Rhetorical Strategies in the Legitimation of Genetically Modified Foods

Saturday, June 25, 2016: 10:45 AM-12:15 PM
259 Dwinelle (Dwinelle Hall)
Jeffrey Gauthier, State University of New York Plattsburgh, Plattsburgh, NY
Jeffrey Kappen, Drake University, Des Moines, IA

A growing body of research has begun to examine the intersection between discourse – in essence, language in use (Jaworski and Coupland, 1999) – and legitimacy. Legitimacy is a “generalized perception or assumption that the actions of an entity are desirable, proper, or appropriate within some socially constructed system of norms, values, beliefs, and definitions” (Suchman, 1995: 574). Discursive perspectives on legitimacy have included analysis of rhetorical strategies used to legitimate plant closures (Erkama and Vaara, 2010), legitimation of institutional change through rhetoric (Suddaby and Greenwood, 2005), and discursive justifications used to legitimate new managerial practices (Green, 2004).

Although discursive perspectives on legitimacy have uncovered valuable insights, there is still a compelling need for continued research. A particularly significant challenge to the legitimacy of organizations currently arises from consumer concerns regarding sustainability – defined in this paper as an organization’s performance along the “triple bottom line” of economic, environmental, and social dimensions (Elkington, 1997). Sustainability concerns represent a fundamental change in consumers’ expectations of corporations and, by extension, consumers’ conceptions of organizational legitimacy. In contrast to a view of shareholder supremacy in which a legitimate organization is seen as one which maximizes profit (Friedman, 1970), a triple bottom line perspective shifts this perception to view legitimacy in the context of an organization’s environmental and social, as well as economic, performance. With sustainability concerns altering consumers’ conceptions of organizational legitimacy, corporations will increasingly be called upon to communicate with consumers about their own legitimacy. We know little, however, about those types of communications. It is surprising that more research has not examined the question of how organizations employ discourse as a strategy to maintain legitimacy in response to consumers’ sustainability concerns.

Given the need to better understand how legitimacy and concerns about sustainability are constructed in the marketplace, this paper seeks to examine how biotechnology firms use different rhetoric approaches to maintain legitimacy when consumer concerns regarding sustainability and their products threaten their position. To examine this research question, we conducted a critical discourse analysis (Vaara & Tiernari, 2008) of texts produced by firms like Monsanto in response to public concerns about genetically modified (GM) food. These texts are analyzed in chronological and thematic parallel with discourse produced by opponents of GM foods. By presenting the data like a public conversation, our findings examine the conflicting assumptions of each party as well as reveal the rhetorical strategies used in the public discussion to (de)legitimate GM products. This study contributes to existing discursive research on legitimacy by identifying the mobilization of classical rhetorical practices (ethos, pathos and logos) to maintain legitimacy when consumers call the firm’s sustainability performance or the nature of its products into question.

The paper is organized as follows. First, we review previous research on legitimacy and discourse. We will then present the paper’s empirical context, reviewing consumer concerns about the sustainability implications of GM products and discussing the threat that these concerns pose for biotechnology firms like Monsanto. Next, we will discuss the data corpus and the methods utilized in the discourse analysis. After presenting the results, we conclude with a discussion and implications for future research in the areas of discourse, legitimacy and sustainability.

Keywords: Legitimacy, Sustainability, Biotechnology, Discourse Analysis


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Jaworski, A., & Coupland, N. (1999). The discourse reader. London: Routledge.

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Vaara, E., & Tienari, J. (2008). A discursive perspective on legitimation strategies in multinational corporations. Academy of Management Review, 33(4), 985-993.