Thursday 30 October 2014

Sociology and Management Speak

Step change. Across the piece. A suite of options. Front-loaded. Back-filled. Game-changer. A few phrases from the managerialist's lexicon. Funny old language. Funny old culture. Quite rightly, these freakish deviations from the anglophone norm action antipathy and mockery in equal measure. Anyone peppering their speech with 'matrices of opportunity' and 'not fit for purpose' are sniggered at and lampooned. Their use does not inspire confidence among stakeholders managers must reach out to. The language does not offer bespoke solutions to the credibility deficit authority faces. Then why does this peculiar sub-dialect exist? How is it acquired? 

At the foundation of sociology is the banal (but stubbornly surprising to some) finding that the individual beings that populate human societies mutually constitute each other as social beings. I would not be me without you, and you would not be you without me, ad infinitum. Each and every encounter is both an interaction and a world building activity. Our social activity recreates and regenerates social norms and queues, but at the same time our behaviour as social beings are conditioned by the conduct we reproduce. Thus social order is maintained by the mundane practices of the everyday. As Bourdieu pithily put it, we're structures structuring structure.

What's this got to do with anything? In a small 1978 article Bourdieu wrote on 'The Linguistic Market', he argued forms of speech could be understood as the marrying of two of his concepts - a (linguistic) habitus and a (linguistic) market. For those not conversant with Bourdieu,
Subjects are active and knowing agents endowed with practical sense, that is, an acquired system of preferences, of principles of vision and division (what is usually called taste), and also a system of durable cognitive structures (which are essentially the product of the internalisation of objective structures) and of schemes of action which orient the perception of the situation and the appropriate response. The habitus is this kind of practical sense for which is to be done in a given situation – what is called in sport a “feel” for the game, which is inscribed in the present state of play. (Practical Reason 1998, p.25)
Habitus then is practical sense/reason, a series of dispositions one picks up and continues to pick up consciously and unconsciously. There is always choice here, but free will is everywhere and always conditioned by our habitus and the conditions. We make our own history, but not under circumstances of our choosing said someone, once. And those circumstances include our accumulated habits of life. It follows then that Bourdieu's linguistic habitus "is the product of social conditions and is not a simple production of utterances but the production of utterances adapted to a 'situation' or, rather, adapted to a market or field." (Sociology in Question 1993, p.78)

What constitutes this linguistic market? In Bourdieu's scheme, the organisation of social space is stretched across a series of interlacing fields. A field is an analytical model that can be applied to a range of phenomena to make sense of the stakes, power struggles, and the trajectories of participants. Your workplace can be understood as a field. Political blogging can be understood as a field. And so are the modes of speech, the particular vernaculars and private languages appropriate to certain fields. Medical science has a specialist vocabulary that serves to distinguish professionals from quacks. Sociology has its own verbose technical language that all have to deploy effectively if one is to be taken seriously as a scholar, and so on (more here).

A linguistic market then is abstract and concrete. Performative competence means a capacity to align one's linguistic habitus with the rarefied rules of the game. Thus a mastery of a private, specialist language can convey a special kind of power that legitimises the speaker to particular participants in a field.

Yet, as we have seen, management jargon does not do this. We have an alignment of a linguistic habitus, of someone who can talk about strategic staircases and back office functions while effecting a serious manner, with an appropriate linguistic market (the workplace meeting) and yet it does not appear to have the effect Bourdieu's model suggests it might. If it did, surely no one would be leaving the meeting eager to see who won buzzword bingo.

That misses the point. This isn't a model of domination, but rather a model of distinction. In management/staff meetings the cascades and the low hanging fruit are linguistic strategies that distinguish between the manageriat and the staff. If any of the latter break out in a rash of touching bases and key performance indicators, that says something about their desired trajectory. They are verbally signalling their acceptance of management talk and are fishing for admittance via a virtuoso display of linguistic verisimilitude. It also underlines the separation of managers as a specialist cadre with certain authority. And, of course, because our habitus is constantly enriched only semi-consciously us "normals" might find the language creeping into our everyday. Before you know it you're in the pub asking if anyone wants a round going forward.


Anonymous said...

Agree with this but isn't it a bit of pot calling the kettle for sociologists to poke fun at management speak. And then there is your Gramsci quotes...and others!

Unknown said...

What is missing from this erudite discussion is the deployment of such brain sapping linguistic tics by Labour in government. I taught students in an area where the most important issue was that of regeneration. As part of their course they were required to make a film and this was their chosen topic. They were appalled to read speeches by Hilary Armstrong with phrases such as, "stakeholder" , "Programme roll outs" and other such managerial isms. Once they understood that "market failure" meant demolishing structurally sound houses, they were furious. In their opinion, the opaque language was used to disguise the reality of what was going on and used this speech as a voice-over a visual of a toilet visible in a partially demolished house.

David Timoney said...

You gorra laff. The second example of business-bollix you give should actually be "across the piste". The phrase is meant to imply an approach that pursues all possible routes (as on a ski-slope). A comparable engineering metaphor would be "full spectrum".

"Across the piece" is an eggcorn, which proves your point about such formulations being signifiers of managerial collaboration rather than jargon that may be obscure but at least has a technical precision.

The corruption has an obvious class significance - i.e. the original users were predominantly upper middle-class professionals who went skiing, while the mutation is the result of its adoption by a wider population that didn't.

Similarly, "step change" is a contranym, having contradictory meanings. One originates in mathematical jargon, as a variant of "step function", meaning a significant and discontiuous change. The other comes from process engineering, specifically the Japanese concept of "kaizen", which is popularly interpreted as advocating continuous marginal improvements, or many "small steps".

What this highlights is that performative distinction is not just about seeking membership of the management club, but may also reflect a contest between management sub-cultures. Thus the CIO will take pleasure in pointing out that the CFO's call for a step change is ambiguous at best and meaningless at worst, while the CEO will regale the audience with tales of his recent stay at Courchevel.

Phil said...

Oh yes, sociologists are terrible for highfalutin language. The numbers of virtually impenetrable social theory books I've read ... But handily, Bourdieu has written about this too and has argued the language serves exactly the same purpose and management speak does.

The key difference is no one finds sociology speak supercringey. But that might have something to do with the lack of take up of sociology outside of academic circles, sob.