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.


7 Responses

  1. Hey – thanks for the props 🙂 I also liked Diane’s talk a lot, and the presentation by Tina Kiefer about her work on leadership and followers using drawing.

    The thing I found most inspiring in terms of performing identity and language was Judith Butler’s ‘Excitable Speech’, which might also resonate a lot with Andreas’ talk – her focus, though, is very much on how we can recover control of forms of speech that wound or construct us as identities inimical (I’m paraphrasing wildly here – you know what Butler’s like!) to our sense of self (or identity). It could be argued that the main problem with Foucault (and by extension, the theoretical hole in Andreas’ talk) is that he died just as he was seriously beginning to engage with the ethical and agency consequences of his thinking. With Andreas, of course, his pictures ran out and the loop started again.

    • I’m not familiar with Judith Butler or Derrida so I may have to go and do some heavy reading.

      There was more that was interesting – I didn’t manage to get to grips with Chris Dewberry’s talk or indeed to beard him about whether he had simply tapped into conscientiousness/willpower/the Protestant work ethic…

      I couldn’t decide whether Andreas had created something irritating by accident or purpose. I’m still not sure. There’s a way in which all that critical theory is soporific and bludgeoning; and yet it does its job in terms of making an acceptable concept highly problematic.

  2. Hi Alison

    It sounds like a very interesting day…oh – to noodle like so!

    The whole notion of labels and the like fascinates me…you might find Julie Smith’s work on this topic of interest too;


    And I really like your take-out; “the value of hanging onto ambiguity and interpreting the thing, not its reflection” are wise words indeed!


    • Ooh, thanks, i will look at that.

      I’ve been doing a research project where there are a lot of ready-prepared concepts around; in this particular case, they don’t apply all that well and yet it’s still quite hard to resist them, if you know what I mean.

      I was also thinking about a conversation I had with someone the other day about their boss – I ended up using the word ‘bullying’ and yet I’m not sure it was really the right one. It just happened to be a convenient category that covers ‘mean behaviour of bosses’ and yet could be completely and totally inaccurate.

  3. No way. I’m having a “seven degrees of blog separation” moment. Michael is one of my favorite bloggers, and though I’ve never met you, Alison, I’ve met your husband…. Weird.

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