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Dirty Oil or Ethical Oil? Visual Rhetoric in Legitimation Struggles

Multimodality, Meaning, and Institutions

ISBN: 978-1-78743-332-8, eISBN: 978-1-78743-331-1

Publication date: 30 November 2017


This study illuminates how organizational actors use images in their struggle to define a contested industry. By leveraging social semiotics and visual rhetoric, we examine how multimodal texts (combining words and images) are used to label and reframe an industry using technical, environmental, human-rights, and preservation-of-life criteria. Building on theories of legitimation, we find that for this industry, contesting attempts at legitimacy work are escalated along a moral hierarchy. We offer an approach for examining how actors draw from broader meaning systems, use visual rhetoric in multimodal texts, and employ dual processes of legitimation and de-legitimation.




This research was made possible by the funding from the Social Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), Dow Sustainability Research Fellowship, and Erb Research Fellowship at the University of Michigan. Previous versions of this chapter have been improved immensely through discussions at the Multimodality Conference at Copenhagen Business School, European Theory Development Workshop at Cardiff University, Emotions and Institutions Conference at York University, and European Group of Organizational Studies Colloquia. We thank our reviewers for their persistence and patience. Any remaining oddities are our responsibility.


Lefsrud, L.M., Graves, H. and Phillips, N. (2017), "Dirty Oil or Ethical Oil? Visual Rhetoric in Legitimation Struggles", Höllerer, M.A., Daudigeos, T. and Jancsary, D. (Ed.) Multimodality, Meaning, and Institutions (Research in the Sociology of Organizations, Vol. 54B), Emerald Publishing Limited, Leeds, pp. 101-142.



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