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The analysis of metonymy within organization studies

With the so-called linguistic turn, research within organization studies began paying more attention to language. Metaphor was one of the first linguistic issues treated, followed by the other master tropes, i.e. metonymy, synecdoche and irony (Clegg and Bailey 2008: 773). Tropes have been examined from two main perspectives. The first, the epistemological point of view, is particularly relevant for the analysis of metaphor because metaphors create new relations and are, therefore, especially apt for generating new knowledge (cf. Section 2.2.1). The second perspective, the rhetorical, aims at exploring the use of tropes within organizational discourse (cf. Section 2.2.2; also Manning 1979; Watson 1995; Grant and Oswick 1996; Hamilton 2003; Musson and Tietze 2004; Cornelissen 2008; Riad and Vaara 2011).

As mentioned previously, metonymy has been far less explored than metaphor. The existing empirical studies generally concentrate on the use of metonymical expressions in organizational discourse in order to show how they reflect and express the organizational structure in which subjects are involved. However, these studies are often restricted to the analysis of specific examples within relatively small samples (Cornelissen 2008: 80). Just like linguists, organization scholars are divided as to whether synecdoche, i.e. part-whole relations, should be considered as a trope of its own or as a subtype of metonymy. Consequently, the same phenomenon can be classified differently depending on the author’s approach. For example, for Cornelissen (2008: 82) the metonymic relationship (i.e. contiguity) includes part- whole relationships, and thus also synecdoche. As a consequence, linguistic expressions in which a company name is used to refer to members of that company are considered to be a very common type of metonymy. Watson (1995: 813) and Hamilton (2003: 1571), on the other hand, take the classical rhetoric approach when they classify these examples as instances of synecdoche.

As regards the broad understanding of metonymy (including synecdoche), the most thoroughly examined metonymic patterns within organization studies are, of course, those that take organizations and locations as source domains. For example, Cornelissen (2008: 92) found that the most important conventionalized metonymies in talk about organizations are ‘organization for product’ or ‘organization for members’. According to this author, “people talk about and understand organizations by using one well-understood aspect of a company to stand for the thing as a whole or some other aspect of it” (p. 89). He comes to the conclusion that “metonymies are consistently used by people to talk organizations into existence” and “to give meaning to organizations” (p. 95). In addition, according to Musson and Tietze (2004: 1318-1319), metonymies “gloss over, reduce and simplify what is actually very complex, making the structure of the web/system/cultural order appear simple, constant, ordinary, routine, normal and rational”.

To conclude, in contrast to linguistics, organization studies has mostly investigated metonymy from a social-science perspective. Many investigations may be roughly assigned to the methodological framework of critical discourse analysis. Hence, within organization studies metonymy is attributed a more social dimension, in that it is regarded as symptomatic of internal structures and the functioning of organizations as social entities (Musson and Tietze 2004: 1318-1319). This view is obviously not as central in linguistic studies, which mostly aim at the description and classification of linguistic phenomena, and their semantic-pragmatic effects, in order to learn about their co- and contextual environment and their actual distribution in texts.

 
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