experience in physics, the meaning of “theory” in practice isn’t quite the same as commonly given definitions. “Theory” is usually contrasted with “experiment”, referring to different types of scientific work, rather than referring to the strength of the work. As a result, we might refer to something as a theory even if it we consider it to be ill-conceived or refuted by the evidence. It’s still not the same as a hypothesis, which is a specific, narrow proposition.

    As an experimentalist, I encounter a lot of theories which are extremely simplified but still far too complicated for me to understand. So I deeply appreciate the value of a simple model even as I understand that it is not real.

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