Sociological Metaphors for the Public

Social science and philosophy have generated a vast number of other metaphorical descriptions of the public, rooted in different and often scientific perspectives on systematicity and relation. These are technologies in the broad sense that they enable different kinds of questions to be asked. An account of these would include the public as:

A Physical System or Mass: This metaphor underwrites work in mass commu- nications and allows one to ask questions like “What is the impact of a given mes- sage on an audience?” M a s s communications research arguably starts with Harold Lasswell’s work on propaganda in World War I (Lasswell, 1927).

A Thermodynamic System: In the 1940s Robert Merton and Paul Lazarsfeld advanced a program of research in which social structures were seen to be stable or unstable, in equilibrium or disequilibrium, according to group dynamics and the media messages that influence the members of a group. The metaphor of the public as a thermodynamic system engenders questions about the production and breakdown of social order. Thermodynamics, equilibrium, and entropy as tropes all become even more influential with the introduction of information theory (Shannon & Weaver, 1949).

An Ecology: Earlier in the century Robert Ezra Park and E. W. Burgess (1921) founded a discipline they called “human ecology” to explain how relationships between individuals are governed by a struggle for territory that results in symbi- otic relations of unplanned competitive cooperation.

An Organism: A metaphor articulated by Herbert Spencer (1883–1890) in the mid- dle of the 19th century, with descendents in the work of Marshall McLuhan (1994), who wrote of railways and telephone lines as the nervous system and/or vascular system of society. McLuhan allowed one to see how the public might become a radically different animal with the introduction of new media technologies.

A Network: In his review of contemporary French social science, François Dosse describes how social bonds and the weaving together of subjects and objects is currently conceptualized as a set of “sociotechnical networks” (Dosse, 1998, p. 96). Many French social scientists and philosophers have employed this metaphor (e.g., Bruno Latour, Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guarttari). In North American social sci- ence, quantitatively oriented sociologists of social network theory (e.g., Harrison White, Stanley Wasserman, Barry Wellman) work with an analogous vocabulary.

Other metaphors in circulation include the public as (ir)rational individual, pub- lic as information processor, public as market, public as evolving species, and so forth (see Mattelart & Mattelart, 1998). Our idea of the public is shaped by dif- ferent configurations of these metaphors, which have varying degrees of cur- rency in contemporary discourse (even if some have fallen out of favor within the social sciences). They remain relatively weak metaphors, however, until they couple with technologies of representation that can extend their reach.


Metaphors are an important means of understanding abstract concepts.

Folksonomies: metaphors modeling

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Sociology (0.959051): dbpedia | freebase | opencyc
Social sciences (0.484816): dbpedia | opencyc
Social network (0.468082): dbpedia | freebase | yago
Information science (0.397856): dbpedia | freebase | opencyc
Psychology (0.382405): dbpedia | freebase | opencyc
Barry Wellman (0.379656): dbpedia | freebase | yago
Quantitative research (0.371130): dbpedia | freebase | yago
Anthropology (0.368925): dbpedia | freebase | opencyc

 Picturing the Public
Books, Brochures, and Chapters>Book Chapter:  Sack, Warren (2007), Picturing the Public, Retrieved on 2013-08-05
Folksonomies: sociology