Frontiers of Entrepreneurship Research, 1995

Frontiers of Entrepreneurship Research
1995 Edition

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    Matti Koiranen, University of Jyväskylä, Finland


    Figurative language, of which metaphors are a prime example, has traditionally been the concern of the arts and humanities. Metaphors are part of our everyday speech and they are processes by which we view the world and the "heart" (a metaphor itself) of how we think and learn. The influence of metaphors on our lives and actions cannot be denied.

    The study will focus on North-European entrepreneurial metaphors and concepts. The analysis is both qualitative and quantitative. After the review of literature the methodology and the results of the study will be presented and discussed the key findings being that metaphors reveal several ways of thinking. Metaphorical analyses can be used as tools to make sense, to structure and to understand how people think and speak. An empirical conceptual analysis was also carried out. Some systematicity was discovered in the form of dimensionality which was found both qualitatively and quantitatively.

    The observations between the three subsets of respondents, namely entrepreneurs, managers and the people without any managerial or entrepreneurial position, did not differ significantly from each other.


    Metaphors are descriptors of sets of behaviour. They are important means by which we can better understand the essence of (entrepreneurial) thinking and acting. Humans have always attempted to conceptualize the world, give it form, make it real, and understand it. As Morgan (1980) has put it: "Words, science, art and myth are all ways we attempt to structure our world."

    Entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship have not been largely researched with a metaphorical analysis. Demands are frequently made for the development of a more operationalized approach where everyday language in general and metaphors in particular are used. The metaphorical approach is risky but it is time to take the challenge.

    Metaphorical expressions can sometimes be much better than literal statements to reveal what (and how) people really think about entrepreneurship. Metaphors are a vehicle through which we construct our realities. The idea of alternative ways of thinking and seeing is central to the emerging ideas of entrepreneurship. In constructing realities and in seeing alternative opportunities one will find, it is argued here, metaphors even more useful than literal statements since alternatives are more easily created through metaphors than through literal language. An entrepreneur makes realities out of opportunities (Hjorth and Koiranen, 1994).

    The main research problem of the paper is: What kind of metaphors do people use in relating to 'an entrepreneur' and 'entrepreneurship'? The next two questions following the first are naturally: why? and what are the implications?


    Although metaphorical analyses have a long tradition in general philosophy and linguistics they have not been very actively used in entrepreneurship or management research. Perhaps the best-known pioneers of metaphor literature are Black (1962), Jakobson (1956), Lakoff and Johnson (1980), Miall (1982), Ortony (1979), Sacks (1979), and Wheelwright (1962). Morgan (1980 and 1983) has pioneered discussion on metaphors in administrative sciences.

    Lakoff and Johnson (1980, p. 7-14) have in their book put forward the notion of systematicity of metaphorical concepts. They have observed how a language can reflect the conceptual system of its speakers and they argue that most of our ordinary conceptual system is metaphorical in nature (Lakoff and Johnson, 1980, p. 4). Lakoff and Johnson have expressed interesting ideas about the relationship between metaphor and ritual. The key essence of metaphor is understanding and experiencing one (kind of) thing in terms of another. They argue that human thought processes are largely metaphorical (Lakoff and Johnson, 1980, p. 6), meaning that the human conceptual system is metaphorically structured and defined.

    Black (1962) argues that one cannot define a metaphor because there are no necessary and sufficient conditions for doing so. The context is crucial and the choice pragmatic. Morgan (1980) pays attention to the relationship between a metaphor and the social research milieu in which it is embedded (see also Easton and Araujo, 1991). The power of metaphors has been explicitly put forward by Petersson (1987).

    Judge's (et al.) article (1993) recalls some of the cognitive functions of metaphor relating to the language of futures. Patterson (1993) has recently used the manufacturing assembly line metaphor for the product development process in order to streamline the process. Marshak (1993) has described the metaphors of change and come to the conclusion that, when communicating with employees, managers need to synchronize the language with the type of change being made. Tsoukas (1993) has identified three perspectives in the process of knowledge generation in an organization theory: metaphors as ways of thinking, metaphors as dispensable literary devices and metaphors as potential ideological distortions.

    Hodgson (1993) thinks that economics is presently dominated by a mechanistic metaphor. In his opinion the metaphor of a machine excludes knowledge, qualitative change and irreversibility through time. He suggests a new approach by examining the roles of the mechanical and biological analogies in economic science.

    Jansson (1994) uses the game(player) metaphor approach within the context of the techniques for investment appraisal. Firat and Venkatesh (1993) have pioneered metaphor thinking in the marketing literature. Czarniawska-Joerges (1988) has discussed how to control things with words: linguistic artefacts, organizational talk and control, "labels" and metaphors used by consultants etc. In his working paper Kleppestö (1991) has discussed company acquisitions and mergers by using marriage metaphors.

    In his dissertation Student (1989) has analyzed the use of metaphors in studying uncertainty in entrepreneurs. There are a number of other interesting examples of metaphor studies in entrepreneurship. Johanisson (1990) has analyzed entrepreneurial growth and put forward the network metaphor. Easton and Araujo (1991) have discussed entrepreneurial network metaphors in more detail. Greenfield and Strickon (1981) have reviewed the studies of entrepreneurial behaviour. They have suggested a new evolutionary framework in the form of a population model using a biological approach: the root metaphor and darwinism.

    To support the empirical part of the present paper the key literature findings are as follows:

    a) Metaphors reveal ways of thinking. Meaning comes with context. At least to the extent individuals have common experiences they have common understandings. Language is a carrier of ideas and thoughts. Metaphors as figures of speech are more than (simply) objects. They also express relationships, such as A is B, or A is like B. (Tsoukas, 1993; Easton and Araujo, 1991)

    b) A metaphor analysis offers an alternative for the search for knowledge in entrepreneurship. It can be used as a tool to make sense, to structure and to understand the ways of how people speak and think about entrepreneurship (Easton and Araujo, 1991) c) It is possible to find out some systematicity of metaphorical concepts (Lakoff and Johnson, 1980)

    d) Mechanical or machine-type metaphors dominate in economic literature but for example biological metaphors could be more useful (Hodgson, 1993, Greenfield and Strickon, 1981).


    A questionnaire was developed from the existing literature and earlier efforts of Peltonen (1986) and Koiranen (1993). Questions related to both the concept of 'an entrepreneur' and 'entrepreneurship' were examined by a pre-test procedure. The respondents were asked to give their metaphorical expressions in preference order (from one to five) in both scales.

    Related concepts were later examined by a seven point Likert-type scale. The data were collected from 320 North European respondents but four questionnaires had to be rejected. The sample ensured a required geographical representation. 51 % of the respondents were male and 49 % were female. The average age of respondents was 33 years and the average number of years of employment among respondents was 11.3 as there was a shift towards teenage respondents at the expense of older respondents. 47 per cent of the respondents said that either their parents or close relatives were or had been business owners but only 28 % of the respondents had any experience either in setting up or in running their own company. Three major subsets were formed: entrepreneurs, individuals holding other types of managerial position, and individuals not holding managerial or entrepreneurial positions. The third subset included shopfloor workers, teenagers, students, unemployed and a few retired people.

    The procedures employed were qualitative classifications of the (unstructured) metaphor expressions followed by descriptive statistics (such as means and standard deviations), cross-tabulations and some factor analyses of the structured data for grouping related concepts.


    Metaphors of an entrepreneur

    The respondents described entrepreneurs in all North European countries in a fairly similar way. The expressions used could be classified in seven groups:

    a) Creative or/and industrious actor

    b) Special character or feature

    c) Machine(ry) or another physical object

    d) Nature

    e) Sportsman or gameplayer

    f) Adventurer, Warrior or Battler

    g) Miscellaneous.

    > Let us quote some examples to describe each of these categories. Creative and industrious actor was described as: a hardworker, the captain of a ship, a self-made man, a wanderer, a shepherd, an innovator, an artist, an organizer, an astrologist, a priest, a leader, a servant, a mother, an actor, a sailor, an owner, an investor, or a money maker. Special characters or features were for example: independent, initiative, drive, ambition, resilient, goal-oriented, charismatic, courageous, future-oriented, a loner, ahead of time, unprotected, a work-addict, a workaholic, a witchdoctor, a hermit, a yuppie, a village idiot, Jack of All Trades, and flexible.

    Machine(ry) or physical object-type metaphors were for example: a human machine, a Duracell battery, a PC, a magnet, a generator, a shuttle, the supporting pillar of society, a power station, a key, a rubber band, a motor, a house of cards, a locomotive, an engine, a starting motor, a rubber ball, lubricating grease, a cash register, a perpetuum mobile, a robot, a cork, a melting pot, a vanity fair, a vineyard, a wheel, and ammunition.

    The metaphors of nature inluded many animals, such as: an eager beaver, a fox, a lion, a hamster, a chameleon, a cat (with 9 lives), a bee, an owl, a swallow, a dog, a reindeer, an amoeba, a spider, an octopus, a guinea pig, a bird, a cuckoo, a black sheep, a rooster, a mole, a milch cow, a hedgehog, a donkey, a rat, a lone wolf, a stoat, or plants, such as: a tree, an oak, a pine, a stump, a cactus in a desert, or other nature-related expressions, such as: ice, a human body, a child, a forest, a globe, flowing water, a rolling stone, a whirlwind, a flame, a heart and even God!

    The metaphors of a sportman and a gameplayer were for example: Ayrton Senna, a mountain climber, walking on a tightrope, a team captain, a player, an athlete, a jockey, a sportsman, and a cross-country runner. Metaphors of adventurers, warriors or battlers included: a tough guerrilla, a fighter, a battler, an outlaw, Columbus, a fighter pilot, an explorer, an adventurer, a superman, the raider of an ark, and a gambler.

    Miscellaneous metaphoric expressions were for example: dough, the eyesore to a tax inspector, the mainstay of society, and Donald Duck.

    Metaphors of entrepreneurship

    The metaphoric expressions used by the respondents when relating to entrepreneurship were very similar to the ones they used when relating to an entrepreneur. The seven categories could be named as follows:

    a) Creativity or/and activeness

    b) Special characteristics and features

    c) Machine(ry) or physical objects

    d) Nature

    e) Sports and games

    f) Adventurer, warrior or battler

    g) Miscellaneous

    The respondents chose for example the following expressions to emphasize the ideas of creativity and activeness: making full use of one's capabilities, putting oneself about, productivity, creativity, an actor, building things, blazing new trails, playing music, bus driving, constantly hitting one's head against the wall, and work.

    The metaphors indicating the special characteristics and features of entrepreneurship were for example: gamesmanship, a comprehensive school, workaholism, dreaming, a rebellion, a trap, a wonderland, a stress factor, dynamics, and a way to the future.

    The following metaphors of entrepreneurship are machinery or physical object-type: a well-lubricated machine, a lubricant, a sledgehammer, a money spinner, a flying flag, a zip, a kaleidoscope, a pincushion, Route 66 motorway, a workshop, a Ferris wheel, a greyhound bus, a smoke sauna, a dart, and a seesaw.

    When meaning entrepreneurship the respondents used actively nature-related metaphors, such as: a raging bull, a rat race, tax inspector's game, a bear, rapids, a plant, a weed, a tree, a rolling stone gathering no moss, an uphill, a downhill, a windbreaker, a snake, lightning, a fever, a sickness, a genetic heritage, a cavity, a dawn or an aurora, a sunset, a sunrise, a fire inside a person, a storming sea, and growth.

    Sports and games were also mentioned, for example: ski jumping, a marathon race, a competition, a race, a game, hunting, wrestling, a race for money, a track race, a defeat, a loss, a win, gambling, a rough game, a skating rink, and a pro.

    The metaphors indicating adventurers, warriors and battlers were again typical: slavework, voluntary slavery, fighting for success, an adventure, an eternal battle, conquering a hill, skating on thin ice, fighting spirit, a battlefield, Don Quixote, cheating, a challenge, the prisoner of society, walking on a tightrope, a survival game, a war, a war game, one's turn in Russian roulette, and a scramble.

    Some miscellaneous metaphors were used, such as: bread, mixed soup, and "you reap what you sow".

    The mean differences were analyzed between male and female respondents, between different age groups, between various groups having different work experience etc. The tests were made by using either a Student's t-test or a one-way analysis of variance. No statistically significant differences (at the .05 level) were found.

    Factor analysis: entrepreneurship

    To discover whether there was any dimensionality in the observations a factor analysis was made by using the SPSS Principal Axis Factoring and Varimax Rotation. The interpretation of the factors was based on the loadings exceeding .40 in each factor. Five factors could be identified and they were named as follows:

    The fifth factor explained 2.0 per cent of the total variance. The above mentioned five factors explained cumulatively 49.4 per cent. As can be seen the varimax rotation was very logical and a distinct dimensionality could be discovered.

    Factor analysis: entrepreneur

    The same factor analysis method was used in the second analysis in order to find out whether there is any dimensionality in the observations of entrepreneurs. This time three distinct factors could be identified. These were named as follows:


    The results show that the metaphors of entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship can be grouped in a very similar way. If we leave out the seventh group called "Miscellaneous" the six remaining ones are as follows:

    Some expressions in the first two groups were not real metaphors but nearer to literal statements such as: investor, owner, innovator etc., or independent, future-oriented, initiative etc., or work, productivity etc. On the other hand, some metaphors like for example "a network" have been used in speech so much that in normal (business) language we do not often remember or think about their metaphoric nature and origin. Some metaphors that are in other groups carry the same meaning as a creative and industrious actor, for example: eager beaver, perpetuum mobile, marathon runner etc. Machinery or physical objects, nature, sports and games, adventure and war have also been identified by Lakoff and Johnson (1980) and Easton and Araujo (1991) in their empirical metaphor study.

    The five dimensions of entrepreneurship and the three dimensions of an entrepreneur that were discovered through a factor analysis also had a lot in common. "Exploiting seeker" and "Egoism" were very similar. "Renewing accomplisher" had features from "Work commitment and energy", "Economic values and results", and "Opportunism and innovativeness". "Assiduous toiler" had features from both "Work commitment and energy" and "Winning orientation".

    The individual variables of "Exploiting seeker" and "Egoism" had the lowest means in the quantitative conceptual analysis. These variables correlate negatively with an entrepreneur and entrepreneurship. The North European view seems to be that entrepreneurship is linked with initiative, responsibility, motivation, and action but it is not linked with hardness, selfishness or insolence. An entrepreneur is regarded as a self-confident, responsible, diligent and professional opportunist and risk-taker but he/she is not considered to be a selfish power-seeker, speculator or exploiter.

    Why do we use metaphors in our everyday speech? Why do we use metaphors when relating to entrepreneurship and an entrepreneur? Lakoff and Johnson argue that "most of our ordinary conceptual system is metaphorical in nature". This means that we perceive and think through metaphors. We use metaphors in "understanding and experiencing one kind in terms of another" (1980, p. 4-5).

    What are the implications? For example in political, religious, and educational speech one aims at getting the message through. The same applies to bargaining, advertising etc. We know the expressions: "Iron Curtain", "Fire of Hell" etc. that are really illustrative and effective metaphors.

    I argue that when analyzing in detail the metaphoric expressions people use when relating to an entrepreneur or entrepreneurship we can understand and experience much better how people conceptualize these two. This understanding is extremely useful for example when defining the starting point of entrepreneurial education in different settings and cultures.

    Are the results of this type of study reliable or for example too idealistic? Do we use metaphors in an idealistic or stereotypical way? Do the results make sense? It is possible that the observations are to some extent beliefs and illusions since only 26 per cent of the respondents had their own experience of setting up or running a company. However, the results were very intepretable and generally there was a good internal logic between most near-by concepts.

    The present article written in English suffers from the fact that metaphors and conceptual scales are translations from North European languages. Especially metaphors have a cultural background. When preparing myself for this study I asked two different persons (one was an Estonian student who had left his country only a couple of weeks earlier and the other was a US Professor of Management visiting Finland) which metaphor they associated first with the word "an entrepreneur". The Estonian student answered: "A war hero", and the US professor answered (after hesitation): "An eagle". I do not hesitate in saying that these two expressions illustrate their different cultural and social background.


    The article has been based on the analysis of metaphors and concepts related to entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship. The 316 respondents were all North European. The analysis will now move to the next stage where I shall have empirical data from England, Scotland, Ireland, Canada, USA, Australia and New Zealand. It will be interesting to see whether the Anglo-American entrepreneurial vocabulary is very different from the North European one.

    The study results would have needed a much wider discussion as the scope of comments and implications is vast. I hope to continue this discussion later with a wider cross-cultural background. The key findings based on a North European experience were as follows:

    a) Metaphors reveal ways of thinking. This paper shows how North European people think and speak about entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship.

    b) Metaphoric analyses can be used as a tool to make sense, to structure and to understand the ways of how people think and speak (about entrepreneurship, for example).

    c) It is possible to find some systematicity of metaphors and concepts relating to entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship. The dimensionality could be discovered both through a qualitative metaphor analysis and through a quantitative conceptual analysis.

    d) Different respondent groups have very similar views and ideas of entrepreneurship and entrepreneurs. There is no major difference between the observations of entrepreneurs, managers and people without any entreprenerial or managerial role.


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