Studies of business discourse examine how the work of a business institution gets accomplished through talk and texts. Academic and practitioner interest in business discourse has emerged in a social context where business institutions, notably corporations, have a powerful presence in the world. Close attention to business discourse is predicated on the following suppositions: that people spend a significant portion of their lives in business institutions, that this work gets accomplished primarily through talk and texts (especially as managers and in a knowledge economy), and that there are better and worse ways to practice discourse. The study of business discourse is international and approached from multiple disciplines and perspectives, including various forms of discourse analysis – such as action-implicative discourse analysis, discursive psychology, and critical discourse analysis – conversation analysis and ethnomethodology, organizational communication, management theory, sociolinguistics, pragmatics, genre analysis, ethnography, and narrative analysis.
Characteristic Features Of Business Discourse
There are two characteristic features of research in business discourse: first, the insight that discourse represents a form of situated social action, and second, a disposition toward investigating actual language use in work settings (Bargiela-Chiappini et al. 2007). The notion that discourse is situated social action can be traced back to the “linguistic turn” in the social sciences, through speech act theory, and conversation analysis. From these traditions we learn that language is a dominant system through which social reality is constructed and social actions such as blaming, bullying, complimenting, or justifying are accomplished. Furthermore, talk cannot be understood without attention to the context in which it is produced, and for researchers of business discourse, this context is primarily the corporate work setting. Thus, it is not uncommon to see business discourse researchers turn their attention to such topics as decision-making, facilitative management, leadership, meeting interaction, and strategizing, among others.
Differentiating business discourse from related terms like institutional discourse, professional discourse, and organizational discourse can be tricky. Poncini (2004) explains that professional discourse characteristically involves institutional settings such as courtroom and clinical interaction. These forms of institutional interaction are themselves differentiated from everyday interactions on the basis of three characteristics: (1) goal-orientation (for example, people in institutional settings interact to accomplish a task, not just to “hang out”), (2) distinctive constraints (for example, lawyers in a courtroom have certain restrictions about when and what types of questions are to be asked), and (3) features of inferences unique to a setting (for example, sharing personal details about one’s symptoms and ailments may be seen to violate a personal boundary when talking with an acquaintance, but is perceived as expected and desirable in doctor– patient interaction; Drew & Heritage 1992). Bargiela-Chiappini and Harris (1997) suggest that a decisive feature that differentiates professional discourse from business discourse is the identities of the participants; professional discourse usually involves a lay person and an expert (as in doctor–patient interaction) whereas business discourse involves participants coming together for the purposes of business and in a business setting (that is, in the context of organizations whose raisons d’être include the profit motive, growth, or simply survival (Poncini 2004). Alternatively, Putnam and Fairhurst (2001) excluded settings that were primarily dyadic in nature, such as doctor–patient and clerk–customer interactions, as sites of organizational discourse; for them, organizational discourse cuts across multiple organizational levels and units.
A seminal piece of work that illustrates these features of business discourse is Deirdre Boden’s work The business of talk (1994). She contends that talk is the “lifeblood” of the enterprise that shapes, and is shaped by, its structure, a view with similarities to Anthony Giddens’s notion of structuration. For Boden, meetings are a rich site in which to analyze the iterative, recursive relationship between talk and structure, in part due to their routine and ritualistic occurrence. Her analysis investigates recordings and transcripts of actual meeting discourse to describe the social organization of meetings: their openings, turn-taking, and closings. She is able to document, on a turn-by-turn basis, how the business organization literally gets talked into existence.
Generative Tensions That Animate Business Discourse Research
There are a number of tensions and debates that stimulate dialogue among business discourse researchers, including the roles of context, power, and prescription. While these three issues are not unique to business discourse, they do animate this emergent field.
First, the question of context often plays out in terms of “how much” context beyond the text or conversational transcript researchers draw on to support their analyses. That is, do researchers analyze the textual elements exclusively (such as memos, letters, meeting transcripts, etc.), or do analysts draw on ethnographic knowledge of the specific business context (for example, knowledge of who authored specific discourse, for what purposes, the conditions in which it was produced, how it was received, etc.)? Some researchers combine both approaches in the same study. For example, Samra-Fredericks (2003) combines conversation analysis of transcripts with ethnographic detail of the context to study how certain business strategists are more interactionally effective than others at influencing strategic processes. Other researchers contend that there are advantages to utilizing both approaches separately in a kind of reflexive dialogue at each stage of the research process to help generate new analytical insights (Barry et al. 2006). Another way the question of context is relevant to business discourse research concerns the notion of culture, not only the specific business culture of a company, but also national cultures. Indeed, a great deal of business discourse research seeks to make cross-national or cross-cultural comparisons. For example, Bargiela-Chiappini and Harris (1997) followed up Boden’s important work on meeting discourse by investigating the similarities and differences in British and Italian business meetings.
Second, the question of power invigorates business discourse research in at least two ways. By looking at power from a language and social interaction perspective, researchers investigate how people “do” power, or how power gets enacted, in business settings. In their book Power and politeness in the workplace (2003), Janet Holmes and Maria Stubbe show how different forms of power are accomplished in a senior management meeting of a white-collar organization. As one example, they documented how some members influence group decisions by redefining situations in the area of their expertise even though they may hold a lower status in the organizational hierarchy (or more accurately, how their identities as experts are made more salient in the group’s interaction than their identities as persons of lower positional status).
A second view of power, informed by critical discourse analysis, highlights how what gets taken for granted as the natural state of things (that is, “reality”) usually serves the interests of the dominant group while marginalizing other perspectives and groups. For example, in her book Good to talk? Living and working in a communication culture, Deborah Cameron interrogates whether the discourse of empowerment that permeates corporate training materials actually benefits those lower in the hierarchy as it claims to do. Rather than employees being liberated from constraint, Cameron concludes that they are taught to discipline themselves so that they can be more flexible and work within those constraints, to become more team-oriented, to resolve conflicts, and to control emotions that could potentially disrupt the values of efficiency and order prized by business management.
Third, the question of prescription concerns different aims of the research endeavor. On the one hand there are those researchers whose primary focus is on describing how language is used in or by business organizations toward the end of understanding the process, while other studies investigate situated language use toward the end of informing pedagogy, training, and how to do it “better” (such as how to be a more effective leader, strategist, facilitator, etc.).
Early work in business discourse research often adopted an applied, pedagogical focus, largely owing to its roots in the dominant interests of the business communication field. However, other research aims largely for understanding how language is used in business settings, such as Francois Cooren’s (2004) attempt to understand how texts exercise agency in business settings. Still other research attempts to first describe and understand business discourse and then apply those insights in the workplace. As an example, researchers contributing to the Language in the Workplace Project in New Zealand blend detailed descriptions of workplace interactions with the needs of workplace practitioners. Rather than workplace practices being prescribed with a decontextualized list of dos and don’ts, a dialogue is created between academic researchers and workplace practitioners with the goal of generating an appreciation for the complexity of language use (Jones & Stubbe 2004).
Future Of The Field
The future of business discourse research promises a more nuanced and sophisticated understanding of talk-in-interaction in and by business organizations. As these enterprises evolve new ways of working, roles and relationships inevitably change. These create opportunities for researchers to understand how organizational members develop and employ flexible, discourse-based competencies where talk and texts are not simply means to an end, but in large part the work itself. Further, for critically minded researchers, it serves as a further call to critique whose interests are served by such changes in business enterprises.
Second, the field is likely to see an expansion of its scope to include non-members producing talk and texts about business enterprises in their everyday discourse. An excellent example of this is the renewed interest in consumer-to-consumer word-of-mouth communication and consumer-generated media where the discourse about companies, produced by people unaffiliated with those companies, has been shown to have a consequential impact on the performance of the business enterprise (Carl 2006).
Third, due to the complexity of modern business enterprises it is to be expected that no one disciplinary or analytic tradition will monopolize business discourse research. There is already burgeoning cross-fertilization among disciplines, such as those between scholars of language and social interaction and organizational communication. This trend will likely continue to see greater collaboration among multiple disciplines and analytic frameworks as scholars and practitioners continue to seek insights into the interactional business of doing business.
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