This study introduces positioning theory in the analysis of small-group dynamics in joint decision-making episodes. Specifically, it seeks to identify the key concepts that come into play when positioning theory is applied to analyze small-group interaction and small-group dynamics. Positioning theory aims to examine the discursive production of interpersonal positions that rely on the local moral orders of the interlocutors. The study presented here draws on transcribed material from four management board meetings of a Finnish public research institute, including a total of 18 decision-making episodes. First, the findings show how decision-making episodes consist of fluctuating storylines, how different positions are created, and how social positioning is connected to task positioning. Second, task positioning and the effects of the positioning negotiations are discussed, particularly, how positioning is connected to the progression of the meeting, to establishing the chair’s position as the facilitator, and to the negotiation of shared themes and concepts is shown. Third, the analysis indicates how the local moral orders of a small group are negotiated and constructed.
- positioning theory
- small groups
- social and task positioning
- local moral orders
Within the past few decades, positioning theory has become a framework of interest in different research fields, such as education (e.g., Anderson, 2009; Glazier, 2009), intercultural politics (e.g., Montiel & De Guzman, 2011; Slocum-Bradley, 2008a), and public relations and business studies (e.g., Bisel & Barge, 2011; Ghosten, 2012; James, 2015). The theory itself represents one of the many approaches focusing on discursive identity construction and interpersonal relations (Depperman, 2015). Positioning theory, originally outlined by Brownyn Davies and Rom Harré (1990), aims to examine and explore the distribution of rights and duties to speak and behave in certain ways among the participants of face-to-face interaction or intra-group relations. These rights and duties set the basis for the discursive construction of interpersonal positions and positioning (B. Davies & Harré, 1990; Harré & Van Langenhove, 2010; Van Langenhove & Harré, 1999). Despite the growing number of studies that apply this theory, the focus of analysis has primarily been set on either individual identity construction and individual narratives, intergroup relations or inter-institutional positioning (see Harré & Moghaddam, 2003; Harré & Van Langenhove, 1999). Explicit group-level interaction analysis and the adaptation of positioning theory to the understanding of small-group dynamics have been somewhat rare. Except for a few studies (e.g., Clifton, 2014; Hirvonen, 2013), the concept of intra-group positioning and its dynamics has been neglected among positioning theory scholars.
This study introduces positioning theory as a theoretical and methodological approach to the study of the themes at hand by using the basic concepts of the theory in the analysis of small-group interaction. First, this study seeks to identify the key concepts that come into play when the theory is applied to a small-group context. Furthermore, this study aims to explicate the construction of local moral orders in workgroup interaction in connection to the different elements of positioning. The analysis presented in this work shows how positioning theory oriented analysis proceeds in a context of workgroup interaction study and how the basic concepts of the theory help us construe the micro-dynamics of small-group discourse. In this case, a differentiation of social and task positioning is made. Social positioning refers to the discursive positioning among group members, whereas task positioning is something that occurs specifically in a small-group setting as group members simultaneously position the nature and objectives of the group work itself. In the context of positioning theory, the analysis of task-level positioning is something that has been ignored but is significant, especially in the analysis of workgroup behavior.
The context of the study is joint decision-making episodes of management board meetings in a Finnish public research institute. With the starting points of positioning theory, the focus on small-group dynamics, and the adaptation of a discursive approach all considered, decision-making is understood as socially constructed episodes of joint action. Thus, the analysis presented in this article also highlights the discursive dynamics of joint decision-making from the positioning theory perspective.
Positioning Theory and Workgroups as Micro-Cultures
Positioning theory focuses on situation-specific actions and the construction of different positions in interaction stating the inability of the concept of role in explaining the fine-grained dynamics of social behavior (see, for example, Harré, 2012b). Positions, unlike roles, can refer not only to human beings as social actors but also to institutions, social groupings, organizations, and even cultures. However, the distinction between roles and positions, especially in interpersonal interaction, is problematic because roles can be regarded as the basis of positions and positioning (Depperman, 2015), and positions can be crystallized into roles and vice versa (Henriksen, 2008). In the present study, role-like elements are referred to as pre-positioning (Harré, 2012b). In an institutional context, the institutional status of group members and the predefined meeting agendas pre-position group members as actors with their own sets of rights and duties.
The examination of the moral order of social actions and the rights and duties of the interaction participants to act and speak in certain ways forms the core of positioning theory. The focus of analysis is on the social realm where these rights and duties are distributed, negotiated, and disputed. Within this context, conversations are the central forum of this kind of discursive practice. (Harré, 2015; Harré & Van Langenhove, 2010; Van Langenhove & Harré, 1999) Consequently, every social group has its own implicit structure of moral orders that guides the group interaction and the dynamics between the group members.
According to the theory, the distribution of rights and duties and the construction of social episodes, such as in small groups, depend on three aspects of joint interaction. The first aspect is the lived storyline that the interlocutors adopt. This includes the history and background of the interlocutors or groups as well as the ongoing interaction of the participants. The concept of storyline can be described as a compendium of the ongoing social episode. A second aspect is the specific speech acts and the actual utterances of the interlocutors with their illocutionary and perlocutionary effects. B. Davies and Harré (1990) have adopted the concept of speech act from John Searle (1979) but have, however, modified it by leaving out the intentions of the speaker. Thus a speech act is a purely social phenomenon and can be defined as the social consequence of social action. As such, “a speech-action can become a determinate speech-act to the extent that it is taken up as such by all the participants” (B. Davies & Harré, 1990, p. 45). The third aspect is the positions being assigned and adopted by the participants with respect to the two previous elements. These positions represent the moral aspects of the interaction, with reference to the speakers’ rights and duties to say certain things within the specific social context. These three aspects can be presented as something that Van Langenhove and Harré (1999; Harré & Van Langenhove, 2010) refer to as a positioning triad (Figure 1).
Any specific speech act includes the position (self-positioning) and positions of the other speakers (other-positioning) with a chance of changing the ongoing storyline. With this in mind, a speech act has an illocutionary and a perlocutionary effect. The illocutionary force of a speech act refers to the speech act itself as a performative action (e.g., question, command, comment), whereas the perlocutionary effect refers to the consequences of the illocutionary act (e.g., answer, denial, or counterargument; Van Langenhove & Harré, 1999). In the context of workgroup studies, it is of particular interest to focus on the perlocutionary effects of the speech acts by analyzing the consequences of different positioning acts with regard to the whole group and group work itself.
Positioning acts can be divided to first-, second-, and third-order positioning. First-order positioning occurs when the positioning act is not challenged by others, whereas in second order, the position is challenged. Third-order positioning means that someone outside the ongoing social episode is being positioned by, let us say, referring to a previous episode. Positioning can also be referred to as tacit or deliberate and moral or personal. In deliberate positioning, positions are explicitly referred to, while in tacit positioning the position is simply assumed. Deliberate positioning here is the explicit presentation of the self as an agent through the expression of one’s agency or unique point of view with the use of, for example, pronouns. Moral positioning refers to situations when a person is obliged to perform according to the social expectations of a certain role, for example. Failing to do so, personal positioning comes into play as the person has to make a personal account as to why she has not been able to act according to the social expectations (Harré & Van Langenhove, 2010; Van Langenhove & Harré, 1999).
More recently, further distinctions have also been made between interactive and reflexive positioning (Jones, 2013) as well as interpersonal and intrapersonal positioning (Harré, 2012b, 2015). Considering small-group dynamics and interaction, positioning can also involve entities other than personas and interpersonal social behavior. In this regard, different kinds of social groups, even cultures, can be positioned as if they were individual agents (Slocum-Bradley, 2008b, 2009). Certainly, small-groups can also position themselves, as well as their actions and duties. This distinction sets the focus of analysis presented in this article also to the positioning of group work itself in connection with local moral orders.
Although the study of moral orders is not in itself new (see Jayyusi, 2013; Kurri & Wahlström, 2003; Wuthnow, 1989) and despite recent advances in positioning theory (e.g., Harré, Moghaddam, Pilkerton Cairnie, Rothbart, & Sabat, 2009), issues related to the different varieties or forms of local moral orders have not been addressed in detail. However, in a recent presentation, Van Langenhove (2015) has introduced a theoretical framework to conceptualize different varieties of moral orders by distinguishing between cultural, legal, institutional, conversational, and personal levels of moral orders, each of which sets a cluster of different kinds of rights and duties for social (inter)action. Institutional moral orders set the rights and duties among members of an organization or institution, whereas conversational moral orders are negotiated in interaction and pertain to rights and duties of the ongoing interaction (Van Langenhove, 2015). Evidently, the different levels of local moral orders co-exist and intertwine. Focusing on positioning in a small-group and institutional context, this study aims to exemplify the construction and negotiation between institutional and conversational moral orders and to bring forth empirical findings on these theoretical distinctions.
In relation to other-positioning perspectives, focusing on individual narratives and narrative identity construction (e.g., Bamberg, 1997; see also Depperman, 2015), positioning theory offers a broader perspective to the analysis of positioning, making it possible to apply the basic concepts of the theory to a variety of different contexts. In this sense, the basic concepts of positioning theory help us set the theory apart from other-positioning approaches in its usefulness to the study of small-group interaction. Concepts, such as illocutionary and perlocutionary force, shared storylines, and local moral orders, can be applied specifically to the domain of small-group interaction and dynamics to bring forth a micro-cultural perspective. The aim of this study is to contribute to the understanding of workgroups as micro-cultures. Studying workgroups as micro-cultures sets the focus of analysis on diverse aspects of group behavior, processes, and phenomena. Generally, the micro-cultural perspective emphasizes the study of groups as micro-cultures with their own set of norms, interaction order, individual relationships, and individual identities focusing especially on the interactional and discursive dimensions of joint action (e.g., Denzin, 1999; Hartley, 1997, see also Burke, 2003; Fine & Hallett, 2014; Rohall, Milkie, & Lucas, 2011). From this point of view, a wide variety of qualitative methods can be introduced to the study of these themes. Using the basic concepts and starting points of positioning theory in the study of small-group dynamics offers one methodological alternative to micro-cultural investigations. In this case, the focus of the analysis is set on the discursive practices of positioning and construction of local moral orders, as well as on the social construction of joint decision-making. Especially in organizational and institutional contexts, similar themes have been approached and discussed among scholars of the communities of practice approach (Hughes, Jewson, & Unwin, 2007; Wenger, 1998) who also emphasize the shared and joint construction of meanings and identity.
Communication, Interaction, and Decision-Making
Because the empirical data used in this study come from a corpus of joint decision-making episodes, a brief introduction to studies of group decision-making is in order. Within the field of group studies, the small-group communication perspective has had an especially dominant role (see Beck & Fisch, 2000; Hirokawa, Cathcart, Samovar, & Henman, 2003; Hirokawa & Scott Poole, 1996). In addition to theoretically oriented group communication studies, an explicit focus on group-level analysis has been approached by means of the naturalistic paradigm (see Frey, 1994, 2003) applying a variety of different quantitative and qualitative methods. However, within this context, detailed discursive interaction analysis has gained relatively little attention.
Recently, institutional interaction scholars have shown a particular interest in the study of meeting interaction, applying mainly conversation analytical methods (e.g., Arminen, 2005; Heritage & Clayman, 2010). In these studies, organizations are regarded as products of discursive action (Boden, 1994) as well as contexts of sense-making and the construction of interpersonal relationships (Cooren, 2007). Studies of meeting interaction have also pointed out the specific and idiosyncratic features of meeting talk, such as the centrality of a chair person and the specific structures of turn-taking (Asmuß & Svennevig, 2009; Svennevig, 2012).
Conversation analysis (CA) studies have investigated specific themes relating to decision-making such as proposals (Asmuß & Oshima, 2012), problem-solving talk in workplace settings (Angouri & Bargiela-Chiappini, 2011), and influence in talk in decision-making episodes (Clifton, 2009) as well as the effects of situated work practices in decision-making (Alby & Zucchermaglio, 2006). Firth (1995) and Huisman (2001) have presented a general overview of the CA methodology in the context of negotiations and decision-making.
Although other discursive approaches such as discourse analysis have also been applied to the study of workgroup interaction (e.g., J. Davies, 2003; Gillispie & Chrispeels, 2008; MacMartin & LeBaron, 2007; Sawyer & Berson, 2004), aspects of discursive positioning in group decision-making have rarely been addressed. The contexts of team decision-making and institutional interaction in discursive approaches vary from business interaction to the study of health care professionals as well as educational interaction (Halvorsen, 2010). Overall, both the small-group communication perspective and institutional interaction perspective of decision-making lack the view of decision-making as a micro-cultural product and the discursive elements of dynamic positioning within institutional or workgroup related roles. Accordingly, a context of this nature offers a good opportunity to apply positioning theory and its starting points to a small-group setting. Also, the discursive construction of both social and task related positioning has not been analyzed in previous studies.
The following research questions aim to highlight the perspectives related to the adaptation of positioning theory to the study of small-group interaction and dynamics. These questions also aim to describe joint decision-making in terms of positioning and positioning theory.
Research Question 1: How does decision-making come about as a product of conversational storylines in the context of positioning theory?
Research Question 2: How are the task and socially related aspects of decision-making associated with the concept of positioning in the context of small-group interaction?
Research Question 3: How does the local moral order become established in the forms of social and task positioning in small-group interaction?
Data and Context
Transcriptions of four videotaped management board meetings at a public research institute in Finland comprise the data used in this study. The transcriptions of the meetings were analyzed, utilizing the basic concepts of positioning theory. The data were collected in 2009 (two meetings) and 2010 (two meetings) as part of a research project on structural development in universities and public research institutes. In regard to the context of the data, other kinds of research data could have been used as well to investigate the aims of the study. The data used in this study consists of almost 10 hr of videotaped material. The duration of the meetings varies from a little less than an hour to 2 hr 45 min. Some 65,300 words (in Finnish, including minimal responses) of transcribed text were created from the videotaped material using conversation analytical transcription conventions (see the appendix). The analysis focused on decision-making episodes as predetermined in the meeting agendas in which the topics of the meetings were categorized either as “to be discussed,” “to be decided,” or “other matters.” By focusing on the “to be decided” topics, a total of approximately 44,000 words of transcription was the starting point of the analysis. The focus of the analysis is to apply the basic concepts of positioning theory to a relatively new context, so the representativeness of the data is not of prime interest. However, the analysis of four meetings already offers variability that would not be present in the analysis, for example, of just one decision-making episode.
A total of 18 topics in the four meetings were labeled as “to be decided,” and the duration of the decision-making episodes per topic varied from approximately 3 to 54 min. The number of decision-making episodes per meeting varied from one (Meeting 4) to seven (Meeting 2) episodes. The themes of the decisions ranged from financial and jurisdictional decisions to decisions and discussions concerning the strategy and vision of the organization.
Altogether, seven to 12 people took part in the meetings, seven of whom were actual members of the management board. The board consisted of the CEO, sector directors, chief financial officer (CFO), chief administrative officer (CAO), and the chief strategist. The number of participants present at the meetings varied, as not all board members were necessarily present simultaneously. In addition to the board members, other affiliates of the organization participated in the meetings as well (e.g., appointed secretary, planning manager, and external members, particularly those with the purpose of serving as presenters for discussion). The CEO who functions as the chair of the meetings was not present at one meeting and joined one meeting halfway through. In the absence of the CEO, either one of the sector directors or the CAO chaired the meetings. Details concerning the meetings and decision-making episodes are presented in Table 2.
The meetings took place in a conference room situated at the headquarters of the institution and proceeded according to a predefined agenda and schedule. The group members sat randomly in a room around a long, rectangular table but so that everyone could see each other. A screen monitor was located at the other end of the table, which showed the meeting agenda at the beginning of each meeting and the additional information provided by the presenters, who often also stood at the other end of the table during their presentations. The original videotaped material was recorded with one camera that was located at the same end of the room as the screen, in a corner of the room. Consequently, at every meeting, some of the participants had their backs to the camera or were left out of the picture altogether. Due to the combination of both official turn allocation and the possibility of free discussion, the meetings can be described as semi-official.
Data Analysis and Ethical Considerations
Position-oriented analysis can proceed with any one of the three aspects of the positioning triad in mind, with the aim of revealing the episodic structure of a conversation. One can start the analysis by focusing either on the adopted positions, created and lived storylines, or on individual speech acts, but one should bear in mind the mutually dependent nature of these aspects (e.g., Harré & Van Langenhove, 2010). Here, the analysis consisted of two phases. First, an overall assessment of the meetings was conducted. This included a storyline analysis in which the key phases of the meeting were assessed. After this, the specific decision-making phases were categorized and analyzed according to their storyline structure, and an episodic structure of the decision-making processes was constructed according to storylines. In addition, an analysis of the most typical forms and types of positioning taking place in the decision-making was conducted. The second phase of the analysis focused on the changes in the storyline structures with the aim of scoping the perlocutionary effects of the positioning. In this way, moments when the ongoing storyline structure changes and small micro-level storylines take place were analyzed.
The key element of the ethical considerations is the anonymity of both the organization and the members of the group. The organization was anonymized by deleting all the details that could result in the identification of the institution without changing the initial conversational structure of the interaction. Also, the participants were given pseudonyms. Initially, at the time of data collection, all the participants in the meetings had given their permission to video record the meetings, and the members were informed beforehand of the taping and that the collected data would be used for research purposes.
The Episodic Structure of Decision-Making at Management Board Meetings
Management board meetings as social episodes, understood as “orderly sequences of meaningful actions . . . which seem to have some measure of coherence and structure” (Harré, 1993, p. 56), form an arena for positioning that differs in its structure and order from mundane conversations. The rules and conventions of an episode, in this case a meeting, enable meaningful interaction but are also disputable. Within the context of positioning theory, these conventions and rules can be analyzed more dynamically as a part of and a basis for different kinds of storylines. Here, the decision-making episodes were predefined in the meeting agenda by the notion “to be decided.” This inexorably guides the group’s functioning to decision-making with respect to how the group has functioned in previous decision-making situations. At the beginning of each decision-making episode, a predetermined member of the board or an outside member functions as a presenter by introducing the theme with all its details, offering the information required for the decision-making. Each presenter has his or her own expertise on the matter at hand and is positioned and positions himself or herself as an expert.
In this context, the decision-making episodes can be referred to as decision-making storylines that have a specific structure and defined phases, based on the group’s history, and previous experiences having developed from a certain way of working together with special issues such as decision-making. These storylines consist of different interactional phases that can be referred to as sub-storylines. In this case, two predominant decision-making sub-storylines came about; the storylines of presentation and discussion. The presentation storyline is comprised of someone, either a member of the board or an external member, presenting the case at hand to which the decision-making relates. The presentation is followed by the discussion storyline, which consists of different members of the board taking turns and commenting on the presentation and suggesting further actions. Both of these sub-storylines include subtle shifts in the ongoing storyline structure when more subtle micro-level storylines come about. Later, when these sub-storylines are the focus of analysis, they are referred to as storylines of presentation and discussion. Storylines are, in this sense, not only a result or a construct of an individual narrative but also a joint construct of the group work and workgroup setting. The episodic structure according to the storylines is shown in Figure 2.
In addition to the explicit decisions made by the management board, other types of decisions and negotiations come about as well. These decisions are usually a result of positioning and the formation of micro-level storylines and negotiations within the two decision-making storylines (presentation and discussion). Decisions and negotiations of this nature involve the interaction order and the group itself dealing with the proceeding of the meeting, the use of the chair’s right to speak and lead the group, negotiating concepts and themes concerning the decision being made, and the negotiations of different positions such as positions of expertise. These small negotiations and shifts in storylines and positions were connected to the group’s functioning resulting either in negotiating group work procedures, establishing leadership, or negotiating and clarifying shared concepts. Before these themes are elaborated, an overview of how the decision-making episodes proceed from a storyline to another is presented, along with examples of different positions and positioning acts in these transitions. Later, themes of positioning connected to the functioning of the group are presented in the order in which the findings were made in the analysis.
Positioning, Positions, and Storylines as Decision-Making Proceeds
The decision-making episodes at the management board meetings create a forum for specific forms of positioning. In this sense, the positions come about in relation to the institutional situation and its discursive regulation. In the presentation storyline, the presenter is positioned as an expert who has the duty to present all the important and relevant information concerning the decision at hand. Other members of the group are simultaneously positioned as members who need information. At the beginning of each presentation storyline, the chair appoints the presenter to introduce the case and simultaneously positions everyone else as obligated to listen. The presenter’s expertise and expert position is constructed tacitly via first-order positioning, as the presenter presents the latest developments, background, and information on the matter at hand to the others. However, the expert positions are a result of both tacit self-positioning (one acts as an expert without explicitly referring to oneself as an expert) and as explicit other-positioning when someone else positions the presenter as an expert by, for example, inquiring about additional information or accounting for some actions. Within the presentation storyline, the former is more typical, as in the discussion storyline the latter is more apparent. The discussion storyline opens up an opportunity for the other members of the group to adopt expert positions as representatives of their own field of expertise. This is usually achieved tacitly as the members make comments and point out issues concerning the presentation. In this sense, the commenting and questioning positions the presenter as an expert, and as someone who is obligated to answer (explicit other-positioning) while positioning oneself as an expert with the right to ask questions and make remarks.
Although the presenters adopt an expert position tacitly in relation to the other group members, it is not self-evident who has the right to do this and when. Presenters are appointed in the meeting agenda beforehand, and during the meetings the chair holds the position to control the proceeding of the meeting. In terms of positioning theory, the way presenters are appointed beforehand can be understood as pre-positioning. After the chair’s explicit turn allocation and permission, the appointed presenter has the right to present his or her case. This is also how a transition from a presentation storyline to a discussion storyline is commenced. The transition from the presentation storyline to the discussion storyline proceeds explicitly in most cases by the chair’s implication. This explicit transition opens up a new conversational domain that enables new positions in the group to be adopted. However, on four occasions, the transition between these two storylines takes place tacitly without the chair’s explicit guidance.
The role of the chair is thus evident in the proceeding of the meeting, as the chair has the right and also the duty to keep the processes within schedule and in line with the agenda. In some cases, the chair also determines the time frame and the nature of the topic at hand as something that is important or something that does not require that much time.
Extract 1 demonstrates the transition from a presentation storyline to a discussion storyline conducted explicitly by the chair, as well as explicit task positioning.
Extract 1, transition of storyline and task positioning, speakers: Tommi (chair), Julia (presenter)
1 Tommi: .hh [thank you very much articulated presentations.
2 Julia: [I will gladly answer. hh.
4 Tommi: all right concise comments=Oskari Kirsi. ((Allocates turns to Oskari and Kirsi)).
The presenter has just finished the presentation by announcing that possible questions would be answered. A tacit transition from one storyline to another might occur if a member of the board were simply to ask a question following the presentation. However, the transition from the presentation storyline to discussion storyline takes place after the chair has noted that the presentation has ended (Line 1) and after opening the discussion storyline explicitly (Line 4). With both of these speech acts (Lines 1, 4), the chair positions himself tacitly as the facilitator of the meeting via first-order performative positioning. The speech acts function as a commendation and conversational gambit (illocutionary force) while changing the storyline and the positions of the group members (now the other members of the group also have the right to speak up). This part of the positioning act can be interpreted as social positioning connected to the interpretation and realization of the social order. Naturally, the steering from one storyline to another also guides the group work and decision-making episode forward. In addition to this, the chair does not just position the members of the board, but he also frames the decision-making episode and thus the group work and the nature of the discussion following as “concise” (Line 4). Consequently, not only does the tacit performative positioning by the chair in line 4 have the perlocutionary force to move the meeting forward and open the discussion, but it also positions the whole group process as something that should be moved through rather swiftly. This process can be referred to as task positioning. Simultaneously, a conversational local moral order is established as the participants are supposed to present their comments vigorously and briefly. The chair’s speech act also demonstrates another kind of moral order in which the institutional status and background of the members are present. Only the chair has the right to define the nature of the group in this manner. Hence, the chair’s speech act can also be understood as a part of the institutional or organizational moral order.
The second extract exemplifies a case where the transition from the presentation storyline to the discussion storyline occurs tacitly with both tacit first-order positioning and explicit self-positioning. The presenter (Jukka), who is an outside member of the management board, is just finishing the presentation and asks the management board to make a decision concerning the case at hand.
Extract 2, tacit first-order positioning/explicit self-positioning, task positioning, speakers: Jukka (presenter)
1 Jukka: . . . that based on our discussions one can think only as vertical but one must take care of
2 this new kind of horizontal in cooperation (.) .hhh in the whole project. (.) not just ou-
3 outside but (.) also within (.) our house.
4 Jukka: and now my question really just (0.3) to the board is at this stage (0.8) can we (.)
5 proceed (.) with this (0.3) policy that this kind of horizontal responsibility.
In Lines 1 to 3, the presenter positions himself tacitly as an expert by explaining the background and arguments for the proposal at hand. In this case, the positioning can also be referred to as performative positioning as it is not followed by second-order positioning by any of the group members, and no personal positioning is necessary. The storyline changes in Line 4 from presenting to requesting information as the presenter presents a direct question to the board by means of explicit self-positioning. The tacit performative positioning of the self is hence followed by explicit positioning of the self. Explicit self-positioning,1 in this case, as someone who has the right to ask questions and direct the decision-making process, is achieved by either expressing one’s agency or unique point of view, or by pointing out biographical events (Harré & Van Langenhove, 2010). A second-long pause precedes the transition from tacit to explicit positioning. This pause would give the opportunity for the other group members to take part in the interaction. However, the presenter is the one who has the first right to speak. In this case, the pause seems to highlight the transition from tacit to explicit positioning, so that the presentation of the presenter’s own views and suggestions becomes delineated. In Line 5, the presenter expresses his agency as a person with the right over any other group member to ask a question of this nature. The presenter’s utterance in Lines 4 to 5 has the illocutionary force of a question, whereas the perlocutionary force has an impact on the decision-making process and the local moral order itself. The question, as a determinate speech act, directs the decision-making process and the group task in a specific direction and sets an objective for the upcoming discussion and group work. Task positioning of this nature also creates a conversational moral order on how the discussion should proceed. However, presenting the question itself demonstrates an institutional moral order of a certain kind in which the presenter has the right to ask questions from the other members of the group, and they have the duty to answer.
In many of the cases, the presentation storyline includes similar small shifts in the storyline structure as well as in the positioning of others, in this case the members of the management board as someone in need of information or someone required to answer. Although the presenter makes an inquiry concerning the decision, thus simultaneously changing the microstructure of the storyline from expert speech to inquiry, the expert position is not challenged. However, this act of self-positioning opens up an opportunity for a new storyline and positions and usually precedes the transition to the discussion storyline.
After the presentation, the decision-making process proceeds according to the discussion storyline, during which the possibility for new positions open up. In many of the cases, the chair adopts the position of an expert by continuing directly after the presentation and pointing out further information and additional aspects related to the decision at hand. The members of the board make observations and give details from their own expert positions. While in the presentation storyline, the expert positions were adopted tacitly or by the chair’s implication, in the discussion storyline, the positioning of the presenter as an expert came about via explicit positioning.
Negotiating Meeting Procedures
The analysis of the sequences when the meetings did not proceed according to the expected storyline structure shows how positioning is connected to three different themes, all of which are intertwined with the decision-making as well as social and task positioning. These themes involved the negotiation of meeting procedures, establishing the chair’s position as the facilitator, and the negotiation of themes and concepts concerning the decision-making. Positioning was connected to themes dealing explicitly with group work, its prerequisites, and instructions. In this case, the group members negotiate and discuss the procedures of how to proceed in the meeting either presently or in the future, thus simultaneously changing the ongoing storyline and interaction order. From a positioning point of view, these negotiations involve subtle shifts within the predominant decision-making storylines of presentation and discussion. These small negotiations form micro-level storylines of negotiations that intertwine with the two main storylines of decision-making. The following extract demonstrates the small negotiations and transitions in positions within a presentation storyline in which the elements of social and task positioning and the negotiation of local moral orders are intertwined.
Extract 3, speakers: Tommi = chair (CFO), Niklas = presenter, Enni = sector director
1 Tommi: . . . first this ( - ) (( name of the project deleted )) in which a lot has happened and
2 (0.4) Niklas please
4 Niklas: erm: (0.5) tell again mm (.) if I may ask the time budget that how much
5 can I spend. (0.8) just (0.3) so that I (0.3) know to (.) summarize to that
7 Tommi: is ten minutes okay
9 Niklas: yeah, (0.5) the whole thing [or presentation
10 Tommi: [yes.
12 Tommi: well:
14 Enni: presentation. ((whispering voice))
15 Tommi: littl’ under ten minu[tes presentation,
16 Niklas: [okay.
18 Tommi: this is an important matter.
The chair opens the presentation storyline by positioning Niklas explicitly as presenter and expert with the right to start the presentation (Lines 1 and 2) via explicit positioning. This explicit positioning is of the first order as no prior tacit first-order positioning takes place. The explicit positioning of the presenter confirms the order of the meeting agenda in which Niklas has been appointed as the presenter. Hence, the first-order explicit positioning functions as merely instituting the meeting agenda and clarifying which member of the group has the right and duty to speak. However, instead of starting the presentation, Niklas asks the chair about the time frame for his presentation. This starts a complex yet subtle chain of positioning, which has an effect on the whole group. In Lines 1 and 2, the chair positions Niklas explicitly as the presenter and simultaneously positions the chair as someone who has the duty to decide on matters concerning the schedule. This act of positioning opens the presentation storyline. Instead of adopting the presenter and expert position and continuing the presentation storyline, the presenter quite subtly denies the position and explicitly positions himself as someone breaking the preferred order of interaction and asking for permission, and the chair as someone obligated to answer and give guidance (Lines 4 and 5). These positioning acts open a storyline of negotiation in which conventions concerning the proceeding of the meeting and group work are negotiated and made explicit. Concerning the moral order of the meeting, interaction and group work in this case consists of conventions where the presenter has the right to position herself or himself as an expert but does not have the right to control the proceeding of the meeting. Rights and duties of this nature are related to the institutional or organizational moral order of the group members. After the second-order positioning and asking the question, the presenter gives an account of his behavior (Line 5). This act of second-order explicit positioning can also be referred to as accountive positioning as the presenter breaks the storyline structure and the fluid transition from one storyline to another. By answering the question, the chair tacitly adopts the position of negotiator by offering a proposal (Line 7). This continues the storyline of negotiation and tacit positioning between the two (Lines 7-13), as the justification of the negotiation is accomplished. The negotiation could have taken a different turn had the chair refused the second-order positioning by, for example, stating that one should not ask such questions. Although the positioning and negotiation takes place between the chair and the presenter, a small change in the storyline structure of the negotiation opens up an opportunity for the other group members to adopt new positions and take part in the negotiation. As the presenter asks a delineating question (Line 9), the chair hesitates for a moment, giving room for one of the sector directors to take part in the negotiation as well. By whispering a suggestion (Line 14), the sector director (Enni) positions herself tacitly as someone with the right to take part in the negotiation and make suggestions.
The positioning involving this small negotiation is interesting as it involves the whole group and the norms and regulations of the group work are negotiated (i.e., task positioning). It is very difficult to imagine this kind of negotiation taking place in dyadic interaction in everyday situations. The positioning-oriented analysis also demonstrates that the negotiation is not just about questions and answers but also about negotiating group memberships and the fluctuation of relations between group members with reference to the local moral order of the group. In connection with the task positioning, a conversational moral order on how to proceed with the group work and what are the rights and duties of the participants in the current episode becomes established (the presenter has the right to use a certain amount of time for the presentation, and others have the duty to listen). An institutional moral order is also present in the extract because the institutional status of the chair gives him the right to set the boundaries for the group work. Later on in the presentation, a similar negotiation takes place only when the chair suggests that the presenter should continue directly with the second part of the presentation. Micro-level negotiations of this kind did not explicitly concern the decision at hand but were inextricably connected to the proceeding of the decision-making episodes themselves and the establishment of conversational moral order.
Establishing the Role of the Chair
Previous conversation analytical studies on the role of the chair have focused on, for example, what kind of leadership roles or styles chairs adopt in the course of meeting interaction (e.g., Holmes, Schnurr, & Marra, 2007; Pomerantz & Denvir, 2007). However, the negotiation of the chair position and its effects on the group work and decision-making has been left aside. The management group studied here has already established a method of working together that involves a rather explicit presence of the chair. This becomes most evident as the chair allocates turns and introduces new themes and storylines to the decision-making process (e.g., moving from a presentation storyline to a discussion storyline). In addition, the chair’s position becomes apparent on occasions when the chair continues the presentations before moving on to the discussion storyline by adding background information and commenting on the importance of the matter. This takes place on six occasions out of all the decision-making episodes and is only done by the chair. This is done as tacit first-order positioning by encouraging the experts to continue and to present further information on the case at hand.
Extract four demonstrates a situation where some other group member tries to change the ongoing storyline without the chair’s explicit permission or turn allocation. The extract demonstrates an episode within the discussion storyline where a member of the group positions himself as a facilitator by interrupting an ongoing negotiation between the chair and the CFO who has functioned as the presenter. After the presentation, the board has decided that more time is needed for the preparation of the decisions, which is followed by a discussion concerning the schedule for future actions. In the extract, the chair is asking for additional information concerning the deadline for the management board’s comments on the decision at hand.
Extract 4, speakers: Tommi = chair, Olli = chief financial officer, Jari = sector director
1 Tommi: so (.) say Olli (0.4) (I’d ask now that) (.) what is our deadli[ne.
2 Olli: [uhm well the thirteenth of
3 the eleventh (.) the latest.
4 Tommi: the thirteenth of the eleventh so then after two weeks we still have time in the
5 management team (0.4) ( - ) the rest right
7 Jari: but it would be good that we could get into like that what- (.)
8 where we get star[ted ( - )
9 Tommi: [well NOO answer the question first.
11 Olli: so (.) yes.
In Line 1, the chair asks Olli about the time frame concerning the future developments of the case at hand. This is achieved by explicit positioning of the self and other (“say Olli” and “I’d ask now that”). By asking the question, the chair positions Olli as the one with the duty to answer while positioning himself as someone requiring further information to proceed with the decision-making episode. In this case, the explicit positioning is achieved by referring to the speakers as individual agents in relation to previous positioning, which has resulted in Olli being positioned as the expert on the case and the other members of the group as commentators and assessors. The explicit positioning of Olli accentuates the local moral order and distribution of duties among the group members, with the definition of who is expected to speak in this case. A storyline of negotiation commences and as the explicit positioning is not challenged and an answer is given, the negotiation continues in forms of tacit positioning by the chair (Lines 4 to 5). However, after the chair asks a follow-up question from Olli, one of the sector directors (Jari) makes a suggestion concerning the proceeding without taking a stance on the negotiation between the chair and Olli (Lines 7 and 8). By doing this, Jari positions himself tacitly as an expert and a facilitator trying to continue the discussion storyline without explicit turn allocation and tries to establish a new conversational moral order. However, the chair interrupts the sector director and demands an answer to the follow-up question first. It becomes quite apparent that no one besides the chair has the right to control the proceeding of the meeting. This act both brings forth the institutional moral order and re-establishes the conversational moral order. In Lines 6 to 15, the interpersonal positioning is also related to task positioning (discussion on how to proceed with the case in the future). By giving a suggestion on how to proceed with the group work in Lines 7 and 8, Jari breaks the conversational moral order in which Olli is obliged to answer the chair’s question and in which a negotiation about future proceedings is going on. Interrupting Jari’s comment, the chair explicitly positions Olli once again as obligated to answer, simultaneously denying the attempt to move the meeting back to the discussion storyline.
Although the micro-level storyline of negotiation takes place between the chair and Olli, it also concerns the whole group. In this case, Olli could have denied the tacit positioning following the delineating question by continuing to the discussion storyline without providing an answer. However, this is done by some other member of the group, in this case by Jari, whose comment had the illocutionary force of a suggestion, but the perlocutionary force concerned the proceeding of the meeting and the alteration of the ongoing storyline. However, this is not accepted and is challenged by the chair’s second-order explicit positioning of the presenter (Line 9). It is only after the chair has received an answer that the meeting proceeds. With these small yet significant discussions, the chair’s position as leader is established and the moral order of the meeting interaction is made clear to the whole group.
Negotiating Concepts and Themes Concerning the Decisions
The analysis of changes in the storyline structure also revealed storylines of negotiations dealing with the concepts and themes concerning the decisions. These negotiations usually come about as minor differences of opinion and conflicts concerning the content and meaning of concepts and themes. Within these storylines, new positions become available in relation, for example, to the expertise of the group members. As a result, not only do the concepts and themes concerning the decisions become more articulated (task positioning), but also, the relations between the group members become relevant.
The following extract demonstrates one of these negotiations in which disagreement occurs and depicts aptly how social positioning also results in task related positioning. The decision-making has proceeded to the discussion storyline and Ville, the administrative director is functioning as the chair (the CEO joins the meeting half an hour late). One of the sector directors has just commented on the presentation and proposal, which has caused plenty of discussion in the group. The discussion has proceeded to the content of the proposal and the management board has to take a stand on the case at hand, which raises legal issues.
Extract 5, speakers: Ville = chair (CAO), Kari = sector director, Janina = presenter, ?? = unknown speaker
1 Ville: . hh (.) but now the question is about both parents or just that the other (.)
2 or about the guardian and (.) both guardians or just the other I think this is the
3 from our p[oint of view righ- (.) what we have discussed also
4 ?? [m,
5 Ville: (right) [( - ) ( - ) ( - )
6 Kari: [but that is also a juridical question[n
7 ??: [m[m:.
8 Ville: [but if a law is made
9 then the issue is (.) [clear.
10 ??: [mm:
11 Kari: yes yes. but (.) uhm hh. it has required due to (0.8) oth- (.) o- other laws both.
13 Janina: it [hasn’t
14 Ville: [no no it hasn’t (.) [it hasn’t.
15 Janina: [no. (.) no.
16 .h[hh] here has been a
kind of (.) kind of recommendation there is a
17 Ville: [no]
18 Janina: ( - ) ((name of profession deleted)) (ethical) ( - - ) recommendation which suggests
19 that both guardians . . .
The chair’s comment follows one of the sector director’s comments. By remarking on the previous turn, the chair positions himself as an expert via tacit first-order positioning (Lines 1-5). In line 6, the sector director continues by commenting on the chair’s turn by adding specifying information, simultaneously challenging the chair’s expert position via second-order positioning. This opens up a negotiation storyline between the chair and Kari. This negotiation concerning the concepts and themes relevant to the decision-making proceeds without official turn allocation as the two group members present opposite views concerning the theme at hand, challenging each other’s expert positions (Lines 6-12). In Line 8, the chair presents a disagreeing argument, simultaneously challenging Kari’s expert position and offering an account on the previous comment (Lines 1-3). After this, Kari still disagrees, challenges the chair’s expertise, and also offers an account that comes about as a corrective turn while re-establishing his position as an expert. By presenting further information as a background to previous arguments, Kari’s accountive positioning in Line 11 opens up the opportunity for the other group members to adopt new positions. In this case, the presenter (Janina) disagrees with Kari together with the chair (Line 13). However, instead of just stating a disagreement, the presenter continues with an account that simultaneously positions herself as an expert and a negotiator (Lines 16, 18-19). By explaining the backgrounds and the themes of the case at hand, the presenter both resolves the disagreement and offers new information to the discussion. With this tacit act of self-positioning as an expert and a negotiator, the presenter makes it possible to move on with the discussion and clarifies the concepts concerning the decision-making. This also changes the micro-level storyline structure rather tacitly from negotiation and disagreement (Lines 6-15) to a storyline of conciliation (Lines 16-19). Here, elements of task positioning are connected to both the proceeding of the group work as well as to the negotiation and construction of shared understanding related to the key concepts of the task.
These subtle shifts in position also demonstrate the presenter’s right to adopt the position of both expert and negotiator in situations of this nature. In a situation where conflicting perspectives are presented, it could be assumed that the chair has the right and the duty to control the interactional forum and group work in such a way that the conflict is resolved. Thus, conflict resolution is not only the chair’s responsibility but by positioning themselves as experts, other members of the group can function as negotiators by offering additional information concerning the themes and concepts of the current decision-making episode. In this case, the illocutionary force of the positioning act is the sharing of information or the expression of disagreement, whereas the perlocutionary force is the possible resolution of the conflict arising from a disagreement and creating a new conversational moral order.
Conclusion and Discussion
In relation to Research Question 1, analyzing positioning in workgroups brings forth a dynamic point of view as to how different positions in a small group are negotiated and how members of a group negotiate their relations in discursive practices. This point of view can be regarded as a more dynamic approach to the traditional analysis of roles. In this study, the institutional setting of the meetings becomes apparent as an articulate structure of fluctuating storylines and local moral orders that both guide the positioning and are altered by the adaptation of new positions. The storyline categorization describes the episodic structure of the decision-making episodes consisting of two major sub-storylines of presentation and discussion as well as of more subtle micro-storylines within this structure. These micro-storylines are the result of negotiating positions within the two major storylines. In workgroup settings, storylines represent both the individual and interpersonal, group related aspects of joint action. Storylines are not to be considered only as aspects of individual identity construction but also as a part of the group behavior and joint action. Overall, both tacit and explicit positioning of the self and others occurred in the decision-making episodes. Expert positioning was especially frequent. Although the presenters positioned themselves and were positioned by others as experts, the analysis revealed even more elaborate dynamics of positioning. Being an expert did not just include offering information but also the giving of instructions and the asking of questions (Extract 2). The results of this study also indicate that positioning is a central yet inconspicuous part of decision-making episodes in management board meetings. The analysis shows how minor shifts in different storylines and positions both steer the decision-making and often unveil the tacit rules and assumptions concerning co-operation in a small group. Positioning analysis of this nature also illustrates the small negotiations that do not necessarily concern the decisions themselves but are an integral part of the discursive construction of decision-making episodes.
Furthermore, in relation to Research Questions 2 and 3 as well, positioning was associated with three themes that were all related to the group’s task, which was decision-making in this case. These themes came about in negotiations, including important aspects that intertwine with decision-making. First, positioning was connected to processes where the chair’s role during the decision-making as a director of the meeting was established both tacitly and explicitly by means of first- and second-order positioning. Within the two predominant storylines of presentation and discussion, this appeared most evidently when the chair explicitly regulated turn allocation and the proceeding of the meeting (Extract 1). In these cases, the chair’s position is established via first-order performative positioning. However, the role of the chair was also established more tacitly in micro-level storylines as part of negotiations concerning the proceeding of the meeting and initiating new storylines (Extract 4). This was a result of explicit second-order positioning. Second, shifts in the predominant storyline structures and positions were also connected to the negotiation of both meeting procedures (Extract 3) and, third, concepts and themes concerning the decisions (Extract 5). In the last case, the presentation of conflicting views among group members made it possible for one of the presenters to adopt the position of negotiator.
In more detail, the analysis of the perlocutionary effects of the positioning acts sheds light not only on negotiations about group member positions but also on the different outcomes of the speech acts concerning the whole group level. In other words, in the context of small-groups, positioning was connected to the social and instrumental aspects of group activities, in this case to task and social positioning. Positioning always occurs in a social space or is in a relation to the social realm via the interpretations that individuals make about the moral aspects of social behavior. Hence, positioning acts are always social and are a part of the relational aspects of group memberships. The perlocutionary effects of positioning may result in instrumental or task-oriented negotiations but are nevertheless also always part of the socially oriented behavior. Analysis of task-oriented negotiations of this nature in a small-group context brings forth the concept of task positioning to the positioning theory framework. Especially in a small-group setting, positioning goes beyond just interpersonal relations because it is also a part of the negotiation of both shared tasks and goals. This emphasizes the relational viewpoint of positioning of small-group interaction. Positioning oneself in a group includes the positioning of others as well. In this case, positioning was connected not only to the interpersonal relations but also to the task-level of group behavior. Overall, positioning the joint aims and ways of working together is crucial to a well-functioning workgroup. Analyzing especially a small-group level of interaction, it seems task-related positioning is something of importance and worth studying more.
The findings presented in this study also show how task positioning is a part of the construction and negotiation of local moral orders. Both institutional and conversational moral orders were established and negotiated as a part of the task positioning episodes. Institutional moral orders came about as a set of rights and duties that the group members had in relation to others and the group work itself. Conversational moral orders, however, came about as a result of the task positioning either as a creation of future obligations and proceedings, as a part of establishing the chair’s right to conduct the meeting or as a negotiation of shared concepts and themes. In relation to Research Question 3, the analysis and findings articulate one alternative to the empirical study of local moral orders in the context of positioning theory.
The results presented in this study are based on the analysis of transcribed material of videotaped management board meetings. Due to the nature of the videotaped material (recorded with one camera) and the theoretical starting points of this study, the analysis of the videotaped material itself was not included as part of the analysis. However, in small-group settings in particular, the aspects of positioning theory would surely be supplemented by a multimodal and video-based analysis of interaction. For instance, some positioning acts might be constructed linguistically via first-order tacit positioning, but they might have the perlocutionary effect of explicit positioning if non-verbal behavior is taken in account (e.g., pointing or gazing). Recently, also Rom Harré (2015) has, albeit briefly, pointed out the corporeal aspects of positioning. For future research, this is something that surely requires more attention.
In addition, the rather small size of the data should also be considered in reviewing this study. However, this research mainly focused on the adaptation of the positioning theoretical perspective to the analysis of small-group interaction by highlighting aspects of positioning that have not been previously present in the discussions about the theory; sample-like data are therefore more than sufficient in providing insights into the theme. The four meetings analyzed in this study present variability that a smaller sample, for example, a case analysis of just one small-group episode, would not bring forth (cf. Redman, 2008).
Broadly, focusing on the opportunities that positioning theory offers to the explicit study of small groups (see, for example, Fine, 2012), the analysis and results presented in this work can also be seen as an example of one approach on the study of workgroups as micro-cultures. Here, the focus of analysis was set on the decision-making episodes as a whole instead of a detailed analysis of one decision-making episode, which would surely be a productive approach as well. Despite the chosen level of analysis, analyzing positioning in small groups offers a noteworthy discursive point of view on the exploration of small-group dynamics and processes. The basic concepts of positioning theory have not been applied to the study and analysis of small-group interaction and processes to the same extent as some other theoretical approaches. However, the theory offers an admissible alternative to the study of small-group processes and dynamics from a discursive perspective. (Hirvonen, 2013). By placing its focus on symbolically mediated interpersonal interaction and conversations, the theoretical framework of positioning theory cannot only be placed in the context of the symbolic-interpretive perspective on group dynamics, along with other approaches, such as the rhetorical perspective, symbolic convergence theory, and the bona fide group perspective (see Frey, 2004). Not only does this approach offer one further alternative to the discursive approaches to organizational behavior, but it also develops a method of research from the perspectives of cultural and discursive psychologies (see Harré, 2012a) to the study of group dynamics. With this in mind, positioning-theory-oriented research into small groups, such as workgroups, can focus on multiple different aspects of group interaction and group processes. In addition to the analysis of decision-making episodes, the theory offers an interesting point of view to the study of group memberships, statuses, and roles as well as argumentation, social cognition, and conflicts in small groups.
(.) micro-pause (less than 0.3 s)
(0.5) pause (duration)
[ ] overlapping speech
↑ ↓ onset of noticeable pitch rise or fall
° ° quiet speech
( ) a guess of what might have been said if unclear
( - ) unclear speech, one word
( - - ) unclear speech, several words
, . ? even intonation, intonation falls to low, intonation rise to high
# creaky voice
e speaker emphasis
so- sharp cutoff of the prior word or sound
. . . beginning/end of turn deleted
(( )) transcriber’s note.
Declaration of Conflicting Interests The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.
Funding The author(s) disclosed receipt of the following financial support for the research and/or authorship of this article: This study was supported by the Kone Foundation (Koneen Säätiö) research scholarship granted to Pasi Hirvonen.
- © The Author(s) 2016
This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License (http://www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/) which permits any use, reproduction and distribution of the work without further permission provided the original work is attributed as specified on the SAGE and Open Access page (https://us.sagepub.com/en-us/nam/open-access-at-sage).
Pasi Hirvonen, M.Soc, is a PhD student of social psychology in the Department of Social Sciences at the University of Eastern Finland. His academic interests include small group dynamics and interaction, organizational behavior and qualitative methods.