What follows is an exploration of the potential of a postmodern approach to the concept of 'bullying' to extend our explanatory frameworks for this new and highly salient concept. The chapter proceeds by examining the rise of the concept as a new way of giving meaning to experiences of distress at work. In this manner, 'bullying' is treated as a new signifier that emerges from a wider discourse that attributes distress in contemporary workplaces to unacceptable behaviours. Postmodern signifiers can be recognised as concepts or names that are formed out of projections of everyday life experiences and emotions. As a new signifier, 'bullying at work' gives expression to a variety of anxieties, fears, and resentments, and it indicts perpetrators.
A key aim of the following discussion is to demonstrate that mapping the construction of 'bullying' as a signifier can provide a richer explanatory texture. The approach of treating 'bullying' as a postmodern signifier foregrounds difficulties in deciding between differing explanations of the phenomenon (Lyotard, 1988; Catley and Jones, 2001). However, while the potential of postmodernism to produce critical and innovative insights is recognised (Bauman, 1993), its multidimensionality does not fit neatly within accepted social scientific conventions.
The approach of mapping is considered a useful way of exploring the interaction of several dimensions of experience, knowledge and interest in the emergence of 'bullying' as a signifier. The process of mapping illustrates how understandings of bullying are a product of shifting alignments and tensions amongst diverse individual, organisational, professional and institutional interests (Liefooghe and Olafsson, 1999; McCarthy, 1999; Lewis, 2000). Appreciation that 'bullying at work' has emerged as a new signifier in a force-field of tensions also makes us aware that its meanings have been shaped by pre-existing meanings and by more or less powerful interests aligned to them (Foucault, 1972).
In these terms, 'bullying at work' emerges from power relations across several levels. Notably, the concept has arisen in a contest over