Language, power and belonging

I was recently sent a terms of reference for a consultancy with a medium-sized not for profit which contained terms and expressions which would probably be completely opaque to an outsider. The consultancy was expected to determine how far a particular function in the organisation was helping  to ‘fulfil the vision’. It asked whether current standards of work ‘match the aspiration and vision’ of the organisation? Are aspects of the work carried out ‘strategically’ so that staff are working in ‘alignment’ with the organisational mission and objectives? The language was used unselfconsciously and unproblematically, as though everyone would understand what was meant. Moreover, I wondered how we would  know when staff in an organisation were in alignment, or that standards were matching aspirations? What would we look for to be sure?

I have commented in previous posts on the systemic assumptions that are implicit in such language, but what struck me additionally this time was how excluding it was. In order to engage with the terms of reference, and therefore apply for the consultancy, you have to be a member of this particular club and be fluent in the language. This is equally true if you want to engage critically with it, and the assumptions behind the terms used. It would take a good deal of confidence and courage to begin to question what is being said as a way of enquiring into what it is that the contractor really needs to know. There is an obvious power relationship between those who have work to offer and those who would seek it, but this is amplified by the nature of the terminology being used. The language of the terms of reference begins to frame the kind of discussion that is possible.

The sociologist Norbert Elias wrote extensively about the different ways in which language is used to create power relations, the difference between what he termed ‘the established and outsiders’. For example,  in describing the exclusionary dynamic between three communities who shared the same English village, the fictionally named Winston Parva, Elias demonstrated how language, and particularly gossip, is a medium through which groups or communities create strong and charismatic ‘we’ identities and stigmatise others.There is often a double blow for outsiders who will sometimes accept the language that is deployed against them and use it of themselves.

Additionally, in writing about the development of medieval court society Elias described how longer and longer chains of interdependencies between people in newly evolving states required groups of people to express power relations in more and more subtle ways. Where previously power struggles were settled violently, the evolution of new and ascendant groups of people, such as the emergent bourgeoisie, brought about a more complicated game of more evenly matched players. In court society  groups of people vied for power by developing elaborate codes of courtly conduct, ways of speaking and behaving, to distinguish themselves from others.  Elias develops his argument based on a close reading of the ways in which books of etiquette evolved over time, charting thow the game constantly changes to secure the dominance of one group over another.

Elias is not arguing that this is a wholely deliberate and conscious process, but arises from the interweaving of intentions of many different players: there is no one co-ordinator of, say, the interests of the bourgeoisie planning how s/he can advance the interests of their particular class. Interdependent people are obliged to co-operate and compete in order to get along. We have no  option but to play the game.

This might be one way of understanding the effects of the changing game of international development which has become hugely more professionalised over the past 10-15 years. As more and more staff in European and American INGOs play the development game, it leads to greater differentiation and greater interdependency. Ways of acting and speaking, which no one player has designed or organised and which no single actor or group of actors is capable of changing, become prevalent and are a prerequisite for playing the game. These ways of acting and speaking about the work in turn become a requirement for organisations in the geographical South if they are to join in the game. But just as they learn the rules, so the game moves on. There is a constantly fluctuating process of exclusion and inclusion as power tilts back and forth between the engaged participants.

It is not inevitable that power relations stay the same, and Elias drew attention to the speed at which models of behaviour proliferate and change, as they are taken up by different groups. In international development strong organisations from, say, Bangladesh, have themselves become so powerful that they themselves are beginning to influence strongly the way the game is played. In doing so they will create their own conditions for belonging and new inequalities and imbalances of power.

I am not in any way implying that the terms of reference for the consultancy that I mentioned at the beginning of this post was deliberately written in an exclusionary way, or that the managers concerned are fully conscious of the game that they are obliged to play in order to do their jobs. We none of us are. What I am pointing to, however, is the ongoing process involving language, power and belonging to which we all contribute, and in noticing, we may have a greater ability to affect.


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