And the Innovation is? More Controls…..

One of the great anxieties about Safety is the lack of control. If there was a favourite word for the safety industry, this would be it – controls.

imageThis is what attracts Safety to the language of numerics and mechanistic worldviews. Even when it transfers to an interest to neuroscience, psychology and sociology it sustains the same worldview. Even when Safety proposes that it is doing something ‘different’ it still defines itself in metaphors of control. It does this by maintaining the myths of: complexity, performance measures, computing, solutions, engineering resilience, ‘narrative as data’ and behavioural economics and omitting language and metaphorical concepts of: wickedity, fallibility, ecologies, myth, mystery, paradox, transdisciplinarity, knowledge cultures and uncertainty. What we end up with is: more and new systems, language masked as change, culture as data and humans as components in systems.

Scientific theory is constructed by scientists, by fallible human beings who use the tools of the embodied human mind to articulate meaning. One of the primary tools used is that of the conceptual metaphor. The use of metaphor is not isolated but situated in context. Our context and culture not only generate the metaphors we use but our metaphors give meaning to the context we have constructed. We don’t have a choice about thinking and speaking metaphorically. It is so deeply embedded in all human experience that we cannot control the way we communicate metaphorically (Lakoff and Johnson, (1980) Metaphors We Live By). It is simply how humans live. So, metaphor becomes a wonderful litmus test for worldviews.

Language and experience are neither objective nor neutral. They are informed and influenced by our worldview. Our metaphors therefore present our worldview and validate our experience. Similarly, our metaphors validate and create our worldview. So it is not surprising that the STEM worldview seeks engineering and scientific metaphors to explain how they construct meaning (semiosis). However, it is rare to find a scientist who understands that the use of metaphor constructs meaning. The STEM worldview tends to hold to the idea that language and meaning are objective.

Research by Mitchell and Carew (Metaphors used by some engineering academics in Australia for understanding and explaining sustainability; Environmental Education Research, Vol 12, No.2, April 2006) demonstrates that metaphors serve as mental models for articulating meaning in science. The research shows that the common metaphors for environmental scientists are: sustainability as ‘weaving’, ‘guarding’ and, ‘trading’. Similarly in the safety industry the predominance of metaphor is anchored to ‘controls’, ‘engineering’ and ‘regulation’. These are what Ellul (The Technological Society) calls the discourse of ‘technique’.

We first learned about the subjectivities of science from Feyerbend (Against Method), Law (After Method), Kuhn (The Structure of Scientific revolutions) and others. We learned some time ago about the biases of positivism and empiricism in STEM thinking. Such thinking is fine but it isn’t holistic. There are other knowledge cultures that offer much better diversity for the problems safety faces. And this is not about ‘right and wrong’ views but rather considering what transdisciplinarity might offer the world of safety beyond its fortress paradigm.

The world is not just a world of objects that have independence from humans (subjects). There may be an objective reality but humans cannot know it objectively or absolutely. As humans we are subject to fallibility, essential for learning. Fallibility is all about the vulnerability of not being in control ( and this makes life risky and unsafe. Indeed, the terror of death hangs over fallible humans as not just an item of news but a reality of living (Becker (1973) The Denial of Death). The key to resilience is not control or engineering but learning to live with fallibility and a lack of control and remaining functionally in the world. Anxiety, depression and mental illness are very much about not functioning with resilience in the world. Such anxiety and depression is often evidence of a struggle with fallibility. The last thing I want to hear is that some bright spark can engineer it.

One might have a theory of how one can improve safety but the expression of that theory cannot be separated from the language used to express it. What the social study of linguistics demonstrates (Potter and Wetherell, 1987, Discourse and Social Psychology, Beyond Attitudes and Behaviour) is that semiosis (meaning in language) is constructed by a worldview, or a particular disciplinary worldview. One cannot speak of a methodology (philosophy/ideology) of change without observing the philosophy of language in that ideology. Ricoeur called this The Rule of Metaphor (1975). That is, meaning is always grounded in a conceptual system, but it is not the only system or worldview.

Take for example the idea that ‘narrative as data’ metaphor recently put forward on a safety site. Of course narrative is not an object neither can narrative be ‘contained’ as data. This containment metaphor is common in the safety industry and seeks to transform the very idea of narrative from a form of story, and connected events to a quantitative object (see further Once narrative has been falsely objectified then it seems that culture can be controlled. ‘Narrative as data’ is a translation offered by a mono-discipline that confines rather than liberates the meaning of narrative. What such a metaphor as ‘data’ seeks to do is control narrative. Narrative is of course existential and phenomenological and beyond control.

This is what a mono-disciplinary worldview does. It grabs an ecological concept like resilience and then attaches it to the metaphor of engineering creating the idea that resilience is a mechanistic process. Such a use of metaphor is only valid if one accepts the STEM view of the world ( Whilst is may suit STEM, it doesn’t represent a transdisciplinary view or properly define resilience.

Moreso, the challenges of resilience, risk, fallibility and learning are wicked problems that cannot be controlled by systems or mechanistic processes. Unless one accepts a transdisciplinary view then one will not escape the seduction of control and indeed propose anything ‘different’. Indeed, one will be unable to even tackle a wicked problem (the STEM worldview also tends to reject the language of wickedity). If safety is a Wicked Problem ( ), then it cannot be ‘controlled’ nor ‘tamed’. Indeed, Safety needs a new paradigm if it is ever going to become relevant in a post-modern world. The delusion of control actually amplifies wicked problems and makes them exponentially more wicked.

Of course, this is why Safety has drifted so deeply into theological language and soteriological concepts ( because it lacks the transdisciplinarity in conversation to know its own semantics/discourse. Indeed, STEM would have metaphor and semantics relegated to the fanciful world of poetics and emotions. Anything that cannot be validated quantitatively must be rejected and ignored.

Therefore, it is not likely that Safety has ever read Lakoff and Johnson, (1980) Metaphors We Live By ( In many ways this book is a benchmark in research on language, culture and the construction of meaning. Linguistics and semantics are the bedrocks of culture and often omitted from Safety definitions of culture.

Unfortunately, the key to compliance is the rejection of dissent, debate and conversations with the enemy (those who reject zero). Hence, we end up with an industry that brags about its innovations that do little more than shift the deck chairs on the Titanic.

Dr Rob Long

Dr Rob Long

Expert in Social Psychology, Principal & Trainer at Human Dymensions
Dr Rob Long

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Dr Rob Long
PhD., MEd., MOH., BEd., BTh., Dip T., Dip Min., Cert IV TAA, MRMIA Rob is the founder of Human Dymensions and has extensive experience, qualifications and expertise across a range of sectors including government, education, corporate, industry and community sectors over 30 years. Rob has worked at all levels of the education and training sector including serving on various post graduate executive, post graduate supervision, post graduate course design and implementation programs.

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