The Language of Organizational Styling

The Language of Organizational StylingPost written by author Lionel Wee discussing his recently published book The Language of Organizational Styling

Organizations are interesting because of the promise and problems they represent. They have promise because they allow individuals to pool their resources and scale up their activities, thus making it possible to achieve things at a supra-individual level. In fact, one might say that this is the very reason why organizations exist at all. At the same time, there is great irony in the fact that, having been created, many organizations then go on to acquire an existence and independence beyond the goals and wishes of their founders. Especially when constituted as virtual persons, organizations can make claims and exert rights that sometimes come into conflict with those of individuals.

One might say, with perhaps only slight exaggeration, that organizations are a form of artificial intelligence – created by us but then coming to have priorities and values that are not always within our control. And just like their better-known computational counterparts, organizations, too, are often portrayed in dystopian terms. Especially in popular media, big businesses are ideologically characterized as faceless, anonymous and profit-seeking entities that undermine the authentic nature of life in small towns and neighborhoods by eroding their individuality and rendering them homogeneous. Scholarly analyses are of course more nuanced, but even here, while organizations have figured prominently as direct objects of study in sociology and business studies, they have been somewhat neglected in sociolinguistics. Organizations usually come into play as part of the backdrop against which the activities of individuals or communities are constrained or enabled; they are rarely the actual focus.

From a sociolinguistic perspective, however, organizations are fascinating because – just like individual speakers – they are entities that employ various semiotic resources, in particular, linguistic resources in order to project specific kinds of identities, cultivate certain kinds of relationships with other organizations, and foster ties with the various communities. But precisely because organizations are entities sui generis, their communiqués and other linguistic activities cannot be reduced to those of the individuals who populate them without at the same time raising a number of conceptual problems. This is because the organization in principle exists above and beyond the intentions and activities of any single individual, however powerful or senior that person might be. And this raises the rather interesting question of how organizations might be best studied.

This is where the sociolinguistic notion of style proves useful, in my view. The analytical beauty of a style-theoretic framework is that it raises issues of strategy, agency and choice as being in need of more careful attention. Speakers make stylistic choices, though not always freely, which means that they have to be mindful of the social and political consequences of these choices. But curiously, the stylistic practices of organizations have not been subjected to any in-depth sociolinguistic analysis and theorizing, even though the extrapolation of style from speaker activity to organizational activity seems a natural one to make. And once this extension is seriously contemplated, we can start asking questions such as the following: Do organizations engage in styling the other? What might prompt an organization to attempt to re-style itself, and what kinds of linguistic maneuvers are involved? Given that big businesses are often seen as anathema to the preservation of a community’s identity, how do big businesses then attempt to overcome this ideological bias? How does talking about organizational styling differ from talking about branding or corporate communications? And perhaps most fundamental of all, does the application of the notion of style to organizational activity require us to revisit and re-evaluate any of our current assumptions about the nature of style (since the predominant tendency is to think of style in connection with people rather than organizations)?

The sociolinguistic study of organizations is relatively new but important, given how ubiquitous organizations are in our lives. Many of us work in organizations; we have our lives regulated by organizations; and more than a few of us join (religious, political, grassroots) organizations because we feel that the goals they pursue can give meanings to our lives.

Find out more on Lionel Wee’s new book ‘The Language of Organizational Styling’ published by Cambridge University Press.

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