Organizational discourse is a burgeoning area of study featuring the role of discourse and communication in organizational dynamics. While its rhetorical and literary roots date back to the ancient Greeks, a more recent impetus has been the analysis of professional talk in institutional settings, beginning in the 1970s, and the role of slogans, creeds, jokes, and stories as reflections of organizational culture in the 1980s (Putnam & Fairhurst 2001). From these early beginnings, organizational discourse analyses have taken on a number of forms.
Discourse and communication are not synonymous; communication is conceived as a related but broader construct that goes beyond the language and meaning-centered concerns of organizational discourse. Although discourse can be defined in a number of ways, Alvesson and Kärreman (2000) generally distinguish between discourse and Discourse. Specifically, discourse is the study of talk and text in social practices. Talk-in-interaction represents sociality, the processes of messaging and conversing. It is the “doing” of organizational discourse, while text is the “done” or material representation of discourse in spoken or recorded forms. Texts can include both written documentation and verbal routines, such as performance appraisals and job interviews that are reconfigured through continued use. The details of language and interaction are the central concerns of discourse analysts. Following Michel Foucault, Discourse refers to general and enduring systems of thought rooted in history and culture. Power/knowledge relations are established in culturally standardized Discourses, formed by constellations of ideas, logics, assumptions, and language that come to constitute objects and subjects. These Discourses order and naturalize the world in particular ways and serve as linguistic resources for communicating actors. Discourse analysts interpret Discourses either as standalone systems of thought or the ways in which these systems of thought become dialogically grounded in social practices.
Organizational discourse analysts often refer to organizations as discursive constructions because the combined forces of discourse and Discourse are the foundations upon which organizational life is built. However, there are at least three interpretations of the discourse– organization relationship (Fairhurst and Putnam 2004). When the organization is cast as an already formed object, the organization exists prior to discourse, remains stable over time, and has specific features or components that shape language use. In this tradition, language can be an interesting artifact, reflect the boundaries of one or more speech communities, or become a product of some feature of the organization. When the organization is depicted in a state of becoming, discourse exists prior to the organization because the properties of language and interaction produce organizing. For example, language use can signal relational differences, align group members into categories, legitimate actions, and enact asymmetric or distributed power relationships. This tradition explicitly rejects language as artifact to focus on the ways in which discourse constitutes microand macroaspects of organizations. Finally, in the grounded-in-action relationship, action and structure are mutually constitutive. Drawing from ethnomethodology, structuration theory, or actor-network theory, the organization is anchored at the level of discursive practice. Rejecting the macro–micro distinction for organizational processes, analysts instead emphasize the ways in which structure is found in action, history is captured in the present, and the global exists within the local; for example, see concepts such as lamination (Boden 1994), structuration (Giddens 1984), and association (Latour, 1996). Because the object, becoming, and grounded-in-action perspectives all possess a certain veridicality, holding them in tension with one another can produce more complex understandings of the discursive foundations of organizational life.
Types Of Organizational Discourse Analyses
There are a number of typologies for organizational discourse. This discussion follows Putnam and Fairhurst (2001) with a few exceptions. Accordingly, there are eight types of organizational discourse analyses: sociolinguistics, conversation analysis, cognitive linguistics (including discursive psychology), pragmatics (including speech acts, ethnography of speaking, and interaction analysis), semiotics, literary and rhetorical analyses, critical discourse analysis, and postmodern discourse analysis.
In sociolinguistics, language is a product of social categories such as class, education, or geographic differences; the analytic focus is on the meanings and linguistic repertoires of these social groupings. In the organizational arena, sociolinguistics examines language differences among blueand white-collar workers, geographically separate units, occupations, roles, or sub-cultures. Language and lexicons are the artifacts of organizations whose structures are static forms rather than dynamic processes.
Conversation analysis focuses on the detailed organization of talk-in-interaction. Its goal is to discern how people use various interactional methods and procedures to produce their activities and make sense of their worlds. Conversation analysis captures the inherent richness and complexity of social interaction by analyzing turn-taking, membership categorization, adjacency pairs, insertion sequences, accounting practices, topic shifts, conversational openings and closings, agenda setting, decision-making, and many other forms of talk-in-interaction. The interpretive practices and competencies of actors found through conversation analysis also reveal how the organization is literally “talked into being” (Heritage 1997). As such, the macro–micro distinction dissolves because of an emphasis on social practices, the primacy of text, and the absence of researcher-imposed “levels” of analysis (Boden 1994).
Cognitive linguistics is the study of discourse processes that arise from mental processes such as scripts, schemas, and frames. It includes discursive psychology, in which psychological phenomena such as attitudes, categories, scripts, memory, attributions, and so on are examined for the ways in which they surface in talk-in-interaction. For example, while scripts refer to mental representations or stereotyped sets of events, script formulations occur in ordinary conversation as verbalized event sequences. Scripts formulated in talk can be depicted as more or less routine; script violation or breach occurs in conversation when some problematic event is contrasted with a routine. Both script and breach formulations are rhetorical moves deployed for some interactional goal (Edwards 1997). In organizational discourse studies, script and breach formulations function as linguistic resources in organizational change, performance management, or organizational conflict. Other forms of cognitive linguistics include cognitive mapping of shared interpretations through linguistic phrasing, and semantic networks emerging from similar interpretations of organizational concepts and words.
Pragmatics emphasizes language in context and forms three distinct schools. First, speech acts treat language as action, emphasizing the actions performed, such as promising, requesting, baptizing, and so on. Organizational studies focus on politeness, accounting, and common speech acts such as directives, declaratives, expressives, and so on as well as their ordering within specific episodes of interaction (speech act schematics). Second, ethnography of speaking focuses on actors’ expectations and typifications associated with the context and its routines. Organizational studies emphasize the language of specific speech communities and communication rules, conversational performances of organizational roles, storytelling performances, and symbolic interaction through negotiated social orders. Finally, interaction analysis focuses on the coding of behavior according to a predefined set of codes. It includes a host of quantitative approaches that draw from studies of message functions and language structures to assess the frequency and types of coded verbal behavior in organizational interaction. Interaction analysis highlights the sequences and stages of interaction, their redundancy and predictability, and the link between interactional structures and the organizational context.
Semiotics examines the interpretive role played by signs and sign systems. It includes nonverbal codes, images, actions, and objects, in addition to discourse. The analytic focus may be individual signs or sign systems, termed codes. Two semiotic schools have emerged in the organizational discourse literature: structuralism, which casts language as a system of differences in which deep structures of meaning and control produce surface-level signs and sign systems; and semiosis, which emphasizes the interplay of meaning between signs, referents in the material world, and mental images, such as that found between organizational identity, corporate image, and marketing communications.
Literary and rhetorical analyses focus on the interrelationships between language, meaning, function, and context. Literary approaches focus on classic tropes such as metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, and irony, but also other rhetorical forms including alliteration, icons, euphemisms, and clichés. Rhetorical approaches draw from classical methods of argumentation to analyze corporate messages and advocacy in crises, organizational decision-making, identification, and conflict management. Analysts studying literary and rhetorical forms infer meanings through discursive subtexts rooted in organizational conditions and contexts.
Critical discourse analysis examines the often opaque relationships between discursive practices, events, and texts and wider social structures and processes to discern the hidden influence of ideology, hegemony, and struggles over power (Fairclough 1995). Discourse functions strictly to produce, maintain, or resist systems of power and control; thus, analysts critique organizational narratives for their political bias and organizational rituals, routines, and texts for privileged interests. As power relationships are actively constructed through the routines of everyday organizational life, ironies, contradictions, and paradoxes emerge, revealing struggles over power and opportunities to resist.
Postmodern discourse analysis also focuses on power and resistance, but analysts reject grand narratives, challenge representationalist views of language, and focus on the instability of meaning. Foucault’s Discourse and disciplinary power are central to this perspective. However, many analysts add to Foucault’s work by adopting poststructuralist moorings, which cast Discourses of power as attempting to fix meanings in a struggle where several competing Discourses are always in play. In the organizational context, masculine, feminine, entrepreneurial, and managerialist Discourses are frequent examples. Discussions of agency are cast amid the fragmentation and ambiguity or irony and paradox wrought by multiple Discourses. In postmodern discourse analyses, text is also viewed as a metaphor for organizing; thus analysts privilege intertextuality or the ways a given text intersects with or embodies other texts. Deconstruction and exploring text–conversation tensions pose two analytic options.
Criticisms And Future Directions
Generally speaking, organizational discourse analysts argue for the social construction of reality through discourse and communication. Several discursive approaches have been charged with relativism, such that reality is just what actors define it to be; and discoursism, in which the organization collapses into discourse (Conrad 2004; Gergen 2003). In both instances, the putative lack of attention to pre-existing institutional forms and material conditions results in an exaggerated sense of agency and an insufficient account of coercive structural forces (Reed 2000), or how acts of organizing beget the complex form “organization” (McPhee & Zaug 2000). For a critique of specific organizational discourse analyses, see Putnam and Fairhurst (2001).
Organizational discourse analysts increasingly look for ways to tackle the “levels” issue associated with discourse and Discourse. For example, Fairclough’s (1995) critical discourse analysis preserves the macro–micro distinction between the two; Taylor and Van Every (2000) theorize hybrid agency between human and nonhuman objects (including texts), the latter of which carries the institutional traces of past organizing; and discursive psychologists like Wetherell (1998) reformulate Discourse as the display of one or more linguistic repertoires in discourse. Organizational discourse analysts increasingly apply a complex levels approach to specific phenomena such as leadership (Fairhurst 2007), organizational succession and board meetings (Cooren 2007), and the self (Holstein & Gubrium 2000). Finally, as organizational discourse analyses continue to open up the processes of social construction through more meaning-centered models of communication, new implications for praxis are emerging (Barge & Craig in press).
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