Words and labels and ambiguity

This Tuesday I went along to the Occupational Psychology/Organizational Behaviour catch-up day at Birkbeck and experienced the luxury of a full day noodling around new research concepts and the thrill of hearing the word ‘critical’ from someone else’s lips.

It was an interesting mixture of heavy content and some of the worst Powerpoint I have seen.   Some of the standouts were actually the Masters projects, rather than faculty.

the stand-out talks

Diane Burns presented a nice project based on discourse analysis, looking at the meaning of ‘collaboration’ in a health service setting.  I liked the concept of ‘strategic ambiguity’ – the ways in which people completely fail to define what they are doing, so that they can do lots of different things. Or maintain their power, mwahahahah.

Michael Clarke presented a piece (with photos!!) on the meaning of fatherhood for men working in new media.  This was a delightful talk, introducing the ‘hero culture’ of new media working, and the challenge of overlaying identity as a father onto a youth-driven, youth-pretending industry.  Michael’s talk was the one that made me want to run off and check out some theory (on performing identity), because I’m sad like that.

Andreas Liefhooghe (faculty) gave a perplexing talk (with many, many photos) which personally I found intriguing yet profoundly irritating.  He has done a lot of research on workplace bullying, from a critical perspective, and he drew on Foucault to talk about the difficulties of conceptualising bullying – introducing ‘bullying’ produces a bully/victim binary categorisation that casts people into certain roles. OK, it was more complex than that.

The talk was illustrated with lots of still black and white shots of institutions (the prison, the Panopticon) and people as victims.  It felt extremely manipulative, both as Powerpoint and as talk…verging on the Emperor’s New Clothes in the overuse of bloody Foucault…and yet.   In the midst of my annoyance with it, I could see what he meant. The reduction of personal difficulties to simple categories (stress, bullying, harassment) and binaries (harasser-victim) can set off long chains of unintended and unhelpful consequences.

the joy of labels

What he overlooked, though, is the relief in naming something, even if that naming is a little bit wrong.   It is the difference between listing vague symptoms (I’m sure he’d appreciate the medical analogy) and realising that it all adds up to a recognisable syndrome.  Invoking the label creates a positive basis for action, too, even if there are many things wrong in using the label.

and your point?

But, you say, what is the relevance of all this fine theory to anything practical at all?

I think…I think for me, it focuses me on the need to learn about what is there in front of me (in a qualitative interview or in a questionnaire), where the co-creators of the study want to push it down some well-worn paths and offer some very familiar interpretations.  Many times, the issues don’t fit those neat categories, and it is very tempting to adjust things so that they do.  So, I’m reminded of the value in hanging onto ambiguity and interpreting the thing, not its reflection or its near neighbour. If that makes any sense.