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Invited Speaker Series: The power effects of discourse?

Venue: Birkbeck Main Building

Discourse or “the turn to language” has formed a core and major plank of research into micro-processes in management and organization studies over the last 3 decades. While a diverse array of foci have been covered, such as strategy (e.g. Mantere and Vaara, 2008), diversity (e.g. Zanoni and Janssens, 2007); gender relations (e.g. Kondo, 1990); sexual harassment (e.g. Clair, 1998); and institutionalization (e.g. Phillips, Hardy and Nelson, 2004), these studies share in common a problematic assumption – that discourse can be understood as a “thing” that has power over people, disciplining or liberating them depending on how it is mobilised in talk in specific grounded contexts. Several commentators have taken exception to this reification including Al Amoudi and Willmott, (2011) who argue that this risks treating discourse as “a self-perpetuating phenomenon with an autonomy of its own”.

In this seminar, I want to argue that we can detect the power effects of discourse empirically and without investing it with an unnecessary “muscularity” by examining it as produced endogenously within talk not acting on talk exogenously as is often assumed. Using two empirical examples of research into sexual harassment and corporate strategy, I illustrate three processes that give rise to discernible power effects: the institutional status of the interaction; the institutional positions of the interactants; and the institutional status of the discourse that is mobilised in the interaction. I argue that by looking carefully at these three dimensions of talk, we can develop highly nuanced understanding of power effects which enable us to say things that are politically effective but not empirically dubious.

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