Eero Vaara

Struggles of Legitimacy in Mediatized Society

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Legitimation is key process in institutional analysis (Bitekhtine, 2011; Deephouse & Suchman, 2008; Scott, 1995; Suchman, 1995; Tost, 2010). This involves both active legitimation strategies (Suddaby & Greenwood, 2005) and legitimacy judgments (Tost, 2011). Recently, we have seen a growing interest in rhetorical (Green, 2004; Suddaby & Greenwood, 2005) or more broadly discursive aspects of legitimation (Phillips, Lawrence, & Hardy, 2004; Vaara, Tienari, & Laurila, 2006) that elaborate on the power of language and communication in struggles of legitimacy. However, most of these analyses follow a sender-receiver model that does not focus attention on the central role of the media in contemporary society (see, however, Rindova, Pollock and Hayward, 2006). In particular, there is a paucity of knowledge of the ways in which the media gives voice to and stages actors, edits the messages, and creates drama in the case of contested issues that lead to legitimacy struggles. 

Hence, it is the purpose of this paper to complement existing research on legitimation by outlining a framework that elucidates the discursive processes and practices of legitimation in mediatized society. I will primarily focus on mass media as it plays a central role in public discussions around celebrity firms, corporate scandals, organizational crises and in other controversial issues that create legitimacy struggles, but also elaborate on the increasingly central role of social media. For this purpose, I draw from critical discourse analysis (CDA) that helps to detail discursive practices that are central in legitimation (van Leeuwen and Wodak, 1999; van Leeuwen, 2008). This perspective is helpful as it focuses on the rhetorical (Suddaby & Greenwood, 2005) or discursive (Vaara & Tienari, 2008; Lefsrud & Meyer, 2012) strategies that are central in studies of legitimation in the context of institutions and organizations. 

As a result, this paper outlines a three-part framework that identifies and elaborates on the dynamics of legitimacy struggles. First, there are central actors who acquire and are given positions in legitimacy struggles. Their discourses are central in legitimation struggles, and these discourses involve rhetorical arguments as well as reproduce underlying assumptions regarding knowledge, identity and ideology. Second, the discourses of the central actors are mediated by the mass and social media. In particular, the media plays a central role in staging, which involves placing some actors and discourses in the frontstage and leaving others in the backstage. The media also edits the actors’ discourses and engages in storying in terms of creating an ongoing – usually dramatized – meta-narrative of the struggle. In all this, the media exercises significant power in terms of regulating and steering the legitimacy struggles. Third, the audiences then make sense of the mediatized discourses in terms of assessing the authority position of the central actors, whether specific decisions, actions or phenomena are legitimate or not, as well as in reproducing and naturalizing underlying assumptions. These responses then have a major impact on both the central actors’ positions and discourses as well as on the media.