Radical yet Persistent: A Discourse-Historical Analysis of Critical Work Immunity
Actors who engage in institutional work with the aim of developing alternatives to the existing institutional order generally justify their endeavor by critiquing the institutional status quo in line with their own values and beliefs. Such critical work exposes change actors to institutional pressures that risk making them deviate from their initial positions. We examine the discursive strategies that actors can use to make their critical work immune to institutional pressures, a dimension of institutional work that has yet to be explored in due depth. To do so, we study the “extreme case” of a social movement whose critique is radically subversive and yet very persistent: the Swiss biodynamic movement, an esoteric agriculture movement that for nearly a century has criticized the foundations of modern farming methods, including the scientific premises on which these methods are based. Through a discourse-historical analysis of a large corpus of texts, consisting primarily of articles published in the movement’s flagship journal, we find that biodynamists’ critical work mediates between three central paradoxes: disapproval/endorsement, antagonism/conciliation, and permanence/transience. We theorize that these paradoxes result from twin dangers that threaten any critical endeavor in the face of the confronted institutional pressure: marginalization and appropriation. We furthermore conjecture that change agents who deploy discursive strategies that dialectically transcend these paradoxes are likely to increase the immunity of their critical work.
Co-Authors: Prof. Déborah Philippe, Dr. Claire-Isabelle Roquebert