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Is it time to move on from Stats and Numbers to Metaphor and Narrative?

Duncan Green's picture

Post Brexit and US elections, I’ve been doing some thinking about how we talk to people. It seems to me that, along with much of the aid and development sector, and quite a few other social change movements, we have been in thrall to the power of numbers and evidence. Everyone is a policy wonk these days.

The trouble is, as this year’s political events have shown, we are in a world of public debate that if not exactly post-truth (truth means different things to different people), feels very post-evidence or post-fact. Actually I think it’s probably always been like that, but people were more willing in the past to defer to experts and their alien language. The death of deference (good thing) means they are now no longer willing to do so (not so sure).

So what does this mean for those of us working on progressive social change? I think we need to at least partly put aside our preference for number crunching and lists of policy recommendations, and make greater use of metaphors or narratives instead.

This goes back to the long-standing discussions on framing – what kind of emotions are we trying to evoke? What is the underlying picture of the world? I would say positive emotions like trust, love, pride and self-reliance, laced with anger at injustice and discrimination.

What kind of narrative or metaphor could capture that? As an example, we could do worse than London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s soundbite that we should be building bridges not walls. That seems to conjure up exactly the right blend of emotions – optimism in the face of a threat.

So what could a ‘bridges not walls’ campaign cover? Off the top of my head:

  • Bridges between communities and nations (anti-racism, better treatment of migrants, fair trade agreements)
  • Bridges across cyber communities (efforts to span the filter bubbles that divide us – are there apps yet that bring quality analysis from other political/social perspectives into your feeds? If not, someone should design one – here’s some good suggestions for Facebook)
  • Bridges between rich and poor (social mobility, fair taxation)
  • Bridges between present and future (education, early years nutrition, climate change, environmental sustainability)

Oxfam’s Head of Global External Affairs, Katy Wright, had some good (if slightly painful) questions on where my much-loved ‘Killer Facts’ fit into this. ‘Don’t you think “killer facts” are, in a way, part of that post truth landscape?  Like all statistics they only tell part of the picture, they are designed to evoke emotions, to give you social currency when you pass them off as your own down the pub, and they’re pretty black and white. The problem with them is that they don’t inspire action or a belief that things can change.’

What do you think? What other overarching (sorry, bridges again) metaphors might get us away from the wasteland of stats and numbers that we have wandered into, and reconnect with a wider public?

Update: Lots of people agreeing with this on twitter, so help me out here – what other metaphors and narratives (in addition to bridges v walls) should we be looking at?

This post originally appeared on "From Poverty to Power."

Photo by Judy van der Velden via Flickr.

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