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Knowledge economy or shareholder value? A critical realist framework for understanding discourse

Thompson, Paul and Harley, Bill (2011) Knowledge economy or shareholder value? A critical realist framework for understanding discourse. In: 29th International Labour Process Conference, 2011-04-05 - 2011-04-07. (Unpublished)

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Abstract

The ILPC has historically witnessed many debates about the value of discourse, with post-structuralists continually berating ‘orthodox’ labour process theory for its unwillingness or inability to appreciate the virtues of the cultural or discursive turn. Too much ‘emphasis on discourse and deconstruction rather than political economy and the material conditions of production’ (Thompson 2003: 372) has been a typical response. Debates between realists and idealists are largely irreconcilable due to differences about ontology and epistemology, which is one reason for the split between ILPC and CMS. But that is no reason for the former to leave analysis of discourse to the latter. From a critical realist perspective, discourse, like any other empirical phenomena, is real if it makes a difference to non-discursive and (other) discourses –in other words if it acts a generative mechanism with performative potential (Reed 2000: 528-9). What needs to be added to this general insight are more detailed conceptual frameworks that facilitate more concrete, grounded analyses of actual discourses and their potential causal powers. Drawing from critical discourse analysis (CDA) and cultural political economy (CPE), Norman Fairclough (2005) and Bob Jessop (2004) have made a useful start in this direction by seeking to specify the (sequential) conditions – emergence, hegemony, re-contextualisation and operationalisation – under which ‘master narratives’ emerge and develop. Our paper critically evaluates the attempt by these authors to apply this framework to the supposed emergence of the knowledge economy as a ‘hegemonic discourse’ in recent years. We argue that a realist analysis reveals whilst hegemonic as discourse, the knowledge economy was not dominant in most spheres of the economy. In contrast, we seek to show that though frequently flying ‘under the radar as discourse, shareholder value has been much more significant in shaping socio-economic outcomes in recent decades. We develop an argument to explain and move beyond this discourse/extra-discursive mismatch, paying close attention to key contemporary economic and political dynamics. Research on the potential causal powers of discourse needs to pay less attention to inter-textuality and more to actors and institutions, and to extra-discursive conditions and constraints. The purpose of this paper is not to provide a middle or Third Way between post-structuralists and materialists, but a conceptual contribution to the latter’s tools for understanding discourse, as well as an addition to the growing number of empirical considerations of the nature of financialized capitalism from a radical political economy perspective. References Fairclough, N. (2005) ‘Discourse Analysis in Organization Studies: The Case for Critical Realism’, Organization Studies, 26, 6, pp. 915-39. Jessop, B. (2004) ‘Critical Semiotic Analysis and Cultural Political Economy’, Critical Discourse Studies 1.2: 159-74. Reed, M. (2000) ‘The Limits of Discourse Analysis in Organisational Analysis’, Organization, 7: 524-30. Thompson, P. (2003) ‘Disconnected Capitalism: or Why Employers Can’t Keep Their Side of the Bargain’, Work Employment and Society, 17, 2, pp. 359-78.