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Social Actors “to Go”: An Analytical Toolkit to Explore Agency in Business Discourse and Communication:

12 Feb 2019-Business and Professional Communication Quarterly (SAGE PublicationsSage CA: Los Angeles, CA)-Vol. 82, Iss: 2, pp 214-238

Abstract: We argue that language awareness and discourse analytical skills should be part of business communication curricula. To this end, we propose a three-step analytical model drawing on organizational and critical discourse studies, and approaches from systemic-functional linguistics, to explore agency and action in business communication. Focusing on language and discourse helps students to analyze texts more systematically, researchers to gain deeper insights into organizational discourse, and practitioners to reflect on communication processes and produce texts with more impact. We view discourse as central to organizational processes and render a specific approach accessible and easy to integrate into business communication curricula.

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Social actors “to go”:
An analytical toolkit to explore agency
in business communication
Journal:
Business and Professional Communication Quarterly
Manuscript ID
BPCQ-17-007.R2
Manuscript Type:
Article
Keywords:
Social Actor Analysis, Agency, Discourse Analysis, Critical Language
Awareness, CSR
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Business and Professional Communication Quarterly

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Social actors “to go”: An analytical toolkit to explore agency in business discourse and
communication
Abstract
This paper makes a case for raising critical language awareness in business communication
education and proposes that the development of discourse analytical skills should be made
part of management and business communication curricula. As one specific approach to train
such awareness and skills, we propose a three-step analytical model to explore agency and
action in business discourse and communication. The proposed model draws on
organizational discourse scholarship, critical discourse studies and approaches from
systemic-functional linguistics, and allows for gaining a better understanding of how agency
is assigned in organizational texts. The method draws attention to linguistic and discourse
practices and thus helps students to analyze texts more systematically, enables researchers to
gain deeper insights into agency and action in organizational discourse, and assists
practitioners to reflect on communication processes and consequently to improve their
practice and produce texts with more impact. The study is thus part of a broader agenda that
sets out out to fully realize the linguistic turn: it promotes an approach that views discourse as
central to organizational processes, and by making the analytical framework accessible, it
renders the approach easy to adopt by business and management curricula.
Keywords: social actor analysis, agency, critical language awareness, discourse analysis
Introduction
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In April 2017, the terrifying images of a passenger being “forcibly removed” from a United
Airlines plane spread across the globe and left many in deep shock. There was no shortage of
accounts, justifications and explanations from the airline, but whatever the lead-up to the
events, the recorded images of the bleeding customer being forcefully dragged off a plane for
not giving up his already occupied seat “voluntarily” were hard to misinterpret. Yet, the
picture that the company’s CEO, Oscar Munoz, painted in his email to United Airlines
employees is rather different. In his account Munoz wrote:
United gate agents were approached by crew members that were told they needed to
board the flight. We sought volunteers and then followed our involuntary denial of
boarding process ... and when we approached one of the passengers to explain
apologetically that he was denied boarding, he raised his voice and refused to comply with
crew member instructions. He was approached a few more times after that in order to gain
his compliance to come off the aircraft, and each time he refused and became more and
more disruptive and belligerent.
Consequently, in a sentence that Dickey (2017) labels the epitome of bureaucratic style,
Munoz said: “Our agents were left with no choice but to call the Chicago Aviation Security
officers to assist in removing the customer from the flight. He repeatedly declined to leave.”
The above communication reveals just how important linguistic choices are when describing
an event. Note that in Munoz’s statement “agents” (i.e. the airline workers) are depicted in
two ways: if they are active, they act ‘apologetically’, but for the main part of the story they
are passive: they ‘were approached’ and ‘left with no choice’. Also note that in the part that
supposedly contains the most information about the series of confrontations which left the
customer with a bleeding face, the only active actor is the customer: he ‘raised his voice’,
‘refused to comply’ and ‘declined to leave’. We do not have to look too deep to see who
takes the blame for the events in Munoz’s story.
The close look at Munoz’s linguistic choices reveals how he manages to shift agency and
hence responsibility from the company and its representatives to the customer. This is an
interesting observation for business and professional communicators and an important
process to understand. In this paper we demonstrate why such knowledge is crucial: firstly,
we explore and make a case for (critical) language awareness in business communication
education, before we zoom in on the importance and linguistic manifestations of agency and
action. We offer an analytical model which enables students, researchers and practitioners to
shed light on the importance of linguistic choices and the role these choices play in how
reality is constructed in communication. To illustrate the model, we present a brief sample
analysis of one company’s text on corporate social responsibility.
Language awareness and discourse analytical skills in business communication
Business communicators are ‘language workers’: specialists for whom words are not only the
means of completing their work, but the very focus and product of their work. For language
workers, language is something to be crafted and designed in highly considered,
institutionalized ways (Thurlow, 2017), as we have seen in the United Airlines example
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above. Considering the importance of linguistic knowledge and awareness in such language
work in organizational and business contexts, it is unsurprising than more and more scholars
call for a greater acknowledgement of, and attention to, language in organizations in general
and the communication that takes place within them in particular (e.g. Weninger & Kan,
2013; Cooren et al., 2014; Musson & Cohen 1999; Mautner, 2016).
In organization studies, the “implicate relationship” between language and organization has
been a focus since the 1980s (Westwood and Linstead, 2001, p. 2). For the past thirty years,
the view of language as a mere medium of communication, and the view of communication
as simply another tool for management and organizational practices, processes and activities,
has been widely contested (e.g. Putnam and Fairhurst, 2015; Grant et al., 2004). Instead,
much greater attention is now paid to discourse, understood as language use as social
practice. This view focuses on the constitutive role of language, for instance how it is used to
project certain identities vis-à-vis others and relate to them in particular roles. Discourse is
seen as being realized in texts and the way language is used in them, and as being embedded
in a so-called discourse practice context referring to the production, distribution and reception
of texts, as well as in larger social contexts, be they situational, institutional or societal. These
contexts are dynamic within and across interactions, and shape language use just as they are
shaped by them (cf. Fairclough, 2010, pp. 3-5, Boje et al. 2004)
In spite of this realization, the fundamental role that language - and consequently discourse -
play in organizational realities is rarely mentioned, let alone addressed in business and
management training (Cohen et al., 2005; Mautner, 2016; Tietze et al., 2003). How language
works as a constitutive force in organizational contexts is crucial knowledge though: critical
language awareness leads to the acknowledgement of the role of language in shaping
individual lives and social realities, for example how it contributes to sustaining and
reproducing unequal power relations. In the United Airlines example above, such critical
awareness sheds light on how the CEO’s strategic language use contributes to depicting the
company and its processes as given and unmovable, and consequently makes the victim the
only participant who knowingly and consciously acted, and who should be held responsible
for bringing the the situation upon himself. Coupled with analytical skills, such awareness
helps students and practitioners become applied discourse analysts and, consequently,
empowered communicators. Apart from raising critical awareness of discourse, the language-
centered exploration of texts and interactions also has a practical benefit in business
communication teaching and training: it exposes effective and ineffective linguistic and
discourse practices and thus equips students with concrete strategies to choose from when
they intend to communicate across a range of organizational settings.
Yet, and in spite of extensive scholarly efforts that aim to reconcile the prescriptive ambitions
of the US-centered business communication education with empirical, language focussed
scholarship (see Alessi & Jacobs, 2016), business communication education is still dominated
by a simplistic view of language. Weninger and Kan notice that such view fits well with the
instrumentalism that characterizes mainstream management theory and practice (2013, p. 60):
higher education curricula and communication training programmes are both predominantly
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focused on decontextualized repertoires of formulae (‘best practice examples’) that aim at
mastering a genre to reflect (often hypothesized) business needs. This approach has been
under scrutiny, however, since Williams’(1988) seminal work, in which she compared the
language used in meetings to the language taught for meetings. The study found only limited
overlap between the two, leading her to call for an approach that breaks with the traditional
“listing of repertoire of exponents” (p. 46) and instead focuses on the exploration of language
in ongoing discourse.
Thirty years later, there are now increasing calls that advocate steering away from scripts,
formulae and linguistic regulation in business communication education. Instead, the
emphasis is on the development of strong (discourse) analytical skills. These skills are
thought to help to address a range of practical concerns, for example, how to meet the needs
of learners from a wide range of backgrounds, with diverse career trajectories and different
workplace goals (Marra, 2013) and how to offer sustainable skill-development in a rapidly
changing professional communicative environment (Mautner, 2016). Exposing unnoticed
linguistic and discursive resources can empower students and practitioners to choose how to
operationalize and achieve a range of business (e.g. Levin and Behrens, 2003) or
management aims (e.g. Clifton, 2012). Equally, discourse analytical insights can lead to the
crucial realization that the outcome of a communicative performance does not merely depend
on the intentions of the communicators. Instead, language awareness and discourse analytical
skills allow students and practitioners to understand that meaning is jointly constructed and is
just as much the product of the speaker as of those who attend, interpret and respond to it (see
Cornelissen et al., 2015).
We would add that a move towards nurturing analysts instead of communicators should not
stop at the noticing and exposing stage: it is vital for students and practitioners alike to
understand the linguistic principles behind case studies and best practice examples so that
they can understand the complex effects of linguistic and discursive devices, and importantly,
apply them strategically across different contexts themselves. Thus, we argue, directing
attention to language-in-action will allow current and future professionals to observe, reflect
on and internalize linguistic and discursive practices that enable them to identify how
linguistic strategies function in given contexts and how they might be interpreted and
perceived.
In this paper we propose a specific linguistic lens which enables students, researchers and
practitioners alike to critically examine business and corporate texts: social actor analysis.
As we saw in the United Airlines example above, this discourse analytical framework -
which in discourse studies is often complemented with modality, evaluation and other
analytic parameters (Koller, 2012) - draws attention to how language can be used to further
strategic communication aims. In what follows, we briefly discuss the conceptual framework
of agency before introducing an applicable analytical version, illustrating the framework with
examples throughout. Finally, we argue how the results can benefit students, researchers and
practitioners.
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  • ...…of workplace activities (Alvesson & Billig, 1997; Angouri, 2010, 2018; Baxter, 2011) to exposing the role of language in justifying questionable business decisions (Amernic & Craig, 2006; Spicer, 2018) or shifting blame and avoiding responsibility (Darics & Koller, 2019; Hargie et al., 2010)....

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20192
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