What’s in a word (or several)?

I would like to thank Lorna Dargan from Newcastle University for contributing this guest posting. — David.
Words as skin

You are constructed of words

I was thinking recently about how my clients conceptualise their careers, and it reminded me of some work I did in my last job as an urban policy researcher (bear with me, there is a link in there somewhere). In my research I used a theoretical approach called ‘discourse analysis’. It occurred to me that I’ve been tentatively using it in guidance sessions, and I was wondering whether I could take it further.

Discourse analysis has its roots in social constructionism. The basic premise is that there’s no meaning inherent in things other than the meaning that we give to them. For example, there’s nothing about a red traffic light that actually has the power to stop a car; that’s just the meaning that we give to it. Red light = stop.

Social constructionists believe that we construct our world through language —  it’s how we give things meaning. They argue that the language we use reveals a lot about how we see the world around us.  I’ve recently been entertained by the Daily Mail’s articles on kitchen caddies for home-composting, which the Mail helpfully refers to as ‘slop buckets’. Do you think they support recycling much?

So that’s social constructionism in a nutshell.

But what is discourse?

Discourse analysis examines how language is constructed into frameworks for understanding the world. Essentially, a discourse tells a story.

Vivian Burr illustrates this by talking about fox-hunting. One discourse might define the issue as a ‘pastime of the idle rich’, whereas another might argue that it’s a ‘legitimate means of pest control’. It’s a bit like Inkson’s work on career metaphors, but the thing about discourses is that they don’t just describe things, they also do things. Because a discourse highlights particular parts of an issue, it naturally suggests a course of action (and of course closes down others — how many Daily Mail readers do you think are now on board with home composting?). For example, cellulite is just a fatty deposit under the skin that affects anywhere up to 90% of women, but because we’ve labelled it as a ‘cellulite-problem’, we’ve constructed a multi-billion-pound industry to purge ourselves of it.

Of course, discourses are also tied up with the issue of power, because some discourses come to be accepted as the truth, rather than simply as a representation of it. The ones that operate in the interests of the powerful are more likely to be accepted as the truth of a situation than others. Clearly, the ecological feminists haven’t got far convincing everyone that environmental problems are all men’s fault.

How does this relate to careers?

So, what does this mean for careers professionals? Obviously, you can get clues about a client’s own framework (discourse) for understanding their career through the language that they choose to use. This then allows us to reflect on what that might mean for how the client then goes on to act in the world (e.g. the international student who believes that they’re never going to get a job because they’re not British; or the graduate who is so caught up in the idea of having a ‘profession’ that they can’t pursue less well-recognised careers even though they’d be happier).

Sometimes changing the language a client uses to think about an issue can change their attitude to it. I’ve often suggested that students ‘chat’, rather than ‘network’, as this seems to be less scary for them.

I think this also raises some interesting questions about power. In order for someone to speak and be listened to, they have to have access to the language of the dominant discourse. If someone can’t speak the lingo, then they won’t make themselves heard (there’s an interesting article about this in Journal of Rural Studies. Honestly, there is).

It made me wonder about often I’ve met clients who are perfectly capable of doing a job, but who are unable to articulate this in a way that an employer will hear and understand. How often have we tinkered with the phrasing on an application or an interview answer to give the client a shot at a job?

Until the introduction of the UKCAT, for example, students from private schools had a much better chance of getting into medical school because they had access to the appropriate language of that careers discourse, whereas state-school students tended to struggle. This obviously then reinforced patterns of inclusion and exclusion within that particular labour market.

What does this mean for us?

If it’s true that some clients can’t access the language of particular careers discourses, this suggests that the role of careers professionals is to give the client the language they need so that they can communicate in such a way that they will be heard. Does this mean that we’re interpreters or EFL teachers (employability as a foreign language), helping one group of people speak to another?

If this is the case, are we complicit in maintaining the power status quo? We’re making the client change themselves, giving them a language that is unfamiliar (and in some cases, unnatural) to them; rather than challenging recruiters or admissions officers to listen better. I suppose that some recruiters challenge themselves by creating the UKCAT or moving to strength-based interviews, but should we be challenging them more? What do you think? And can discourse analysis add to our understanding of careers guidance, or should I file it away with the rest of my old stuff?

Interesting reading (really!)

  • Atkinson, R. (1999) Discourses of partnership and empowerment in contemporary British urban regeneration Urban Studies, 36(1), 59-72. DOI: 10.1080/0042098993736
  • Burr, V. (1995) An Introduction to Social Constructionism. London, Routledge.
  • Murdoch, J. (1998) Defining the limits of community governance Journal of Rural Studies, 14(1), 41-50. DOI: 10.1016/S0743-0167(97)00046-6
  • Coupland, C. (2004) Career definition and denial: A discourse analysis of graduate trainees’ accounts of career Journal of Vocational Behavior, 64(3), 515-532. DOI: 10.1016/j.jvb.2003.12.013

Related posts: Why am I here (part one)?Why am I here (part two)?The three levels of listening


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  1. #1 by Todd I. Stark on 22 June 2010 - 12:22

    I thought this was a really well done intro to social construction and discourse analysis and the use of discourse analysis in facilitation. This can potentially be a very powerful tool I think. There are even some great examples in sociology of science of people discussing different perspectives of the same theory and using a flexible kind of discourse analysis to resolve them (e.g. “The One Culture” by Labinger and Collins).

    There are a lot of examples that go nowhere as well. My experience tells me that I have to measure the use of this kind of approach because it applies more or less to different types of words and can end up with slippery concepts rather than clearer communication. For example, I learned very much of value here from Ian Hacking’s “Social Construction of What?” and from John Searle’s writings on social reality. They help circumscribe the use of discourse analysis so that it is focused on the process of how meaning is constructed in individual cases rather than just making the assumption that meaning is constructed, a notion which varies in its applicability to different kinds or parts of dialog in my experience.

    Thanks for another really thoughtful and helpful article.


  2. #2 by John king on 23 June 2010 - 01:21

    Interesting angle on being interpreters between students and employers. It is a genuine issue – particularly as employers don’t often agree themselves. I’ve heard many different versions of ‘commercial awareness’! Should careers services take a more traditionally academic role in actively researching this area, and attempting to construct robust definitions? An early step might be to subscribe to HR journals so that we have a greater understanding ourselves of HR industry definitions.

    • #3 by David Winter on 23 June 2010 - 06:56

      What about equipping students to be their own researchers?

      • #4 by Cathy Bereznicki on 28 June 2010 - 14:35

        What about equipping students to be their own leaders?

      • #5 by David Winter on 29 June 2010 - 22:48

        Cathy, can you explain to me how someone becomes their own leader? What does that mean?

  3. #6 by Lorna on 24 June 2010 - 14:15

    Thanks for the references, it’s good to widen the net from urban policy!

    I think you’re right, John, that we need to understand more about employer discourses, and to try to identify their narratives of employability (but I also like David’s suggestion of getting clients to do this for themselves).

    I guess the next step is to try to name and identify discourses of career and employability. I’ve just been focusing on the language that employers and clients use, which is basic social constructionism, but in order to turn it into a piece of discourse analysis, I need to take it a step further to pull these into more coherent narratives (or discourses!).

    Has anyone out there already identified any narratives of career and employability? And what kinds of clues does the language used give you about the nature of the narrative?

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