Institutional discourse

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  1. Institutional discourse

Institutional discourse refers to verbal exchanges between two or more people in circumstances (1) where at least one speaker or participant is a representative of (or a spokesperson for) a work-related institution, (2) where the language used, the nature of the interaction, and the speakers’ goals are at least partially determined by the institution in play, and (3) where at least one participant defines the interaction as “work” or as doing work (Sarangi & Roberts, 1999). Exchanges that take place in such settings often share a set of interactive properties that distinguish them from ordinary social conversation. How researchers study these interactions depends on their theoretical perspective and on the methodology they employ — that is, how they determine what aspects of context beyond the immediate setting are relevant to the analysis; how they characterize the language that speakers use; and how they describe speakers’ identities, intentions, and tasks. In this discussion, following Ehrlich and Romaniuk (2013), discourse is defined “as language embedded in social interaction.” Accordingly, institutional discourse encompasses social interactions (and thus language) that are situated in settings (though not necessarily “physical” locations) recognizable as “institutional” or what some simply call “work-related.” Positioning the study of institutional discourse in the context of social interaction is consistent with the view that talk itself is data. Regardless of the method used to analyze it, talk is understood as a sequence of naturally occurring verbal actions that speakers construct in contextualized interactions. Work-based exchanges can be described as social interactions that involve some combination of institution-specific questions and answers, narratives that construct or recount work-related situations, and/or discussions of the business of the organization. Sometimes these interactions include reports about past interactions and therefore also contain portions of previous exchanges, subsequently incorporated (though not always faithfully) into the new exchanges

This perspective on the nature of discourse distinguishes much of the current work institutional discourse from other research that examines institutional texts, spoken or written, instead of the social (verbal) interactions between interlocutors. That is, other areas of discourse analysis focus on institutional or professional texts (such as political speeches, newspaper and journal articles, legal decisions, radio broadcasts, educational policy statements, medical records, scientific reports, or written testimony) with the goal of considering the discourse structure, the semantic content and propositions, or the themes and ideological subtexts found in the texts themselves. The field of institutional discourse, interdisciplinary in nature, grew out of several different research traditions: the discipline has strong affiliations with sociology (conversation analysis), with anthropology (interactional sociolinguistics), with “critical linguistics” (critical discourse analysis), with psychology (discursive psychology), and with philosophy (speech acts and pragmatics). Notable among early publications that focused on institutional and professional contexts are Sinclair and Coulthard’s (1975) analysis of classroom language, Labov and Fanshel’s (1977) work on therapeutic discourse, Gumperz’s (1982) studies of cross-cultural job interviews, counseling sessions, and the like, and O’Barr’s (1982) study of courtroom language. According to Heritage and Clayman (2010), the first publication that used a conversation-analytic approach in the investigation of an institutional setting was Atkinson and Drew’s(1979) study of courtroom interactions. Then, in 1992, Drew and Heritage published Talk at Work ,the first volume devoted entirely to the study of talk in institutional contexts from a conversation-analytic (CA) perspective. Early CA studies of institutional discourse focused primarily on the courtroom, the media, and 911 emergency calls. As interest in institutional settings increased, CA was also applied to doctor–patient interactions, business meetings, educational settings, legal contexts of various kinds, news interviews, political debates, radio and television talk shows, and various other settings. Over the course of the past several decades, the range of work-related contexts being investigated by scholars who work in a variety of frameworks has continued to expand. The restricted set of institutional contexts originally considered within a CA frame-work may partly explain what led CA researchers to claim that clear-cut differences existed between the features of ordinary conversation and institutional discourse (Drew& Heritage, 1992). The sharpness of this contrast is now in dispute. Also contributing to a revised view of the distinctions between ordinary and institutional conversation is the shifting nature of social institutions themselves. The growth of the service industry, for example, in some measure a product of the globalization of world economies, has brought more people into a wider range of institutional exchanges. As social organization shave changed, so too has “the nature of the discourse used in these institutions”(Ehrlich & Freed in Freed & Ehrlich, 2010, p. 3). Describing the evolving “conversationalisation of [institutional] discourse,” Fairclough (1996, p. 76) notes a trend toward interactions that are designed to copy ordinary social exchanges, thus giving the impression that there is a more “equal” relationship than before between those with higher and lower status, whether workplace supervisors and employees, students and teachers, or doctors and patients. He uses the phrase “synthetic personalization” (Fairclough,1989, p. 62) or “simulated equalization” (p. 221) to characterize this practice, which he describes as “a compensatory tendency to give the impression of treating each of the people ‘handled’ en masse as an individual” (p. 62). “For Fairclough …conversational language, at one point restricted to the private sphere, is increasingly being used in the public sphere” (Ehrlich & Freed in Freed & Ehrlich, 2010, p. 4). In other words, people are using a wider range of discourse strategies, some quite “ordinary,” to accomplish their institutional goals.

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