Discourse Tokens of Value and the Coordination of Internship Labor: Analyzing How Employers Talk About College Internships

WCER Working Paper No. 2022-2

Matthew Wolfgram and Alexandra D. Pasqualone


July 2022, 21 pp.

ABSTRACT: This paper analyzes how employers use discourse to ideologize the value of college internships—a historically emergent form of contingent, temporary, educational labor which has rapidly become a major feature of both higher education and labor relations in the United States (Frenette, 2015). The analysis is based on in-depth interviews with employers (n=38) in firms and organizations across a range of sectors who supervise and coordinate the work of college student interns from two public universities and two technical colleges located in different economic regions within the same U.S. Midwestern state. Using the anthropological theory of value (Graeber, 2001), we develop an analysis of how employers use discourse to ideologize and coordinate internship labor. Employers use three discourses of value to ideologize 1) the individual intern as the primary beneficiary of the internship (entrepreneurial discourse of value); 2) the organization or firm as the primary beneficiary of the internship (corporate efficiency discourse of value); and 3) the community, industry, or society in general as the primary beneficiary of the internship (community service discourse of value). The article develops the concept of a discourse token of value—discursive forms that (like cash) mediate value—as a central concept of the analysis of emergent forms of education and labor.

Full Paper

keywords: college internships, college-workforce transitions, higher education, discourse analysis, theory of value