Editor’s Note: This article was written by former ADV author and editor-in-chief Iva Kopraleva.
Given the fact that I have been a political science student for five years now, certain repetitions in the study material are to be expected. Nevertheless, I could not help but notice that sometimes a metaphor is used so often to illustrate a specific idea that the two have become practically synonymous. Here are the five most striking examples I have uncovered during my studies.
1. The black swan
To be fair, the first metaphor is not restricted to political science students. One can hardly imagine a Philosophy of Science course without the professor explaining that only one black swan is needed to falsify the statement that “All swans are white”. How else are students supposed to grasp the problems of induction, anyway? Nassim Taleb takes the Black Swan metaphor to a whole new level. He managed to turn the stunning discovery of the black bird into a powerful analytical device through which he explains his concept of probability. As a result, in the minds of many political science students the black swan is equivalent to an unpredictable event with major consequences. Whatever happened to birds just being birds?
2. The billiard ball
Every student with rudimentary understanding of international relations has, at least once, encountered the idea that states are like billiard balls. This reflects the realists’ assumption that states are unitary actors and, as a consequence, their internal politics are irrelevant to their behaviour in the international scene. This idea resembles significantly another extremely popular metaphor – that the state represents a black box. Nevertheless, the billiard ball metaphor has the added value of allowing us to study the interactions between the actors as they smash into each other (metaphorically or not). Unfortunately, as all billiard balls are normally the same size, the comparison doesn’t really account for the uneven distribution of power in the international system. Also, it is not entirely clear what happens if you actually pot a ball.
3. The prisoners’ dilemma
This concept is clearly derived from game theory and refers to a famous collective action problem. Two prisoners are arrested for the same crime and interrogated separately. Each prisoner is offered a deal according to which whoever betrays their partner gets a reduced sentence. The catch is that if both keep silent, both will be released. On the other hand, if both of them betray each other, both get the full sentence. Game theory stipulates that although the rational action for a person in this situation would be to betray the other, when both prisoners act rationally this leads to a suboptimal outcome, thus the dilemma. One can imagine a number of narratives that would fit this situation and illustrate the point equally well. Nevertheless, the story of the prisoners has become so synonymous with this particular collective action problem that it is almost impossible to separate the two anymore.
4. It is like riding a bicycle
Walter Hallstein, the first president of the European Commission, once claimed that European integration is like riding a bicycle. The idea behind this statement is that you either pedal and keep your balance in order to move forward, or you fall down. This metaphor has been used numerous times ever since by both scholars and EU officials to describe the process of regional integration. In theoretical terms, neofunctionalism fits best into the ‘bicycle’ explanation since it predicts constant move forward through spill-overs. The proponents of other integration theories might (and most often do) disagree with this idea but, interestingly enough, they also use the bicycle metaphor in order to explain what exactly they are disagreeing with. In conclusion, having spent a year in the Netherlands, I associate the bicycles with a lot of things (including furniture transportation, for example) but European integration is definitely amongst my first thoughts.
5. The garbage can
The garbage can theory is a model of organizational choice created by Michel Cohen, James March and Johan Olsen in the early 1970s. The main idea is that organizations which experience high levels of uncertainty operate in organized anarchy. These organizations are characterized by problematic preferences, unclear technology regarding cause-effect relationships, and turnover of participants. As a result of the uncertainty the problems, solutions, participants and choice opportunities are all stirred together in a garbage can and, paradoxically, solutions can be proposed without the existence of a problem, choices can be made without solving problems, problems can persist without being solved and finally, some problems are in fact solved. The theoretical model is impressively elaborate and an excellent analytical framework. On the other hand, it is unclear why all these elements needed to be placed in a garbage can. Also, the model presupposes that the garbage can is never empty, with all the problems and solutions inside, but there is always room for more.
In conclusion, political science metaphors, although not always accurate, do help us grasp some seemingly complex ideas. More importantly, when an explanation is offered in the form of a metaphor, it is easier to remember. On the other hand, it is interesting how some of these metaphors have become so clearly associated with the idea they are trying to explain that at some point it becomes hard for the two to be decoupled. Can you think of other political science metaphors? Feel free to share them with us in the comment section.