Power is a foundational concept in the social sciences: multifaceted and ideologically loaded; fought over in academia as much as in politics; with an intellectual pedigree reaching back as far as Plato and Macchiavelli, while also including contemporary thinkers such as Bourdieu and Foucault. Yet the concept remains “unclear and controversial” (Gohler 2009: 27). Not an auspicious start, then, for researchers embarking on projects in organizational discourse, who might be forgiven for wanting to give power a wide berth. However, power is such a central feature of social life generally, and organizational life in particular, that if you try to blank it out, you are likely to miss out on information that is pivotal for making sense of your data.
Before we move on to the significance of power for organizational discourse, a few observations are in order about the nature of power in more general terms. The definition given by Stokes (2011: 121) is a good entry point. “Power”, he explains, “can be described as the possibility, control and ability to do something”, and “it can also point at having authority over something or somebody”. Frequently, that authority is asserted not overtly and coercively, but covertly and persuasively, with the apparent consent of those over whom it is exercised. At the same time, power inevitably provokes resistance, which is also enacted through discourse (Zoller 2014). Accordingly, organizational discourse has been described as “a dialectical phenomenon characterized by interdependent processes of struggle, resistance and control” (Mumby 2004: 240). When we set out to describe dominant discourses, therefore, we should be equally alert to the presence of marginalized counter-discourses (Heracleous 2006:184).
In critical paradigms, and in keeping with the constructionist approach sketched out in the Introduction, power and discourse are treated as “mutually constitutive” (Hardy and Phillips 2004: 299). In other words, power relations shape the way we use language, just as language use supports power relations. A distinction is frequently drawn between power over, in and of discourse. Power over discourse refers to an individual’s or group’s access to the public, usually through media, and thus their ability to air their views (Wodak 2012: 217). Power in discourse describes the degree of control that participants have in making linguistic choices. More powerful people typically have more freedom to determine the structure and process of interaction. They decide who speaks to whom when and about what, and they dictate which level of formality is appropriate. Finally, when the power of discourse is discussed, the perspective is shifted to the power that discourses themselves exert (Holzscheiter 2010), as they do when certain ways of talking and writing have become the taken-for-granted norm. Under the influence of neo-liberalism, for example, “marketized” discourse is now widespread in public-sector and non-profit organizations (Mautner 2010).
With this conceptual grid laid out, one is well placed to analyze specific manifestations of power in discourse. For obvious reasons, interactional genres with steep power differentials, such as job interviews, offer particularly rich pickings in this regard. Yet power is invariably intertwined with other issues, and it would be simplistic to assume that job interviews were based on a sharp binary distinction between an interviewer who has all the power and an interviewee who has none. In actual fact, the situation is usually a lot fuzzier than that, on a number of levels (Mautner 2016: 187-192). First, the job applicants’ position is strengthened considerably if their skills and/or personal characteristics are much needed by the organization concerned. In such cases, the interviewer may well be under more pressure to “sell” the prospective employer than the interviewee is to “sell” him- or herself.
Second, and in conjunction with such power issues, interviews are events in which participants on both sides attempt to establish their joint membership of social and discursive communities - of a particular role, a profession, an industry or a social class. On that basis they wish to create trust and solidarity (Kerekes 2006, 2007; Lipovsky 2008). Third, over and above what may be happening in the microcosm of the specific interview, the macro social world outside the event, and indeed outside the organization, will have an impact too. Compliance with wider cultural norms, rather than merely the narrower requirements of a particular job, clearly increases an interviewee’s chances. For example, as Roberts and Campbell (2005) have demonstrated, job applicants in the UK are evaluated more positively if they are able to tell stories that conform to the typical “Anglo” narrative structure. Pursuing a linear path from an introductory abstract through to a coda (cf. Labov 1972), that structure is more likely to be known and mastered by those who grew up in the UK (whether or not they are ethnic minority members). By contrast, those who were socialized abroad, in cultures with different narrative traditions, suffer a “linguistic penalty” (Roberts and Campbell 2005: 47), that is, they are rated less favourably because they do not meet interviewers’ expectations of what makes “a good story” in an interview.
Thus, a compelling nexus exists between linguistic and social capital (Bourdieu 1991). That nexus is also borne out by the way in which job interviews reflect the so-called “new work order” (Gee, Hull, and Lankshear 1996). Under that regime, work is conceptualized as a discursive rather than merely material endeavour; it has become “textualized” (Scheeres 2003: 332). Employees are expected to adopt the branded discourses of their organization as well as to achieve what Campbell and Roberts (2007: 244-245) refer to as “the seamless synthesis of work-based and personal identity”.
Incidentally, such melding of spheres also underpins so-called “personal branding”, which encourages people to view themselves as saleable commodities (Oswick and Robertson 2007; Mautner 2010: 124-145). Self-help books in this area give readers advice on how best to “package”, “brand” and “sell themselves” (rather than only their labour). To argue that such turns of phrase are “merely” metaphors is to underestimate the power of metaphor to influence perception. This brings us to the next section, where we shift our focus from macro themes to linguistic devices and forms of representation.