Theorizing the Role of Metaphors in Co-orienting Collective Action Toward Grand Challenges: The Example of the Covid-19 Pandemic

Dennis Schoeneborn, Consuelo Vasquez, Joep Cornelissen

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This paper adds to the literature on societal grand challenges by shifting the focus away from business firms and other formal organizations as key actors in addressing such challenges toward the inherent organizing capacity that lies in the use of language itself. More specifically, we focus on the organizing capacities of metaphor-based communication, seeking to ascertain which qualities of metaphors enable them to co-orient collective action toward tackling grand challenges. In addressing this question, we develop an analytical framework based on two qualities of metaphorical communication that can provide such co-orientation: a metaphor’s (a) vividness and (b) responsible actionability. We illustrate the usefulness of this framework by assessing selected metaphors used in the public discourse to make sense of and organize collective responses to the Covid-19 pandemic, including the flu metaphor/analogy, the war metaphor, and the combined metaphor of “the hammer and the dance.” Our paper contributes to extant research by providing a means to assess the co-orienting potential of metaphors in bridging varied interpretations. In so doing, our framework can pave the way toward more responsible use of metaphorical communication in tackling society’s grand challenges.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationOrganizing for Societal Grand Challenges
EditorsAli Aslan Gümüsay, Emilio Marti, Hannah Trittin-Ulbrich, Christopher Wickert
Number of pages23
Place of PublicationBingley
PublisherEmerald Group Publishing
Publication date2022
ISBN (Print)9781839098291
ISBN (Electronic)9781839098260
Publication statusPublished - 2022
SeriesResearch in the Sociology of Organizations


  • Communication
  • Co-orientation
  • Covid-19
  • Grand challenges
  • Metaphors
  • Organization theory

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