Multimodality, Meaning, and Institutions: Volume 54A

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(10 chapters)


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In this editorial for a double volume on “Multimodality, Meaning, and Institutions” in Research in the Sociology of Organizations, we aim to achieve three objectives: first, we provide a set of guiding ideas about what a multimodal prism entails for the study of meaning and institutions; second, we give an overview of the topics, concepts, and methods covered in this volume and briefly introduce the central contributions and insights of each article; third, we outline a number of open questions and fruitful avenues for a future research agenda at the intersection of organization studies, institutional theory, and multimodality research.

Section 1: Pushing Forward the Multimodal Agenda in Organization Studies


Recent interest in the multimodal accomplishment of organization has focused on the material and symbolic aspects of materiality. We argue that current literature invokes diverse “multimodal imaginaries,” that is, ways of conceiving the relation between the material and the conceptual, and that the different imaginaries support a plurality of perspectives on materiality. Using the empirical case of a large urban renewal project in São Paulo, Brazil, we illustrate three different multimodal imaginaries – the concrete, the semiotic, and the mimetic – and indicate how each imaginary determines the way in which the site in question is discursively constructed. After outlining the different approaches, we discuss their theoretical implications, advantages, and constraints, setting an agenda for future studies of materiality in organizational and institutional contexts.


How can we take multimodalities (the discursive, material, spatial, visual, emotional, embodied, etc.) of institutions seriously? In contemplating the implications of the “multimodal turn” (broadly defined) for institutional inquiry and theory, I first situate it within its intellectual current in the social sciences more broadly. I then use three ethnographic vignettes from Israeli high-tech conferences, all centering on “place” (as a – presumably first and foremost – geographical and material reality) to highlight the shortcomings of a “weak” multimodal approach and the promise of a “strong” one. Finally, I suggest ways to capture multiple modalities within an integrated account and discuss the challenges entailed in an institutional inquiry undertaken to acknowledge, and conceptualize, non-linguistic realities.

Section 2: Methodological Advances in Multimodal Research


In this article, we develop and advance an understanding of institutions as multimodal accomplishments. We draw on social semiotics and the linguistic concept of metafunctions to establish the visual as a specific mode of meaning construction. In addition, we make semiotic modes conducive to institutional inquiry by introducing the notion of distinct “modal registers” – specialized configurations of linguistic signs within a particular mode that are adapted and applied in the reproduction of institutions or institutional domains. At the core of our article, we operationalize metafunctions to develop methodology for the analysis of visual registers. We illustrate our approach with data from Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) reporting in Austria.


This research explores two interconnected questions: (1) How do we approach stylistic features of multimodal rhetorical artifacts such as protest posters? (2) Do said artifacts designed for different purposes exhibit systematic stylistic differences? Drawing on Charles Sanders Peirce’s semiotic categorization, this study develops a framework for examining concision, one of the primary stylistic considerations for multimodal rhetorical artifacts such as protest posters. This paper illustrates the use of this framework by exploring the correlation between rhetorical purpose and concision in posters created and disseminated before and during the 2011–2012 Québécois student movement. This study fine-tunes our existing knowledge on multimodality with style sensitivity, and demonstrates how an economy-of-sign based semiotic approach could enrich the empirical examination of multimodal rhetorical artifacts by generating more controlled interpretations.

Section 3: Multimodality and The Institutionalization of Innovations


This chapter examines the role of multimodal rhetoric in processes of theorization. Empirically, we investigated the theorization process of a highly disruptive innovation in the history of architecture: reinforced concrete. Relying on archival data from a prominent French architectural journal in the period from 1885 to 1939, we studied the rhetorical modes at play in the theorization of reinforced concrete. First, we found that theorization entailed two recursive activities: dramatization and evaluation. While dramatization relies on both verbal and visual (i.e., multimodal) means, evaluation relies on verbal means. We integrated these components into a dynamic model of theorization that explains how visual discourse contributes to theorization beyond the effects of verbal discourse.


The study applies a multimodal approach to position aesthetic innovation, i.e., the strategic use of aesthetic design attributes, such as color and shape, as an institutionalized aspect of competition, rather than as a firm-specific differentiation strategy, in settings that favor the symbolic meanings of products. Empirically, the study offers a detailed case study of the personal computer (PC) industry to examine the institutionalization of aesthetic innovation as a dimension of competition across industrial firms. The study examines the color and shape of PCs over the 1992–2003 period and situates changes to these attributes in the competitive conditions that characterized the industry, paying particular attention to the introduction of the Apple iMac in 1998. Furthermore, it examines the discursive manifestations of aesthetic innovation by content analysis of reviews of PCs and interviews with industry executives. Findings demonstrate that, in a period coinciding with a decline in demand for PCs and an overall mature market as well as with the introduction of the iMac, the majority of firms engaged in aesthetic innovation and used a greater number of aesthetic words in describing their PCs.


This study explores how organizations deal with divergent institutional logics when designing new products. Specifically, we investigate how organizations approach and embody institutional complexity in their product design. Through a multimodal study of serious games, we identify two design strategies, the proximity and the amplification strategies, which organizations employ to balance multiple institutional logics and design novel products that meet competing institutional expectations. Our study makes an important theoretical contribution by showing how institutional complexity can be a source of innovation. We also make a methodological contribution by developing a new, multimodal research design that allows for the in-depth study of organizational artifacts. Altogether, we complement our understanding of how institutional complexity is substantiated in organizational artifacts and highlight the role that multimodality plays in analyzing such situations.


Pages 255-257
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Cover of Multimodality, Meaning, and Institutions
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Research in the Sociology of Organizations
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Emerald Publishing Limited
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