What’s Cultural About Analogical Mapping?6 min read

Analogical mapping is a cognitive process whereby a particular target is understood by analogizing from a particular source. For example, Lakoff and Johnson (1999) have observed that people often reason about love metaphorically as a journey. In a previous post I discussed some experimental evidence supporting the claim that activating a particular metaphor over another may be consequential for reasoning by encouraging certain outcomes over others (for an excellent review of this literature, see Thibodeau et al. (2017)). For a cultural sociologist, these findings may well be interesting but may seem somewhat esoteric. In this post, I make the case that analogical mapping (this term is used interchangeably with “conceptual metaphor”) is an inherently cultural phenomenon relevant for cultural analysis.

Analogical mapping is cultural in at least two senses. First, analogical mapping is cultural because knowledge of sources is learned. While many sources may be universal or near-universal because they are learned through universal experiences, others may be more idiosyncratic. For example, in this clip from Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs, sardine fisherman Tim Lockwood tries to comfort his young son with a fishing metaphor, with poor results.

The uneven distribution of source domain knowledge opens important questions for cultural analysis. For example, how do analogical mappings from rare or privileged sources affect the formation, perpetuation, or dissolution of interpersonal ties? Does analogical mapping sometimes facilitate group solidarity and boundary-making? In the sitcom Brooklyn 99, for example, the police captain Raymond Holt becomes familiar with the sitcom Sex and the City in order to quickly win the trust of a certain aficionado of the series. When meeting this person, Holt casually discloses, “I’m such a Samantha,” conveying a wealth of information about himself to his interlocutor and instantly creating rapport. In such cases, metaphorical usage may convey worlds of meaning because the chosen source domain suggests certain background experiences.


Cultural analysts might also investigate if/how the uneven distribution of source domain knowledge contributes to inequality. It is possible, for example, that there are certain metaphors whose meaning is clear among certain classes because of a shared familiarity with the source domain, but which might be obscure to those in other classes. If these metaphors are located at crucial points, they could be consequential for the meting out of rewards.

Second, analogical mapping is cultural because the mapping of a particular source to a particular target is learned, such that a person may be predisposed to a particular source-target mapping over another when a particular situation arises. These metaphorical predispositions can have far-reaching consequences. For example, Johnson (1987) argues that a medical revolution was brought about by changing the metaphor used for thinking about the body. The old metaphor, which he calls THE BODY IS A MACHINE, structured medical diagnosis and practice through its various entailments. If the body is a machine, then “the body consists of distinct, though interconnected parts… breakdowns occur at specific points or junctures in the mechanism… diagnosis requires that we locate these malfunctioning units” and “repair (treatment) may involve replacement, mending, alteration of parts, and so forth.” Johnson elaborates: “The key point in all of this is that the BODY AS MACHINE metaphor was not merely an isolated belief; rather, it was a massive experiential structuring that involved values, interests, goals, practices, and theorizing. What we see is that such metaphorical structurings of experience have very definite systematically related entailments” (p. 130).

The key cultural revolution in medical practice entailed developing a new metaphor, which Johnson calls THE BODY IS A HOMEOSTATIC ORGANISM. The medical researcher Hans Selye developed this new metaphor in response to the machine model’s inability to explain why different stressors triggered the same bodily reaction. Following the old model, symptoms were specific and traceable to particular breakdowns, and treatment entailed localized repairing of the faulty part(s). Within the HOMEOSTATIC metaphor, however, disease was understood as “not just suffering, but a fight to maintain the homeostatic balance of our tissues, despite damage” (p. 134). For more examples of shared mappings and their consequences, see Shore (1996) on foundational schemas.

Recognition of these two cultural dimensions of analogical mapping leads to an important theoretical observation: cultural variation can result from mapping universal building blocks (i.e. universally shared knowledge of sources) differentially to particular targets. There is a difference between not being able to understand a metaphor because you are not familiar with the source, and finding a novel metaphor surprising or unusual, but perfectly understandable. Much of what may count as cultural variation in conceptual thought may result from different mappings from the same universal stock of sources (i.e. image schemas), rather than differential mapping rooted in idiosyncratic, group-specific sources. It is an empirical question, but we need not assume that because people are using different sources, they are indecipherable to one another.

In sum, analogical mapping is not just a cognitive process; it is inescapably cultural. Source knowledge and source-target mappings are socially learned, and because of this, we have reason to believe that in at least some cases, analogical mapping is consequential for the organization of social life.


Johnson, Mark. 1987. The Body in the Mind: The Bodily Basis of Meaning, Imagination, and Reason. University of Chicago Press.

Lakoff, George and Mark Johnson. 1999. Philosophy In The Flesh. Basic Books.

Shore, Bradd. 1996. Culture in Mind: Cognition, Culture, and the Problem of Meaning. Oxford University Press.

Thibodeau, Paul H., Rose K. Hendricks, and Lera Boroditsky. 2017. “How Linguistic Metaphor Scaffolds Reasoning.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences 21(11):852–63.

One comment

  1. Pingback: Culture, Cognition and “Socialization” – Culture, Cognition, and Action (culturecog)

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