An interesting phenomenon arose from my experience with figurative language. It tells us a lot about the people we research, which I find very interesting.
I have come to the conclusion that in analysing a text, either quantitatively or qualitatively, a lot of valuable and useful data is thrown away by ignoring words that are used figuratively, such as metaphors, exaggerations and pictorials. These words express something about the ‘person’ in the text. This is sometimes considered unimportant, but I want to argue that this data is not unimportant, that it can add another dimension to the analysis.
There are three types of words and phrases that are particularly useful for providing colour and personality. They are metaphors, exaggerations and pictorials.
Metaphors represent the subject under discussion as something else. Although the subject is not really as described, the metaphor adds to the view of it by adding colour and depth to the description. For instance, in the phrase ‘life is a journey of discovery’ extra meaning is added to the idea of ‘life’. Life is not really a journey, it is not really a movement from one place to another, although some journeys may take place in one’s life. But describing ‘life’ as a ‘journey of discovery’ adds colour to the word ‘life’. It expresses an idea that life is movement and experience of movement and excitement. It suggests that going through one’s life is like moving from place to place experiencing different things, even if one stays in the same place. ‘Life’ is given some of the characteristics of a journey which helps us to better understand its meaning to the person using it. It can be seen that saying ‘life is a journey of discovery’ adds meaning to the word ‘life’. It increases the impact of the simple word ‘life’.
Exaggerations are the forms of adjectives and adverbs that are meant to express extreme or superior values, but are used in ordinary speech to just mean a large amount or degree. Such words as ‘countless’, ‘always’ and ‘terrific’ are found in texts. These words perform the act of emphasis rather than taking on their original meanings.
When we say that something is ‘countless’, we don’t mean literally that it can’t be counted. Rather we mean ‘a large amount of something’. When we say something is ‘terrific’ we don’t mean that it literally inspires terror. We mean that it is interesting and exciting. ‘Always’ doesn’t mean forever, it just means ‘for a long time’.
Pictorial are words that conjure up a picture in the readers’ minds.
Pictorials include such words as ‘fruitful’ which has the literal meaning of ‘producing fruit’, and which conjures up visions of trees full of apples, pears or other fruit in the reader’s mind. Obviously when ‘fruitful’ is applied to research it does not mean ‘producing apples and pears’ but that the research produces some other useful result. In other words, the word ‘fruitful’ is not used literally when describing research, even though it is used to conjure up a picture of something useful and worthwhile being produced.
Finding the Words
The best guide to which words are used figuratively is your intuition. If you feel that a word or phrase has more meaning attached to it than its meaning in the context of the text then it is a word for which you are looking.
Does the word mean more, taken literally, than it does in the text? Does it conjure up a picture in your mind? Does it express an idea that goes beyond the text? If the answer to any of these questions is “Yes”, then it is a useful word for our purposes here.
Conclusions: Why do it?
Why do it? Why look for the figurative words and phrases in a text and treat them as data?
Because the respondents are telling you something about themselves. Looking at the figurative words and phrases will tell you something about your respondents’ attitudes and conceptions. It will put the ‘person’ back into your analysis by revealing the colour and personality in the text. The person writing or speaking has put those words and phrases in the text, probably more unconsciously than consciously, to add colour to the plain words. The respondents are telling you something about themselves. They are revealing their inner thoughts and emotions. They are adding meaning to the text. That is data that you should use in your analysis rather than discarding it as merely subjective.
Use the colour and personality in the text to put the ‘person’ back into your results. This information is important and useful as it tells us a lot about the participants as people. Why not allow the people to come out in your results? It can help to make the reports of your research more useful and interesting by showing how people respond to the questions as people rather than as abstract figures on a chart.
This is a guest post by Rod Pitcher. Rod is a PhD student in Education at The Centre for Higher Education, Learning and Teaching at the Australian National University, Canberra, Australia. The focus of his study is the metaphors that researchers use when describing their research.
Rod can be contacted at Rod.Pitcher@anu.edu.au
His profile is at http://chelt.anu.edu.au/people/rod-pitcher
Follow him on Twitter @RodPitcher100