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Text as work, language as bureaucracy


1. Life in a text aquarium

How does language affect work and work language? What is the status of texts in the information society? What are the texts used for and how? How do linguistic choices create possibilities of interpreting certain meanings? What is the relationship between language and the extra-lingual?

These were the questions studied in a research project called Life in a text aquarium, which was carried out in The Research Institute for the Languages of Finland from 1997 to 2000. The study approaches official texts as processes and products from the point of view of both language usage and language system. The project was named like this, because most of the study material came from one office, The Helsinki Education Department. The objective of the study, which was conducted by Vesa Heikkinen, Pirjo Hiidenmaa and Ulla Tiililä, was to make the texts and work of this office transparent.

In this article we briefly present the objectives, theoretical background, research methods, material and results of the study. More detailed information of the research project is presented in the book Teksti työnä, virka kielenä (Text as work, office as language; Heikkinen, Hiidenmaa, Tiililä 2000).

The study has several objectives. Firstly, there are some theoretical-methodical objectives: Discourse and textual studies are conducted in many fields, but this study aims at the development of and experimenting with theories and methods that expressly cover linguistic text analysis.

Secondly, the objective is to produce empirical information on the linguistic form that is usually called official language (”officialese”). Thirdly, as the present study centres on written texts, the aim is to produce information on the resources of written language and literacy. The challenge is to try to take into account in the analysis the different systems of semantic creation: writing, speech, pictures, colours, architecture, etc. (Halliday 1996; Volosinov 1990 [1929].)

Fourthly, the objective is to develop multidisciplinary research and to introduce a linguistic viewpoint to the discussion on texts, knowledge and work. Fifhtly, the results of the study can be applied also in language guidance. We aim at activating linguistic consciousness, and improving office work.

The study relates to the ideas of critical discourse analysis (Fairclough 1992; 1995) as well as to those of genre analysis (Bhatia 1993; Swales 1990) and to studies on bureaucratic discourse (Iedema 1997; 1998; 2000; Sarangi & Slembrouck 1996). Furthermore, it is connected to the tradition of Fennistics, especially text linguistics (Enkvist 1975) and quantitative style analysis (Saukkonen 1984). The practical analyses often rest on systemic-functional theories (Eggins 1994; Halliday 1978; 1994; 1999; Hasan 1999; Martin 1997; 1999).

The analysis consists mainly of qualitative text analysis. In addition to this there is quantitative data on genres (agendas and minutes) from a material of 76,000 words. The quantitative analysis is based on a morphological analysis programme (Koskenniemi 1983). In the qualitative analysis texts are regarded as expressions of the linguistic system and situations as manifestations of the culture. At the same time texts are considered realisations of situations and the linguistic system a realisation of the culture. Language is conceived of as a resource, and it is the choices from potential meanings that are realised in texts. These choices are approached through metafunctions. Furthermore, the present study applies to written texts ideas from conversation analysis: Is it possible to adapt the ideas of participation framework (Goffman 1981) to written administrative texts? What is the sequental organisation (Heritage 1996 [1984]) of certain texts? Occasionally the study method resembles the so-called discourse-historical method (e.g. Fairclough & Wodak 1997; Iedema & Wodak 1999). In addition to text analysis, texts, the writing of them, as well as the working environment, were studied through interviews and enquiries. A dozen officials were interviewed, and the subject of the interviews was the relationship between language and work on a general level. Some of the interviews centred on a specific text, the writing process of which was discussed. Moreover, there was an enquiry in which the staff of the aquarium office was asked to give their views on writing practices and language.

The research material consists of public documents written in municipal offices, mostly for administrative purposes: an agenda, minutes of a meeting, an ordinance, an annual report, an equality plan, a development report. Among the material there is also a customer contact text (a decision on the right to day-care) from the Social Services Department of the city of Helsinki.

The interviews of officials are used not only as sources of information but also as research material. Moreover, descriptions of typical working situations, given by the interviewees, are analysed.

2. The world of texts

One relatively large office in Helsinki produces nearly 100,000 A4 sheets of text and copies per week, which means over 300 sheets per official. The yearly use of sheets by one office is over 5 million or 10 per inhabitant. The office work is done even in practice in the midst of A4-sheets, books and other texts, and instruments for the producing, processing, copying and distributing of texts.

Hundreds of documents are titled in the public administration. In a single agenda, for example, approximately 60 documents are referred to, most of them internal. This explains why the text sphere is very heterogeneous, as is the sphere of discourse practices – and official duties require the command of various practices. Certain features are, however, repeatedly present in a large part of the texts, which suggests that even official work is, in the end, homogeneous.

Texts belonging to different genres also have common functions (e.g. authorisation, communication, guidance, decision-making, image building). Some texts with identical names do, however, strongly differ from each other (e.g. various decisions). This means that, for instance, decision-making as official work, rather than always being identical, consists of diverse activities.

An agenda, a plan, a report, etc. are, to a large extent, part of both the historiography of the texts and the description of different administrative stages, for which purpose a separate language for the description of texts has been developed. Passive forms emphasising processes are typical of this language:

Jaksamista työssä on pohdittu laajasti; asiaa pohditaan tällä hetkellä; Asiaa on tutkittu; Yhteistyö on aloitettu; budjettiin on esitetty varaus; rahoitusta tullaan hakemaan; Jaksamista käsitellään riittävästi; Lautakuntaa informoidaan; asiat esitellään työryhmille.

’The maintenance of working capacity has been widely discussed; the issue is being considered; The question has been studied; Cooperation has been started; A provision has been introduced to the budget; financing will be sought for; the maintenance of working capacity is sufficiently considered; The board will be informed; items will be introduced to working groups.’

(From an item on an agenda.)

It is typical of many official texts that they do not explicate the parties of interaction. The texts do not contain metatext with information on who has produced the text and for whom. Somebody does, in fact, make linguistic choices from the previous texts. The forms of the previous texts may be changed, for example, so that negative exterior speech is changed into positive on the agenda. Expressions like fyysinen ja henkinen väkivalta ’physical and mental violence’ in the source text may be transformed into henkilöstön hyvinvointi ’the well-being of the personnel’ in the text of the agenda.

The language of official duties is transferred from direct speech via indirect speech to the formulations in one's own words and other people's words. The different phases of this institutionalising process of adoption are realised in individual texts. Together with the multiplication of texts, the activities are multiplied; as individual discourses merge, discourses representing different fields (law, economics, teaching, family, etc.) also merge with each other.

The relationship between office work and texts is crystallised in the following sentence from an agenda:

Samalla tuotetaan runsaasti tilannetta selvittävää materiaalia, jota voidaan käyttää mahdollisessa, myöhemmin tapahtuvassa hallintokuntien yhteisvalmistelussa.

’At the same time a considerable amount of explanatory material is produced, so that it could later on be used in the coordinated preparation work by different administrative boards.’

The work consists of producing material, i.e. written texts, which means that the texts result from producing. It is also typical that the texts are partially produced in order to be prepared for possible future needs, for future uses (it could later on be used). Texts are produced in one situation for other situations (at the same time, later on).

Texts are used as instruments of work. They are believed to clarify situations (explanatory material): by composing texts we organise topics and keep them in order, even process them mentally. Texts are usually produced simultaneously (at the same time) with other activities, and they are closely connected to other official duties. Furthermore, the texts produced are numerous (considerable amount), so producing written texts or documents is a central part of official work.

The writing of texts is not linked to certain officials, but texts are produced without the need to identify the authors, or they are used in the work of some organisations, for example in the coordinated preparation work by different administrative boards. The work to which the texts are associated is a process, i.e. a natural flow of events, rather than activities carried out by individuals (the coordinated preparation work).

3. Official language or not? 

3.1. Typical forms

The official agenda texts show that there is no uniform official language, no single linguistic form that only officials use. It is, however, possible to notice typical features that differentiate these texts from others. (This part of the study, analysis of typical features of this register, was mainly conducted by Pirjo Hiidenmaa.)

There are typical features on all levels of the language: in the vocabulary, phrases, clauses, the overall organisation of texts and patterns of presentation. The features are socially relevant, since they unite texts into separate groups.

The texts are remarkably noun-dominated: half of the words are nouns. In standard-Finnish documentary texts, over a third of the words are nouns and over a quarter of them are verbs (Karlsson 1983). The large number of nouns can be explained by the fact that the phrases with nouns as headwords usually also have nominal modifiers as a genitive attribute erityisopetuksen suunnitelma (’the remedial teaching plan’), or as a local case attribute päätös henkilökohtaiseen opetussuunnitelmaan siirtymisestä (’decision on the adoption of a personal study plan’).

One of the most widely used modifiers is the adjective attribute with the ending -llinen: kunnallinen ja paikallinen taso (’municipal and local level’), terveydellinen ja taloudellinen haitta (’a health and economical hazard’); hoidollinen puoli (’the aspect of care’). These attributes do not describe or characterise a word in the sense adjectives usually do (”what something is like”); they categorise or limit the referent of the headword. They are specifically used as attributes, not as complements, and they do not normally have comparative forms (* ”haitta on terveydellisempi kuin”, ’the hazard is more health-related than’).

Moreover, there are numerous nominalisations in the texts. They can be used for naming large entities in the text, for referring to these entities and for linking new features and data to them: kokeiluun ja käyttöön suhtaudutaan myönteisemmin ’the attitudes towards experiments and use are more positive’, humalahakuisuus on lisännyt riskiäthe seeking for the state of drunkenness has increased the risks’.

Administrative documents contain more compound words than any other genre. Many of the compounds are new. There are endings typical of many compounds, such as palvelu ’services’ and toiminta ’activity’: kahvilanpitotoiminta ’the activity of keeping a café’, rakennustoiminta ’the activity of building’; hyvinvointipalvelu ’welfare services’, ulkoilupalvelu ’outdoor recreation services’, vesiliikennepalvelu ’waterborne traffic services’.

Official texts generate a large number of new words. Most often these are phrases, such as positiivinen diskriminaatio ’positive discrimination’, varhainen puuttuminen ’early intervention’, työssä jaksaminen ’maintenance of working capacity’, sisäinen lujittaminen ’internal consolidation’. It is textually typical that phrases like these are very rarely paraphrased.

The sentences in administrative documents consist mostly of combinations of two sentences (60 %), or of single main clauses. The average length of a sentence (14 words) does not essentially deviate from that of a journalistic text. 75 % of all of the sentences in our data are main clauses.

The sentences are usually syntactically simple, i.e. the combinations of clauses are most frequently combinations by coordination, main clauses of an equal level coordinated with each other. Modern administrative language is thus not usually burdened with long and winding sequential sub-clauses. The texts lack, to a great extent, subordination and syntactic hierarchy.

The number of nouns in administrative documents is increased by the frequent coordination of phrases (erityisopetuksen ja oppilashuollon suunnitelma ’the plan of remedial teaching and student care’). The frequency of coordinated structures (one per two clauses on the average) explains the number of conjunctions. These documents have approximately the same number of conjunctions as standard-Finnish texts, but the distribution of conjunctions is different.

The most frequent conjunction in our data is ja ’and’, the percentage of which is 50%. Coordination is frequent in institutional texts for two reasons. The texts are characterised firstly by the need to be exact and convincing and secondly by the detailed classification of reality. A public swimming pool in an official plan is not built for swimmers in general, but virkistys-, kunto- ja kilpauimareille ’for recreational, fitness and competing swimmers’.

3.2. Typical meanings

Official texts construct a certain reality (the field of discourse). Firstly, typical participants are texts rather than other entities. The entities are also usually institutional rather than of any other kind, and undetermined rather than determined. The entities are typically abstract and not concrete.

Secondly, the processes in official texts are usually rather unidentified than identified as activities, and they consist of text production and movement rather than of other activities. Moreover, they usually imply a status or a relationship rather than an activity, they are mental rather than material, static rather than dynamic, and they refer to verbal rather than other behaviour.

Thirdly, the circumstances in the texts are usually temporally-spatially generic, not exact, and they connect to the dates of certain specific texts or meetings.

The following characteristics of textualisation are emphasised in official texts (the mode of discourse): Typically written in character, taking ”realities” as given, producing texts from texts, not indicating intertextual or other choices, structuring, enumerating, indenting, listing, packaging, nominalising, passivising, generalising, using the indicative mood.

The interaction in official texts is of the following type (the tenor of discourse): there is no self writing and commenting himself; the author determines the language and the semantic system; evaluation and obligation by description; invoking so-called facts and ”common sense” based on them, instead of ”feelings”; objectivity; seriousness; adhering to the existent; objecting to change; underlining efficiency.

Official language at its most typical does not contain direct interdictions, real questions, direct orders, hesitation, humour, irony, sarcasm, open humiliation of citizens, emotional outbursts, subjectivity, demonstrations of weakness or incapacity, questioning professional skills, criticising the institution.

4. The authors of the texts

Official texts are rarely a unique product of the creative process by one individual. Of those who responded to our questionnaire, 57% said they wrote their texts under their own names. However, the texts are often written by teams and they are often presented otherwise than under someone's name. The texts may be compiled or edited from already existing texts written by others. It is also possible to use text formats or office stationery, the form of which cannot be changed

Official A: ”But this is really, like, a common achievement, we go to the foreman and ask whether we're going to back this or refuse it, and then the foreman says that we'll back it, and after that the person responsible writes his report.”

Official B: ”We cut parts of texts and glue them together, basically we use the texts that are already there, if that's possible.”

The texts are almost never written in first person singular, and even first person plural is infrequent. However, they refer to numerous institutionally active agents who are typically presented in third person. The predicate verb is often in the passive voice (of the finite verb forms and participles, 30 % were in the passive voice). The essential in these verb forms is that different entities and persons can identify themselves with the activities described.

Official C: ”Well, these demands for rectification, we did them so that he wrote the source paper and then I put all the juridical stuff in it.”

Official D: ”It was of course written as teamwork: one person from the invoicing unit, one from the legal affairs unit, and two from the support unit of the direction.”

Various discourses, i.e. resources and meanings related to the production of meanings typical of different spheres of life, may be activated in individual official texts. One page may contain discourse from the fields of social and health affairs administration, everyday family life and customer service, as well as finance, law and politics. Respectively, the texts we studied have often been written by a team of writers with professionals from different fields: lawyers, information officers and professionals from the fields of ADP and social work, etc. On the other hand there are not many linguistic professionals in the offices.

The topic of papers is emphasised in the texts. The interviews and the enquiry show that most of the office duties have to do with texts or their writing. There is still not enough time reserved for writing - texts are written in a hurry and as home work.

Official E: ”On a typical working day I sit at the computer and write texts, prepare construction programmes, or the like, probably 80 percent of the time.”

Official F: ”We should have a separate, peaceful moment for writing, during the office hours and not at home, but that's what we all end up doing.”

Official work is primarily done by no given person, but in each case, the legitimate office holder: the official is institutionalised in official work and texts (office holder, authority, decision-maker, planner, head, consultant, bookkeeper, secretary, regional representative). Even the citizens are institutionalised: day-care applicant, lodger, unemployed job applicant, taxpayer, suspect of crime.

Even though institutional language usage means, to a great extent, the quietening of individual voices, there are various writers' roles construed in the text, i.e. the text constructs them. Official texts often reflect an expert author who typically does not question his knowledge, and who dictates facts as an authoritarian writer. Respectively, the reader construed in the texts is either another expert or an accepting, submissive and obedient citizen.

Official G: ”I've sometimes said that it's like we wore a sort of an official cape.”

The voice of the institution, a merger of voices, can be heard in institutional texts. But in the interviews many officials take off their officials' capes and their bureaucrat's masks.

Official H, who enjoys his work: ”But I do like my job and I guess that's, like, the reason why I manage.”

Official I, who questioned some of the work: ”I was so piqued with it that I took it out and said that what's this decision, what do you want me to do about it and what's this text here!”

Official J, who acts independently: ”I've been able to do my job in peace, which I've really enjoyed, ha.”

When we asked the officials to define by one word their relationship to language we received a number of very heterogeneous answers. Most respondents (80/115) had their own words for the relationship: warm, creative, loving, intimate, passionate, concrete – good. When we then asked them to define a good text, every second answer was clear and every third intelligible.

5. Application of results

There is room and need for linguistic text research on the ground between the more autonomic linguistics, social discourse analysis, cultural text studies, etc. Our research focuses on existing texts, the material of meaning. Texts open channels towards many directions: the linguistic system, register, context, society, identities, genres – not to mention discourses.

Thus, one of the objective of our research is to consider what are the limits of linguistics and what topics ”belong” to the professionals in linguistics. This study relates to the fields of linguistics, literary and cultural studies (e.g. the relationship between text and context, text as a product and process, the differences and equivalences between speech and writing and their relationship to other semiotic systems of producing meanings).

It is also connected to social sciences (e.g. work, professionalism, expertise, organisations and institutions, ideology of administration, the nature of power).

In addition to these connections, the study has to do with jurisprudence (e.g. equality between citizens, democracy in decision-making, publicity and conclusiveness of documents, the nature of legal language).

Moreover, it is possible to apply the results to language guidance. The modern language and textual guidance in Finland emphasises more and more the need to regard language as a situation- and culture-bound process. This research offers tools for identifying linguistic choices realised in texts and their relationship to the so-called extra-linguistic reality.

A useful idea in language guidance is, for example, the consideration of the various writers and readers construed in the text. This approach underlines the fact that there is not a ”good” language form regardless of the situation or the interpretation: goodness or badness, clarity or unclarity are dependent of the interpreters and the ideologies of the linguistic community. It is, however, possible to show that, for example, the thematic choices in a text and the presentation of new information create the role of an interpersonal reader: the reader is either an expert or an acceptor who does not question the information offered.

The research also produces information on the conventions related to the writing of a text and on the practical framework. It is these elements that language guidance aims to take into account. In addition to the analysis of the textual surface, it is useful to consider, in language guidance, the process and motives of the writing and using of a text: How and why has the text been made? Who have been involved in the writing of the text? Who are those that use the text? Who receive the text? Do all of those who have been involved in the making of the text know why the text has been written and how it will be used? Does everybody know, and especially those responsible for the text, what the text will finally look like?

Furthermore, it is useful to ask what the factors involved in the choices in a text are. Are some of the choices affected by the needs of data processing? Are some of them affected by the need to justify one's own doings? Or by juridical factors? Are there choices in the text emphasising e.g. activities related to public relations and image building?

The job description of a language or text guidance professional is close to ”work guidance”, since the characteristics of a text also result from the practices of writing and working. A language guidance professional may thus lead the writer of a text to ask what the fundamental objectives and tasks of his work are and on what ideologies the work is based.

The results of the research show that, in the teaching of writing skills, more attention should be paid to writing in groups. Connected to this is the skill of editing and compiling texts from different elements. It would also be essential to consider model-based writing, which would lead to the question of genres and their characteristics. We should also learn to estimate whether it is always necessary to produce texts and when it is worthwhile to have the officials write texts rather than carry out other tasks: a text on equality does not necessarily lead to equality, and a handbook on quality does not guarantee the quality of work.

Our research indicates that changes are possible in an (aquarium) office. Some of the officials who responded to our questionnaire questioned both their own work and the practices of the office. The possibility of change appeared in the answers to the question of whether the officials considered writing in their work creative or mechanical, free or controlled. Well over a half of the officials were of the opinion that their work was creative. Over a half of them also considered their work free.

In fact, unchangeability does not exist in human social systems in which there is, in the end, nothing static, regular or harmonious.

6.  The quicksand of being critical

Our field of work is linguistic, critical text analysis. With ”being critical¡” we mean: disentangling the axioms from theories and methods; studying socially significant material; justifying the significance; disentangling the naturalised choices from texts; demonstrating and justifying one's own choices; proceeding from the description of linguistic choices in texts to the interpretation of meanings, and their explaining, evaluating and estimating; possibilities of change; activating general linguistic consciousness.

We studied office work, information society, and the A4 sheet culture from the point of view of language and texts. We considered, among other things, how information does not become existent until it is linguistically formulated, in the form of texts.

The research material can be characterized socially significant. It is a small part of the textual substance produced in Finland these days. There is more than enough material for research in Finland's more than 450 municipalities and dozens of state offices. According to one study, for example the Social Insurance Institution of Finland has 36 million customer contacts annually, and there is at least one document connected to all of them.

We make use of the linguistic evidence of the analyses whilst justifying our views of the abstract dimension of contexts, which we call the ideology of the official. There is a socio-cultural environment, which contextualises texts and the production of meanings, more general than registers and genres. This environment can be interpreted from the texts: it is construed in the texts as fundamental ideological meanings. Ideological meanings, i.e. meanings serving the exercise of power, are produced and reproduced in texts. They are made self-evident in linguistic interaction. They are also, and above all, linguistic choices. It is in accordance with the official ideology to make the choices, and at the same time the possibility of choice, i.e. the possibility of exercising power, invisible. The official texts produce and reproduce the idea of a reality controllable by texts, while the considering of other contents of the reality, i.e. substances, receives less attention. Paying attention to texts and their relationship means in the worst possible case that other elements - those beyond and outside texts – are not covered; other realities are not seen for the texts.

All official texts also have a performative function: they represent and produce actions, i.e. affect peoples’ lives. Most official texts are performative even in a more limited sense, since they present an institutional factor, they are conventional and are realised as actions in conventional contexts.

We used more or less certain specific kinds of material, theories and methods. We made choices that echo the researchers' voices we have adopted. Our common wish is to open our own choices for evaluation by our readers. We want to give ”critical” meanings, such as openness, alertness, discoursiveness, open-mindedness and thoroughness. Even though we aim at disentangling elements that have been naturalised, ”critical” in the sense we wish to use it, is rather a constructive than a destructive research attitude.

We proceed in our analyses from the description of the language in the texts to the interpretation of meaning and the explication of language usage and work. At the same time we learn to ask essential questions on texts and their linguistic analysis: What is in the text? How are the options to interpret diverse meanings produced in the text?

Finally we come to the why-questions: Why are texts, registers and genres as they are? Why do office work and culture manifest themselves as they do? Why is grammar in an official text as it is? Our answer to all these questions is ”the ideology of the official”. We will prove that both the texts and the working culture can be improved. If we want the changes to be profound, the decoration of the textual surface can only serve as the treatment of symptoms, not a cure of the disease.

The demand for clear office language has been the wide framework of our research. Our underlying motivation is to raise language consciousness, since language is a central factor in our daily duties, information building, evaluation of facts, exercise of power and foundation of communities. They can be influenced by analytically opening linguistic choices. Some of the linguistic choices are conscious, some of them unconscious. In certain specific tasks and certain cultural environments some of the choices become natural, i.e. they become self-evident so that the user of the language no longer realises the range of choices. At the same time certain ways of working and perceiving the reality also become natural. In the worst case it is the bureaucracy suppressing citizens with all its attitudes and practices that becomes natural.

Our analyses as such are ideological: the ideology of the official is observed from the point of view of ideologies of ”the scientific” and ”the critical linguistic text analysis”. Our research is a statement in the social discussion of values, part of a societal dialogue. It is neither an easy answer nor a final solution, but rather a question.


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Based on the poster presented at  the 7th International Pragmatics Conference, Budapest, Hungary, 9-14 July 2000 (Vesa Heikkinen & Ulla Tiililä: Text as work, language as bureaucracy: linguists on their way into the reality of institutions)