Sub-theme 16: (SWG) Organization as Communication: The Performative Power of Talk

François Cooren
Université de Montréal, Canada
Lars Thøger Christensen
Copenhagen Business School, Denmark
Dennis Schoeneborn
Copenhagen Business School, Denmark

Call for Papers

This sub-theme is concerned with the fundamental, constitutive, and formative role of communication for organizations. One way to reflect on this constitutive role is to focus on the relation between talk and action. In organization and management studies scholars traditionally tend to clearly distinguish between "talk" and "action" (e.g., Brunsson, 1989) – a distinction that is found in colloquial use, too (Grant et al., 1998). The basic assumption is that "talk is cheap" and easy to do, since it oftentimes lacks alignment with action, i.e. the "real" and hands-on accomplishments.

Regarded as a source of hypocrisy, the decoupling or misalignment of talk and action (inc. the mere ceremonial compliance with stakeholder expectations) is seen as a threat to both an organization's efficiency and legitimacy. However, as recent works from organizational communication studies remind us, a clear-cut distinction between "talk" and "action" is problematic, given that talk is an action in its own right (e.g., Ashcraft et al., 2009). This is because language and communication not only reflect, but also reflexively participate in the constitution of reality (Robichaud & Cooren, 2013). Proponents of this perspective argue that language use always has a "performative character", i.e. by talking a reality into being that would not exist if the interaction had not taken place. For instance, in a recent paper, Christensen, Morsing, & Thyssen (2013) apply the idea of the performative nature of language use to the context of corporate social responsibility (CSR). The authors argue that although differences between "talk" and "action" in the CSR arena are usually seen as hypocritical, such differences can be part of an organization's "aspirational talk", which represents an important resource for organizational and social change (see also Haack et al., 2012).

In this sub-theme, we invite papers that help reflect upon and go beyond oversimplified distinctions between talk and action, that seek to further explore the performative dimension of language use in organizational contexts, or that aim to address the relations between communication and organization more generally.

Below is a list of indicative, but not exhaustive, topics and questions related to the sub-theme:

  • What are the implications for organization theory if the distinction between talk and action is problematized?
  • What role does talk (or other forms of communication, e.g., textual, architectural, technological, etc.) play in the constitution of organizations?
  • What forms of talk do we find in organizational practice – and how do they differ in shaping and constituting organizational phenomena?
  • How does talk get “materialized” in organizational practice (e.g., through texts) and can gain more stable character?
  • Under which boundary conditions is it likely that "aspirational talk" (Christensen et al., 2013) paves the way for its own fulfillment?
  • What methodologies are best suited to study the formative role of communication for organizations?




  • Ashcraft, K.L., Kuhn, T.R., & Cooren, F. (2009): "Constitutional amendments: 'Materializing' organizational communication." Academy of Management Annals, 3 (1), 1–64.
  • Brunsson, N. (1989): The Organization of Hypocrisy: Talk, Decisions, and Actions in Organizations. New York, NY: Wiley.
  • Christensen, L.T., Morsing, M., & Thyssen, O. (2013): "CSR as aspirational talk." Organization, 20 (3), 372–393.
  • Grant, D., Keenoy, T.W., & Oswick, C. (eds.) (1998): Discourse and Organization. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.
  • Haack, P., Schoeneborn, D., & Wickert, C. (2012): "Talking the talk, moral entrapment, creeping commitment? Exploring narrative dynamics in corporate responsibility standardization." Organization Studies, 33 (5-6), 813–845.
  • Robichaud, D., & Cooren, F. (eds.) (2013): Organization and Organizing: Materiality, Agency and Discourse. Mahwah, NJ: Routledge.


François Cooren is Professor and Chair of the Department of Communication at the Université de Montréal, Canada. His work has been published in the 'Academy of Management Annals', 'Communication Theory', 'Human Relations', 'Management Communication Quarterly', 'Organization', and 'Organization Studies', amongst others. His research interests lie in the study of organizational communication, language and social interaction, and communication theory.
Lars Thøger Christensen is Professor at the Department of Intercultural Communication and Management at Copenhagen Business School, Denmark. His work has been published in 'Organization Studies', 'Human Relations', 'Management Communication Quarterly', and 'Organization', amongst others. His research interests circle around the question of how organizations deliberately (or otherwise) construct significant realities for themselves and others through communication, in areas such as CSR, transparency and organizational identity.
Dennis Schoeneborn is Associate Professor at the Department of Intercultural Communication and Management at Copenhagen Business School, Denmark. His work has been published in 'Organization Studies', 'Management Communication Quarterly', and the 'Journal of Management Inquiry', amongst others. His current research concerns the question how communication constitutes rudimentary and partial organizational phenomena.