The Etymology of 'Corporate Predatorship': A Critical Commentary

By Oswick, Cliff | Tamara : Journal of Critical Postmodern Organization Science, January 1, 2001 | Go to article overview

The Etymology of 'Corporate Predatorship': A Critical Commentary


Oswick, Cliff, Tamara : Journal of Critical Postmodern Organization Science


What is a corporate predator? From a semiotic perspective, what does this term 'denote' and 'connote' (Eco, 1979)? The line of argument developed here is that the deployment of the word 'predator', when used in connection with corporations, is imbued with considerable ideological baggage. More specifically, it is driven by a metaphorical imperative that serves to legitimate and 'normalize' corporate activity.

There are two main parts to this brief commentary. First, I wish to elaborate upon the notion of the corporate predator as metaphor. Second, I wish to consider the wider implications of this form of 'analogical correspondence' for both corporations and the critical postmodern organization science agenda.

The Corporate Predator: A Metaphor taken Literally?

Metaphor proceeds on the basis that "A is (or is like) B" (Morgan, 1986:13). As Davidson puts it: "A metaphor makes us attend to some likeness, often a novel or surprising likeness, between two or more things" (1978: 31). Moreover, the application of a particular metaphor, as a concrete 'base' or 'source' domain (Ortony, 1993), enables either new or deeper insights into an abstract 'target' domain (Ortony, 1993) to be generated (Grant and Oswick, 1996; Lakoff and Johnson, 1980).

The central theme of this paper rests upon the premise that the use of the term 'predator' within a corporate context is a borrowed one. In short, it is a metaphor. The original definition, and conventional interpretation, of a predator is: "An animal that normally preys on others; an animal that habitually catches and eats prey" (Oxford English Dictionary, 1993). At some point in time this 'concrete' domain (i.e. a predacious animal) was projected onto an 'abstract' domain (i.e. corporate activity) on the basis of certain resemblances or similarities. However, metaphorical projections are not just about aspects of 'sameness'- they rely upon a concurrent process of inclusion and exclusion. For example, Clarke and Salaman point out that in describing an athlete as being like a leopard, we "conjure up specific images of an animal moving with explosive speed, power, strength and grace" (1996: 163), and we "ignore the fact that a leopard is a wild animal with feline features, yellow and black spotted fur, four legs, claws and a tail" (1996: 163164).

According to Gareth Morgan, the juxtaposing of similarity and difference that metaphor permits is where the creative power of the process resides (Morgan, 1980; 1996). Other proponents of metaphor have drawn attention to their 'generative' (Schon, 1993), 'transformational' (Srivastva and Barrett, 1988) and 'liberating' (Barrett and Cooperrider, 1990) potential. However, the generation of fresh perspectives and new insight is not de facto a positive phenomenon. For some critical commentators, the proliferation of metaphors within the field of organization theory has been challenged on the basis that they `obscure and mislead' (Tsoukas, 1993) and `reify and act as ideological distortions' (Tinker, 1986). Consequently, it is to this latter perspective that we now turn our attention.

From Imagery to Ideology?

Arguably, the most significant point of similarity between the animal kingdom and the corporate world is the notion that having bigger, and often powerful, animals, preying on smaller more vulnerable ones equates to large corporations dominating or subsuming smaller organizations. For advocates of metaphor, this kind of projection produces strong and evocative imagery. That said, the image is tempered by an implicit acknowledgement that there are also obvious points of dissimilarity (e.g. a predator is a single unitary organism while a corporation is constituted through a plurivocal collection of living beings). There is also a 'taken-for-granted' understanding that the projected attributes are not literal ones (e.g. a large corporation does not actually 'eat' smaller companies).

From a modernist perspective, characteristics of similarity and dissimilarity, such as those indicated above, can be clearly delineated and the separation of the literal attributes and contrived ones is seen as unproblematic. …

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