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  • 00:11

    EMMA BELL: My name's Emma Bell, and I'ma professor of management and organizations studiesat Keele University.Organizational cultures are communicated in various ways,including through language and stories.But in this tutorial, we're goingto be focusing on visual aspects of culture.

  • 00:34

    EMMA BELL [continued]: I'll be explaining how to read visual cultureusing a social semiotic approach and drawingon examples from popular culture to illustrate.And this symbolic approach will enable us to explorethe underlying values that are associated with organizationalculture, which often cannot be articulated readily usingwords.

  • 01:03

    EMMA BELL [continued]: I'll be starting by explaining howto read organizational culture using social semiotics.I'll then go on to identify some common signifiers, whichare used to illustrate cultures of organizationand to show their meanings, how they are used.

  • 01:28

    EMMA BELL [continued]: I will then be thinking about the underlying meaningsthat these cultural signifiers are used to communicateand exploring what they tell us about businessand corporations.And then finally, I will show howthese aspects of culture, these visual representations,can enable the communication of values and emotionsthat are sometimes quite difficult to expressusing words alone.

  • 02:06

    EMMA BELL [continued]: So what are the reasons for analyzingorganizational culture visually?We live in an increasingly ocularcentric society,where thousands of images bombard us every day,whether that's in the form of film,of advertisements, still images, or images on our phonesor iPads.

  • 02:31

    EMMA BELL [continued]: And all of these are important in communicating meaning.And so intuitively, we learn how to read these images.In fact, when I teach students about howto read organizational culture in film,I find that they have learned how organizationswork from these representations in everyday life in society.

  • 02:58

    EMMA BELL [continued]: And so visual representations are oftenhow we understand what organizational cultures are allabout.It's how we learn how to behave, whatidentities we form, how to dress, how to act,in organizations.All of these things all very powerfullycommunicated using visual media.

  • 03:24

    EMMA BELL [continued]: Sometimes we can think that it's a straightforward matterto understand what the picture tells us.The camera never lies.But in actual fact, there is a skill involved.And that's what we'll be talking about in this tutorial,how to read those images critically and analytically.

  • 03:46

    EMMA BELL [continued]: In terms of why we would do this,it's important in identifying emotional aspects of culture,the things that sometimes remain hidden or obscured from view.And so visual analysis can be a very important resourcethat you can use to understand your own organizational cultureand also how organizational cultures are representedat a societal level.

  • 04:17

    EMMA BELL [continued]: And just to give an example of this,the recent film Wolf of Wall Street was very popular.And a particular grouping that it appealed to were bankers.In fact, in Wall Street and in the City of London,there were recorded instances of groupsof bankers going for film viewing parties,where they went to watch the movie.

  • 04:41

    EMMA BELL [continued]: They dressed up like 1980s bankers,complete with oversized cell phones.What does this tell us about the role of the visualin representing organizational culture?It illustrates the complex and interdependent relationshipof those representations with what they're actually depictingand the way in which we actually learn how to beand how to behave, sometimes in quite disturbing and ethicallydubious ways, from those broader visual images.

  • 05:19

    EMMA BELL [continued]: The image you can see now is of an iceberg.And this is a commonly used metaphorto represent organizational culture.And by culture, we mean the way thingsare done in an organization.The norms, the values, and also the practicesthrough which those norms and values are expressed.

  • 05:42

    EMMA BELL [continued]: And what this metaphor highlightsis the fact that there are some things thatare highly visual and visible in organizational culture.And that is the part of the iceberg that sitsabove the surface of the water.And that includes language-based aspects of culture,such as the stories that people tell;the socialization practices that a new member of an organizationwill encounter when they join the organization;the initiation ceremonies, or the rites of passage.

  • 06:19

    EMMA BELL [continued]: And these are all terms from anthropologythat are used to express and explainthe way in which culture is communicated between people.And so what we see here is that thereis a clear role for understandingthose visible aspects of culture.

  • 06:39

    EMMA BELL [continued]: And the reason for that is because through them, youcan gain insight into the invisible elements, the aspectsthat lie beneath the surface, the values,the hidden assumptions, the ways in which the organizationorganizes itself in a sense that is communicating those values.

  • 07:03

    EMMA BELL [continued]: And that is important because it has an ideological aspect.It communicates something that has a purpose or intent that ispoliticized and has an agenda.As Berger says, "Seeing comes before words."And this is insightful in terms of understandingthe emotional, visceral potential of the imagein communicating something to an audience.

  • 07:33

    EMMA BELL [continued]: Visual enquiry, when we are using visual imagesto understand something, involveseverything that we can see, everything thatis observable to the human eye.And so we're not just talking hereabout photographs or artistic impressions.Were also talking about physical artifacts, objects, clothing,architecture in a building.

  • 07:59

    EMMA BELL [continued]: All of these symbolic aspects are important.They have a meaning making potential.They are things that we can interpretwhen we want to understand what a culture is all about.So the visual is a way of generating multisensory impact.

  • 08:20

    EMMA BELL [continued]: We see something, and we react to it,often in ways that are quite emotionally affecting.And so the power of the visual relatesto its mimetic possibilities, the ideathat it shows you something, rather than tells yousomething, which is what words do through diegesis.

  • 08:45

    EMMA BELL [continued]: So it's this contrast between mimesis and diegesisthat we get when we look at the visual image versus the writtenor spoken word.We tend to assume that it's a natural thing, that wecan interpret these images without any special training.But what I'm going to say here isthat we do need certain skills or resources through which wecan become better at interpreting visual imagesas an aspect of culture.

  • 09:15

    EMMA BELL [continued]: And I'm referring to this as videcy,which is the ability to read imagescritically and analytically.And what this enables is a move beyond reflectionist readings.Reflectionist readings are ones wherewe tend to assume that the meaning is singular,that everyone understands the image in the same way.

  • 09:42

    EMMA BELL [continued]: And in fact, what we need to move towards,I'm going to suggest, is more of an ideological reading, wherewe understand that an image is produced by someone, that oftenthere is a deliberate intent in that production,and therefore as a reader of an image, as an audience,we need to think about what that intent isand interpret it in an appropriate way.

  • 10:14

    EMMA BELL [continued]: So in this tutorial, I'm taking a semiotic approachto understanding culture in this way.And I'm suggesting, therefore, that what we're readingand when we see images are signs.They form part of a sign system.And the value of interpreting signsis important in terms of how we engage with organizations.

  • 10:40

    EMMA BELL [continued]: When we join an organization for the first time,we need to understand what its values areand where the power lies.And it's through observing caarefully and readingthese signs in context that we're able to interpret and actappropriately in that setting.If we have a managerial role in an organization,then it's important to understandhow people understand the culture,how newcomers experience the culture.

  • 11:11

    EMMA BELL [continued]: And through reading signs, we gain these insights.And we do this through semiotic analysis.Semiotics is the study of meaning in text.So we tend to think of text as somethingthat is written in the form of a passage of textor a book or an article.

  • 11:33

    EMMA BELL [continued]: But semiotics would suggest that actually the sign and the textcan be in a visual form.And we need to spend as much effortin interpreting and reading that visual imageas we do in reading and interpretinga written or spoken set of words.

  • 11:56

    EMMA BELL [continued]: A sign is made up of two elements, the signifier, whichis the image itself, and the signified, which isthe meaning to which it refers.And it's this dualistic pairing that forms the actual sign.

  • 12:19

    EMMA BELL [continued]: And within semiotics, we would seesigns as not existing in isolation,but in fact in opposition.So very often, one sign will alsobe contrasted with its opposite.Man and woman, for example.And the meaning of one being derived in relation,in comparison, to the other.

  • 12:46

    EMMA BELL [continued]: We would also say that signs operatewithin an overall system.And so there are many signs together in combination thatoperate in producing meaning.It's an overall sign system.Now traditionally, semiotics has focusedon linguistic sign making.

  • 13:08

    EMMA BELL [continued]: So each word is a sign that forms an overall system, whichis the language.But in terms of visual communication,we can also take this approach and look at these oppositionsand contrasts and the use of signs in combinationwith one another in order to interpretmeaning of a visual nature.

  • 13:33

    EMMA BELL [continued]: But we also have to remember that signs areambiguous and indeterminate.They exist in historical and cultural context.The way in which we read an imagedepends on our situated location.It depends on what other images we've seen in the past.Images often operate intertextually,referring back to older images.

  • 13:60

    EMMA BELL [continued]: And so when we encounter something visual,we bring to bear all our cultural experience that we'vegathered and accumulated, and we apply it in reading the image.So let's talk about visual signifiersof corporate organizations and business,some of the most common ways in which organizationsare represented visually.

  • 14:31

    EMMA BELL [continued]: And the notion of the metaphor is very important here.As Gareth Morgan tells us, all theoriesof organization and management are metaphorical.They are based on a partial way of understandingthat draws a parallel between organizationand the metaphor that is applied.

  • 14:54

    EMMA BELL [continued]: And in terms of the kinds of metaphors that we commonlysee in representing organization,the clock is a very powerful examplethat we see not only in real organizations,but also in representations of organization,for example, in film and television.

  • 15:15

    EMMA BELL [continued]: So when we encounter a clock, we'remaking all kinds of assumptions about the meaningof that object in relation to organization.And we're using codes, our cultural codesthat we bring from our prior accumulated experience,to try and make sense of that objectand to understand it as a crucial metaphor of whatthe organization is.

  • 15:43

    EMMA BELL [continued]: And in terms of the clock, it's about timethat is spent in an organization, time thatis owned by the organization.The metaphor of watching the clock,of waiting until 5 o'clock when the bell rings and everyone canleave the office.And so the clock is a very powerful metaphor, and onethat we see on a regular basis, and onethat tells us something about the organizational culture.

  • 16:13

    EMMA BELL [continued]: Another common metaphor of organizationis of the suit, the man in a black suit.And we can see all kinds of examples of this,whether it's from movies such as Men in Black or The Matrix,and also the use of hats, the top hat or the bowler hat.

  • 16:37

    EMMA BELL [continued]: And through this, I think we're getting messagesthat relate to conformity.They relate to the role of the suitin a bureaucratic hierarchy of organization.And in real organizations, you have cultural practicesof taking that metaphor and maybe subverting or resistingit in dress down Fridays.

  • 17:05

    EMMA BELL [continued]: And so all of these visual practicesgive us insight into the kind of culturethat the organization is trying to create or trying to resist.And then the third metaphor that I would focus onin terms of these common corporate codesis that of the skyscraper.

  • 17:26

    EMMA BELL [continued]: And we see this in every kind of city,the context where business is equated to the skyscraper.And this is very much a 20th century and a 21st centurymetaphor of what the large corporate organization is allabout.And so through countless representationsin various aspects of popular culture,such as film and television, we seepeople entering the organization through glass doorsor revolving doors and entering the elevatorand going up in terms of the rise of the organization,the rising up through the organizational building.

  • 18:12

    EMMA BELL [continued]: And what we see here is a metaphor for career progress,a metaphor for hierarchy.And it's no coincidence that in many banks,the top floor is the executive board room where peoplehave the best view of the city.And so what you find here is that these representationsare actually in some ways reflecting the realityand in some ways constituting the reality.

  • 18:40

    EMMA BELL [continued]: In these examples that I've shown you,you can see that interdependent relationship,the flow between the representation and the thingthat it is representing.And it's not an easy one-way directional flow.It's bidirectional.

  • 19:02

    EMMA BELL [continued]: I find it useful to distinguish between the text, the producerof the text, and the audience who reads the text.And it's this triadic relationshipwhich is important in understanding the meaningmaking that takes place through visual representationsof organizational culture.

  • 19:23

    EMMA BELL [continued]: And what Stuart Hall said about thisis that it's a non-linear circuit of communication.And so there are possibilities for the audienceto interpret the text in a way thatis different from that which was intendedby the producer of that image.

  • 19:46

    EMMA BELL [continued]: And that makes it very complicated.It means that the whole idea of therebeing a reflectional or a singularinterpretation of an image is made problematic.And this is where your prior experience comes into play.Text which one person might see as realistic,another person might see as unrealistic.

  • 20:14

    EMMA BELL [continued]: And so it's a highly subjective and interpretive processof meaning making.And an important aspect of this relatesto the possibility of oppositional readingsof a text.So an audience can in fact rejectthe intended or the preferred meaningthat the producer has sought to communicatethrough their visual representation,and instead come up with the complete contrast in termsof the way that they interpret the image.

  • 20:51

    EMMA BELL [continued]: So this is where the possibility of resisting the imagecomes into play.Finally, in this tutorial, I'm goingto be talking about the possibilityof visual organizational symbolism beingused as a critical resource and what that entails.

  • 21:15

    EMMA BELL [continued]: Now, Paulo Friere was very interested in the notionof literacy, of the way in which people could be educatedin ways that enabled them to read and use languageas a form of politicized action.And the quote that you can see here on the slidetakes that notion and applies it in relation to videocy.

  • 21:41

    EMMA BELL [continued]: The idea that rather than being a passive recipient of imagesthat we are bombarded with in everyday organizational lives,we can actually engage with those imagesas a visually literate consumer of them,and also increasingly through the riseof digital media as a producer of images ourselves.

  • 22:08

    EMMA BELL [continued]: And this has two aspects to it.The first, which I've done research on,relates to what happens inside organizations, of cultureswithin organizations.I did some research looking at the history of the carmanufacturer Jaguar in the city of Coventry in the UK.

  • 22:29

    EMMA BELL [continued]: And I was very much struck by the visual aspectsof that culture and the importanceof visual symbolism in people's meaning making activities.So for example, people had ties with the Jaguar logo on it.They had screensavers with the Jaguar leaper on it.There were numerous representationsin forms of artwork and photographsthat depicted the cars and how they changed over the years.

  • 22:57

    EMMA BELL [continued]: But what I found was that in the case of this particular factorywhich was facing closure, the employeesstarted to manipulate those imagesin ways that they used to communicate their own messageabout the loss that they were experiencing, the loss of jobs,of identities, of livelihoods, and the lossof that history which, in the city of Coventry,goes back for many decades.

  • 23:28

    EMMA BELL [continued]: And so they took the image, and they depicted it differently.They drew pictures of the Jaguar cat being shotand posted them on the back of office doors.And the interesting thing about this caserelates to the anonymity of the producer.

  • 23:49

    EMMA BELL [continued]: So in this instance, the use of the visualenabled employees to communicate a messageabout the closure, which was more powerful, more emotional,than could've been enabled through words,but also to do so anonymously in a way thatwas unattributable to any particular individual.

  • 24:12

    EMMA BELL [continued]: What I looked at in this case was the roleof images in constructing a shared identity,a collected identity that was basedon these visual representations as a way of rememberingthe past and a way of anticipating the future.And so that is an illustration of one wayin which visual images can be used to representorganizational cultures.

  • 24:42

    EMMA BELL [continued]: And the second example I'd like to touch onrelates to these kinds of practicesand how they are enacted outside organizations.I've done some work looking at YouTubeand the way in which images of organizationsare constructed using YouTube, lookingat digital organizational storytellers,people who produce short films that sometimes go viral thatdepict important organizational issues,and the way in which they representcorporate business using symbolic representations,such as the greedy over-inflated stick figure to representthe greedy corporate business.

  • 25:32

    EMMA BELL [continued]: And so these are powerful ways of communicating a messageand conveying it to large numbers of peoplethrough the use of internet-based communication.And it entails and enables a shift awayfrom mass communication, which was very much about imagesbeing produced by media interestsand communicated to a large and perhaps rather passiveaudience.

  • 26:01

    EMMA BELL [continued]: And it enables people to speak back to corporationsby producing their own images.And so it presents the possibilityof resistance or challenge.

  • 26:26

    EMMA BELL [continued]: So to summarize, visual images, including photographs,pictorial representations, movingimages, and visual artifacts and architectureare all ways in which we can understandorganizational culture.These can be found inside organizations, as wellas outside organizations in the broader societal sphere, wherethey're operating to represent corporate businessand to reflect the way in which it's seen in society.

  • 27:04

    EMMA BELL [continued]: Learning how to read these imagesis important because it enables usto engage with them as active rather than passive recipientsof them.And so as someone who enters into a culture,it puts you in a different positionand enables you to understand that culturein a richer and more full way.

  • 27:30

    EMMA BELL [continued]: And the visual aspects of organizational culturecan be very insightful.They can be insightful in relationto understanding how people feel,the emotions that they express throughthe visual representation.And sometimes this can enable the author of the imageto remain anonymous, and thereforeto be able to express something that they may notbe able to in terms of words.


Professor Emma Bell discusses the semiotic examination of visual culture. She explains that meaning is often created and communicated through images, in addition to text, and she identifies the signifier and signified as dual aspects of a single sign. But signs do not have a single meaning, and visual communication is a two-way street.

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An Introduction to Visual Inquiry and Organizational Culture

Professor Emma Bell discusses the semiotic examination of visual culture. She explains that meaning is often created and communicated through images, in addition to text, and she identifies the signifier and signified as dual aspects of a single sign. But signs do not have a single meaning, and visual communication is a two-way street.