The ivory tower” on an “unstable foundation

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The ivory tower” on an “unstable foundation”:

Playful Language, Humor, and Metaphor in the Negotiation of Scientists’ Identities

L. David Ritchie
Char Schell

Department of Communication

Portland State University

Portland, OR 97207

(503) 725-3550

Metaphor and Symbol, 24, 90-104. .

Authors’ Note:

This research was supported in part by the Natural and Accelerated Bioremediation Research Program, Office of Biological and Environmental Research, U.S. Department of Energy. We are indebted to Wynde Dyer, Gloria Hinkle, Chris Richter, Nate Roberts, and Sylvia Sissel for their many novel insights, useful suggestions, and provocative questions, and to Dr. James Weber, formerly of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Dr. Ray Gibbs, Jr., and one anonymous reviewer for review and many helpful comments.

In this essay we argue that metaphor and language play generally should be analyzed in the context of actual conversations, not as a peripheral or incidental part of the discourse, but rather as an integral part of both topic-centered and relational work. We examine several instances of playful metaphor, humor, and irony that occurred during a one-hour focus-group discussion among a group of scientists discussing their role in communicating about science with laypersons. During the course of this discussion, word play, humorous insults, and the elaboration and reconstruction of metaphorical idioms are used for a variety of purposes including reinforcement of group boundaries, re-constitution of the group’s assigned task, and joint development of a complex set of ideas about group members’ identities as scientists working in a publicly-funded lab. Throughout this conversation, the social structuring and relational functions of playfulness and metaphor interacts with the accomplishment of the purposes of the conversation. We argue that analysis of language play, humor, and metaphor is strengthened by attention to the purpose of the talk and, conversely, understanding how the purpose of talk is accomplished is strengthened by attention to the participants’ use of playful, metaphorical, and humorous language.
Key words: Language play, humor, metaphor, irony, discourse, science communication.
The ivory tower” on an “unstable foundation”:

Playful Language, Humor, and Metaphor in the Negotiation of Scientists’ Identities


Cognitive approaches to communication often assume that communication is primarily serious, and the instances of communication most worthy of scientific study have to do with exchange of information and ideas, conducting the business of social life. Within such a task-oriented view of communication, metaphorical and playful language may be discredited, treated as peripheral, or explained away in terms of more serious purposes. However, Dunbar (1996) argues that language use helps maintain social structure (coalitions and hierarchies) both directly, as individuals share the pleasure of talk and indirectly, as people give and receive information about relationships in the extended social group (“who is grooming whom”). It follows that these apparent “distractions” from the “real business” of even the most serious conversations may in fact be vital to the success of the “real business” itself.

Playful and “non bona-fida” (Raskin & Attardo, 1994) uses of language, including metaphors as well as irony and humor, have generally been treated as both distinct and separate from the “serious” and “literal” language in which groups accomplish actual tasks. In part this may be due to the tendency of metaphor theorists to use artificial, “made up” metaphors as examples (Haser, 2005; Howe, 2008; Nerlich, 2003) and humor theorists to draw their examples from published joke book collections (Martin, 2008). As Garrod (1999) points out, it may also be due in part to the methodological difficulties posed by the interactivity and complexity of natural conversation. Recent research, however, undermines this separation and suggests that the playful use of humor, irony, and metaphors contributes both to the social dimensions of group interaction and to the accomplishment of tasks.

Several researchers have recently reported on the importance of humor, irony, and teasing in developing and maintaining group cohesion in the workplace (Terrion & Ashforth, 2002) and among friends and family members (Gibbs & Izett, 2005; Norrick, 1993; Tannen, 1984). Fazioni (2008) shows that playful teasing, humor, and irony can contribute to serious information-exchange tasks in a workplace situation. Ritchie and Dyhouse (2008) show that metaphors often have a basis in language play, and serve both a cognitive and a social function, consistent with Dunbar’s (1996) claims about language as an extension of primate grooming. In her analysis of a series of conversations between an IRA bomber and the daughter of one of his victims, Cameron (2007) shows how the re-use and transformation of metaphors contributes simultaneously to the development of interpersonal understanding and empathy and to the informational purpose of the conversations, the participants’ increased understanding of the event itself and of the political and personal context in which the bombing took place.

These developments lead us to ask how participants in a task-oriented group (specifically, a group of scientists engaged in a discussion of their role in communicating science to the general public) might use language play, including metaphors, humor, and irony, to accomplish and perhaps transform the communicative work of the group. Are the social-facilitative functions of playful language use separate from the task-oriented functions of “serious” language use, or, as Fazioni’s work suggests, do the social-facilitative and task-oriented functions sometimes inter-mingle? Does the pattern of repetition and transformation of metaphors which Cameron reports occur in other sorts of conversations, and if it does, how does it contribute to the social and task-oriented processes of the group?

The setting.

The conversation on which this analysis is based occurred in a one-hour focus group within an extended day-long meeting. The overall meeting was designed to bring together scientists engaged in a major environmental cleanup project that at that stage involved basic scientific research (not yet applied) and interactions with representatives of various “stakeholder” groups in the communities in which applied research was being considered. After an initial meeting in which the project and the format for the day’s activities were described, members of each group were sent to separate locations, each with a communication facilitator, to engage in a focus-group style discussion designed to respond to a common set of questions about the group’s identity and role, the interests they brought to the meeting, and their insights about scientist-layperson communication. Each group was given a flip-chart with instructions to diagram the results of their discussion. Their task was to identify their role in the context of the whole project system, including regulators, agency staff, community members, stakeholder groups with legal standing, and focused scientific sub-projects that contributed to the large, overarching project system. Because the project was devoted to novel approaches to remediation of contaminated sites, it was of particular interest to curious stakeholder groups and individual community members.

The event organizers labeled the group studied here “professionals” to account for the mixture of scientists and administrative staff such as project managers and communication staff. Two members of the group were administrators, not scientists. Most of the scientist members of this group had worked together extensively and knew each other quite well prior to the meeting. In the following transcribed sections of the group interactions, all of those who engaged in humor and metaphor, except the facilitator, were scientists.


This analysis is based on a transcription of the “professionals” group discussion that was made from a tape recording shortly after the meeting. The authors began by reading through the transcript to identify the format, major purposes and themes. The transcript was then reformatted into short segments representing intonation units (Cameron & Stelma, 2004) by placing a break at each change of speaker, at major disfluencies (“er,” “hmm,” and repetitions of partial or complete words or sentences) as well as at the end of completed sentences and independent clauses. For the purpose of our analysis, which is not concerned with production of language at the level of words and phrases, the intonation unit organization simply provides a convenient way to reference short sections of text, since complete sentences appear infrequently in the text, and speakers frequently moved back and forth among topics even within sentences.

Instances of metaphorical language were identified by procedures detailed in Cameron (2007; 2006; Cameron and Stelma, 2004). Then instances of word-play, irony, and humor were identified, using cues embedded in the transcript itself. By this time, several clusters of playful and figurative language had been identified; these were further analyzed to identify themes, schemas, and perceptual simulations associated with each (Barsalou, 2007; Gibbs, 2006; Ritchie, 2006; 2008a; 2008b). Finally, the occurrence of these clusters was mapped against the overall conversation, and the themes and perceptual simulations were analyzed in relation both to the immediate discursive context and the overall progress of the focus group conversation.


The focus group conversation can be divided roughly into four overall segments. The first segment, approximately lines 1-50, is mostly talk about organizing the group. A second segment (lines 51-225) consists primarily of talk about the participants’ identity and roles as scientists, with occasional recurrence throughout the remainder of the conversation. The subject of communication is introduced at about line 226, and extends through about line 670, when the fourth and final segment begins, devoted to filling in the information on the flip-chart (the ostensible “business” of the meeting). The third segment, about communication with the public, can be further sub-divided into educating the public about science (226-380), garnering public support (380-450, 489-520, and 622-643), input into political decision-making (450-488), networking with members of various community organizations (527-614), and an extended discussion of a “partners” metaphor for community relations (643-650), and community education as outreach (650-677). These themes are reprised during the final segment, in which the group focuses on the assigned task of filling in the chart.

Although there are flashes of word-play, metaphor, and humor throughout, the bulk of it occurs during the initial organizational segment, focusing on the naming of the focus group and organization of the discussion, and in lines 191-215, where an extended riff on a “construction” metaphor seems to mark a transition from a playful, teasing banter to a more serious attempt to grapple with the questions that had been posed to the group.

“Who are we?” The decision by event organizers to label the scientists’ group as the “professionals” is the occasion for a brief bit of joking at the very outset:

0001 Facilitator: I guess, we’re calling ourselves “the professional group.”

0002: We’re all scientists. Ya right.

0003 Participant1:: That’s right.

0004 Facilitator: Or “thereabouts

0005 Participant 1: “Thereabouts

0006 Participant 2: “Pretty much.”

Professional can be interpreted in contrast to amateur, in which case a working scientist, who takes science completely seriously and is totally committed to it, would certainly qualify as professional. However, neither laboratory scientists nor academic scientists ordinarily consider themselves “professionals,” since the everyday use of the term to refer collectively to doctors, attorneys, engineers, and other graduates of “professional schools” invokes a second contrast, between professional (as practitioner) and researcher or theorist. The use and echo of the metaphorical idioms, “thereabouts” (based on a spatial metaphor) and “pretty much” (based on an object / quantification metaphor) activate simulations associated with uncertainty about location and quantity respectively; the echoing of the facilitator’s idiomatic expression of ambiguity activates culturally-based associations with vaudeville comedy routines and introduces a teasing response to the facilitator that persists throughout the first segment of the discussion. The negative implications of “professionals” are taken up in a playful way by another participant almost immediately:

0007 Participant3: Can we, can we change our names if we want?

0008 Facilitator: Sure

0009 Participant3: As first order of business

0010 Participant3: Nerds and geeks

0011 Participant1: Ya

0012 Facilitator: So. We’re changing our names to what?

0013 Participant3: Geeks and nerds.

Here, Participant 3 replaces the indisputably general term “professional” with one more warmly self-deprecating, “nerds and geeks,” which a scientist might apply to others in that guild as a way of establishing common ground playfully (as being extended to anyone who is obsessed with either technology or science to the exclusion of ordinary social activities). Participant 3 then proposes changing it by merely reversing the order, leaving the playfully self-deprecating implications of the terms in place and humorously displaying the whole topic of naming as trivial, while the terms “geeks” and “nerds” take on positive implications, if only in contrast to “professionals.” The point is driven home in the final utterance in this segment:

0014 Participant4: I’ve been called a lot of things but never professional. (laughter all around).

“I’ve been called a lot of things” is a commonplace idiom that is usually taken to imply name-calling, in particular, “unprintable” names. Thus, it is frequently used to imply that whatever label follows the phrase, “but never…” is worse than the unprintable invectives the speaker claims to have been called in the past. In this closing shot, Participant 4 activates the negative simulations associated with “professional” in a way that underscores the rejection of “professional” and emphasizes the commitment of the scientist members of the group to the “geekish” pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. The “pursuit of knowledge” theme appears repeatedly throughout the remainder of the conversation: The “geeks and nerds” joke might or might not have appeared had the event organizers not labeled the group as professionals. Given the sensitivities of scientists, in an age when everything seems to be “for sale,” it seems likely that the “professionals” theme would have appeared in some guise sooner or later. It is interesting that the potential association of “prostituting” science for commercial gain was not directly invoked at any point in this conversation, but this passage did activate a frame that persisted throughout the opening segment of the conversation, the part we focus on here. The underlying tension between “science for its own sake” and “applied science” reappears in several of the metaphors discussed in the next few sections.

There are no right answers. A second bit of playful joking involves the meta-communicative task of setting up ground rules for the discussion. The following segment comes immediately after a bit of playful banter over who has the worst hand-writing (and who is thus ineligible to be appointed to take notes):

0038 Participant1: I hasten to point out that

0039 Larry’s done this before

0040 and he knows all the right answers.

At first this sounds like mere teasing banter, directed both at Larry (“teacher’s pet”) and at the process. But it is turned into a meta-communicative discussion about the nature of the focus-group process itself when the facilitator protests:

0043 Facilitator: There are no right answers.

0044 Participant1: There are always right answers.

0045 Participant3: Or they’re all right answers, one or the other.

0046 Participant 4: Well

0047 Participant 3: There’re either none,

0048 Participant 4: put it this way

0049 Participant 3: or they’re all right

0050 Participant 4: they seem productive answers

0051 Participant 5: Oh h h h h (laughter)

Participant 1’s cynically ironic insistence that “there are always right answers” threatens to undermine the purpose of the focus group, by framing it as an exercise in second-guessing what the event organizers expect to hear. But Participant 3 adeptly converts the cynical claim into a generic claim to universal acceptability, with distinct overtones of “political correctness” that seems to confirm the point about his having done this before. Participant 4 comes to the rescue in a way that reinstates the bantering, playful tone by converting “right” to “productive,” in a way that elicits a groan from Participant 5 and general laughter. “Productive” activates simulations associated both with the metaphor vehicle, “manufacture,” and the ordinary idiomatic metaphorical usage, as in “a productive meeting.” These standard simulations are activated only to be contrasted ironically with the cynical futility implied by the preceding claim that “There’re either none… or they are all right,” and thus underscores the tension between “pure” and “applied” science previously activated by the quip about not being called a “professional,” and by the same token underscores the scientists’ uneasiness about their changing roles.1

Three citations.” Much of the playful banter is self-deprecatory, directed either at the scientists themselves, or at science as an institution. An interesting instance comes as the group makes the transition into a more serious discussion of their roles as scientists.

0070 Facilitator: and your everyday role is?

0071 Participant 1: to do science. To do our science.

0072 do outstanding science.

Here, Participant 1 underscores the contrast to the implications of “professional” by contrasting it with the “everyday” role of simply doing “outstanding science.” “Outstanding” is a common metaphorical idiom associated with superiority and pride in one’s work; the contrast is repeated several times in slightly different words before the topic of communicating the results of science is broached, and the positive implications of “outstanding” are ironically undermined:

0078 Participant 2: and to communicate knowledge to

0079 to somebody

0080 Facilitator: to somebody? Was that

0081 Participant 2: hopefully to three other people (laughter)

0082 Facilitator: so that somebody is, each other?

0083 Participant 2: three citations.

The “somebody” in line 079 has an air of futility about it, because of its vagueness and generality. However, when the facilitator repeats the word, Participant 2 immediately replaces it with a phrase that is something of an in-joke among scientists (and academicians). “Three citations” refers metonymically to a common criterion used by tenure and promotion committees and other groups that evaluate the quality of scientific and scholarly work: Success is measured by the number of times an article is cited, and three is a common threshold, calling to mind research findings that a typical article in a scholarly journal is read by no more than three people – an implicit reference to the inherent futility of the publication process. “Three citations” thus underscores the contrast to “productive” and “professional” by activating the academic schema with its associations of isolation and the fear of futility (not being cited at all) experienced by all academicians, including scientists. It also contrasts with the communication of science to the general public (outside the scientific in-group), the ostensible purpose of the meeting. In any event, it elicits the intended laughter from the group before members of the group co-operate with the facilitator’s attempt to turn the discussion to communication beyond the internal communication within the science community.

Swimming in money.” Following the joke about the “three citations” criterion, discussion turns to applied science, then to communication with regulators, members of various interest groups, and policy-makers and decision-makers (the purpose of the day-long event).

0143 Participant 2: It is interesting that all of us work in [publicly-funded research]

0144 none of us can…

0145 that didn’t come to our minds,

0146 yet that’s often times our worst deficiency.

0147 Participant 3: Oh ya

0148 Facilitator: this group right here?

0149 Participant 2: Ya. We can talk about how we failed and succeeded these,

0150 but clearly, that is our biggest shortcoming.

0151 If it weren’t we’d all be swimming in money. (laugh)

The “deficiency” and “shortcoming” metaphors activate simulations of scarcity and failure that are contrasted ironically with the idiomatic metaphor, “swimming in money,” reinforcing the preceding ironic contrast between doing “outstanding” science and garnering at most “three citations.” This quip introduces a theme that comes up repeatedly during the ensuing discussion: The group members’ common dependence on public funding, and the fact that they collectively give too little attention to communicating with the policy-makers and influential groups that control their funding. Almost every time the importance of educating the public about science or communicating the results of their research to the public comes up, the secondary effect, of hoped-for increase in public support of science arises, almost always with the double meaning of both “approval of science” and “funding of science.”

No more ivory tower. Shortly after the “swimming in money” quip, the metaphor, “stewardship” is introduced by the facilitator: Scientists are described as “stewards” of the science itself, of the tax money that funds science, and of the land. This leads to the introduction of a familiar metaphor for self-directed scientific inquiry that is conducted for the sake of the knowledge itself, without regard for potential utility:

0191 Participant 5: Ya. There really is no more ivory tower.

The schema activated by “ivory tower” sustains and amplifies the contrast originally activated by the “professionals” / “geeks and nerds” banter and reinforced by the “three citations” quip. The facilitator attempts to get the group to focus on the “stewardship” metaphor, but instead another participant returns to the “ivory tower” metaphor:

0195 Participant 4: Jack said something,

0196 one way of

0196 of capturing part of that,

0197 ah, change of role is

0198 ah, no more ivory tower.

0199 It’s probably, we’re,

0200 we’re not there now

0201 it’s probably not too far in the future.

0202 Participant 2: I’ve never really seen the ivory tower. (Laughter)

Ivory tower” is such a familiar idiom for academic research that, when it was first introduced by another participant, Jack, it may not have been processed beyond the semantic level. The JOURNEY metaphors, “not there now” and “not too far in the future” refer most obviously to “progress toward” a condition expected to be experienced at a certain time – but Participant 2 re-instates the underlying spatial metaphor and at the same time brings to life the metaphor underlying the stock idiom “ivory tower,” along with its associated perceptual simulations, both the visual simulations of an actual structure and the emotional simulations of isolation and the pleasure of “pure science” – all contrasting ironically with the implied reality of the conditions in which Participant 2 (and the other participants in this conversation) actually work.

This quip was clearly intended by Participant 2 as an ironic (and metaphorical) comment on the situation they all face as scientists working for a publicly-funded laboratory with research objectives that are ultimately very much applied. However, the quip leaves Participant 2 open to a bit of gentle teasing (a “nip” in Boxer & Cortés-Conde’s terminology, which will be discussed more fully later in this essay) that leads into a long and somewhat complex riff on the underlying metaphor:

0203 Participant 4: You haven’t.

0204 They never did let you in did they

0205 Participant5: Is that what you dream about, in the night, Jim

0206: ivory tower you just go to sleep

0207 and the first thing you get is

0208 the seven million dollar grant from

0209 to do whatever you want

0210 from the MacArthur Foundation

It seems evident throughout this passage that the speakers are feeling their way as they go, playing with the words, their sounds, their metaphorical entailments. From the group’s unwillingness to let go of the “ivory tower” metaphor and follow the facilitator’s attempt to get them to expand on the “stewardship” metaphor, it appears that “ivory tower” and all that it entails is on their minds; perhaps made more salient by the preceding discussion of public support for science and by Participant 2’s rueful admission of never having “seen” the “ivory tower” (never having enjoyed the pleasure of practicing scientific investigation for its own sake).

“I’ve never seen the ivory tower” is offered as an explicit contrast with the situation of a university scientist, who might be said to inhabit an ivory tower. But the response, “They never did let you in, did they?” brings out irony in the comment, and implies that “Jim” (Participant 2) must not have satisfied the “gatekeepers” as to his worthiness to enter “the tower” and practice pure science. At the same time, “They never did let you in, did they?” begins an elaborate and sophisticated development of the underlying “structure” and “citadel” metaphors. If “they” (the keepers of the citadel) “never let you in,” the implication is that the citadel is a desirable – and exclusive - place to be. This implication is reinforced by the ironic question that follows: “Is that what you dream about in the night, Jim?” These two sentences powerfully activate an image of someone – Jim – in a dream-like setting, standing forlornly at the entry to a tall tower, a citadel with walls of polished ivory, vainly seeking entry.

These perceptual simulations, activated by the quip, “they never let you in” – yearning, hope and frustration, as well as a contrast with the security of those “inside” the “tower,” who control entry into it – are attached by implication not merely to Jim, but also to the entire group. As government scientists, members of this group must pursue many of the same goals as university scientists, particularly finding funds, doing research, and publishing, but also have to represent government projects to the public. These comments, then, may also be understood as implicit comments on the task at hand – to locate their roles and responsibilities among the complex social system being diagrammed in the group. The following passage underscores this point with the metonymic reference to the MacArthur Foundation (famous for its large, no-strings “genius grants”), which by implication contrasts with their position as having to justify their science to government clients and an interested – perhaps hyper-interested – public.

The speaker then contrasts the dreamy fantasy of the ivory tower with the pending application of basic science to the real world of remediating contaminated sites, an “open pit, unstable wall” – a quick comic shift that introduces perspective and the problem of trusting a perhaps “unstable foundation”:

0211 and you go up into the ivory tower.

0212: What the, open pit, unstable wall

Another participant, now fully aligned with the speaker’s metaphorical transformation of the “ivory tower” fantasy, echoes:

0213 Participant1: Ya the unstable.

And the speaker concludes the irony with a second play on the word, “foundation”:

0214 Participant4: Ya, instead of the ivory tower,

0215 we’re in an unstable foundation.

The phrase, “unstable foundation,” not only completes the blend of metaphors the group has been working out, it also activates complex simulations associated both with the structural metaphor vehicle and with the social and career situations in which metaphors related to “stability” and “foundation” are ordinarily used. This complex brew of perceptual simulations expresses their collective unease about having to spend so much energy seeking public support, without which they cannot continue to do their science. Thus it also completes the theme introduced by the beginning banter about how to name the group, and apparently resolves the tension activated by that theme.

Consistent with Cameron’s (2007) approach, this long bit of metaphor-based word-play appears to have been spontaneously generated, in part in response to the words themselves and in part in response to the foregoing conversation and especially to the underlying contrasts and contradictions between the group members’ public roles as publicly funded scientists and their private identities as disinterested seekers of knowledge. This passage marks a transition from a playfully ironic, teasing, and occasionally resistant phase in which the group collectively comes to understand, then comes to terms with its part in the larger event of which this one conversation is only a small part, to a more co-operative and ultimately highly productive discussion of the issues they were initially assigned to address. As in the reconciliation dialogues analyzed by Cameron, these scientists collaboratively modify, combine, and transform a set of stock metaphors, drawn from their common culture (Nerlich, 2003), in a way that expresses both their social relationships and their shared perception of their situations as “pure” scientists working on “applied” problems.


With respect to the first two questions we posed in the introduction, it appears that the participants in this exchange, for all of their seriousness, do engage in extensive language play, and that they accomplish several things through their playful use, transformation, and distortion of idioms and metaphors. The scientists assigned to the group (some of whom had prior close relationships as members of a research team) differentiate themselves from the non-scientists assigned to the group and reaffirm their own unique identity as scientists. They tease the facilitator, test her sense of humor, and critique the focus group process itself (Plester & Sayers, 2007), as a prelude to their eventual cooperation with her in accomplishing the group’s assigned purposes. They explore and work out uncomfortable ambiguities in their roles as scientists, both in the “geeks and nerds” comment and in the extended development of the “ivory tower” metaphor. Through the self-deprecatory comments and the ironic teasing, they affirm their social solidarity and affection among themselves (Attardo, 1994; Gibbs & Izett, 2005; Martin, 2007; Norrick, 1993) and, once she has passed the test of their teasing, bring the facilitator into the “in-group.” Crucially, it is also apparent throughout that they indulge the playful banter as a source of shared fun (Dunbar, 1996; Martin, 2007; Ritchie & Dyhouse, 2008), which further contributes to the solidarity of the group. With respect to the third question we posed, the humor and word-play is not separated from the task-oriented conversation, but rather contributes both to the task of organizing and conducting the conversation and to the primary assigned task of establishing the group’s identity with respect to the communication of science.

The complex uses of metaphor. The ironic joking about “geeks and nerds” and “professionals” at the beginning appears to serve several purposes simultaneously. Along with the sequence “We’re all scientists. Ya right,” “that’s right,” “thereabouts,” “pretty much” (lines 0002-0006), this early bit of play comments on the way the focus groups were organized and spotlights the distinction within the larger group between the sub-group of scientists and the two non-scientists present. The critique of the focus group process is taken up in the by-play beginning with “Larry’s done this before” (line 0039) and continuing with the facilitator’s assertion that “There are no right answers” (line 0043) and the participants’ cynically teasing assertions that “There are always right answers” and the subsequent word play (lines 0044 to 0051). Although playful in tone, this can also be interpreted as a way for the scientist group to seize control of the meeting and test the facilitator’s sense of humor, then, when she passes the test, to bring her into the group (Terrion & Ashforth, 2002; Plester & Sayers, 2007).

More importantly, the “right answers” and “ivory tower” word-play ironically underscores the scientists’ lack of power in sustaining their historic roles as scientists (for scientists, finding the right answers is the modus operandi). In the contemporary environment they must continually divert time and energy from creating knowledge to justifying their work in order to sustain funding, as illustrated by their participation in this day of talk, not about science but about communicating science to non-scientists, rather than actually doing science. Far from being a diversion or distraction from the assigned task, this blend of metaphor development with ironic humor expresses the ambiguity of their role in contemporary society and sets the stage for effectively completing the task.

The distinction between scientists and non-scientists, and the scientists’ assertion of their unique and shared identity as scientists continues with the in-joke about “three publications” (line 0083) and the joking about their failure to communicate with non-scientists and consequent shortage of funding (“swimming in money”). It also appears to be at least part of the function of the complex riff on “ivory tower” (lines 0198-0210).

Consistent with Cameron’s (2007) findings, the scientists in this group both draw on and develop their relationships through repetition and transformation of each others’ metaphors and quips. Boxer and Cortés-Conde (1997) distinguish between the bonding and biting use of apparently aggressive humor within a group, with what they call nips occupying an in-between niche. Both bonding humor and nips are evident in the verbal by-play among these scientists. Some of the initial teasing directed toward the facilitator appears to have the biting quality of humor directed at an out-group member, but these instances are moderated by the deflection of the humor onto in-group members. Similarly, the comment, “They never did let you in did they?” seems aggressive at first glance, at the very least a corrective “nip,” except that it is evident in the context that it describes the situation of all the participants, including the speaker. There is a slightly bitter edge to the “ivory tower” riff, as demonstrated by the “unstable foundation” metaphor, but it is difficult to identify a target of the supposed aggression. The early joking about the naming of the group does have an evident target in the conference organizers, represented by the facilitator, but the “attack” is rather mild and appears to serve more to affirm the bonds among the in-group members than to emphasize the difference between in-group and outsiders. Thus, the “sheep” vs. “wolves” distinction suggested by Gibbs & Izett (2005) is difficult to apply here, since the irony is self-directed and the humor depends on the ability of everyone present (including the facilitator) to recognize the incongruity. The “aggression” in the examples of humor here has the playful quality of “rough-and-tumble” play, consistent with Martin’s (2007; see also Apter, 1982 and Norrick, 1993) claim that the apparent aggression in humor is frequently playful, especially when it occurs within a social group.

Also consistent with Cameron’s (2007) approach, several of the metaphors in the scientists’ focus group are collaboratively produced. The “ivory tower” sequence is probably the best example here. It is introduced by one participant, let drop, picked up and re-introduced by another participant, then developed (and combined with the previously introduced “support” metaphor) by a third participant – with echoing support from a fourth participant. The manner in which the group members interact in the production of this metaphorical narrative suggests that it expresses a common, probably frequently-discussed, concern. Its central location and pivotal function within the conversation, and the degree to which it is elaborated, suggest that it expresses a felt tension within their identities (individual and collective) as scientists – in essence, the topic of the conversation. Thus, the collective development of this metaphor provides a means for the scientists simultaneously to express their own concerns through an amusing transformation of a stock metaphor and at the same time initiate the accomplishment of the task they had been charged with.

Consistent with Nerlich’s (2003; Nerlich, Hamilton, & Rowe, 2001) findings, the participants in this exchange drew on a culturally-salient stock of metaphorical idioms (“swimming in money” and “ivory tower”) as well as joke formulae (“I’ve been called a lot of things, but…”) to support their own particular purposes; it is evidently important to attend to the role of stock metaphors and idioms in the larger culture within which a segment of talk occurs. “Ivory tower,” as well as the other stock idioms used in this conversation all have complex resonances, and activate both positive and negative implications, within U.S. society generally and in particular within the science and engineering community. Their use here can only be understood within and as part of that broader cultural usage. In turn, their use here and elsewhere contributes to (and, over time, will tend to modify) the underlying “cultural representations” (Sperber, 1996).

Task and Social Functions of Language Play: Establishing a Role. A large part of the purpose of the focus group was to establish the “professional” group’s identity and role with respect to the overall event. The purpose of this hour of conversation was to work out their role in communicating science to the public and to others in the group, for example through the “stewardship” metaphor. There was also at least implicit pressure on the scientists to take on a key role in an area decidedly outside their expertise, the role of “public communicator.” However, the scientists in this group, perhaps stimulated by the troublesome title, “professionals,” or perhaps by the overarching topic of communicating science to non-scientists, used the metaphor, word-play, and teasing to work out some serious issues about their identities as scientists. This begins at the outset with the playful objections to the title “professionals,” proceeds in the more serious discussion of the “steward” metaphor, and culminates in the complex transformation of the “ivory tower” metaphor, in which the previously introduced double-metaphor of “support” (as encouragement and funding), is combined with a literalization of “ivory tower” to produce a double-meaning around the “foundation” metaphor. All of this explores and brings to the surface the complex and troublesome relationship of “pure” science to money – and by implication, the difficult task of explaining science to the non-scientists who control budgets.

The patterns described in the foregoing are consistent with Dunbar’s (1996) claims about the “grooming” functions in language, including playful language use (Ritchie & Dyhouse, 2008) and ironic teasing (Gibbs & Izett, 2005). These scientists used their joking and teasing about the focus group, culminating in their elaborate development of the “ivory tower” metaphor, simultaneously to reaffirm their group solidarity and to come to terms with the task at hand, to describe their dual role as scientists and as communicators. What appeared at first to be a prolonged digression before “getting down to work” was, instead, a crucial part of accomplishing that work (cf. Fazioni, 2008).

Metaphor, humor, and play. As the joking about naming, and the complex transformations of the “ivory tower” metaphor illustrate, there is often a metaphorical basis to humor (Martin; 2007; Ritchie, 2005). Part of the humor of the riff on the “ivory tower” metaphor stems from the incongruity of the images (Attardo, 1994; 2001), which readily map onto the (to these scientists, very real) incongruity of practicing science in a situation of financial uncertainty – a “crumbling foundation.” There is a playfulness to the serial transformation of “ivory tower,” first from an idiomatic reference to “pure science” to an actual structure, a citadel with restricted entry, to a structure with a crumbling foundation, and finally bringing this metaphorical transformation full circle so that the (metaphorical) grant-giving “foundation” is characterized as “crumbling.”

The term “stewardship” is taken directly from mission statements created by the funding agency, the U.S. Department of Energy, to describe the role the Department plays as the “steward” of the legacy nuclear contamination at government sites throughout the country. Until those sites can be decontaminated and opened for future use, their dangers must be contained and research done on how to eliminate them – through effective “stewardship.” This term in itself is metaphorical, with entailments in religious imagery, past statesmanship, and “foundations” and “citadels” of castles. Another vital implication is in the direction of trust – in particular, the public’s trust in the sovereign power’s management of public resources. Thus, “stewardship” can be seen as a complex metaphor in this discussion, used playfully but with serious entailments by the participants. Elsewhere in the discussion, in fact, “stewardship” is used seriously in reference to the scientists’ roles and responsibilities.

The schemas and perceptual simulations activated by the core metaphors discussed in the foregoing go to the heart of the dilemma facing scientists, increasingly including those within academia as well as those, like the participants in the focus group, who work in publicly funded labs. The pursuit of scientific knowledge “for its own sake” is increasingly difficult; scientists must match their skills in research, analysis, and theory-building with a very different set of skills, those required for communicating about their science to an uncomprehending public, and building “support,” both political and financial, for their work. “There is no more ivory tower.” Even the MacArthur Foundation “genius grants” last only one year, and then the recipient must return to the realities of modern science. “We’re in an unstable foundation.” The word play and humor allowed these scientists to bring those simulations to the surface and resolve them, or perhaps to incorporate them into their identities as scientists working in a publicly-funded research facility.

Perceptual simulation in analyzing metaphor, irony, and humor. It appears that some of the metaphors (“swimming in money”) may have been, at least initially, processed primarily through simple semantic connections (Barsalou, 2007). “Ivory tower” may also have been processed semantically at first, but the joking comment that “I’ve never seen the ivory tower” and the extended transformation of the metaphor that follows call for interpretation in terms of a complex set of perceptual simulations, including simulations of introspective perceptions of thought and emotion as well as simulations of visual, tactile, and other external perceptions. The perceptual simulation approach, then, may not be necessary for understanding stock metaphorical idioms in casual use, but it is helpful in understanding innovative and creative use of metaphors, especially in a situation in which complex thoughts and feelings are being expressed.

As a group, these examples illustrate the value of considering the activation and interaction of both extensive schema-based simulations (Gibbs, 2006) and more limited perceptual simulations (Barsalou, 2007; Ritchie, 2006; 2008b) by figurative language. In the foregoing, it appears that some of these metaphors activated complete schemas, consistent with Gibbs (2006): In particular, the metonymic “three citations” appears to have activated a complete academic science schema. “Ivory tower” appears at first to have activated a very limited range of simulations, but when it was picked up again and developed, an entire complex schema was activated, then systematically re-structured, in a way that appears to have been facilitated by the perceptual simulations it activated. The activation of complex and contradictory perceptual simulations explain the emotional and cognitive effects of the extended riff on “ivory tower” and the early word-play surrounding the naming of the group. What is incongruous about these jests is the mis-match between the activated simulations and the perceptions (including thoughts and feelings) that would be expected in a conversation of this sort.


The talk sequences analyzed in the foregoing were serious, purpose-driven conversations about issues that mattered deeply to the participants. The frequent instances of playful language, metaphor and metaphorical narratives, joking and teasing were not contrary to the serious purpose of the talk, but contributed to its accomplishment in important ways. Through our analysis we have demonstrated the importance of attending to the simulations potentially activated by language, and the manner in which participants in talk collaboratively produce, alter, and play with language and ideas. Figurative language and language play serves several purposes in discourse, often simultaneously. It often advances the “purpose” of the talk, and at the same time creates and affirms social relationships among the participants.

We have deliberately focused on conversation that was produced for a particular purpose, conversation in which the participants are engaged in accomplishing tasks beyond the task of producing talk itself. As our analysis demonstrates, the social structuring and relational functions of playfulness and metaphor interacts with the accomplishment of the purposes of the conversation. We argue that analysis of metaphor, language play, irony, and humor is strengthened by attention to the purpose of the talk and, conversely, understanding how the purpose of talk is accomplished is strengthened by attention to the participants’ use of playful, metaphorical, and humorous language. In future work we plan to compare the talk analyzed herein with talk produced by differently-composed groups under ostensibly similar conditions, as a way of better understanding how the social composition of a group influences and interacts with the use of metaphor and playful language.


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1 These scientists are frequently called upon to respond to questions from non-scientists, including legislators, about the application of science – a role quite different from that traditionally associated with “pure science,” and the topic of the meeting within which this conversation takes place.

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