Metaphor and the Dynamics of Knowledge in Organization Theory: A Case Study of the Organizational Identity Metaphor

27 Pages Posted: 30 May 2006


Despite the increased salience of metaphor in organization theory, there is still very little conceptual machinery for capturing and explaining how metaphor creates and/or reorders knowledge within organization theory. Moreover, prior work on metaphor has insufficiently accounted for the context of interpreting a metaphor. Many metaphors in organization theory, including the organizational identity metaphor, have often been treated in singular and monolithic terms; seen to offer a similar or largely synonymous interpretation to theorists and researchers working along the entire spectrum of disciplines (e.g. organizational behaviour, organizational psychology) in organization theory. We argue in this paper that contextual variation however exists in the interpretation of metaphors in organization theory. This argument is developed by proposing and elaborating on a so-called image-schematic model of metaphor, which suggests that the image-schemata (abstract imaginative structures) that are triggered by the metaphorical comparison of concepts may vary among individuals. Accordingly, once different schemata are triggered the completion and interpretation of a metaphor may equally vary among different individuals or, indeed, research communities. These points associated with the image-schematic model of metaphor are illustrated with a case study of the organizational identity metaphor. The case study shows that this particular metaphor has spiralled out into different research communities and has been comprehended in very different ways as different communities work from very different conceptions, or image-schemata, of organization and identity, and use different theoretical frameworks and constructs as a result. The implications of the image-schematic view of metaphor for knowledge development and theoretical progress in organization theory are discussed.

Suggested Citation

Cornelissen, Joep P., Metaphor and the Dynamics of Knowledge in Organization Theory: A Case Study of the Organizational Identity Metaphor. Journal of Management Studies, Vol. 43, No. 4, pp. 683-709, June 2006. Available at SSRN: or

Joep P. Cornelissen (Contact Author)


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