Communication Studies, Department of


Date of this Version



Published in Equality, Diversity and Inclusion: An International Journal 37:7 (2018), pp. 664-682



Copyright © 2018 Emerald Publishing Limited. Used by permission.


Purpose This analysis draws on interviews with 19 self-identified US diversity consultants and 94 diversity statements posted on corporate websites. The findings challenge existing literature that characterizes the business case for diversity as monolithic and wholly problematic for the way it constructs understandings of human difference. The authors accomplish this using metaphor analysis to demonstrate how business case arguments incorporate three metaphorical systems for thinking and speaking about human differences – as asset, as liability and as possibility. Given this diversity of metaphors, the business case does not construct human difference in a monolithic way, but in a variety of ways that both challenge and sustain problematic treatments of difference. The authors argue scholars and practitioners should attend to these nuanced difference within the discourse of the business case, and more carefully consider how these metaphorical systems both enable and constrain the design and execution of diversity work in organizations.

The paper aims to discuss these issues.

Design/methodology/approach – The analysis draws on two data sets: initial interviews with 19 self-identified US diversity consultants analyzed using metaphor analysis. To triangulate findings, the metaphorical framework was applied to 94 diversity statements posted on corporate websites.

Findings – Business case arguments operate according to three root metaphors of human difference: human difference as asset, human difference as liability and human difference as possibility. This challenges existing literature that treats the business case as a monolithic discourse.

Research limitations/implications – This analysis offers the three metaphorical system and highlights the “constrained capacity” of each. This framework offers an analytical and practical tool for scholars and practitioners, enabling them to more thoroughly understand and respond to their unique organizational and socio-historical context. It also provides a way to analyze how concepts of difference are mobilized across social and historical contexts.

Practical implications – The findings offer the “constrained capacity” that is, the strategic limitations and possibilities for practitioners who use the business case in their diversity work. This enables more skilled and ethically informed diversity initiatives. Social implications – The findings offer insight into the subtle ways that hierarchies of human difference embedded in US history are subtly reinforced and made present through language. This enables social justice workers to better challenge problematic constructions of human difference and create new understandings when needed.

Originality/value – This piece makes two significant original contributions to existing literature. It offers more nuance to both critical and uncritical analyses of the business case by showing the diversity of business case assumptions about human difference as demonstrated in three different metaphorical systems and highlighting the constrained capacity of three different metaphorical systems. It offers unique analysis grounded in contemporary discourses, but correlated to historical systems of thought. This enables empirical identification of how certain types of thinking about human difference move across socio-historical contexts.