house renovation
News, Teaching Stories

Metaphorically speaking!: Metaphors and educational research (Part One)

Our family recently returned from holidays, and on the outward and returning flight my three year old daughter was fascinated by the safety sheet she found in the seat pocket. She looked intently at the images, trying to piece together the dramatic narrative that was graphically unfolding before her eyes. To help her make sense of it all, she asked me a lot of questions: Why is the person sitting that way (for the brace position) and why are they doing that? What are the yellow things dangling from the plane’s ceiling (oxygen masks) and why are they there? Why are red marks crossing out diminutive pictures of shoes (high heels), phones and luggage etc. Unsurprisingly, this exercise (thankfully) passed quite a bit of our time in the air, testimony that a picture does contain a thousand words.  

When we find ourselves in a new and strange situation, and a visual aid like a safety instruction sheet isn’t readily available, we often turn to figurative language to help share ideas, explain different viewpoints and work towards joint or common understandings. Here, metaphors can be useful. According to the Oxford English Dictionary(OED), metaphors are “A figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable.” Its explanation of the etymology of the word gives us a clearer insight into the role and function of metaphor. ‘Recorded from the late 15th century, the word comes via French and Latin from Greek metaphora, from metapherein ‘to transfer’.1 In this regard, metaphors are linguistic devices that offer a way of making something unfamiliar and unknown appear more familiar and knowable. 

Medicine and the world of illness is awash with metaphors2– DNA as ‘the blueprint of life’3, cancer as a ‘battle’ against an enemy residing within our bodies,4 or frailty as a ‘paper boat’5 are just some such examples. While there are limits to the explanatory nature of metaphors, with some running the risk of being too basic or reductionist in their approach(for instance, many cancer survivors object to framing their survivorship as a ‘fight’),2,6 their descriptive function can and often does offer a new level of understanding, due to the illustrative power of comparison.  As Buta et al.7 remark ‘Figurative techniques may offer novel and unexpected comparisons, and can also allow for relatable descriptions free of scientific jargon’.   

Understanding educational research as a metaphor 

For many the prospect of undertaking educational research for the first time can be confusing and daunting. Academic literature points to the existence of significant and largely negative emotional associations with research training, such as fear and anxiety, boredom, a sense of being overwhelmed by the material being covered as well as recognition of the cognitive complexity of research paradigms and subsequent empirical approaches.8-9 Could looking at the research enterprise from a metaphoric perspective help keep the negative emotions in check, reframe the process as a more manageable and doable piece of work as well as allow students to establish a more personal connection with the task at hand?10 One metaphor that I find particularly effective in this regard is the work by Grant and Osanloo’s 11 and their likening of the process of research to the building of a house (see Figure 1).

Figure 1.

A research journey begins with a sense of curiosity about the social world and a questioning of how or why things are the way they are. The best way to demonstrate our question or hunch on the world is to transform it into a material reality for everyone to see. To materialize this vision, first, ideas need to be put to paper; in the case of building a house this means drafting a blueprint. This blueprint sets out the site plans, floor plans and building elevation of the house. At this stage the structural, electrical, plumbing, heating and ventilation systems for the house are all discussed and agreed upon. This intricate level of detail of the house is captured in this schematic design. Grant and Osanloo12 compare the intricate details captured in this phase of work to that of deciding upon the theoretical approach of a study.  Each theoretical approach offers a different style of house to live in. While all theories are equally valid and useful, you need to choose the one that complements the vision you had at the outset. 

Second, the next step is the design development stage. At this stage technical plans are gone into more detail, and the plan is translated into a living space with consideration of the fixtures, fittings, interiors and exteriors of the house. The layout and dimensions of the house are also finalised, as are all the materials agreed for use. This design development stage can be considered the conceptual framework of a study, detailing how key concepts within a theoretical approach will be operationalised or used to turn the plans into a workable and hospitable space.  

Third, the next stage is the construction drawing stage. This step is when you test or see if your designs or vision is workable and achievable by making sure the plans were detailed enough for you, or any member of the construction team to carry out. This construction document stage can be aligned to the decisions that are made regarding the project’s research methods. Are the methods appropriate to the creative vision of the project? Have they been executed in such a way that they ensure that the house and all its design features are not simply attractive, but more importantly are functional, durable and robust?  

Seeing the research process mapped out as distinct phases in a construction project can help create additional value and insight by detailing what research entails and why and how these element work in tandem to produce research. For novice researchers, it may offer a useful starting point or ‘hook’ to support further learning and understanding with the theoretical, conceptual and methodological distinctions of research. For those more familiar with research this metaphor may be too generic. If that is the case, then I invite you to create your own metaphor for the research process and share them in the comments section of this blog. Future readers may find these suggestions to be more useful and help them progress with their research journey.  

Dr Patricia Neville, Bristol Dental School 


  1. Oxford English Dictionary. Metaphor. Retrieved from:;jsessionid=4A21D59094DB4BB00CDA99D9AA3BCFCD Accessed 20 March 2023. 
  1. Sontag S. Illness as metaphor. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 1978. 
  1. Stelmach A, Nerlich B. Metaphors in search of a target: the curious case of epigenetics. New Genet Soc. 2015;34(2):196–218 
  1. Harrington KJ. The use of metaphor in discourse about cancer: a review of the literature. Clin J Oncol Nurs. 2012;16(4):408–12 
  1. Cantley, P. 2018. The paper boat. 9 July, British Geriatric Society Blog, 
  1. Reisfield GM, Wilson GR. Use of metaphor in the discourse on cancer. J Clin Oncol. 2004;22(19):4024–7. 
  1. Buta B, Leder D, Miller R, Schoenborn NL, Green AR, Varadhan R. The Use of Figurative Language to Describe Frailty in Older Adults. J Frailty Aging. 2018;7(2):127-133.  
  1. Balloo, K. (2019). Students’ Difficulties During Research Methods Training Acting as Potential Barriers to Their Development of Scientific Thinking. In: Murtonen, M., Balloo, K. (eds) Redefining Scientific Thinking for Higher Education. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.  
  1. Wishkoski, R, Meter DJ, Tulane S, King MQ, Butler K, Woodland LA. Student attitudes toward research in an undergraduate social science research methods course, Higher Education Pedagogies. 2022; 7:1: 20-36,  
  1. Steele R, Baird J, Davies B. Using Metaphors to Make Research Findings Meaningful. Canadian Journal of Nursing Research. 2022;54(2):99-100. 
  1. Grant C, Osanloo A. 2014. Understanding, Selecting, and Integrating a Theoretical Framework in Dissertation Research: Creating the Blueprint for Your “House”. Administrative Issues Journal: Connecting Education, Practice, and Research; 2014; 4, 2: 12-26 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.