An analysis of conceptual metaphor in the professional and academic discourse of technical communication



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Texas A&M University


This dissertation explores the ongoing division between technical communication practitioners and academics by examining the conceptual metaphors that underlie their discourse in professional journals and textbooks. Beginning with a demonstration that conceptual metaphor theory as formulated by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson is a viable lens through which to engage in rhetorical (in addition to linguistic) analysis, the dissertation shows that academics and practitioners engage in radically different linguistic behaviors that result from the complex and often conflicting interplay of conceptual metaphors that guide their work. These metaphors carry assumptions about writers, texts, and communication that create covert tensions with the ethical value systems overtly embraced by both practitioners and academics. Chapter II looks at two professional publications written primarily by technical communicators for an audience of colleagues, and demonstrates that practitioners tend to use metaphors primarily centered around machines and money, objectifying both documents and people and reducing the processes of communication to a series of abstract mathematical influences. Chapter III looks at two technical communication journals with a more scholarly audience, and argues that academics participate in a much more convoluted conceptual system, embracing ?humanist? language about communication that favors metaphors of human agency, physical presence, and complex social interaction; however, academics also participate in the abstracted, object-oriented metaphors favored by practitioners, leading to a particularly convoluted discourse both advocating and at odds with humanist social values. Chapter IV shows the practical consequences of these conflicting conceptual systems in several widely-used technical communication textbooks, arguing that academics inadvertently perpetuate the division between industry and academy with their tendency to use conceptual metaphors that contradict their social and ethical imperatives. This research suggests that a more detailed linguistic analysis may be a fruitful way of understanding and perhaps addressing the long-standing tensions between academics and practitioners in the field of technical communication.