Out of Order

Labels are used to group things: objects, places, diseases etc. But a group is foremost a reference for things in close physical proximity: five trees clustered together would be considered a group. Further to this we would say that a group of trees could be called a wood, or forest, depending on their size and configuration. This labelling action creates with it the metaphorical container object “the forest”, which is capable of having things inside or outside of it. In short, a metaphorical boundary is defined which will influence our experience and perceptions.

Groups are often made up of things that share similarities, but those similarities can vary greatly. For example, we could make a group formed of everything in the observable universe, based on the shared characteristic of existing in that universe. Or we could make a much smaller and more refined group of things based on their particular effect on humans, and call it “respiratory diseases” for example.

In any case, the label creates a metaphorical boundary where no such physical distinction exists.

There appear to be at least two metaphors that are the basis for the metaphor “group” :

  1. Similarity is closeness (physical proximity) – the more similar things are, the closer they are to one another.

  2. A group is a container object – whether the group is made up of physical things like trees, or non-physical things such as verbs.

One characteristic of groups is that things either fit inside them or they do not: a spectrum is not the same as a group.

With the metaphor “similarity is proximity”, it allows us to visualise a type of order that is non-existent. Collections of butterfly specimens in a museum for example, is an actual case in which the group can be seen together in a glass case, that is normally only metaphorical – it is the uncommon physical manifestation of common metaphor.

It seems likely that the group metaphor came from physical groupings – patches of berries, flocks of birds, mounds of rock etc. that occupied a similar space (which also happens to be a metaphorical boundary). It could be that the same idea grew to be applied to things which were less and less close physically, but remained similar visually – groups of trees, birds and berries can share both proximal and visual similarity, so it seems plausible that their grouping is based on implicit rules. I.e. which characteristic was the primary catalyst for creating the group? In the example of the butterflies, the visual (and of course genetic) aspect is the driving force. Eventually, we have things which are neither visually similar, nor physically close, but which are still grouped – the concept of grouping tangible things remained a useful habit that lent itself easily to more abstract domains. The idea of a “concept” has no physicality, and therefore only metaphorical proximity to other concepts, and yet we can easily accept the concept “rock music” as being a separate group from “classical music”.

The group of trees “yonder wood” becomes the groups of trees “oak”, “birch” and “pine”, through the concept (metaphorical group) “species”.

One interesting aspect of the example of grouping musical styles is that based on membership we infer and make generalisations about what expectations we have both of the music, and those who produce it. In this way the group metaphor constrains expectations about behaviour and character, and acts therefore as a bias.

The concept of a group/organisation is a means of understanding (which itself is about organisation) chaos, randomness and separation in terms of coherence. (This is where the fallacy of intelligent design (in conspiracy theories) comes from).

Related to the “similarity is proximity” metaphor is the metaphor “proximity is influence” / “influence is proximity”.

If we think of an archetype as representing the centre of the group, the closer the other members are to the centre, the more similar we expect them to be to the archetypal standard, and the more they are influenced by it, and have influence on it.

This is easier to understand if we go back to the example of music. Jazz that is influenced by ska will be further from the jazz epicentre, and closer to the ska group.

This way of “looking at it” gives a different impression of the nature of categories, while still using spacial orientation metaphors. Now, instead of seeing groups as highly defined and solid, they are much looser and more free-flowing, which allows for group affiliation to varying degrees and even simultaneous membership to more than a single group.

This metaphor could be seen as an intermediate between solid categorisation and entirely fluid spectralisation.

If chaos causes some kind of dissonance that can be alleviated by implementing physical order, as in the case of tidying your desk or your room , then metaphor and even language itself may have similar psychological effects by operating on the non-physical level, as opposed to creating actual groupings of objects for example.