Vagueness: The Role of Language in the Organizing Process of Knowledge Intensive Work

Vagueness: The Role of Language in the Organizing Process of Knowledge Intensive Work

Ester Barinaga (Copenhagen Business School, Denmark)
Copyright: © 2009 |Pages: 17
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-176-6.ch008
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“How do we define our project goal?” “How are we going to coordinate our independent national studies?” “Who is responsible for what?” “How are newcomers introduced to the project?” During the first year of co-operation among researchers from a variety of disciplines (labor law, sociology and organizational theory) and countries (Sweden, Spain, The Netherlands, United Kingdom and United States) all efforts went to answer those, apparently simple, questions. Inspired by the late Wittgenstein’s ideas on the performative character of language, the chapter follows the process by which an international and multidisciplinary group of researchers agree on a research goal, coordinate their work, distribute responsibilities, and socialize newcomers. That is, the process of organizing knowledge intensive work is approached from a performative view of language.
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The last 20 years have seen a growth in interest in the role played by language in the social sciences (Deetz, 1992; Potter & Wetherell, 1987; Silverman, 1993). The linguistic fervour has taken upon organizational studies in the form of critical discourse analysis (Fairclough, 1995; Chia, 2000), conversation analysis (Tulin, 1997; Woodilla, 1998), narrative analysis (Boje, 1991; Czarniawska, 1997), and more recently, textual agency analysis (Cooren, 2000; Cooren, 2004).

Students of organization taking a linguistic approach to the field focus, most often than not, on the referential aspects of language. That is, studies aim at denoting, depicting or revealing a referent outside the actual speech situation – institutionalized discourses (Silverman, 1993, Tienari et al. 2005), prevailing ideologies (for an example see, Barley and Kunda, 1992), accounts from the field (Czarniawska, 1998), a set of representations (for an example, see Van Dijk, 1993), or the rhetorics of power. As Mats Alvesson and Dan Kärreman (2000) argue, these studies represent an incomplete linguistic approach since they focus not so much on language per se as on other phenomena (such as ideas, representations, meanings, etc.).

During the last thirty years, however, philosophers of language have stressed the importance of uncovering the performative aspects of language; that is, how the use of language in a particular situation in a given moment constructs the very situation and the actors engaged in it. Initiated by Austin (1975) and formalized by Searle (1969, 1995), speech act theory shows that talking is not merely about semantics, but about acting and sense-making. In this perspective, language use (in the form of oral or written texts) participates in the construction of social and organizational reality. As Potter argues, analysis of language becomes analysis of what people do with it in particular social settings (Potter, 1997).

The first and most immediate consequence of concentrating on the performative aspects of language is that, since focus is set on performativity, the researcher is suddenly attending to organizing processes. Focus moves away from organizations, the ready-made products of such processes. Instead of static institutions, discourses or ideologies, focus is addressed towards (active) speech acts or language games.

An attempt to move in such direction is made by François Cooren (2000). Trained within the field of communication, Cooren combines speech act theory with Greimas’ semio-narrative model to show how narrative structure can help understand organizing. Texts, he contends, participate in the production of organizations.

This chapter is an attempt to bring into focus the performative aspects of language in the organization of knowledge intensive work. Whereas Cooren focuses his analysis on ready-made texts (in the form of memory traces, written documents, or graphical devices) and how these can function as agents that drive the organizing process, I concentrate on the very acts of language use and how these participate in constituting organization. In this way, the chapter aims at contributing to a discussion on how a performative view of language can allow the researcher to follow and interpret such elusive a phenomenon as the process of organising knowledge intensive work. By looking at what actors do with words, what linguistic resources they use in their everyday life, and how these are used through a more or less prolonged period of time, it is possible to give an alternative account of knowledge intensive work.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Performative Perspective of Language: Perspective that focus on how the use of language in a particular situation and in a given moment constructs the very situation and the actors engaged in it.

Referential Perspective on Language: Perspective in which language is a mirror of reality and meaning a one to one relationship between words and the outside world.

Language Game: Key term in Ludwig Wittgenstein’s later philosophy, which challenges established notions about language. It refers to the linguistic practices around the use of words, pragmatics that determine the meaning of the particular word in the particular situation.

Meaning of a word (in the Performative Perspective): The meaning of a word is understood by how the word is used within their social context; that is, the meaning of a word is given by the function the word plays in the language game of the speakers; it is related to the rules of use of the word.

Circulating Reference: Series of translations and mutations of the referent. Focus is set on the net of transformations.

Metaphor: From the Greek metaphora: to transfer. Metaphors talk about how things are, not what they are. More generically, a metaphor is a rhetorical trope that describes a first object/subject as being equal to a second object/subject in some way. Metaphors connect disparate symbols, are shortcut explanations, and cannot be empirically tested.

Analysis: The term “analysis” comes from the Greek ana-lyein: to unloosen, to break up, to divide the whole into its components, breaking up a complex concetp into smaller parts to gain a better understanding.

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