Conceptual Metaphors as Interpretive Tools in Qualitative Research: A Re-Examination of College Students' Diversity Discussions

By Kochis, Bruce; Gillespie, Diane | The Qualitative Report, September 2006 | Go to article overview

Conceptual Metaphors as Interpretive Tools in Qualitative Research: A Re-Examination of College Students' Diversity Discussions


Kochis, Bruce, Gillespie, Diane, The Qualitative Report


In this contribution to the growing literature on conceptual metaphor as a fruitful heuristic for qualitative analysis, the authors re-analyzed transcripts of college student discussions of problematic situations involving cultural diversity and interpersonal conflict. The authors show how they identified metaphorical linguistic expressions and from them derived three conceptual metaphors (life is a journey, the problem is a barrier/maze, and the self is divided) that in turn formed patterns or constellations of meanings in students' problem-solving strategies. As an interpretive tool, conceptual metaphors link certain isolated individual metaphors to these larger patterns of meaning, including ideological frameworks readily available in US culture. Key Words: Conceptual Metaphor, Metaphor Analysis, Qualitative Data Analysis, Political Worldviews, Cultural Diversity, and College Students

"She is kind of stuck.... She should stand up to him," a student's description of a problem at the beginning of the semester. The same student's description of a problem at the end of the semester,

   And it seems as if, you know, her friends want to stand behind her
   and tell her, "Go ahead and do that; it sounds interesting." But
   since most of the students in the class are looking down or don't
   really want to get on that topic, they don't say anything ... until
   later. You know, if they were to say something in the classroom
   [such as], "Oh, that sounds like a good idea, you know; that way we
   can learn more about it," then maybe the teacher would [say], "OK,
   you know, if everybody's open to it."

A number of qualitative researchers have used conceptual metaphors and other forms of analogical reasoning as interpretive tools in qualitative research (e.g., Aubusson, 2002; Dexter & LaMagdeleine, 2002; Eubanks, 1999a, 1999b; Moser, 2000; Schmitt, 2000). Moser, for example, argued that they can help researchers identify significant patterns in language that might otherwise be missed, reveal informants' implicit assumptions about a subject or situation, and make salient the socio-cultural contexts in which conceptual metaphors occur. Such metaphors include more information than is stipulated by a particular mapping. Language users themselves are mostly unaware of their tacit knowledge (Polanyi, 1966) and how it helps to constitute their understanding of ordinary experience. As Lakoff and Johnson (1999) put it, "Our unconscious conceptual system functions like a 'hidden hand' that shapes how we conceptualize all aspects of our experience" (p. 13). Not just making claims about the nature of concepts, Lakoff and Johnson (1980) argue that metaphors "sanction actions, justify inferences, and help us set goals" (p. 142).

For Lakoff (1993), Johnson (1987), and Lakoff and Johnson (1980, 1999) the crucial aspect of this process occurs not at the level of language itself, but in what they term "conceptual metaphors," which are formed at the level of cognition through a process of mapping one cognitive domain onto another: That is, "understanding and experiencing one kind of thing [called the target domain] in terms of another [called the source domain]" (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980, p. 5). Such metaphors allow language users to understand and communicate about complex or abstract ideas in terms of ordinary experiences. Most people use sensorimotor experiences and actions (e.g., standing up, walking, standing still) to develop a schema or gestalt based on "moving through space" that includes metaphorical linguistic expressions, such as being on the road, going somewhere, taking a first step, avoiding pitfalls, and so forth. (1) If, for example, this source domain gets mapped onto the abstract concept "life" as a target domain, the result is the conceptual metaphor LIFE IS A JOURNEY. This is realized in ordinary language in common sense expressions, such as we better keep moving along; she took the less traveled path; when the going gets tough, the tough get going; and just follow your dreams. …

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