A Quest for Cinergy: The War Metaphor and the Construction of Identity

By Boyd, Josh | Communication Studies, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

A Quest for Cinergy: The War Metaphor and the Construction of Identity


Boyd, Josh, Communication Studies


The war metaphor is embedded not only in geopolitical struggles, but in other kinds of public discourse as well. In sports, in public policy, and in business, leaders employ the same rhetorical strategies as leaders of nation-states preparing citizens to do physical battle. In the same way that national leaders seek to gain public support for war, so do other leaders put the metaphor of war to use in achieving goals. The war metaphor seems particularly common in corporate contexts. Management declares war on high costs. Labor disputes feature clearly drawn battle lines. "Hostile takeovers" are implicitly militant. Not all conceptions of corporate takeovers, however, are in terms of battle; some writers have described hostile takeovers in terms of disease ("Selling," 1988), digestion (Bastien, 1989), boxing ("It's a Knockout," 1994; Dodd & Stevenson, 1989), and games (Raiborn, Payne, & Schorg, 1991). But much business and scholarly writing does describe hostile takeovers with the language of war.

The hostile takeover as war is a literalized metaphor that structures thought processes (Lakoff &Johnson, 1980). Most accounts of takeovers follow a similar story line: vulnerable companies are attacked by raiders pursuing targets with bold strategies. The target company's management, under fire, often attempts defense using weapons such as poison pills, golden parachutes, and divestiture of the target company's crown jewels, all the while hoping desperately for a white knight to rescue the embattled company and, in the process, save the jobs of the entrenched management. Sometimes this "scorched earth defense" (see Lipin, Langreth, & Deogun, 2000) succeeds, but sometimes the hostile attack is insurmountable and the company falls to the raider.

This study features the case of two midwestern utilities, but focuses on metaphor in corporate discourse with broader applications for the study of management discourse. Cheney and Christensen (2001) have recently argued that one of the most interesting questions about organizational identity is how organizational messages

... are integrated for the organization to communicate at least somewhat consistently to its many different audiences Without such consistency, the organization of today will have difficulties sustaining and confirming a coherent sense of "self" necessary to maintain credibility and legitimacy in and outside the organization. (p. 232)

Eisenberg (1984) and Tyler (1997) have suggested strategic ambiguity as one method of maintaining such consistency, and this essay offers metaphor, and in this specific case a paradoxically unifying metaphor, as such a method for building identity with multiple stakeholders. Metaphor allows messages for different audiences to reinforce a single identity of both the organization and the situation.

Grant and Oswick (1996) have noted that "the use of metaphorical language in management language and discourse has received scant attention" (p. 13). Similarly, de Vries, Manfred, and Miller (1987) call for closer study of significant elements of organizational discourse. This approach is consistent with the "metaphor as symbol" cluster described by Putnam, Phillips, and Chapman (1996), in which the organization is a text from which organization members construct meanings (see also Smith & Eisenberg, 1987).

Unlike many studies of metaphor in organizations, this essay studies an extended metaphor as it was used in actual organizational discourse rather than imposing a metaphor on an organization for analytical power (Morgan, 1986) or studying media accounts (Dunford & Palmer, 1996). Of Oswick and Grant's (1996) three levels of metaphor in organizational studies, this essay addresses the "meaningful metaphors" of the third level, metaphors that are "discovered rather than created" (p. 217) and thus provide insight into how situated organizational rhetoric creates and sustains identity. …

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