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Three Examples of Schema Analysis

The American marriage schema

Naomi Quinn interviewed 11 American couples about marriage. The couples came from different parts of the country. Some were recently married; others were married a long time. And they represented various occupations, education levels, and ethnic and religious groups. Each of the 22 people were interviewed separately for 15 to 16 hours, and the interviews were transcribed.

Quinn has analyzed this body of text to discover the concepts underlying American marriage and to show how these concepts are tied together—how they form a cultural schema, shared by people from different backgrounds about what constitutes success and failure in marriage (Quinn 1982, 1987, 1992, 1996, 1997).

Quinn’s method is to look for metaphors in rhetoric—as proxies for themes—and to deduce the schemas, or underlying principles, that could produce those metaphors. For instance, Quinn’s informants often compared marriages (their own and those of others) to manufactured and durable products (‘‘It was put together pretty good’’) and to journeys (‘‘We made it up as we went along; it was a sort of do-it-yourself project’’). And when people were surprised at the breakup of a marriage, they would say things like ‘‘That marriage was like the Rock of Gibraltar’’ or ‘‘It was nailed in cement.’’ People use these metaphors because they assume that their listeners know that cement and the Rock of Gibraltar are things that last forever.

The method of looking at metaphors as indicators of schemas was developed by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (2003 [1980]), but Quinn goes further. She reasons that if schemas are what make it possible for people to fill in around the bare bones of a metaphor, then the metaphors must be surface phenomena and cannot themselves be the basis for shared understanding. She tries to understand how metaphors group together and finds that the hundreds of metaphors in her enormous corpus of text all fit into just eight classes: lastingness, sharedness, compatibility, mutual benefit, difficulty, effort, success (or failure), and risk of failure.

The classes of metaphors, the underlying concepts, are linked together in a schema that guides the discourse of ordinary Americans about marriage. Here is Quinn’s understanding of that schema:

Marriages are ideally lasting, shared and mutually beneficial. . . . Benefit is a matter of fulfillment. .. . Fulfillment and, more specifically, the compatibility it requires, are difficult to realize but this difficulty can be overcome, and compatibility and fulfillment achieved, with effort. Lasting marriages in which difficulty has been overcome by effort are regarded as successful ones. Incompatibility, lack of benefit, and the resulting marital difficulty, if not overcome, put a marriage at risk of failure. (Quinn 1997:164)

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