All things service

My day job as clinical leader of a large children’s mental health centre in Ontario, Canada presents me with the constant challenge of working with other professionals to devise and resource treatment plans for children and youth with complex emotional, behavioral, and learning needs.

I have been trained formally in the philosophy of language, cognitive psychology, and experimental design and statistics, though at this stage of my life I would describe myself as self-taught. Most recently, I have been studying two domains connected to my professional work – the concepts of “service” and “network”  – with the  idea of specifying more clearly a popular but particularly slippery concept – the “service network”.

In one case study, I intend to examine a database of human services in Ontario that is maintained online at – and explore the “meaning” embedded in this sort of database using semantic web technologies, e.g.  the evolving Core Public Service Vocabulary of the European Commission and an ontology of government services included in a recent release of

This is a work in progress.

Originally I had thought about working away under these broad headings:

While these headings still represent reasonable divisions of labour for me, there are three distinct but just-close-enough-to-be-confusing senses in which the term “service” is used in the literature:

  • a software service, like the SSL/HTTPS service, that secures the transfer of data packets over the Internet
  • a “real” world service, like a banking service, that allows someone to pay a monthly utility bill at a local branch
  • a “real” world service that is mediated by a software service, like an online banking service, that uses the SSL/HTTPS service to allow someone to pay a monthly utility bill securely over the Internet

Early on, the metaphor “software as a service” inspired pioneers in computer science to explore and elaborate one concept (software) that was novel and abstract in terms of another concept (service) that was familiar and grounded in human experience.

In the past two decades, our understanding of the concept of software, the concept of service, and the metaphor “software as a service” have advanced tremendously. Indeed, an entire industry has emerged around “Software as a Service” (SaaS) in “cloud computing.”

Finally, in much the same way that humans have moved from using the metaphor “computer as a brain” to using as readily the metaphor “brain as a computer” – the metaphor “service as a software” is used as readily as the metaphor “software as a service” in our thinking.

Today the prime driver for clarifying the semantics of “real world” service comes from software engineering – and seeks to improve the design and deployment of Web services that are (somehow) meant to facilitate the delivery of “real world” services.

My original thought was to enlist the technologies of software services – e.g. service-oriented computing, service-oriented architecture, service-oriented semantics – to describe and model more clearly and formally the defining features of “real” world services – especially human services, like social assistance, mental health counselling, and so on.

I still believe there is great potential in this exercise – and in the closely related exercise of elaborating how software services can support “real” human services – though we are liable to miss the mark if we take the metaphor “service as a software” too literally.


A Conceptual Metaphor for Service-Seeking and Service-Using – Part I

Recently I participated in a discussion of how to improve access to mental health services for children and youth and their families.

One notion was to designate an agent to assist anyone who is wanting to access mental health services for themselves or someone they are caring for. In our discussion the agent was sometimes called a “navigator” – sometimes a “coach” – and sometimes a “connector” or “bridge” – which reminded me of some earlier reading and thinking I’d done on the use of metaphor(s) in this sort of planning exercise.

Without discounting the alternatives altogether, I want to make the case that the metaphor HELPER IS A NAVIGATOR is more apt and meaningful – not only as a framework for describing the job of the agent in evocative terms, but as a vehicle for understanding and even designing how an agent might assist people who are seeking to access mental health services.

My own view of how metaphor works is drawn heavily from the writings of George Lakoff, Mark Johnson and Zoltan Kovecses (see Further Readings below). In outline:

Conceptual Metaphor

Metaphor may be defined as understanding one conceptual domain in terms of another conceptual domain:


Metaphorical linguistic expressions (ways of talking) make explicit , or are manifestations of, the conceptual metaphors (ways of thinking).

The conceptual domain from which we draw metaphorical linguistic expressions to understand another conceptual domain is called the source domain, while the conceptual domain that is understood in this way is the target domain.

A conceptual metaphor typically employs a more abstract concept as the target domain and a more concrete or physical concept as the source domain.

Our experiences with our own bodies and the physical world around us serve as a natural foundation for the comprehension of more abstract domains.

Conceptual Metaphor as a Set of Mappings

When we say CONCEPTUAL DOMAIN A “is understood in terms of” CONCEPTUAL DOMAIN B, we mean there is a set of systematic correspondences or mappings between the constituent elements of the source domain and the constituent elements of the target domain.

To know a metaphor is to understand the systematic mappings between a source and a target and to use linguistic expressions to reflect these mappings.

Metaphorical Mappings onto A JOURNEY

The writings of George Lakoff and his colleagues include extensive discussions of of two related metaphors – LIFE IS A JOURNEY and LOVE IS A JOURNEY. There is also a smaller body of discussion related to THERAPY IS A JOURNEY. This work gives us a good start on exploring the metaphor HELPER IS A NAVIGATOR.

Coming Up



Part IV: The Metaphor of Mental Health and Mental Illness

Part V: Navigating Mental Health Services

Suggested Readings

  • Neil Aronov and Stanley Brodsky,  The River Model: A metaphor and tool for training new psychotherapists (2009).George Lakoff, Women, fire and dangerous things: what categories reveal about the mind (1987).
  • George Lakoff, The contemporary theory of metaphor (1993).
  • George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors we live by, 2nd edition (2003).
  • Tammie Ronen and Michael Rosenbaum, Beyond direct verbal instruction in Cognitive Behavioral Supervision (1998).
  • Dennis Tay, THERAPY IS A JOURNEY as a discourse metaphor (2011).
  • Zoltán Kövecses, Metaphor: A practical introduction (1987).
  • —–, A cognitive linguistic view of metaphor and therapeutic discourse (2001).
  • —–, Metaphor and emotion: Language, culture, and body in human feeling (2003).