Structural Metaphor - Definition and Examples

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

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A structural metaphor is a metaphorical system in which one complex concept (typically abstract) is presented in terms of some other (usually more concrete) concept. It can be differentiated from the organizational metaphor.

A structural metaphor "need not be explicitly articulated or defined," according to John Goss, "but it operates as a guide to meaning and action in the discursive context within which it operates" ("Marketing the New Marketing" in Ground Truth, 1995).

Structural metaphor is one of the three overlapping categories of conceptual metaphors identified by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson in Metaphors We Live By (1980). (The other two categories are orientational metaphor and ontological metaphor.) "Each individual structural metaphor is internally consistent," say Lakoff and Johnson, and it "imposes a consistent structure on the concept it structures."

Examples and Observations

"ARGUMENT IS WAR is an example of a structural metaphor. According to Lakoff and Johnson, structural metaphors are 'cases where one concept is metaphorically structured in terms of another' (1980/ 2003:14). Source domains provide frameworks for target domains: these determine the ways in which we think and talk about the entities and activities to which the target domains refer and even the ways in which we behave or carry out activities, as in the case of argument." (M. Knowles and R. Moon, Introducing Metaphor. Routledge, 2006)

The War Metaphor

"In the structural metaphor ECONOMIC ACTIVITY = WAR, concepts from the source domain WARFARE are transferred to the target domain, because physical conflict is ubiquitous in human life and therefore quite well-structured and more readily understandable. It coherently structures the relations between the various factors in economic activity: business is war; the economy is a battlefield; competitors are warriors or even armies fighting each other, and economic activities are conceptualized in terms of attack and defense, as illustrated in the following example:

As a result of the crisis, the Asians will strike back; they will launch an export offensive. (Wall Street Journal, June 22, 1998, 4)

The WAR metaphor is realized in the following schemata: ATTACK and DEFENSE as causes and WIN/LOSE as the result: successful attack and defense result in victory; unsuccessful attack and defense result in loss . . .."
(Susanne Richardt, "Expert and Common-Sense Reasoning." Text, Context, Concepts, ed. by C. Zelinsky-Wibbelt. Walter de Gruyter, 2003)

Labor and Time as Metaphors

"Let us now consider other structural metaphors that are important in our lives: LABOR IS A RESOURCE and TIME IS A RESOURCE. Both of these metaphors are culturally grounded in our experience with material resources. Material resources are typically raw materials or sources of fuel. Both are viewed as serving purposeful ends. Fuel may be used for heating, transportation, or the energy used in producing a finished product. Raw materials typically go directly into products. In both cases, the material resources can be quantified and given a value. In both cases, it is the kind of material as opposed to the particular piece or quantity of it that is important for achieving the purpose...
"When we are living by the metaphors LABOR IS A RESOURCE and TIME IS A RESOURCE, as we do in our culture, we tend not to see them as metaphors at all. But . . . both are structural metaphors that are basic to Western industrial societies."​ (George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By. The University of Chicago Press, 1980)

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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Structural Metaphor - Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 27). Structural Metaphor - Definition and Examples. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Structural Metaphor - Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 22, 2023).