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Thoughts and Hallucinations

Seminar on Institutional Discourse for Linköping University

Abstract for Linguistics Seminar

Institutional Discourse Then and Now: Bottles Change But The Wine Stays The Same

Linköping University
April 27, 2010
Michael Agar

In the 1980s “institutional discourse” represented an intersection of two intellectual trends in the U.S. First of all, “linguistics” was breaking out from under the Chomsky hegemony, and several different disciplines discovered that they had something in common, namely, the systematic analysis of language as it occurs in the everyday life of its speakers. This polyphonic field--the names are still not all straightened out--of linguistic anthropology/ethnomethodology/discourse analysis/conversational analysis/pragmatics/etc. began to thrive. A second trend: Anthropology and linguistics both sensed that their units of study were no longer communities bounded by a shared language and culture that defined all and only who their members were and what they did. Instead, “modern”--morphing at the time into “postmodern” and then “poststructural”--life consisted of blurry hybrid identities in a world of disconnected events that took place in a variety of institutions. On a macro-level this produced the growth of institutional rather than cultural specialities in anthropology. Instead of being a “South Asianist” like presenter was baptized in the mid 1960s, one became an institutionally oriented anthropologist, like the “medical” specialty that the presenter was labelled with by the late 1960s.

This long introduction sets the stage for this seminar, a response to a request to talk about “institutional discourse” then and now. “Then” it was a simple matter of looking for general pattern across discourse, primarily in clinical, courtroom and classroom settings. In the first part of this presentation, that work will be sketched. It was an exciting new time for institutional and linguistic research, but as usual, with the years the relationship became a lot more complicated.

Any effort to summarize all of “institutional discourse” now, in 2010, is doomed. In the last few decades linguistic and cultural approaches to language as it naturally occurs in everyday life have multiplied like rabbits. And in our “post” age--poststructural, postcolonial, etc.--the notion that “culture” or “speech community” means a tight boundary around personal identity and social network--It is like a charming old sepia photograph in someone’s family album. Institutions still exist, though first we have to deal with the relationship between institutions and organizations. But in the end, if presenter tried to combine all possible contemporary perspectives on institutions/organizations with all possible kinds of discourse analysis, the seminar would go on for years, and by the end its contents would be obsolete anyway.

So instead of that a different trail is taken in the seminar, one that reflects changes in presenter’s own discourse based work. The first change is a shift from academic research on institutional discourse to applied research on organizational change based on complexity models of organizational development. Here the question about discourse changes to, what does discourse look like in a dynamic organization in a post-structural global world? Eleanor Ochs’ work on “the living narrative” plays a key role here. The next step is a shift to even more involvement, namely, how does discourse-based ethnography--as a perspective--mix with other concepts and perspectives to enable outsider organizational intervention by a change agent, what organizational guru Schein calls “clinical ethnography.”

The changes then represent a three-dimensional shift. One dimension moves from academic research in more applied directions to organizational problem solving. A second dimension is a change in the world that requires institutional/organizational change from Weberian bureaucracy to nonlinear dynamic system. The third is presenter’s desire to become part of history rather than documenting it while also eliminating the theory/practice distinction.

But what stays the same are the discourse devices that were foundational twenty five years ago when the polyphonic field of language as people use it in everyday life began its exponential growth.

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