Friday 2 September 2011

Using metaphor to talk about emotionally difficult topics

How do we talk about emotional and sometimes painful experiences? Do we address them full on and talk about them in an open and direct way? Or do we avoid talking about them altogether? Many people find such topics difficult to talk about and use linguistic strategies in order to cope with these situations.  One way is by the use of metaphor. Researchers Karmen Erjavec and Zala Volčič have been investigating the ways in which adolescent girls born of war rapes in Bosnia and Herzegovina use metaphorical language as a way of expressing their painful situations.

Studies have shown that victims of abuse often find it difficult to make sense of what has happened to them and have difficulty in telling their stories. They are often considered to be a ‘muted’ group without the means of expression to help them define their own experience. Erjavec and Volčič show how victims born of war rape use appropriate language to describe their own experiences.

They interviewed nineteen Bosnian female adolescents aged between 14 and 16 years old who were willing to tell their stories. Most lived with their mothers and all were aware of the way they had been conceived. The interviews took place in locations chosen by the girls and lasted between one and two hours. The interviewees were asked a very general open question such as 'Please tell me your life story, and share with me whatever you think is relevant' but this technique did not elicit a coherent story from the participants and so they were then asked four questions at the end of the talk which were directly connected to the study of self-presentation. These were; 1) How would you describe yourself? 2) How do you describe your situation? 3) Who are the most important and influential people in your life? How do you think they perceive you? 4) Which crucial events define your life and in what ways did these events affect you? One of the main findings of the study was that seventeen of the nineteen girls interviewed 'used metaphors as the only possible way to describe their situation' and only two of the girls did not use (only) metaphors to describe themselves, their situation and important people. The girls used the metaphors as a way of avoiding vocabulary directly associated with describing painful situations.

The researchers identified three major themes of metaphors. The first theme, called ‘I am a shooting target’, referred to the use of metaphors by girls who see themselves as being the object of attack. The metaphors were drawn from the semantic field of warfare and included terms such as ‘shooting target’, ‘to attack’, ‘traitor’, cowardly enemies’ and ‘to struggle’ to describe their life experiences. The researchers note the fact that war discourse is still socially dominant in Bosnia Herzegovina even though it is more than 14 years since the war ended.  The second theme which they label ‘I am a cancer’ refers to metaphors drawn from the semantic field of illness. They include terms such as ‘cancer’, ‘cells’, ‘malignant cells’, ‘uncontrolled division of cells’ and ‘blood’ which were used predominantly by four girls who were not publicly known to be children born of war rape. The researchers claim that ‘their descriptions revealed the way in which they internal­ized the knowledge of their situation as a kind of hidden disease’. Finally, they identify a third theme of ‘I am a fighter’ to refer to the use of metaphors by two of the interviewed girls. Drawn also from the semantic field of warfare, the researchers claim that the use of terms such as ‘a fighter’, ‘a struggle for peace’, ‘a peaceful force’, ‘a war’, ‘a hero’ and ‘a pact’ by these girls invokes positive associations and allows them to ‘claim their own status as survivors of war crimes’.

The study provides interesting insights into the linguistic strategies that speakers employ in such situations and importantly, claim the researchers, the study ‘has uncovered severe abuse of adolescents who are already victims of war crimes, and an urgent need for intervention to protect them’. They conclude by urging that coverage of the topic of adolescents born of war rape in local media and in political, educational and academic discussions should not be social taboo, ‘which only contributes to the public stigmatization of adolescents who are already the victims of abuse, injustice, discrimina­tion and ethnic hatred’.

Erjavec, K. and Volčič, Z. (2010). ‘Target’, ‘cancer’ and ‘warrior’: Exploring painful
metaphors of self-presentation used by girls born of war rape.  Discourse and Society 21(5), 524-543. doi: 10.1177/0957926510373981

This summary was written by Sue Fox

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