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When Worlds Collide? Hearings vs. Media in Making Meaning for Alberta’s Oil Sands Open Access


Other title
institutional change
discursive field
Type of item
Degree grantor
University of Alberta
Author or creator
Lefsrud, Lianne M.
Supervisor and department
Suddaby, Roy (Strategic Management and Organization)
Examining committee member and department
Lounsbury, Michael (Strategic Management and Organization, University of Alberta)
Lipsett, Michael (Mechanical Engineering, University of Alberta)
Jennings, P. Devereaux (Strategic Management and Organization, University of Alberta)
Cornelissen, Joep (Faculty of Economics and Business Administration, VU University Amsterdam )
Faculty of Business
Strategic Management and Organization
Date accepted
Graduation date
Doctor of Philosophy
Degree level
Although resources are central in many organizational theories, we tend to overlook the social processes by which these become defined, infused with value, and made usable by rules. Thus I ask: How has a once legitimate and unquestioned energy source – the Alberta oil sands – become problematized? Neither the nature of this resource nor the decision processes for development have fundamentally changed over the past 50 years. Yet, the meanings of this previously taken-for-granted resource have become so contested within and between the regulatory development hearings and public media more broadly, such that industry self-regulation and international rulings are being transformed. To unpack the processes by which stakeholders construct and contest these meanings, I draw on an extended case study of Alberta’s oil sands. I start by examining macro-level evolution of meaning in global media, then macro- to micro-level meanings between hearings and the surrounding media, and lastly on interactive macro- to micro-level contestations as discursive stakeholders agentically leverage across these arenas. During field emergence, oil (and tar as its descriptive synonym) was the uncontested resource of interest in this discursive field. Our interest in it increased exponentially, along with its value on the world market. This changed in 2008 and onwards, when water (and tar as the newly pejorative variation of ‘oil’) became a central resource in the discussion. The refocusing was catalyzed by the 1600 duck deaths on Syncrude’s tailings ponds and by increasing concerns amongst Aboriginal peoples about contamination of the Athabasca River. This shift in the discussion represents an effort to balance the technical utility of oil with the life affirming essence of water, from a broader constituency of discursive stakeholders. My cross-arena rhetorical analysis illustrates how discursive stakeholders use different rhetorical tools to position and counter-position themselves against their opponents, differently in public media versus hearings, to influence the regulatory outcomes. This demonstrates that, when faced with decades of institutional intransigence, interstices between discursive fields can reveal hypocrisies and give challengers leverage points for change.
Permission is hereby granted to the University of Alberta Libraries to reproduce single copies of this thesis and to lend or sell such copies for private, scholarly or scientific research purposes only. Where the thesis is converted to, or otherwise made available in digital form, the University of Alberta will advise potential users of the thesis of these terms. The author reserves all other publication and other rights in association with the copyright in the thesis and, except as herein before provided, neither the thesis nor any substantial portion thereof may be printed or otherwise reproduced in any material form whatsoever without the author's prior written permission.
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