Critical discourse analysis

The critical-discourse approach was present even in the oldest article that I know of on metaphors in the economic press. Hebel (1969), in fact, wrote to make students aware of the fact “dab die entscheidenden Momente des Wirtschaftsprozesses durch sie verschleiert werden konnen, vor allem dab ihm aus ihnen Naturwuchsigkeit, Schicksalhaftigkeit und Undurchschaubarkeit falschlich als Merkmale zugeordnet werden” (pp. 70-71) [that the decisive moments of the economic process can be obfuscated by [metaphors], especially if they wrongly attribute naturalness, fatefulness and inscrutability to it]. In the same vein, Svensson (1980:116) took issue with personifications in economic texts: “Ein haufiger Gebrauch von Personifikationen eskamotiert die handelnden Personen aus der Wirtschaft und damit auch den antagonistischen Widerspruch zwischen Kapital und Arbeit.” [A frequent use of personifications spirits away the agents from the economy and, by the same token, the antagonistic contradiction between capital and labour.] These analyses were obviously influenced by the spirit of 1968, and perhaps more concretely by the Frankfurt school and its obsession with power and domination. In a reply to Schmitt (1988: 124), who reiterated Svensson’s view, Schifko (1992: 564, fn. 26) judiciously observed that the manipulative aspect of economic journalism should not be overstated since most readers of the business sections are professionals who are not easily misled by metaphors.

Quite independently, as it seems, from this early German literature, the manipulative aspect of metaphors in economic and business discourse has again attracted great interest since the turn of the millennium. It is universally acknowledged that the basis of this manipulative potential lies in the age-old insight that metaphors necessarily highlight some aspects of the target while concealing others, a phenomenon nowadays often referred to as “framing”. Numerous publications stress the same aspects already pointed out by Hebel and Svensson: “concealment of human agency” (Charteris-Black 2000: 162), “a natural event for which no one in particular can be held responsible” (Cortes de los Rios 2010: 85), etc.

Although many works conjure up the danger of manipulation, the effect of metaphors upon real-life audiences is hardly ever assessed empirically: most authors write about the imagined effects, not about cognitive or social realities. A notable exception is Boers (1997c), who confronted two groups of students with one and the same text about foreign trade in which only the conceptual metaphors had been manipulated: “The test results indicate that exposure to different metaphors to describe a general economic scenario can lead to different lines of reasoning.” (p. 238). It is therefore beyond doubt that metaphors can influence our thinking in important ways, yet we are not “trapped” in our metaphorical conceptualizations, neither as speakers/writers nor as hearers/readers (cf. Wolff 1976: 51; Wolf and Polzenhagen 2003: 269).

Another aspect worthy of consideration is the fact that metaphor is very often only one among many verbal and non-verbal means of persuasion used for a single purpose. Consequently, it is difficult to assess the exact influence of metaphor except in somewhat artificial experimental situations such as the one just mentioned. In her study of the role of metaphors in reframing the image of a bank during a banking crisis Holmgreen (2012), for example, observes that “[m]etaphors may not be the primary means through which frames are instantiated; instead metaphors seem to function as ways of adding evaluation to the frames introduced by other lexical items” (p. 261).

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