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Challenges

To wrap up the present account, some thoughts are in order about the methodological challenges involved in studying organizational discourse. Broadly speaking, these can be grouped into three different categories, depending on whether they are associated with (1) the interdisciplinary nature of organizational research, (2) data collection or (3) the boundaries between prescriptive and descriptive angles, and between academic research and practitioner’s applications. Each of these will be dealt with briefly below.

Interdisciplinarity

The chapter began by noting that organizational discourse research straddles many disciplines, including sociology, management and linguistics. Each of these, in turn, comes with its own set of methodological preferences: for particular analytical tools, types of data, and interpretative lenses. There is clearly no shortage of pegs on which aspiring discourse scholars may hang their own work. Instead, the problem is likely to be an oversupply of theories and methods, with few bridges between them. On the plus side, in order to do organizational discourse research, one does not have to learn any new analytical techniques, as such. You should be able to apply whichever theory and method of discourse and/or textual analysis you are already familiar with.

Recently published handbooks and review articles in the area bear vivid testimony to the wide range of approaches currently available. The picture that emerges is bewildering, to say the least. In their review article, Putnam and Fairhurst (2001) list no fewer than nine strands of research that have been applied to organizational discourse: sociolinguistics, conversation analysis, cognitive linguistics, pragmatics, semiotics, literary and rhetorical analyses, critical language studies, and postmodern language analysis. This plethora of research traditions is equally characteristic of discourse analysis generally. In the Routledge Handbook of Discourse Analysis (Gee and Handford 2012) we find twelve approaches to discourse analysis (each deemed distinctive enough to be given its own chapter): critical discourse analysis, systemic functional linguistics, multimodal discourse analysis, narrative analysis, mediated discourse analysis, multimedia and discourse analysis, gender and discourse analysis, discursive psychology and discourse analysis, conversation analysis, interactional sociolinguistics and discourse analysis, discourse-oriented ethnography, discourse analysis and linguistic anthropology, and corpus-based discourse analysis.

The jury is still out on whether such variety is a blessing or a curse. On the one hand, methodological diversity makes it more likely that the qualitative data which organizational discourse studies generally work with - in other words, situated and messy data - can be dealt with flexibly in a way that a one-size-fits-all method can’t.

On the other hand, diversity may encourage randomness. The chances are that the researcher’s reasons for situating their work in Approach A rather than Approach B are not based on a suitably detached appraisal of the approaches’ respective merits, but on the researcher’s academic socialization, or their personal skills and preferences, or all of those things wrapped together. There is only a fine line between eclecticism, which is disinterested, and cherry-picking, which is not.

In the face of such diversity, what is the novice researcher meant to do? Sadly, there is very little guidance on how all these models and techniques relate to each other. Wooffit’s (2005) Conversation analysis and discourse analysis: A comparative and critical introduction is a rare example of a book-length treatise examining the relationship between two research traditions and their associated methods. Many others would be needed if we were serious about making “discourse studies” less fragmented, less fuzzy, and more robust methodologically. At this stage, then, the best advice for the novice is to keep an open mind, scrutinize rival models (not least to see whether they are more compatible than their advocates themselves make them out to be), and then make an informed choice.

Of course, an “informed choice” need not be in favour of one, and only one, school or method. So-called mixed-methods research is now well-established (Johnson and Onwuegbuzie 2004; Johnson, Onwuegbuzie, and Turner 2007; Myers 2014) and potentially very fruitful in unravelling complex issues. Yet again, for the whole to be more than the sum of its parts, considerable expertise is required not only in the methods that are to be mixed, but also in synthesizing the results gleaned from them.

 
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