28: Organizations as Rhetoric

Mats Alvesson

For our sixth Journal of Management Studies Classic article we discussed a set of articles by Professor Mats Alvesson on Organizations as Rhetoric. Focusing on the original work published in 1993, we were very pleased to welcome Mats himself as a guest on this episode!

In this paper, Mats made a series of critical claims to highlight ‘the politics and rhetoric of professions’, as opposed to an ‘essentialist’ view of organizations (Alvesson, 1993: 999).  Central to his observations is a notion that although organizational knowledge is seen as key to to organizational performance, there is little grounding or relationship to external reality of such knowledge. Building on Aristotelian category of contingent knowledge, Mats underlined how knowledge in organizations is open to rhetorical construction and interpretation. Rhetoric is seen as a primary mechanism through which this construction is done and, sson_Maccordingly, knowledge is more a case of institutionalized myth and rationality surrogate than a technical solution to organizational problems. In order to produce these myths or claims to knowledge, organizations and their employees engage in rhetoric as a way of ‘providing convincing accounts, regulating impressions and images’ (Alvesson, 1993: 1007).

For Alvesson, organizations are best understood as ‘systems of persuasion’, where actors use their agency to engage in strategic discourse on behalf of the organization. They actively construct perceptions of reputation, prestige, and expertise within a field in order to construct and share institutionalized myths within and across organizational boundaries.

A key contribution of Alvesson’s (1993) paper is the introduction of a conception of agency as embodied in rhetoric, or the strategic use of language in institutional life. Alvesson points to the central role of rhetoric in institutional myths and organizations as well as to the importance of rhetoric to the operation and maintenance of institutions (Green Jr and Li, 2011). Mats suggests that rhetoric is not just external to the core of organizations but that it is its core. By centring rhetoric in organizational and institutional theorizing, Alvesson highlighted the importance of rhetoric for understanding agency in institutional and organizational sociology. At the same time, by introducing and integrating rhetoric in institutional theory, Alvesson’s ideas also helped further the linguistic turn in organizational and institutional research.

Please join us for this discussion as we talk with Mats about why he wrote this paper, what are his views on knowledge, and how rhetoric fits within the process of identity construction, among other themes!

You may also download the audio files here:  Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

Read with us:

Alvesson, M. (1993), Organizations as Rhetoric: Knowledge-Intensive Firms and the Struggle with Ambiguity. Journal of Management Studies, 30: 997–1015.

Alvesson, M. (2011), De-Essentializing the Knowledge Intensive Firm: Reflections on Sceptical Research Going against the Mainstream. Journal of Management Studies, 48: 1640–1661.

Green Jr, S. E. and Li, Y. (2011), Rhetorical Institutionalism: Language, Agency, and Structure in Institutional Theory since Alvesson 1993. Journal of Management Studies, 48: 1662–1697.