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Organisational metaphors and sustainable development: enabling or inhibiting?

Nick Barter (Griffith Business School, Griffith University, Brisbane, Australia)
Sally Russell (Griffith Business School, Griffith University, Brisbane, Australia)

Sustainability Accounting, Management and Policy Journal

ISSN: 2040-8021

Article publication date: 2 August 2013

Abstract

Purpose

In this paper the authors aim to examine the dominance of machine and organism metaphors in organisational studies. They argue that these metaphors impede progress towards sustainable development because they perpetuate a story that dehumanises and de‐prioritises humans at the expense of the organisation which in turn becomes a rarefied and prioritised subject. This result is not consistent with the whole of humanity narrative that is entwined within sustainable development. To develop these arguments, the authors discuss sustainable development, highlighting how the concept implicates the central role of humans. They then discuss the limitations of the machine and organism metaphors relative to sustainable development. The paper then offers a different view of metaphors and suggests a more holistic understanding that is compatible with the achievement of sustainable development.

Design/methodology/approach

As a conceptual paper, this article reviews existing literature and offers critique of the use of the dominant metaphors of machine and organism.

Findings

Machine and organism metaphors perpetuate a language and understanding that dehumanises work and organisations. The implication of this is that organisational practice and research needs to adopt new metaphors to facilitate sustainable development.

Research limitations/implications

As a conceptual document, this manuscript offers new avenues for future research and practice.

Practical implications

The arguments presented challenge scholars', educators' and practitioners' use of machine and organism metaphors when discussing organisations.

Originality/value

The originality/value of this paper lies in reflecting upon the metaphors of organism and machine relative to sustainable development and in turn reflecting upon the metaphors associated with and the central role of humans within the sustainable development concept.

Keywords

Citation

Barter, N. and Russell, S. (2013), "Organisational metaphors and sustainable development: enabling or inhibiting?", Sustainability Accounting, Management and Policy Journal, Vol. 4 No. 2, pp. 145-162. https://doi.org/10.1108/SAMPJ-Jan-2012-0002

Publisher

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Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2013, Emerald Group Publishing Limited