Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository

Thesis Format

Integrated Article


Doctor of Philosophy




Frank Boers


This dissertation examines metaphors for multiculturalism and multicultural society, explores how students at a Canadian university interpret and evaluate these metaphors, and illustrates that raising students’ awareness of metaphors can be a fruitful way of engaging them in reflective practice regarding complex and controversial issues.

The thesis is composed of four studies in the integrated article format and has six chapters: An introduction to the topic of metaphor and its multifarious use in research including multiculturalism (Chapter 1), the four studies (Chapters 2, 3, 4 and 5), and a conclusion to summarize the findings of the studies along with implications, limitations, and future research directions (Chapter 6).

Study 1 examined a corpus of 646 opinion articles regarding multiculturalism and multicultural society published in Canadian newspapers to reveal the extent Canadians’ opinions vary regarding multiculturalism and whether it should be promoted. Examining metaphorical language in discourse about multiculturalism may also demonstrate which metaphors are typically used to endorse it and which ones are typically used to express a more skeptical stance. Linguistic metaphors were identified and then grouped under themes. The texts were categorized based on the authors’ stance, and instances of the metaphor themes were counted to identify whether some occurred more frequently in discourse promoting multiculturalism than in discourse expressing caution. The results illustrated that certain metaphor themes are instantiated more often either in texts painting a positive picture of multicultural society (e.g., a multicultural society is a varied multi-component work of art or craft) or in ones expressing reservations (e.g., multiculturalism is a destabilizing or divisive force). Such contrasts were nonetheless attenuated by the way a single metaphor theme can be used to serve different rhetorical purposes. It also appears that writers are not always aware of the entailments of the metaphors they use, especially if these are conventionalized phrases.

Studies 2, 3, and 4 are based on interviews with the same 50 students at a university based in Canada. Approximately one-hour interview per student served to collect data for three studies. The students were of different ethnocultural backgrounds.

Study 2 explored the beliefs of university students at a university in Canada regarding multiculturalism and multicultural society, through examining the metaphors they use to talk about these concepts. We interviewed 50 students about their perceptions and experiences of multiculturalism in Canada and then asked them to explain their choice of metaphors. Many of the metaphors could be grouped under more general metaphor themes, such as a multicultural society is a varied multi-component piece of art/craft (comprising, for example, mosaic and tapestry metaphors) and multicultural society is a container to mix things (comprising, for example, melting pot and salad bowl metaphors). According to the literature, the former theme is compatible with the view that multiculturalism involves integration while preserving diversity, whereas the latter is associated with the notion of assimilation. A few statistical trends in the participants’ mention of certain metaphors appeared that were found to relate to their demographic characteristics. For instance, Canadian students appeared to be more inclined than international students to use the (positive) varied multi-component piece of art/craft theme relative to the other metaphors in the total data set. The interview data also revealed marked differences among participants as regards their awareness of metaphor but prompting them to reflect on their choice of metaphors often had an awareness-raising effect.

Study 3 investigated how metaphors of multiculturalism and multicultural society are interpreted and evaluated by the same participants. They were exposed to 24 metaphors regarding multiculturalism and multicultural society previously identified in the Canadian press and were inquired to choose the ones they agree or disagree with the most. Then, they were required to elaborate on the reasons behind their selections. The results illustrated that process, mosaic, orchestra, salad bowl, foundation of national identity, shared space, pool of (valuable) resources, and garden metaphors received comparatively many endorsements. Besides, many participants rejected division, divided place, (ethnic) tribes/enclaves, destabilizing force, experiment, and continuum metaphors more frequently. Some of the participants’ responses to the metaphor evaluation task appeared to be associated with demographic characteristics. The participants’ reasons for endorsing or rejecting the metaphors varied depending on their specific views of the source domains and on what analogies between these domains and the target domain they recognized. The considerable individual differences in these participants’ reasoning about the given metaphors call for a cautious interpretation of studies which aim to examine the impact of exposure to certain metaphors on the reasoning and beliefs of groups of people.

Study 4 presents an investigation into how a procedure to enhance people’s metaphor awareness assisted a group of university students in Canada in expanding their perspectives on multiculturalism and multicultural society. Data were collected through semi-structured interviews during which the participants were invited to evaluate metaphors related to these two concepts. The results not only revealed a significant increase in the participants’ repertoire of metaphors regarding the two concepts, but also a deeper understanding of the implications of the metaphors, that is, the mappings between the source domains (e.g., melting pot, mosaic, tapestry, etc.) and target domains (multiculturalism and multicultural society). Overall, our findings show that strategies designed to enhance metaphor awareness can substantially contribute to students’ critical and flexible reasoning about abstract concepts, and they thus confirm the usefulness of metaphor as an educational tool.

While the interviews were primarily intended as a research tool to explore the participants’ perspectives on multiculturalism and multicultural society, it became apparent that the interviewees also benefited pedagogically by enhancing their own critical thinking skills.

Overall, this dissertation has demonstrated the value of metaphor as a research tool for illuminating individuals’ perceptions of and beliefs about multiculturalism and related concepts. Furthermore, it has demonstrated that using semi-structured interviews helps to unveil the assumptions behind individuals’ metaphor use, and how these assumptions may differ from the implications that metaphor researchers may ascribe to the same metaphors. The project also illustrated the value of metaphor as a pedagogical tool, confirming its potency in raising individuals’ metaphor-awareness and by doing so promote critical and flexible thinking about controversial social issues. The dissertation concludes with methodological suggestions for future research and with pedagogical suggestions for enhancing metaphor awareness in various educational domains.

Summary for Lay Audience

People use analogies to describe and/or understand different issues and concepts in their daily life. One figurative device that effectively captures these analogies is metaphor. Simply speaking, a metaphor is to describe something by something else through referring to similar characteristics between these them. For example, the city is a jungle is a metaphor in the sense that the crowdedness of the city is compared to the density of trees or other plants in a jungle, or lack of/bending rules in a city can be compared to the absence of rules in wildlife in a jungle. Individuals consciously or unconsciously use metaphors to describe, expand their understanding of, or express their views on multifarious phenomena. This doctoral dissertation investigates different aspects of metaphor use in socio-educational domain. The thesis encompasses four articles concentrating on the role of metaphor in understanding and raising our awareness of multiculturalism and the related concepts in the Canadian context.

To understand the metaphoric language that individuals employ to conceptualize these concepts within the Canadian society, Study 1 analyzed a corpus of opinion pieces published in the Canadian newspapers to extrapolate metaphors the Canadian public may use to discuss the concepts and examine assumptions these metaphors may suggest. The results acknowledged that the Canadian public employed a wide array of metaphors to describe multiculturalism and multicultural society. Furthermore, the abstracted metaphors were found to principally reflect views both in favor of and critical of multiculturalism and multicultural society. Some metaphors were found to be used significantly more often in one camp than the other.

Study 2 analyzed a corpus of interview transcripts collected from a group of university students, including international students, at a university in Canada. The goal was to explore the metaphors that individuals in academia and from a wider range of ethnocultural backgrounds recruit to conceptualize the concepts. We were also interested in uncovering the students’ beliefs associated with these metaphors. The results revealed that certain metaphors stood out in the interviewee responses, and these metaphors were nearly identical to those identified in Study 1. These metaphors portrayed miscellaneous beliefs held by the participants with respect to multiculturalism and multicultural society. Additionally, some of the prevalent metaphors were found to be associated with the demographic characteristics (e.g., age, gender, level of education, etc.) of the participants. For instance, Canadian participants were more inclined than their international counterpart to using a varied multi-component piece of art/craft metaphors as a way of depicting multicultural society positively.

Study 3 aimed to investigate whether metaphors used to describe multiculturalism and multicultural society could influence people’s reasoning and beliefs regarding multiculturalism and multicultural society. The same group of university students were asked to express their opinions on the ideas of Canadian multiculturalism and multicultural society. Specifically, they were given a list of metaphors related to these concepts and were tasked with selecting the ones they felt accurately or inaccurately depicted their own experiences with Canadian multiculturalism and multicultural society. The results demonstrated that participants endorsed and rejected certain metaphors more frequently than others and provided various reasons for their choices. Notably, their explanations did not always indicate a shared understanding of the messages implied by the chosen metaphors. Furthermore, the participants’ preferences for specific metaphors and their rejection of others were found to be associated with their demographic information (e.g., age, gender, ethnicity/race, etc.).

Study 4 examined whether a metaphor evaluation task about multiculturalism and multicultural society can help the same group of students expand their metaphor repertoire and awareness. The results illustrated that the strategies developed to foster metaphor awareness significantly contributed to the participants’ comprehension of these two concepts, enhancing their critical and metaphoric thinking and reasoning about abstract concepts such as multiculturalism. The students also expressed support for using metaphor as a valuable educational tool.

Overall, the four studies demonstrated metaphors reflect and possibly even shape how we think and talk about multiculturalism and associated concepts. Metaphors about these concepts, like metaphors for other concepts, may be deeply connected to one’s socio-ethno-cultural backgrounds. Understanding the mechanism of metaphor can lead to better communication about and comprehension of complex topics including the ones under examination here. Moreover, our findings demonstrated that figurative language, particularly metaphor, is a valuable pedagogic tool, and educators should pay close attention to its use in teaching, course materials, and curricula in general.

Available for download on Sunday, December 01, 2024