Organizational Communication

Perspectives: 1. Interpretivism 2. Critical theory 3. Postmodernism 4. Feminism

Theories: 1. Marx  2. Frankfurt School 3. Foollett’s bridge theory  4. General Theory 5. Pragmatist Theory

6. Purist Theory


Requirment: 1. Perspectives includes all points, total 2 pages

2. Each theory one page      , total 6 pages

3. References


Attachements are books and PPT you may find useful.






Dennis K. Mumby The University of North Carolina

at Chapel Hill





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Mumby, Dennis K. Organizational communication: a critical approach /Dennis K. Mumby.

p. cm.

Includes bibliographical references and index.

ISBN 978-1-4129-6315-2 (pbk.)

1. Communication in organizations. I. Title.

HD30.3.M863 2013 306.44—dc23 2012018541

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12 13 14 15 16 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1




Brief Contents Preface Acknowledgments

PART I: D EVELOPING A CRITICAL APPROACH TO ORGANIZATIONAL COMMUNICATION 1 Introducing Organizational Communication 2 The Critical Approach

PART II: THEORIES OF ORGANIZATIONAL COMMUNICATION AND THE MODERN ORGANIZATION 3 Scientific Management, Bureaucracy, and the Emergence of the Modern

Organization 4 The Human Relations School 5 Organizations as Communication Systems 6 Communication, Culture, and Organizing

PART III: CRITICAL PERSPECTIVES ON ORGANIZATIONAL COMMUNICATION AND THE NEW WORKPLACE 7 Power and Resistance at Work 8 The Postmodern Workplace: Teams, Emotions, and No-Collar Work 9 Communicating Gender at Work 10 Communicating Difference at Work 11 Leadership Communication in the New Workplace 12 Branding and Consumption 13 Organizational Communication, Globalization, and Democracy 14 Communication, Meaningful Work, and Personal Identity

Glossary References Index About the Author




Detailed Contents Preface Acknowledgments


1 Introducing Organizational Communication

Organizations as Communicative Structures of Control Defining “Organizational Communication”

Interdependence Differentiation of Tasks and Functions Goal Orientation Control Mechanisms

Direct Control Technological Control

Critical Technologies 1.1: Defining Communication Technology Bureaucratic Control Ideological Control Disciplinary Control

Communication Processes Framing Theories of Organizational Communication

Functionalism: The Discourse of Representation Interpretivism: The Discourse of Understanding

Critical Case Study 1.1: A Conduit Model of Education Critical Theory: The Discourse of Suspicion Postmodernism: The Discourse of Vulnerability Feminism: The Discourse of Empowerment

Conclusion Critical Applications Key Terms

2 The Critical Approach

The Critical Approach: A History Karl Marx

Marx’s Key Issues Critiquing Marx




The Institute for Social Research (the Frankfurt School) Critical Theory and the Critique of Capitalism Critical Theory and the Critique of Enlightenment Thought

Critical Case Study 2.1: McDonaldizing “Fridays” Critiquing the Frankfurt School

Cultural Studies Understanding Organizational Communication From a Critical Perspective

Organizations Are Socially Constructed Through Communication Processes Critical Technologies 2.1: Mediating Everyday Life

Organizations Are Political Sites of Power and Control Organizations Are Key Sites of Human Identity Formation in Modern Society Organizations Are Important Sites of Collective Decision Making and

Democracy Organizations Are Sites of Ethical Issues and Dilemmas

Conclusion Critical Applications Key Terms


3 Scientific Management, Bureaucracy, and the Emergence of the Modern Organization

The Emergence of the Modern Organization Time, Space, and the Mechanization of Travel Time, Space, and the Industrial Worker

Critical Technologies 3.1: Timepieces and Punch Clocks Scientific Management: “Tayloring” the Worker to the Job

Taylor’s Principles: The “One Best Way” The Contributions of Frank and Lillian Gilbreth A Critical Assessment of Scientific Management The Legacy of Scientific Management

Bureaucratic Theory: Max Weber and Organizational Communication Weber’s Types of Authority

Charismatic Authority Traditional Authority Rational–Legal Authority

Weber’s Critique of Bureaucracy and the Process of “Rationalization” The Legacy of Bureaucracy

Critical Case Study 3.1: Rationalizing Emotions




Conclusion: A Critical Assessment of “Classic” Theories of Organization Critical Applications Key Terms

4 The Human Relations School

Placing the Human Relations Movement in Its Historical and Political Context Elton Mayo and the Hawthorne Studies

The Hawthorne Studies The Illumination Studies (1924–1927) The Relay Assembly Test Room (RATR) Studies (April 1927–February

1933) The Interview Program (September 1928–January 1931) The Bank Wiring Observation Room Study (November 1931–May 1932)

Implications of the Hawthorne Studies Critical Case Study 4.1: Reframing Happiness at Zappos A Critique of the Hawthorne Studies

Reexamining the Empirical Data Critiquing the Ideology of the Hawthorne Researchers

The Wholly Negative Role of Conflict Rational Manager Versus “Sentimental” Worker Gender Bias in the Hawthorne Studies

Summary Mary Parker Follett: Bridging Theory and Practice

Follett’s Theory of Organization The Strange Case of the Disappearing Theorist

Human Resource Management Douglas McGregor’s Theory X and Theory Y

Critical Technologies 4.1: “Wilfing” Your Life Away Rensis Likert’s Four Systems Approach Critiquing Human Resource Management

Conclusion Critical Applications Key Terms

5 Organizations as Communication Systems

Situating the Systems Perspective The Principles of the Systems Perspective

Interrelationship and Interdependence of Parts Holism




Input, Transformation (Throughput), and Output of Energy Negative Entropy Equilibrium, Homeostasis, and Feedback Hierarchy Goal Orientation Equifinality and Multifinality

Organizations as Systems of Communication Critical Technologies 5.1: Organizing Food

Karl Weick and Organizational Sense Making Weick’s Model of Organizing: Enactment, Selection, and Retention A Critical Perspective on Weick

Critical Case Study 5.1: Airlines and Equivocality Niklas Luhmann and the Autopoietic Organization

A Critical Perspective on the Autopoietic Organization Conclusion Critical Applications Key Terms

6 Communication, Culture, and Organizing

The Emergence of the Cultural Approach Two Perspectives on Organizational Culture

The Pragmatist Approach: Organizational Culture as a Variable Critical Technologies 6.1: Communication Technology and Organizational Culture

The Purist Approach: Organizational Culture as a Root Metaphor A Broader Conception of “Organization” The Use of Interpretive, Ethnographic Methods The Study of Organizational Symbols, Talk, and Artifacts

Relevant Constructs Facts Practices Vocabulary Metaphors

Critical Case Study 6.1: Organizational Culture and Metaphors Rites and Rituals

Organizational Stories Summarizing the Two Perspectives

Conclusion Critical Applications Key Terms





7 Power and Resistance at Work

Perspectives on Power and Organizations Power as Social Influence The One-Dimensional Model of Power The Two-Dimensional Model of Power The Three-Dimensional Model of Power

Organizational Communication and Ideology Critical Case Study 7.1: Ideology and Storytelling

Ideology Represents Particular Group Interests as Universal Ideology Obscures or Denies Contradictions in Society Ideology Functions to Reify Social Relations

Examining Organizational Communication Through the Lens of Power and Ideology

Organizational Communication and Corporate Colonization Engineering Culture

Resisting Corporate Colonization The Hidden Resistance of Flight Attendants

Critical Technologies 7.1: Social Media as Resistance Conclusion Critical Applications Key Terms

8 The Postmodern Workplace: Teams, Emotions, and No-Collar Work

Disciplinary Power and the Postmodern Organization The Postmodern Organization: From Fordism to Post-Fordism

The Fordist Organization The Post-Fordist Organization

The Post-Fordist Organization: Teams, Emotions, and No-Collar Work Teams at Work

Critiquing Work Teams Critical Technologies 8.1: Virtual Teams

Emotions at Work Critical Case Study 8.1: What Does Drinking Coffee Have to Do With Organizational Communication?

Doing “No-Collar” Work Conclusion




Critical Application Key Terms

9 Communicating Gender at Work

Feminist Perspectives on Organizational Communication Liberal Feminism: Creating a Level Playing Field Radical Feminism: Constructing Alternative Organizational Forms Critical Feminism: Viewing Organizations as Gendered

Critical Technologies 9.1: Gender, Technology, and Power Masculinity and Organizational Communication Critical Case Study 9.1: Why My Mom Isn’t a Feminist Conclusion Critical Applications Key Terms

10 Communicating Difference at Work

Defining Difference Race and Organizational Communication

Putting Race and Organization in Historical Context Race and the Contemporary Workplace Interrogating Whiteness and Organizational Communication

Critical Case Study 10.1: Interrogating Mumby Family Whiteness The Body, Sexuality, and Organizational Communication

Instrumental Uses of the Body and Sexuality Critical Technologies 10.1: Technologies of the Body Critical Case Study 10.2: Sexing up the Corporate Experience

Sexual Harassment in the Workplace Resistant/Emancipatory Forms of Sexuality

Gay Workers and “Heteronormativity” Conclusion Critical Applications Key Terms

11 Leadership Communication in the New Workplace

Traditional Perspectives on Leadership The Trait Approach The Style Approach The Situational Approach Summary




New Approaches to Leadership Leadership as Symbolic Action Transformational Leadership Followership

Critical Case Study 11.1: Leadership Lessons From “Dancing Guy” Critical Technologies 11.1: E-Leadership A Critical Communication Perspective on Leadership

Leadership and Disciplinary Power Resistance Leadership Narrative Leadership Gender and Leadership

Conclusion Critical Applications Key Terms

12 Branding and Consumption

Branding Critical Case Study 12.1: Diamonds Are Forever? Branding and Identity Critical Case Study 12.2: When Brands Run Amok Marketing, “Murketing,” and Corporate Colonization Organizations, Branding, and the Entrepreneurial Self Critical Technologies 12.1: Do You Have Klout? The Ethics of Branding Conclusion Critical Applications Key Terms

13 Organizational Communication, Globalization, and Democracy

Defining Globalization Spheres of Globalization

Globalization and Economics Globalization and Politics

Globalization and Resistance Globalization and Culture

Critical Case Study 13.1: Culture Jamming Nike The Globalization of Nothing

Gender, Work, and Globalization Critical Technologies 13.1: Work, Technology, and Globalization in the Call




Center Communication and Organizational Democracy

Mason’s Theory of Workplace Participatory Democracy Stohl and Cheney’s Paradoxes of Participation

Paradoxes of Structure Paradoxes of Agency Paradoxes of Identity Paradoxes of Power

Deetz’s Stakeholder Model of Organizational Democracy Conclusion Critical Applications Key Terms

14 Communication, Meaningful Work, and Personal Identity

Meaningful Work A Sense of Agency Enhances Belonging or Relationships Creates Opportunities for Influence

Critical Technologies 14.1: How Does Communication Technology Affect Our Experience of Work?

Permits Use and Development of Talents Offers a Sense of Contribution to a Greater Good Provides Income Adequate for a Decent Living

Managing Work Identity: Some Historical Context Creating and Managing Work Identities

Identity, Identification, and Disidentification Conformist Selves Dramaturgical Selves Resistant Selves

No Collar, No Life Critical Case Study 14.1: A Tale of Two Countries Conclusion Critical Applications Key Terms

Glossary References Index About the Author





I have a confession to make (well, two actually). I have never been a huge fan of textbooks. So, you may legitimately ask, what on earth am I doing authoring one? Good question. The simple answer (only partially true) might be that I finally caved to student-consumer pressure to provide something that makes a bit more sense than all those interminable academic articles I assign to students. If I am to be “coerced” into adopting a textbook, I thought, at least I can write one that I actually like!

Okay, so that was just a minor consideration. There are actually several good organizational communication textbooks available, though none of them really fits the way I like to teach this class. In fact, one of my major problems with the typical textbook is that it’s written as if from nowhere. It’s hard to tell from reading the book if the author even has a particular perspective or set of assumptions that he or she brings to the study of organizational communication. Every textbook reads as though it’s an objective, authoritative account of a particular body of knowledge; the author’s voice almost never appears. But the truth is that every theory and every program of research you’ve ever read about in your college career operates according to a set of principles—a perspective, if you like—that shapes the very nature of the knowledge claims made by that research.

Now, this does not mean that all research is biased in the sense of simply being the expression of a researcher’s opinions and prejudices; all good research is rigorous and systematic in its exploration of the world around us. Rather, I’m saying that all researchers are trained according to the principles and assumptions of a particular academic community (of which there are many), and academic communities differ in their beliefs about what makes good research. That’s why there are debates in all fields of research. Sometimes those debates are over facts (this or that is or isn’t true), but more often those debates are really about what assumptions and theoretical perspectives provide the most useful and insightful way to study a particular phenomenon.

Certainly, the field of organizational communication is no different. In the 1980s our field went through “paradigm debates” in which a lot of time was spent arguing over the “best” perspective from which to study organizations—a debate in which I participated (Corman & Poole, 2000; Mumby, 1993, 2000). Fortunately, the result of these debates was a richer and more interesting field of study; some disciplines are not so lucky and end up divided into oppositional camps, sometimes for many decades.

Overview of the Book




But what does this have to do with writing a textbook? It’s my belief that not only should a textbook adequately reflect the breadth of different perspectives in a field, but it should also adopt its own perspective from which a field is studied. It makes no sense that an author should have to check his or her theoretical perspective at the door when he or she becomes a textbook author—the pretense of neutrality and objectivity is, for me, a nonstarter. In fact, I would argue that, from a student perspective, reading a textbook that’s explicit about its theoretical orientation makes for a much richer educational experience. It’s hard to engage in an argument with someone when that person refuses to state his or her position; when you know where someone is coming from you are better able to engage with his or her reasoning, as well as articulate your own perspective. Dialogue is possible!

So, it’s important to me that you know up front who you’re dealing with here. For the past 25 years I’ve been writing about organizations from what can broadly be described as a critical perspective. This means that I am interested in organizations as sites of power and control that shape societal meanings and human identities in significant ways. Thus, I am less interested in things like how “efficient” organizations are (a perspective that some researchers would take) and more interested in how they function as communication phenomena that have a profound—sometimes good, sometimes bad—impact on who we are as people. We spend almost all our time in organizations of one kind or another, and certainly our entire work lives are spent as members of organizations, so it’s extremely important to understand the implications of our “organizational society” of various kinds for who we are as people.

Furthermore, the way I have structured this textbook does not mean that it is only about the critical perspective. In some ways it is a “traditional” textbook in its coverage of the major research traditions that have developed in the field over the past 100 years. The difference from other textbooks lies in my use of the critical perspective as the lens through which I examine these traditions. Thus, the critical perspective gives us a particular—and, I would argue, powerful—way of understanding both organizational life and the theories and research programs that have been developed to understand it. So as you are reading this book, keep reminding yourself, “Dennis is a critical theorist—how does this shape the way he thinks about organizations and lead him to certain conclusions about the theory and practice of organizational life rather than others?” Also ask yourself, “When do I agree with Dennis, and when do I disagree with him? Why do I agree/disagree, and what does that tell me about my own view of the world?”

In addition to the critical perspective I adopt in this book, I’m also bringing a particular communication approach. Rather than thinking of this book as exploring theories of organizational communication, you can think of it as developing a communication mode of explanation that enables us to understand organizations as communicative phenomena. Organizations can (and have) been studied from




psychological, sociological, and business perspectives (among others), but to study them from a communication perspective means something distinctive and, I think, unique. From this perspective, communication is not just something that happens “in” organizations; rather, it is the very lifeblood of organizations. It is what makes organizations meaningful places that connect people together to engage collectively in meaningful activity. The implications of this communication perspective will become clearer as we move through the chapters of the book.

Pedagogical Aids

I’ve also included some elements that will assist you in getting to grips with the various and sometimes complex issues that we’ll be addressing. First, each chapter contains at least one Critical Case Study that enables you to apply the issues discussed in that chapter to a real-world situation. Think of these case studies as an effort to demonstrate the fact that “there’s nothing as practical as a good theory.” Second, each chapter contains a Critical Technologies box that provides some insight into the increasing and now-ubiquitous role of communication technology in everyday organizational life. Because any chapter on technology is quickly outdated these days, the box format seemed the most useful way to go. Third, the book is unique in its inclusion of full chapters on (1) postmodernism and the post-Fordist organization, (2) gender and organizations, (3) difference and organizations, (4) branding and consumption, and (5) the meaning of work. All these chapters in various ways address the changing nature of work and organizations. Finally, each chapter highlights key terms in bold throughout the text and lists the key terms at the end of each chapter, along with definitions in the glossary at the end of the book.


In addition to the text, a full array of ancillary website materials for instructors and students is available at

The password-protected Instructor Teaching Site at contains a test bank, PowerPoint presentations, chapter summaries, and web resources for use in the classroom.

The open-access Student Study Site at contains web resources, quizzes, and interactive flashcards for key terms to enhance student learning.

The Critical Perspective of the Book




Let me say one last thing about the perspective I adopt in this book. I view this textbook (and, indeed, any textbook) as political in the sense suggested by organizational communication scholars Karen Ashcraft and Brenda Allen (2003):

As they orient students to the field and its defining areas of theory and research, textbooks perform a political function. That is, they advance narratives of collective identity, which invite students to internalize a particular map of central and marginal issues, of legitimate and dubious projects. (p. 28)

As I suggested above, knowledge is far from neutral, shaping our understanding of it in particular ways. The “map” I want to lay out for you will, I hope, enable you to negotiate organizational life as more engaged and thoughtful “organizational citizens.” As such, I hope you will be better equipped to recognize the subtle and not-so-subtle ways organizations shape human identities—both collective and individual.


Ashcraft, K. L., & Allen, B. J. (2003). The racial foundation of organizational communication. Communication Theory, 13, 5–38.

Corman, S. R., & Poole, M. S. (Eds.). (2000). Perspectives on organizational communication: Finding common ground. New York: Guilford.

Mumby, D. K. (1993). Critical organizational communication studies: The next ten years. Communication Monographs, 60, 18–25.

Mumby, D. K. (2000). Common ground from the critical perspective: Overcoming binary oppositions. In S. R. Corman & M. S. Poole (Eds.), Perspectives on organizational communication: Finding common ground (pp. 68–88). New York: Guilford.





Oh, yes—the second confession. I started writing this book years ago. In fact, I’ve completed three other book projects since I started this one. There’s no single explanation for why it took so long—certainly, changing jobs and becoming a department chair (always a productivity killer) had an impact. To make matters worse, my original publisher was bought out by a much larger company, and my new editor didn’t seem invested in the project—a hard lesson in the politics of the corporate world. Bringing ideas to fruition is just as much about the relationships you have with the people around you as it is about your own ability and discipline. And in that regard I finally got lucky—Todd Armstrong at SAGE knew I was working on a textbook and kept pestering me to sign up with him. I’d worked with Todd on several other projects and knew what a smart, energetic, and all-around great person he was. It’s due in good measure to Todd that this book has finally seen the light of day. Todd left SAGE before the project was finished, but his successor, Matt Byrnie, and Associate Editor Nathan Davidson kept the project moving along with well-timed feedback and plenty of encouragement. Other SAGE staff, including editorial assistant Stephanie Palermini, Assistant Editor Terri Accomazzo, marketing manager Liz Thornton, and Production Editor Eric Garner proved to be an excellent support team. Last, but not least, Meg Granger was a phenomenal copy editor with a great eye for detail; whatever she gets paid, it’s not enough.

Speaking of feedback, this might well be the most reviewed textbook in the history of publishing. Sometimes reviewer feedback can drive you nuts because it’s inconsistent and at times even contradictory. But I was lucky enough to get a wealth of constructive and encouraging comments from organizational communication scholars across the field. In alphabetical order, they are, Patrice M. Buzzanell, Theresa Castor, Jennifer R. Considine, Nancy J. Curtin, Maria A. Dixon, Jennie Donohue, Francine Edwards, Kristine Fitch, Marie Garland, Bethany Crandell Goodier, Liane M. Gray-Starner, Di Grimes, Terry L. Hapney Jr., Jessica Katz Jameson, Jeannette Kindred, Erika Kirby, Tim Kuhn, Dan Lair, Kurt Lindemann, Gina Marcello, Caryn Medved, Rebecca Meisenbach, George W. Musambira, Karen K. Myers, Majia Holmer Nadesan, Todd Norton, Andrea M. Pampaloni, Robyn V. Remke, Maria E. Rodriguez, Jennifer Mize Smith, Patty Sotirin, Rob Whitbred, Lynda R. Willer, Mary E. Wilson, Jason S. Wrench, and Heather Zoller, plus a couple of folks who wished to remain anonymous. Reviewing takes a lot of time and energy, and I appreciate everyone’s willingness to give detailed comments that, I’m sure, took up time they didn’t have.

Thanks also to my excellent colleagues in the Department of Communication




Studies at UNC–Chapel Hill—it would be hard to imagine a more stimulating and supportive environment in which to be a scholar and teacher.

The completion of this book was aided greatly by a one-semester Research and Study Assignment from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill during fall semester 2011. In addition, the Danish Otto Mønsteds Foundation provided a generous research grant that underwrote a 4-month appointment at Copenhagen Business School (CBS) during spring and summer 2011. My colleagues in the Department of Intercultural Communication and Management at CBS—especially Robyn Remke, Mikkel Flyverbom, Christina Frydensbjerg, Dan Kärreman, Esben Karmark, Eric Guthey, Hans Hansen, Linda Harrison, and Dorte Salskov-Iversen— provided a wonderfully supportive, collegial, and stimulating research environment in which to work. Tak for alt! Thanks especially to Mikkel for the loan of the bike! Majbritt Vendelbo was especially helpful with the logistics of moving to and living in a new country.

It will become clear as you read this book that I don’t spend a whole lot of time writing while shut up in an office somewhere. I prefer to be out in the world and engaged with people. Most of this book was written “in public,” as it were. The bucolic pleasures of Caffé Driade in Chapel Hill provided an ideal writing environment away from the hustle and bustle of campus, in addition to the best espresso drinks anywhere. Thanks to all its baristas and patrons for tolerating my hogging the corner table. In Copenhagen, The Living Room, Log Lady, and Paludan Books were similarly welcoming and accommodating.

Thanks also to Al, Bazza, and Pete (founding members of the Department of Philosophy and Popular Culture at Stoke Rochford University) for organizing annual summer symposia, and for reminding me that it’s alright to be out standing in the field, as long as you do some good mantlin’ around, god aye.

Finally, thanks to my family for their continued love and support, and for reminding me about life’s real priorities.





Developing a Critical Approach to Organizational Communication




© Can Stock Photo Inc./wacker

Humans are organizational animals; modern life is defined by organizations and corporations.








Introducing Organizational Communication

Perhaps at no other time in human history have organizations and communication been more central to our lives than they are now. We go to work, attend college and church, do volunteer work, join social groups, shop at numerous stores, internalize thousands of commercials from large corporations, and participate in social media. Human beings are communicating, organizing creatures, and we define ourselves largely through our various organizational memberships and communicative connections.

As simple as this assertion is, it hides a rather complex reality. The organizations that define who we are—and our relationship to them—have become increasingly complicated. Indeed, as systems of communication, we largely take for granted organizations and their role in our lives. We’re like the two young fish that one day pass an older fish. The older fish says to them, “Mornin’, boys. How’s the water?” After he has swum away, one young fish turns to the other and says, “What’s water?” Communication and organizations are both a bit like water—we navigate them without really paying much attention to how fundamental they are to our daily lives.

One purpose of this book, then, is to provide you with a map to navigate the water we all swim in and to figure out the complexities of organizational communication processes. In part, we will be exploring different theories and management perspectives and discussing their strengths and limitations, similarities and differences. But each perspective is more than just an abstract theory that has little to do with the “real world.” In many ways, each of them has profoundly shaped the organizational world in which all of us are deeply enmeshed. Indeed, I would suggest that each of these perspectives has, in different ways, shaped who we are as people—a grand claim, I know, but one we will unpack in detail as we move through this book.

In order to lay the groundwork for this claim I want first to identify a common theme that runs throughout these theories—a theme that bears directly on my claim and that will serve as a basic construct in our attempt to understand organizational communication processes. This is the theme of organizational control. As a starting point we can define organizational control as “the dynamic communication process through which organizational stakeholders (employees, managers, owners, shareholders, etc.) struggle to maximize their stake in an organization.” In this book, then, we will examine organizations as communicative structures of control. Let’s




explore this focus in more detail below.


In discussing the various theories that have emerged in the fields of management and organizational communication over the past 100 years or so, we will explore how, at its core, each theory is motivated by the problems associated with controlling large numbers of people in specific settings. Beginning in the late 19th century, as capitalism became the dominant economic system, the new corporate organization and its employees became a focal point of study for social scientists in various academic fields. For more than 100 years, researchers have developed various ways of explaining how people can be motivated to come together to perform specific tasks when, more often than not, they would rather be somewhere else doing something different. Such has been the centrality of this problem for social scientists that sociologist Charles Perrow (1986) has claimed, “The problems advanced by social scientists have been primarily the problems of human relations in an authoritarian setting” (p. 53).

This problem of “human relations” in organizations is a complex one, as we will see in the course of this book. One of the defining features of an organization is that it coordinates the behavior of its members so they can work collectively. But while coordination is a nice concept in theory, it is surprisingly difficult to achieve in practice. Particularly in for-profit organizations (where most people work), a number of factors work against the perfect coordination of a large number of people. One of the most important factors is the tensions between the goals, beliefs, and desires of individual organization members and those of the larger organization (see Table 1.1). Because these goals often conflict, they have to be resolved in some way. Telephone company executive Chester Barnard (1938) was among the first to recognize that the way this fundamental tension, or conflict, is usually resolved is by subordinating the goals and beliefs of individual organization members to those of the larger organization.

Table 1.1 Some Tensions Between Individual and Organizational Goals, Values, and Needs




In this context, the issue of control becomes central. All organizational and management theories address the individual–organization tension in some way. As such, all organizational theories implicitly pose the question, “How do we get organization members to engage in behavior that they may not spontaneously engage in and that may even be contrary to their best interests?” In other words, “How can we exercise control over employees and get them to function in a coordinated manner?” In many ways, the history of management thought is the history of efforts to develop more and more sophisticated answers to this question. One of the earliest social scientists to focus explicitly on the issue of organizational control was Arthur Tannenbaum (1968), who stated:

Organization implies control. A social organization is an ordered arrangement of individual human interactions. Control processes help circumscribe idiosyncratic behaviors and keep them conformant to the rational plan of organization. … The co-ordination and order created out of the diverse interests and potentially diffuse behaviors of members is largely a function of control. (p. 3)

However, organization members are not simply passive recipients of control mechanisms, blithely accepting each new form of control as it is implemented. On the contrary, the history of management thought is also a history of struggle, as employees have individually and collectively resisted management efforts to limit their autonomy in the workplace (Fleming & Spicer, 2007). In this sense, we will examine control as a dialectical process. That is, control is never a linear, cause- and-effect phenomenon (like one billiard ball hitting another) but is complex and ambiguous; organizational control mechanisms often produce creative employee responses that produce unintended outcomes for the organization. For example, corporate efforts to engineer organizational culture and instill certain values in employees are sometimes hijacked by employees for their own ends, or else employees create their own countercultures in the organization, rejecting the values communicated by management (e.g., Ezzamel, Willmott, & Worthington, 2001;




Smith & Eisenberg, 1987). Before we can examine these different organization theories through the lens of

control, however, we need to do two things. First, we need to develop a coherent and clear notion of what organizational communication means. Second, we must develop an overarching framework that allows us to compare the competing perspectives that make up the field of organizational communication. Such perspectives are not conjured out of thin air by scholars and practitioners but emerge out of particular and long-standing research traditions, each with its own agenda. As this book unfolds, we will see that all the research traditions in organizational communication are at least partially explicable in terms of the particular social, political, and economic conditions of the time in which they emerged.


One of the problems in defining the term organizational communication is that we are dealing with two phenomena—organization and communication—that are, individually, extremely complex. Placed in a dynamic relationship with each other, the level of complexity increases greatly. W. Charles Redding (1988)—widely regarded as the founder of the field of organizational communication—provides us with a useful starting point for defining organization. While acknowledging the difficulty of providing any universal definition, he argues that all complex organizations (i.e., social structures large enough to make face-to-face communication among all members impossible at all times) exhibit the following four essential features: (1) interdependence, (2) differentiation of tasks and functions, (3) goal orientation, and (4) control. Surprisingly, Redding does not include communication as a specific feature, so our fifth defining characteristic of complex organizations is communication processes. We will discuss each of these features in detail.


Organizations exhibit interdependence insofar as no member can function without affecting, and being affected by, other organization members. All complex organizations consist of intricate webs of interconnected communication activities, the integration of which determines the success or failure of the organization. Universities, for example, consist of complex webs of students, faculty, departments, schools, staff, and administrators, each group shaping and being shaped by all the others. While students may seem to be the group with the least agency (i.e., ability to influence others), they nevertheless heavily shape the




behavior of the other groups (e.g., by making courses popular or unpopular through enrollment), especially given their role as the primary “customers” of universities.

As organizations have become increasingly complex and global in the past 20 or 30 years, interdependence has become an even more significant and defining feature of organizational life. Many large organizations depend on a complicated array of subsidiaries, outsourcing processes, communication technologies, and leveraged financial structures in order to flourish. Any change in one aspect of this complex system of interdependence can create changes in the entire system. As we saw in 2008, the collapse of several financial institutions had a profound effect not only on the employees of those institutions but on almost everyone in the world, as the global economy went into recession as a result of these failures. The concept of interdependence will be explored in more detail in Chapter 5 on systems theory.

Differentiation of Tasks and Functions

All organizations, however large or small, operate according to the principle of division of labor, in which members specialize in particular tasks and the organization as a whole is divided into various departments. As the 18th century economist Adam Smith illustrated through his description of pin manufacture, many more pins can be produced when the manufacturing process is divided into many specialized tasks than if all the tasks are performed by a single individual (Smith, 1776/1937). This feature of organizations truly came into its own in the late 19th and early 20th centuries with the introduction of scientific management principles into most large organizations (Taylor, 1911/1934)—a perspective we will examine in detail in Chapter 3. While the emergence of the “postbureaucratic” organization (see Chapter 8) and job enrichment has somewhat modified this principle, it is still as applicable to today’s organizations as it was 200 years ago and remains a basic feature of modern capitalism. Anyone who has worked on a production line or in a fast-food restaurant (e.g., Subway, Taco Bell, McDonald’s, etc.) will be well aware of this principle.





The control of employees has been a focus of management research for more than 100 years.

Goal Orientation

Organizations, whether nonprofit or for profit, are oriented toward particular goals. Indeed, one could argue that the goals of an organization are what provide it with its particular character, coalescing its members into something more than a random group of individuals. Barnard (1938) makes this goal orientation explicit in his definition of an organization: “An organization comes into being when (1) there are persons able to communicate with each other (2) who are willing to contribute to action (3) to accomplish a common purpose” (p. 82). Universities have education and research as their overarching goals; for-profit companies aim for excellence in their products and, thus, a large market share.

Of course, organizations often have multiple and competing goals, making Barnard’s idea of a “common purpose” a complex one. Within a large software company, for example, there may be conflict between the respective goals of the research and development (R&D) and marketing departments. The former might want to spend extra months perfecting a new software program, while the latter might be more interested in getting it to customers quickly and working the bugs out in later versions.

Sometimes company goals can conflict with those of other interest groups, such as community members, employees, or shareholders. In its goal to increase profits,




a company might pollute the environment, lay off workers, overlook safety regulations (think BP and deep sea oil drilling) or move its production facilities to countries where labor is cheaper. In recent years shareholder groups have increased their power in publicly traded organizations; in consequence, the “quarterly report” has become a key marker of corporate success, with significant pressure on organizations to produce quick results. In her study of Wall Street investment banking, anthropologist Karen Ho (2009) shows how increased shareholder power has caused many corporations to move away from long-term planning and toward short-term returns on investment—a shift that has had negative consequences for the stability of the economy.

Control Mechanisms

Control is a central, defining feature of complex organizations. As we discussed earlier, the goals and interests of employees and the larger organization frequently conflict, and so various forms of control are necessary to achieve coordinated, goal-oriented behavior. Organizational control is not, by definition, problematic; however, it can often have negative consequences for employees, as we will see below and in later chapters. While Redding presents two forms of control (hierarchy of authority and rules, plans, and roles), I will outline five different control mechanisms that function in the contemporary organization.

Direct Control

The simplest way to control employees is to direct them in explicit ways and then monitor their behavior to make sure they are performing adequately. As such, many organizations function through superior–subordinate relations, where the former has the authority to coerce the latter into working in specific ways. Since the beginning of the industrial revolution, supervisors have been employed to make sure that workers diligently perform their tasks rather than take long breaks or talk to coworkers. As we will see in Chapter 3, in the early stages of industrialization such coercive forms of control were deployed to direct workers who were not used to working in factory settings where “clock time” ruled.

Such close supervision, however, is hardly a relic of 19th and early 20th century factories. Many of you have probably had jobs where your work was closely monitored by a supervisor. In their cleverly titled book, Void Where Prohibited, Linder and Nygaard (1998) document restrictions on factory workers’ rest and toilet breaks, arguing that such restrictions are more widespread now than they were in the early 20th century. The authors even document cases of workers wearing adult diapers on the production line because of the company’s tight




restrictions on toilet breaks! In one high-profile case, the Jim Beam company was cited for violating Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations, when in 2001 the company implemented a policy severely restricting the time and frequency of employee toilet breaks. Direct supervisory control of workers, then, is still very much a feature of the modern organization.

Technological Control

A somewhat less direct form of control is exercised on employees through various kinds of organizational technology (Edwards, 1979). Such technology usually controls both the kinds of work people do and the speed at which they work. Henry Ford’s introduction of the moving production line in automobile manufacturing in 1913 is the classic example of such control. From a management perspective, this form of control has the dual benefit of being able to dictate the workers’ rate of production and also confining the worker to a particular location (thus limiting the worker’s ability to socialize with other workers).

As our economy has shifted from heavy production to a service economy, the forms of technological control have changed. The fast-food industry is a good example of a modern form of technological control, where computer technology carefully regulates (down to the second) every task performed by the employee. At McDonald’s, for example, even the dispensing of soda is controlled to make sure exactly the right quantity is released into the cup—the employee has no room at all to exercise discretion (Ritzer, 2000).

In our increasingly service-oriented economy, customers, too, are subject to technological control. In fast-food restaurants, hard seats encourage customers to “eat and run,” and menu items are placed in highly visible locations so the customers are ready to deliver their orders as soon as they arrive at the head of the line (Leidner, 1993). In addition, customers are “trained” to line up to place orders and to bus their own trays in order to increase efficiency and productivity. Airport check-in is now mostly self-service, with customers doing the work that used to be done by airline employees—a significant cost savings for the airlines. And many companies (e.g., AT&T and Comcast) are now using online customer discussion forums that enable customers to solve technical problems for each other, thus significantly reducing customer service expenses (Manjoo, 2011).





Thinkstock Images/Comstock/Thinkstock

Technological forms of control often shift work from employees to customers as a way to increase efficiency and profitability.

Finally, technological control in the form of electronic surveillance is widespread in organizations. With such technology, employees can never be certain when they are being monitored and thus are forced to behave at all times as if they are under surveillance. The philosopher Michel Foucault (1979) has referred to this form of control as panopticism, after the Panopticon—a prison designed by the 19th century utilitarian thinker Jeremy Bentham. Bentham’s prison was designed in a circular fashion so a guard in the central watchtower could observe all the prisoners without being visible himself. As such, the prisoners engaged in a form of self-policing. People working in telemarketing, for example, are subject to such surveillance by an invisible supervisor who can eavesdrop on their calls. Similarly, employees doing data-entry jobs often have their keystrokes counted, allowing employers to collect data on their productivity remotely. (See Critical Technologies 1.1 for more on communication technology.)

Critical Technologies 1.1 Defining Communication Technology

In each chapter of this book you will find a text box such as this one that highlights the critical role of communication technologies in organizational life. What is a communication technology (CT)? We will use a broad conception, defining it as anything that mediates and alters the user’s




relationship to the world. In this sense, CT is not just a tool for the transmission of information but actually shapes our experiences and sense of reality. Put another way, CTs embody a certain kind of human subjectivity and extend our relationship to the world through that subjectivity. In this book, then, we will use a social constructionist, meaning-centered approach to CT, examining the dynamic relationships among CTs, human identities, and organizational communication processes.

While we think of CT as generally being electronic, it is not necessarily so. For example, glasses are a form of CT, altering an individual’s relation to the world by enabling him or her to see objects and people not otherwise visible. The invention of the microscope brought a whole new world into view that was not previously known to exist. Thus, both glasses and microscopes are early examples of technologies that change and extend our subjectivities, altering our relationship to the world and, indeed, the world itself.

One’s view of CT depends in part on the perspective one adopts. A functionalist might focus on ways a particular CT can increase organizational efficiency. A critical approach to CT would highlight the ways in which technologies shape organizational power relations. Finally, a feminist perspective might examine how a particular CT has a “gendered” effect on organizational communication processes. For example, critical scholars have studied the use of CT in computerized call centers, examining the dynamic relationship between managerial efforts to control workers through strict routines and employee efforts to resist such control efforts and exercise more workplace freedom (e.g., Taylor & Bain, 2003). A functionalist, or management-oriented approach, on the other hand, would likely focus on how such technology can increase the efficiency of call processing and reduce the “downtime” employees experience.

In future chapters we will use these text boxes to critically examine the various ways in which particular CTs have had a significant impact on organizational life.

Bureaucratic Control

Despite a shift away from bureaucratic organizational forms toward more flexible, less formal structures, bureaucratic control is still common in many organizations (Edwards, 1979). As we will see in Chapter 3, the bureaucratic form is a central— perhaps defining—feature of Western democratic societies, enabling organization members to gain advancement on merit rather than based on one’s connections. As a form of control, organizational bureaucracy exists as a system of rules, formal




structures, and roles that both enable and constrain the activities of organization members. Concerns about bureaucratic “red tape” aside, bureaucracy can be a highly effective means of coordinating and controlling organizational activity (Du Gay, 2000; Perrow, 1986). For example, the smooth running of your day on campus as you move from class to class would be impossible without an efficient bureaucratic system that carefully coordinates the schedule—timed to the minute— of every single student and faculty member. In this sense, organizational life is unimaginable without at least some level of bureaucracy.

Ideological Control

Ideological control refers to the development of a system of values and beliefs with which employees are expected to identify strongly. From a management perspective, the beauty of ideological control is that it requires little direct supervision of employees. Instead, if employees have been appropriately socialized into the organization’s system of beliefs and values, then they should have internalized a taken-for-granted understanding of what it means to work in the best interests of the organization.

In many respects, the “corporate-culture” movement that first emerged in the 1980s (see Chapter 6) represents an attempt by companies to exert ideological control over employees (Peters & Waterman, 1982). Companies often carefully vet potential employees to make sure they “fit” the culture, and then make explicit and carefully calibrated efforts to indoctrinate new employees through training programs such as “culture boot camp.” For example, Disney employees are put through an intensive training program where they learn how to maintain the seamless fantasy that is the hallmark of Disney theme parks. Disney keeps a tight rein on its corporate culture; indeed, the Disney employee handbook even dictates the appropriate length and style of sideburns! Similarly, companies such as IBM, Whole Foods, and Southwest Airlines are recognized for their distinctive cultures. The success of Southwest as a low-cost airline has been attributed in no small part to management’s cultivation of a culture of fun amongst employees at all levels (Freiberg & Freiberg, 1996).

While this form of control can be an effective means of creating an engaged, energized workforce, it can also be quite oppressive to many organization members, particularly as it often asks the employee to invest his or her very identity, or sense of self, in the company. However, it is a form of oppression that is often disguised as something else—for example, being a “team” or “family” member. Employees who don’t fit with the culture may feel alienated from their work. Management scholar John Van Maanen’s (1991) account of his experience working at Disneyland is a great example of someone who resists the ideological control to which he is subjected—and loses his job as a result!




Disciplinary Control

Disciplinary control has emerged relatively recently as organizations have shifted from hierarchical, bureaucratic structures to flatter, decentralized systems of decision making. While ideological control is still, in many respects, top-down— with management attempting to impose a particular culture and value system on employees—disciplinary control is distinguished as a “bottom-up” form of control that focuses on employees’ own production of a particular sense of self and work identity.

Disciplinary control has emerged as the relationship between organizations and employees has shifted away from the post-World War II social contract of stable, lifetime employment and toward “free agency” and a climate of much greater instability in the job market. This instability is reflected not only in people’s high mobility in the job market but also in the fact that “the self” (the identity of each employee) has become a project each individual must constantly work on. Because the project of the self is never finished and must be continuously monitored and improved (in order to meet an ever more competitive work environment), people live in a perpetual state of anxiety about the value of their individual “brand.” Thus, individuals constantly engage in forms of self- discipline in which the creation and continual improvement of an “entrepreneurial self” is the goal (Holmer Nadesan & Trethewey, 2000).

Think, for example, about your own day-to-day lives as college students. With adjustment for your own particular college context, I imagine that many of you have schedules similar to the ones reported by journalist David Brooks (2001) in an article called “The Organization Kid,” in which he interviewed students at Princeton University: “crew practice at dawn, classes in the morning, resident- adviser duty, lunch, study groups, classes in the afternoon, tutoring disadvantaged kids in Trenton, a cappella practice, dinner, study, science lab, prayer session, hit the StairMaster, study a few hours more.” Brooks indicates that some students even make appointments to meet with friends, lest they lose touch. Does this kind of daily schedule sound familiar to you?

Brooks’s point is that students willingly (and happily) pursue these punishing schedules because they see it as necessary for the continual process of career advancement; they are basically spending 4 years as professional, goal-oriented students whose goal is continuous self-improvement. I suspect that a high percentage of you are engaged in precisely this kind of self-disciplinary activity in an effort to distinguish yourselves from one another and make yourselves marketable to potential employers.

In disciplinary forms of control, then, the individual is both the subject (autonomously making his or her own decisions and choice of goals) and object (the target of both self-discipline and corporate and other institutional efforts to




shape identity) of knowledge. That is, control is exercised through “the constitution of the very person who makes decisions” (Fleming & Spicer, 2007, p. 23). Following the work of French philosopher Michel Foucault (1979, 1980b), control (or power, as he calls it) does not limit people’s options or oppress them but, rather, creates the very conditions of possibility in which we act. We see ourselves, for example, as career-oriented, not because humans are “naturally” predisposed to having careers (after all, the idea of a “career” is a pretty recent historical phenomenon) but because there are numerous societal discourses, bodies of knowledge, and experts (who create bodies of knowledge) that construct us as career-oriented (think about the shelves full of books giving “expert” advice on career success at any bookstore, all of which claim to have the answer). As such, we become our own entrepreneurial project in which “career” is a defining construct around which life decisions are made.

To understand these five forms of control, it is important to keep three points in mind. First, many organizations use multiple forms of control. For example, an employee might be subject to direct control and bureaucratic control, and be heavily indoctrinated into the company’s ideology. Furthermore, while analytically distinct, these forms of control overlap in practice in the workplace—technological control in the form of employee surveillance, for example, may result in employees engaging in forms of self-discipline that render the technology unnecessary.

Second, these forms of control operate with decreasing levels of direct coercion and increasing levels of participation by employees in their own control (control by active consent, if you will). Thus, direct control is the most coercive (telling someone exactly what to do), while disciplinary control is the least coercive (autonomous employee behavior and decision making). However, the development of less explicit and coercive forms of control does not mean that control is no longer an important issue in daily organizational life. Indeed, the development of more sophisticated forms of control suggests a greater need to understand the everyday dynamics of such control and its impact on the lives of organization members (i.e., you and me).

Third, the increasingly sophisticated forms of organizational control require a similarly sophisticated understanding of the role of communication in these control processes. Direct control relies on a simple understanding of how communication works (a message is transmitted from A [supervisor] to B [employee], instructing him or her how to behave), while ideological and disciplinary forms of control depend on a view of communication as complex and central to the construction of employee identities and organizational meaning systems—issues that figure prominently in this book. To get a better sense of this, let’s now turn to a brief discussion of communication and its relation to organization.




Communication Processes

Clearly, communication is an important and defining feature of organizations. The fact that this book is called Organizational Communication strongly suggests that the terms organization and communication are closely linked. Indeed, the position we will take in this book is that communication constitutes organization—an idea referred to by some organizational communication scholars as the “CCO” approach to organizations (Ashcraft, Kuhn, & Cooren, 2009; Cooren, 2000; Putnam & Nicotera, 2008). Put simply, this means that communication activities are the basic, defining “stuff” of organizational life. Without communication, organizations cease to exist as meaningful human collectives. In this sense, organizations are not simply physical containers within which people communicate; rather, organizations exist because people communicate, creating the complex systems of meaning that we call “organizations.”

Similarly, the communication activities of organization members are both made possible and constrained by the institutionalized rules and structures that organizations develop over time (Giddens, 1979). A useful way of thinking about organizations is to view them as complex patterns of communication habits. Just as individuals develop habitual, routine behaviors that enable them to negotiate daily life, so large groups of people develop patterns of communication behavior that enable coordination and collective, goal-oriented activity. A meeting, for example, is a communication phenomenon that is meaningful precisely because it is structured around rules for what counts as a meeting (and which differentiate it from a casual hallway conversation).

Although there are multiple definitions and conceptions of communication, in this book we will adopt a “meaning-centered” perspective, viewing communication as the basic, constitutive process through which people come to experience and make sense of the world in which they live. In other words, communication does not just describe an already existing reality but actually creates people’s social reality. For example, organization members who talk about themselves as a “family” create a quite different social reality from that of an organization where a “machine” metaphor is dominant and organization members see themselves simply as cogs in that machine (Smith & Eisenberg, 1987).

From such a perspective, we can define communication as follows: the dynamic, ongoing process of creating and negotiating meanings through interactional symbolic (verbal and nonverbal) practices, including conversation, metaphors, rituals, stories, dress, and space. As we will see in later chapters, this definition is not accepted by all theories of organizational communication. However, it provides a useful benchmark against which we can examine and critique other perspectives.

Following from the above definition of communication, we can define




organizational communication in the following way: the process of creating and negotiating collective, coordinated systems of meaning through symbolic practices oriented toward the achievement of organizational goals. Again, this definition attempts to capture the dynamic relationship between communication and organization, showing how each produces, and is produced by, the other. While the exact nature of this relationship may be a little fuzzy at the moment, we will continue to return to it throughout the book.

Having identified the main features of the phenomenon that is the subject of this book, we now need to develop a framework from which to examine the various approaches to organizational communication. In the next section of this chapter we will develop this framework in some detail.


In order to be able to compare different perspectives on organizational communication, we will develop a metatheoretical framework—in other words, a “theory about theories”—that allows us to examine the underlying assumptions on which different theories are based. For example, what assumptions does a particular theory make about how we come to know things (epistemological assumptions)? What assumptions does a theory make about the nature of reality (ontological assumptions)? What assumptions about communication does a particular theory make? Scholars have developed a number of frameworks, each of which has utility in providing a coherent picture of the connections and differences amongst the various research traditions (Burrell & Morgan, 1979; Deetz, 2001; Krone, 2005).

However, the central organizing principle of my framework is the notion that we are living in an age characterized by a “crisis of representation” (Jameson, 1984). This phrase can be understood at two levels. First, the idea of “representation” refers to knowledge claims that researchers in various disciplines make about the world. In this context, the term has an epistemological dimension (that is, how we come to know things), reflecting some scholars’ belief in the possibility of making knowledge claims that accurately reflect, or represent, an objectively existing world. Such a view of knowledge is dominant in the social sciences. The notion of a “crisis” thus reflects the recent emergence of challenges to this dominant model. In the past 30 years or so, multiple and competing ways of knowing have arisen, with each one setting out alternatives to the representational model.

Second, the notion of “representation” can be understood to refer to the issue of “voice.” That is, which groups in our society have the opportunity and resources to




speak and to represent their own interests and the interests of other groups? This issue has become increasingly complex as society has become more diverse. In the 1950s life was apparently much simpler. Shows such as Leave It to Beaver and Father Knows Best portrayed a homogeneous national culture with clearly defined values and social roles. In this vision, divorce was almost unheard of, everyone lived in the suburbs, and dad was the all-knowing authority figure who could solve any problem and who had a steady office job that supported the whole family. Mom, of course, was the nurturing housewife who was ready with pipe, slippers, and a home-cooked meal when dad came home from work.

Not only did such a life really exist only in its “ideal” form on TV, but its existence also was rooted in fundamental inequalities. The 1950s was a time of national stability and prosperity for a fairly small segment of the U.S. population— basically, white males. Simply by virtue of their race and/or gender, large segments of the population were denied any voice or even basic human rights such as employment and educational opportunities. The civil rights and feminist movements not only created opportunities for previously disenfranchised groups but also helped shape a worldview in which issues of identity and difference became central. Thus, with the emergence of challenges to a single (white, male) vision of society, various groups began to voice their own visions of the social order that fundamentally rewrote previously accepted premises about what is good, right, and possible. For example, gay rights organizations have challenged dominant definitions of “family,” and the feminist movement has helped change long-held beliefs about women’s roles in society.

Clearly, the two conceptions of “representation” discussed here are related. As the issue of “voice” has become more complex in the 21st century, so, too, have epistemological issues regarding what counts as acceptable knowledge claims. Where the scientific method once reigned supreme as the tried and tested way to generate universal knowledge, we now have competing perspectives and theories that aim to capture the richness and complexity of human social activity in ways the scientific method cannot.

How does this discussion of the “crisis of representation” relate to my attempt to lay out a useful framework for understanding theories of organizational communication? One way of thinking about the competing worldviews in the social sciences is to see them as presenting increasingly complex challenges to the representational model of knowledge discussed above. Below, I discuss five such worldviews. Each represents a progressive deepening of the “crisis of representation” in the social sciences generally and, more important for us, in the field of organizational communication.

For our purposes I will call these perspectives discourses. This term captures the idea that any worldview is made up of a community of scholars who communicate with one another about their research and debate the strengths and




weaknesses of the theories they develop. The French philosopher Michel Foucault (1972, 1980b) uses the term discourse to describe a system of possibilities for the creation of knowledge. That is, what are the rules of a particular discourse that regulate what counts as a legitimate knowledge claim?

The five discourses I discuss are the following:

1. Functionalism: a discourse of representation 2. Interpretivism: a discourse of understanding 3. Critical theory: a discourse of suspicion 4. Postmodernism: a discourse of vulnerability 5. Feminism: a discourse of empowerment

Each of these discourses takes a particular relationship to what is called the modernist tradition. Broadly speaking, modernism refers to both a historical epoch and a way of thinking in which science, rationality, and progress are the dominant themes. Inspired by Enlightenment thought as represented in philosopher Immanuel Kant’s Latin injunction, “Sapere Aude” (“Dare to Know”), modernism is a period in which myth and superstition give way to the idea that each individual, through rational thought, can come to understand the world.

Science represents the pinnacle of modernism in its development of human rational faculties, leading to emancipation from the constraints of the natural world. In the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution and the emergence of the human sciences (sociology, psychology, etc.) are seen as further evidence of the positive effects of modernism on the human condition. Indeed, modernist principles are at the root of Western-style democratic principles. For example, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “Declaration of the Rights of Man” (which helped inspire the French Revolution in 1792) embodies the notion that each individual has the right to liberty, regardless of his or her station in life. Such a concept was unthinkable in premodern societies, where authority rested with priests and kings by virtue of their God-given right to rule, and everyone was born into a social status that they occupied “naturally” for their entire lives.

Modernism, then, fundamentally altered humans’ relationship to the world. Some scholars even argue that modernism is where the very notion of the individual as a rational, thinking being came into existence (e.g., Foucault, 1973). Moreover, the organization as an institutional form is very much a product of modernism; the organization as a bureaucratic structure was the mechanism that helped institutionalize modernist ways of thinking and enabled industrial capitalism to flourish.

Below, I discuss each discourse in greater detail, identifying the model of communication embodied in each.




Functionalism: The Discourse of Representation

This discourse embodies the basic modernist principles in the most straightforward, unproblematic way. The practitioners of this discourse believe that progress and emancipation can best be achieved through a process of discovery, in which the application of scientific principles gradually and progressively illuminates the world for us. This is the dominant discourse in the social sciences today, in which the researcher conducts carefully controlled experiments in order to make causal claims about human behavior. In literature, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s character Sherlock Holmes is the perfect embodiment of these principles, employing his powers of observation and deduction to solve crimes. The Sherlock Holmes stories were written in the late 19th century, precisely at the time when the idea of Science as the way to Truth and a Better Life was taking a strong hold on society.

In organizational communication, much of the research over the past several decades has been dominated by this discourse. Certainly, early management theories such as scientific management, bureaucracy, and human relations theory were built on the principles of functionalism. In addition, much contemporary research into topic areas such as leadership (Barrett, 2011; Eagly & Johannesen- Schmidt, 2001; Yukl, 2006), superior–subordinate communication, organizational socialization (Jablin, 2001), and communication technology draws on this discourse. The goal in such research is to make predictive and generalizable claims about human behavior in organizations. For example, in her research on the relationship between gender and leadership, psychologist Alice Eagly is concerned with trying to measure quantitatively, and make generalizable claims about, the differences and similarities between male and female leaders in organizations.

What assumptions about communication are embedded in this discourse? True to the discourse of representation, communication is conceived as the means by which internal ideas are externalized. In this sense, communication is a vehicle, or conduit, through which thoughts and knowledge about the world can be expressed and shared. Thus, communication about the world and the world itself are two separate entities.

These assumptions are best exemplified by Shannon and Weaver’s (1949) widely cited mathematical model of communication. As researchers for Bell Telephone Laboratories, Shannon and Weaver were interested in developing highly efficient systems for transmitting information from senders to receivers. As they state, “The fundamental problem of communication is that of reproducing at one point either exactly or approximately a message selected at another point” (p. 3). But because Shannon and Weaver were engineers, they defined communication largely as an engineering problem, having to do with the relationship amongst such issues as information, noise, channel capacity, and redundancy. Thus, although their




model does not do a good job of representing actual face-to-face social interaction, it was for a long time dominant in various areas of communication research. Even today, although frequently criticized by scholars (e.g., Smith, 1970), it still dominates everyday understandings of how communication works.

Management scholar Stephen Axley (1984) has effectively illustrated some of the assumptions of this conduit model, along with its negative consequences for organizational communication processes (see Critical Case Study 1.1). For example, the conduit model ignores significant communication issues such as (1) the potential ambiguity of meaning in all communication acts, (2) the communication by speakers of unintentional meanings, (3) the role of receivers creating the meaning of any communication act, and (4) the need for redundancy in making sure messages are understood by others. In fact, Axley makes a strong case that the conduit metaphor lulls us into the belief that communication is a fairly easy and unproblematic activity that requires little effort. This “success-without-effort” orientation can have severe repercussions in organizations, where the degree of complexity of structures and meaning systems makes good communication a priority. When communication is conceived as relatively effortless and simple, then it is frequently overlooked as the cause of organizational problems. Or, when managers do identify “communication problems” in organizations, they frequently apply overly simplistic solutions that overlook the complexity of the communication process.

Interpretivism: The Discourse of Understanding

The interpretive discourse provides an alternative to the representational discourse of functionalism. While interpretivism has had an impact on organizational communication research only in the past 30 years, its roots are much older. Sometimes referred to as social constructionism, this perspective sees a direct relationship between communication processes and who we are as human beings. In other words, rather than viewing communication simply as a conduit, or vehicle, for expressing already formed ideas about an objective world, interpretivism sees communication as actually constituting that world. An example of this interpretive perspective is the CCO (communication constitutes organization) theory of communication mentioned earlier in the chapter.

Critical Case Study 1.1 A Conduit Model of Education

In a very real sense, how we think about communication has consequences




for how we behave and communicate with others. Stephen Axley (1984) illustrates this powerfully in an argument regarding the dominance of the “conduit metaphor” in organizations. Following linguist Michael Reddy, Axley suggests that everyday talk about communication is dominated by an information transmission model that operates according to four implicit assumptions: (1) Language transfers thoughts and feelings between people, (2) speakers and writers insert thoughts and feelings into words, (3) words contain those thoughts and feelings, and (4) listeners and readers extract those thoughts and feelings from the words (p. 429). This model is implicit in everyday expressions such as, “He couldn’t get his ideas across” and “She tried hard to put her thoughts into words.” Let’s look at the consequences of this model for the education process.

In U.S. colleges and universities, there is an increasing tendency toward large classes with enrollments of 400 to 500 students. The educational principles embedded in this tendency operate according to a conduit, transmission model of communication. Large class sizes mean that any interaction between professor and students is highly limited, with the dominant discourse being a monologue by the professor. In keeping with this monologue, students view themselves as the passive recipients of information transmitted by the professor. Knowledge consists of information inserted into words and transmitted from the professor’s mouth to the students’ brains, with lecture notes operating as the repository of such information. Professors try to ensure effective transmission of information by introducing redundancy into the system via the use of PowerPoint, repeating main issues, creating podcasts, putting lectures on iTunes, and so forth.

But the conduit model completely undermines any conception of education as an active and dynamic process in which students and professors engage in dialogues about interpretive possibilities. With pedagogy reduced to the transmission of hard, nonnegotiable facts, we are unable to recognize the extent to which knowledge production is actually a highly contested, contingent, and ever-changing process. The unhappy result is that by the time students do finally get to participate in classes of 20 or 30 (usually in their senior years) they have become little more than efficient note takers. They simply want to know what the Truth (at least in test-taking terms) is so they can write it down. Many students have thus developed a “trained incapacity” in which they apply a monologic model to a dialogic context.

Moreover, one might argue that the dialogic model is inefficient and unproductive in a context where students have become professional self- entrepreneurs who view education as a means to improving their personal “brand equity.” The knowledge acquired in courses is useful only if translated into a stellar GPA and well-rounded transcript.




Discussion Questions

1. In groups or individually, develop a definition of communication. In what sense is it similar to or different from the conduit model of communication?

2. To what extent has your experience of college education been similar to the one described here? How has it been different?

3. If you were to create the ideal educational environment, what would it look like? Identify some principles of organizational communication discussed in this chapter that might help you formulate this ideal.

4. Which of the knowledge discourses discussed in this chapter is helpful in informing your understanding of how the educational process operates?

5. Do you agree or disagree with the view of today’s students as discussed under “disciplinary control”? Why or why not? How would you describe your own student identity?

As you can perhaps see, this alternative perspective complicates the dominant representational model of human behavior. If communication constitutes human identity and reality, then we can no longer easily separate self, other, and world on the one hand and communicating about those things on the other hand. Suddenly, the representational model of knowledge is not quite as unproblematic as it at first appeared to be. No longer is there an objective Truth “out there” waiting to be discovered. Instead, human beings create realities as they interact together. Thus, the belief in predictive, generalizable models of human behavior gives way to a concern with generating deep understandings of the ways in which humans create complex systems of meaning. The philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer (1989) encapsulates this view of language and communication when he states, “Language is not just one of man’s possessions in the world; rather, on it depends the fact that man has a world at all” (p. 443).

The interpretive discourse, then, claims a close connection between communication and social reality—a view that has had a profound influence on the field of organizational communication over the past 30 years. Most significantly, there has been a shift from viewing communication as something that occurs within organizations to seeing communication as a dynamic process that actually creates organizations (Putnam & Pacanowsky, 1983). This is best illustrated in the emergence of a body of research referred to as “organizational culture” studies. We will be devoting Chapter 6 to this research, but it is worth briefly mentioning here to demonstrate the influence of the interpretive perspective.

The study of organizations as “cultures” has focused heavily on the everyday




behavior of organization members, showing how their ordinary communicative practices are the basic “stuff” of what organizations are. In other words, such mundane communication events are seen as constituting organizations. Thus, researchers study phenomena such as stories (Boudens, 2005; Humphreys & Brown, 2002; Phillips, 1995; Trujillo & Dionisopoulos, 1987), rituals (Trice & Beyer, 1984), metaphors (Smith & Eisenberg, 1987; Tracy, Lutgen-Sandvik, & Alberts, 2006), and workplace humor (Lynch, 2002; Rhodes & Westwood, 2007). In each case, these communication activities are seen as fundamental to how organization members collectively shape their social reality. Furthermore, researchers in this tradition tend to reject quantitative methods in favor of qualitative forms of research, including oral interviews and participant-observation studies (where the researcher becomes a member of the organization being studied). Here, the goal is to allow organization members’ own understanding of organizational life to come to the fore, rather than imposing predetermined categories on members’ attitudes and behaviors.

In a study of Disneyland, for example, Ruth Smith and Eric Eisenberg (1987) use oral interviews to show how managers and employees use competing metaphors to characterize their understanding of Disneyland as a place to work. The authors argue that the competing metaphors of Disneyland as a “drama” (held by managers) and as a “family” (held by employees) lie at the root of an industrial dispute that threatens to tear apart the carefully cultivated image of Disneyland as “the happiest place on earth.” One of the most interesting features of this study is that it shows how these metaphors are not just ways of talking about life at Disneyland (a representational view) but are fundamental to the shaping of employee identity and experience (an interpretive view). Thus, employees do not just talk about Disneyland as a family organization but actually experience it through this symbolic structure.

From the interpretive perspective, then, the real world is a symbolic world, and those symbols allow us to live a meaningful, coherent existence. Indeed, many interpretivists would argue that the symbolic world is the only world we can possibly know—we have no direct access to the world around us, which is always mediated by language, symbols, and communicative practices. Similarly, organizations are viewed not as structured containers within which communication (as information transfer) occurs but, rather, as communication phenomena that come into being through the everyday communication practices of their members.

Critical Theory: The Discourse of Suspicion

Like the interpretive approach, the critical perspective views reality as a product of the collective communication practices of social actors. Where it differs,




however, is in its focus on the role of power, or control, in the process of reality construction. Critical theorists believe that different social groups have different levels of access to symbolic and communication resources; thus, the way reality gets constructed reflects the ability of powerful groups to shape this process. The notion of critical theory as a “discourse of suspicion” therefore focuses on the idea that the exercise of power is often hidden. That is, power is not always exercised coercively by the more powerful on the less powerful but, instead, works in subtle ways to shape the way in which people think about and experience the world.

Critical organizational communication researchers are interested in the ways that communication and power intersect in complex ways (Mumby, 1988). Building on the interpretive view that sees organizations as constituted through communication, critical scholars argue that the process of organizational meaning construction cannot be understood without examining organizations as political structures where power plays a central role. Different interest groups vie to shape the organizational meanings that constitute reality for members; management, for example, might attempt to engineer a certain organizational culture they expect employees to internalize, while employees may actively work to resist that culture (e.g., by making jokes about it or ironically following its principles) because they see it as an effort to manipulate them into working harder (Kunda, 1992). Critical researchers thus ask themselves how certain meaning systems are created through the communication and symbolic practices of organization members and how these meanings, in turn, sustain or resist certain organizational power relations (Deetz & Mumby, 1990).

For example, in my own research on a story told at IBM about a confrontation between a female security guard and Tom Watson, the CEO, I show how this story —while on the surface appearing to celebrate the ability of a low-level employee to “put one over” on the top guy—actually reinforces the strong sense of hierarchy and importance of rule following at IBM (Mumby, 1987). The story creates a social reality for organization members that subtly reinforces what is appropriate and inappropriate behavior. In a similar vein, critical management scholar Michael Rosen (1985, 1988) has studied corporate rituals to show how carefully orchestrated events such as company Christmas parties and corporate breakfasts can function to subtly reassert the worldview of the management élite in the organization.

Placed in the larger context of the modernist project, the critical perspective recognizes that the ideas of progress and emancipation that are so central to the Enlightenment actually represent a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the past 150 years have featured immense progress in science and technology, leading to longer and qualitatively better lives for people. On the other hand, this same progress has resulted in increasingly sophisticated forms of control that subtly exploit people for profit. To use organizational communication scholar Stan Deetz’s




(1992a) phrase, we live in an age of “corporate colonization” where our identities are heavily shaped by the corporate world. In this sense, the critical perspective aims to critique the voice of “managerialism” that dominates the field of management, and tries to give voice to those in organization who have relatively little power.

Postmodernism: The Discourse of Vulnerability

As an approach to knowledge, postmodernism poses the biggest challenge to the representational discourse. Of all the perspectives we have discussed so far, postmodernism is the one that questions most vigorously our common-sense understandings about what we know, and how we know what we know. In this sense, our common-sense view of the world is “vulnerable” to multiple alternative perspectives.

To understand what some scholars have referred to as “the postmodern condition” (Lyotard, 1984), we need to distinguish between two different but related terms. First, postmodernity is generally taken to refer to a specific historical period that, as the term suggests, comes after modernity. Precisely when the postmodern era began is open to wide interpretation (some scholars argue that it has yet to begin, that we are still in the modernist era). Some place its roots in the late 19th century with the writings of Nietzsche and his announcement of the “death of God” (i.e., the death of any universal, objective truth and the rise of multiple perspectives on the world). Others regard postmodernity as a much more recent phenomenon.

Architect Charles Jencks, for example, places the postmodern era’s symbolic birth at 3:33 p.m. on July 18, 1973—the moment when the Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St. Louis was demolished (Harvey, 1989). Why does this particular moment signal the birth of postmodernity? Jencks argues that the demolition of this housing project symbolically represents the failure of the main hallmark of modernity—the application of rational principles to human, social problems. Certainly, building huge, identical towering structures to provide cheap, low- income housing seemed on the face of it to be a sensible solution to the problem of urban growth. It also satisfied the modernist concern for certainty and control by creating predictable, homogeneous environments. However, the designers of such projects failed to recognize the extent to which such “rational” structures would be deeply alienating to people. With little or no sense of community, these structures functioned more like prisons than homes. There is no better example of the darker side of modernity than this attempt by planners and bureaucrats to develop, in the name of efficiency, an organizational system that almost completely eliminated from people’s lives what makes us most human.




The second term associated with the postmodern condition is postmodernism. This term refers not to a particular historical period but to a particular way of thinking about the world. Postmodernism is closely associated with an intellectual movement that originated in the 1960s with a group of French scholars—most notably, Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida. Amongst other things, this movement questions some of the most deeply held principles of modernism. Most significantly, postmodernism challenges and rejects the modernist belief that rationality and science inevitably lead to progress and emancipation. Indeed, many postmodernists argue that it is precisely this unwavering and unquestioning belief in the scientific method and rational principles of investigation that has contributed to human suffering. The Pruitt-Igoe housing project discussed previously is such an instance of modernist principles being the problem rather than the solution.


Modern principles of rationality do not always lead to higher quality of life for people.

What do postmodern scholars believe in? Part of the problem in answering this question is that laying out a set of foundational postmodern principles actually violates a basic postmodern tenet; that is, there are no foundations! The idea of “no foundations” is an attempt to get at the idea that there are multiple ways of looking at the world and, therefore, multiple potential realities. The influence of this position can be seen in debates over university curricula, where challenges to the so-called “Western canon” argue for the expansion of what counts as knowledge. Instead of requiring students to read only the “Great Books” (written almost exclusively by dead white males), it is argued that students should also be exposed




to writers who traditionally have been marginalized by the dominance of Western ideas about Truth. Thus, African American, Asian, Chicana/o, women, gay, and lesbian writers have been integrated into many university curricula.

For postmodernists, then, there is not one, single “grand narrative” that reveals the truth about the world but, rather, many “little stories,” each of which constitutes a particular way of seeing. Such multiple stories, postmodernists argue, create alternative realities that challenge the dominant modernist view of Truth as singular and universal.

How do postmodernists view communication? It should be no surprise that they reject the representational view discussed earlier. Indeed, postmodernists do their best to break any connection between communication and the world “out there.” In other words, postmodernists reject any “correspondence” view of communication, in which statements somehow reflect an actually existing set of conditions in the world. In fact, some postmodernists reverse the common-sense relationship between communication and reality, arguing that rather than communication being the symbolic representation of a real world, communication is what is real, with the world having a secondary status. In French philosopher Jacques Derrida’s (1976) famous words, “there is nothing outside of the text” (p. 157). In other words, all we have access to is discourse—that is what is real to us.

An example will help clarify this notion. Paris Hilton is a famous person, known by millions, perhaps billions—but why? She has no apparent talent. She isn’t a sports star, a celebrated author, or a singer. The simple, postmodern answer is that she’s famous for being famous. She has no substance as such, other than the way she has been carefully “branded,” with a particular identity constructed for her (we’ll talk in detail about branding in Chapter 12). Now, many stars are “branded,” and no one completely escapes the postmodern juggernaut of created meanings, but we could argue that Paris Hilton is the nearest thing there is to pure text, pure discourse! Her fame is totally dependent on her ability to remain in the public eye, on her appearing regularly on my favorite show, Access Hollywood; in other words, her fame depends totally on her (in)famy. She is, in this sense, postmodernism personified.

Of course, these days Paris Hilton is passé and other postmodern personalities have usurped her—the entire Kardashian family, The Situation, Snooki, and so on ad nauseam. What all these “celebrities” have in common is that they are all almost purely “text”—they don’t really exist outside of the media reality that created them.

How does this translate into the study of organizations? Several postmodern organization scholars have done close analyses of organizational texts, such as stories, to show how they impose a particular meaning on organization members and obscure other possibilities (Boje, 1995; Boje & Rosile, 1994; Calás & Smircich, 1991; Martin, 1990). Sometimes called deconstruction—a term coined by Derrida—these interpretive analyses attempt to illustrate how organizations are




not the stable structures they appear to be but are actually relatively precarious systems of meaning fixed more by the dominance of a particular worldview.

In addition, many postmodern organization scholars examine the forms of disciplinary control (discussed earlier) that shape the postmodern (sometimes called post-Fordist or postbureaucratic) organizational environment. Scholars examine everything from management theories (how do they construct particular kinds of employee identity?) to the everyday dynamics of workplace control and resistance peculiar to the “culture of enterprise” in the (post)modern organization (Du Gay & Salaman, 1992; Knights & McCabe, 2000b; Townley, 1993b). We will discuss the postmodern, post-Fordist approach to organizational communication in Chapter 8.

Feminism: The Discourse of Empowerment

The feminist approach to organizations is the one that has been around the shortest amount of time, coming to prominence in the 1990s. In terms of the crisis of representation, the most distinctive feature of feminism is how it addresses the question of “voice.” For the most part, feminist scholars argue, organization researchers have been “blind and deaf” to the question of gender (Wilson, 1996). In other words, for most of its history, the field of management has examined organizational life as if only one gender—men—existed. Moreover, organizations themselves have, until relatively recently, systematically excluded women from anything other than low-paid, entry-level positions.

One of the goals of feminist approaches to organizational communication, then, is to address the exclusion of women’s voices from organizational life and to develop research approaches that highlight women’s voices (Buzzanell, 1994). However, as we will see in Chapter 9 of this book, there are in reality multiple feminist perspectives, each of which has a different view of the role of women and men in organizations. Liberal feminism, for example, argues for creating a level playing field to provide women voice and opportunity in organizations. Radical feminism argues that creating a level playing field simply leaves patriarchy (male domination) intact, and women need to create alternative organizational forms free from male oppression. Finally, critical feminism takes the position that organizations are “gendered” structures of power; gender is an everyday, constitutive feature of organizational life that implicates both women and men.

From an organizational communication perspective, then, feminist research has focused on exploring the relationships among gender, power, and organization in order to develop more equitable organizational practices and structures. In this sense, feminism is a discourse of empowerment with a specific focus on gender as a construct around which power is exercised. For example, management scholar




Rosabeth Moss Kanter’s (1977) classic book Men and Women of the Corporation was the first to examine closely how the structure of organizations tends to exclude women from managerial positions by hiring them as “tokens” who are set up for failure in a male-dominated environment. Her book documents how men are not necessarily consciously sexist (though in the 1970s many were); rather, the communication environment of corporations—premised on the need to maintain effectiveness and efficiency by hiring and promoting employees who fit in (i.e., white men)—is what puts women at a distinct disadvantage.

As we will see later on, much feminist research has moved away from focusing exclusively on women and is much more interested in how power and organizational communication interact to create different kinds of gendered identities, including both femininity and masculinity. Today, then, and unlike its popular conception, feminism is a long way from its “male-bashing” stereotype and is much more interested in understanding how both women and men are “prisoners of gender” (Flax, 1990). In this sense, many feminist researchers are interested in how both men and women “do gender” (i.e., perform gendered identities) in their everyday organizational lives (Ashcraft, 2005; Collinson, 1988; Mumby, 1998).

In sum, the five perspectives discussed here show an increasing tendency toward questioning our common-sense understanding of the world. Starting from the widely held premise that we communicate in ways that represent or reflect a stable, objective world, we have gradually moved to a position in which the relationship between communication and the world we live in has been rendered complex and problematic. For our purposes, the main consequence of this discussion has been to undermine any simple understanding of the relationship between communication and organization. As I stated early in this chapter, we fail to appreciate fully the difficulties and complexities associated with organizational communication if we view this phenomenon as simply “communication in organizations.” By calling into question this widely accepted view, we are better able to “think differently” about organizations and how they function in relation to our everyday lives. Table 1.2 provides a helpful summary of the five perspectives.

Table 1.2 Five Perspectives on Organizational Communication





This chapter laid out some of the basic assumptions about organizational communication as a field of study. Any time we attempt to understand a particular field, we need to get a picture of the various assumptions on which different perspectives are built. Clearly, organizational communication studies draws on a number of different traditions, reflecting the complexity of the phenomenon we are attempting to understand.

As a way of understanding the field, I presented five different research traditions, or discourses—functionalism, interpretivism, critical theory, postmodernism, and feminism—each of which operates on a different set of assumptions about the nature of communication, organizations, and truth. With these research traditions as a context, we are now in a position to examine more closely the specific research traditions in organizational communication that have emerged in the past several decades.




However, while this chapter has provided us with a sense of the “big picture,” we do not yet have a detailed sense of the specific lens or perspective we will use to examine these different theories and bodies of research. As will become clear in the course of this book, it is impossible to examine theory and research without adopting a position oneself (even though many textbooks tend to adopt a “God’s- eye view,” a view from “nowhere and everywhere”). As I mentioned earlier in this chapter, this book is written explicitly from a critical perspective, and so Chapter 2 will be devoted to a detailed discussion of this perspective. We will discuss the history of the critical perspective and its underlying assumptions, goals, and values. By the end of the chapter, we will have a useful set of principles with which to make sense of the complex terrain that constitutes the field of organizational communication studies.


1. Individually or in groups, identify the different forms of control addressed in this chapter. Think about instances where you have experienced these forms of control. Some will be routine and everywhere; others will be more unusual. How did they make you feel? What were your responses to these experiences? To what degree do you take these control mechanisms for granted? Are there situations where you have tried to resist or circumvent organizational control mechanisms?

2. Discuss the five different perspectives on organizational communication addressed in this chapter. What are their defining features? Using a single organization with which you are familiar, choose three of the perspectives and use the principles of each to analyze the organization. What features of the organization are highlighted and hidden by each perspective? What does this tell you about the nature of research and knowledge generation?



crisis of representation

critical theory







metatheoretical framework


organizational communication

organizational control



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The critical approach can enable you to navigate the complexities of organizational life.








The Critical Approach

In Chapter 1 we framed the field of organizational communication by providing a broad overview of several current research traditions. In this chapter we will take a much more detailed look at the perspective that will be our guide for the rest of this book—the critical approach. By the end of this chapter, you will have the analytic tools that will enable you to understand and critique the various theories, research traditions, and organizational processes we will be examining in the remaining chapters of this book. In developing these analytic tools my goal is to help you become “organizationally literate” such that you can better understand the expanding role of organizations in creating the world in which we live. Being “organizationally literate” enables us to become better organizational citizens, attending more critically to the important organizational processes and practices that shape both our working and leisure activities.

So, we must develop in detail the perspective that provides the guiding assumptions for this book. You may have noticed that the subtitle of this book is “A Critical Approach.” In this context, the term critical refers not to the everyday, negative sense of that term but, rather, to a perspective on organizations that has emerged in the past 30 years. From this perspective, organizations are viewed as political systems where different interest groups compete for control of organizational resources (Morgan, 2006). The critical approach highlights the goal of making organizations more participatory and democratic structures that are more responsive to the needs of their multiple stakeholders (Deetz, 1995). As we examine different organizational and management theories through the course of this book, we will assess them with this critical approach as our guidepost.

The first goal of this chapter, then, is to provide you with a sense of the various influences and schools of thought that have helped establish a body of critical research in the field of organizational communication. Thus, we will take a historical lens to examine the emergence of the critical approach. A second goal of this chapter is to explain in some detail the principal elements of the critical approach. What are its assumptions? How does it view organizations and organizing practices? How does it conceive of communication? What are its goals and purposes? A third and final goal of this chapter is to show how the critical approach can be used as a way to examine and critique other ways of understanding organizations. As we move forward in the book, each perspective we address will be examined critically.




First, let us turn to an examination of the various historical influences that have led to the emergence of the critical approach.


While there are a number of different historical influences on the critical approach, one common thread tends to run through all these influences—the work of Karl Marx (1967; Marx & Engels, 1947). In the past 100 years or so, Marx’s large body of writings has profoundly influenced modern social thought. Indeed, along with sociologists Emile Durkheim and Max Weber, Marx is considered to be a foundational thinker in our understanding of how society functions culturally, politically, and economically. However, the difficulty of Marx’s work has led over the decades to a number of different interpretations of his ideas. These different interpretations have, in turn, resulted in the establishment of different research traditions and schools of thought that expand on Marx’s original ideas and attempt to make them relevant to contemporary society.

In this section we will first discuss some of the basic elements of Marx’s theory of society. Then, we will take a look at two schools of thought that are strongly influenced by Marx but that, at the same time, critique some of the limitations of his work and attempt to provide alternative views of society. These two schools of thought are (1) The Institute for Social Research (commonly known as the Frankfurt School) and (2) cultural studies.

Karl Marx

If we discuss Marx’s work in the context of the framework developed in Chapter 1, we can say he was very much a critical modernist (indeed, one could argue that he is the principal founder of the critical modernist perspective). Why is he a critical modernist, and what is the importance of his work for the development of the critical approach?

During his life (1818–1883), Marx was witness to major economic and political upheaval in Europe, as capitalism became the dominant economic and political system. Unlike earlier theorists such as Adam Smith (author of The Wealth of Nations, who we will talk about more in Chapter 3), Marx did not celebrate the emergence of capitalism but, rather, criticized the ways in which it exploited working people. As Marx (1967) showed in his most famous work, Capital, despite the 19th century’s unprecedented growth in production and, hence, in wealth, most of this wealth was concentrated in the hands of a very small minority of people he called capitalists. Even more significantly, Marx showed that this wealth was not directly produced by capitalists but was generated through the




exploitation of the laborers who worked for the capitalists in their factories. Marx is a critical modernist, then, in that he both critiques capitalism as an economic and political system of domination and exploitation and outlines an alternative political and economic system (socialism). Thus, he believes in the Enlightenment principle of emancipation and freedom for everyone, regardless of their economic or political status.

How does Marx arrive at this analysis of capitalism as an exploitative system? While his work is immense in volume and extremely complex, we can identify some basic issues.

Karl Marx’s writings have significantly influenced how we understand capitalist organizations.

Marx’s Key Issues

First, Marx provides a detailed analysis of the historical development of different economic systems, or forms of ownership. These he describes as tribal, ancient, feudal, and capitalist. Each of these periods represents increasing levels of societal




complexity in terms of how goods are produced, the forms of property ownership that exist, and the system of class relations—or social hierarchy—in place. For example, tribal societies featured a hunter–gatherer system of production, little division of labor, and no class system insofar as tribal property was communal. Ancient societies, such as Greece and Rome, were city-states organized around agriculture, with a developed civil and political system. In addition, the class structure consisted of male citizens, women, and slaves, with slaves doing all the direct labor. In the feudal system production was concentrated in agriculture, ownership was in the hands of an aristocratic class that had stewardship over the land, and the class system consisted of serfs who performed labor and the aristocrats who had rights over the serfs.

It was in capitalism, however, that the economic system took on its most complex—and most exploitative—form. Here, production shifted from the countryside to the town and, due to the passing of a series of “Enclosure Laws” that privatized “common land” (which everyone could use) for the exclusive use of the aristocracy, commoners were coercively removed from this land (where they kept livestock and grew produce) and forced to migrate to the developing cities, thus creating a large pool of wage labor for the new factories.

Marx is famous for developing a theory called historical materialism—an idea that analyzes history according to different modes of production, each involving shifting forms of property ownership and class relations. Thus, Marx identifies these different modes as common ownership (tribal society), citizen–slave (ancient society), aristocrat–serf (feudal society), and capitalist–wage laborer (capitalist society). In the last three cases, Marx shows that each system consists of an exploiting and an exploited class, with the former living off and dependent on the labor of the latter.

But what does Marx identify as being particularly exploitative about capitalism? Certainly, in the context of early 21st century society, capitalism is usually associated with democracy and freedom, and it has certainly been a driving force behind huge increases in our standard of living over the past 100 years or more. What was it, then, that Marx found so objectionable about this economic and political system?

In his analysis of capitalism, Marx identifies three elements peculiar to this particular economic system.

1. Under capitalism, workers are no longer able to produce for themselves what they need to live. In Marx’s terms, they do not possess their own “means of production” (land, tools, animals, machinery, etc.). Because the advent of capitalism in Europe saw the forcible removal of large populations from common land, these dislocated people were forced to sell at the going market rate the only thing that remained to them—their labor power. In this sense, the




non-owners of the means of production (workers) are forced to satisfy their own economic needs by selling their labor power to the dominant group (the capitalists). Thus, workers actually perform the economic maintenance of the capitalist class.

2. Marx identifies capitalism as the only system of economic production in which the very foundation of the system is not to make goods in order to produce even more goods but, rather, to turn money into even more money. In this sense, the product a particular company makes becomes largely irrelevant, as long as that company continues to make a strong “return on investment.” Thus, the actual “use value” of the product is much less important than its “exchange value.” This is even truer today than it was in Marx’s time. For example, companies such as Procter and Gamble produce everything from bars of soap to potato chips, and media barons such as Rupert Murdoch own companies as diverse as television stations, newspapers, and sports teams. Moreover, financial markets such as Wall Street do not even make products as such but leverage money itself many times over to make more money. The issue in all these cases is not whether such products are useful but whether, through their exchange value, they can create more wealth for investors. As Marx shows, this means that under capitalism, everything—including workers—becomes a commodity to be bought and sold.

3. The exploitative nature of capitalism is hidden. That is, when workers sell their labor power to capitalists they are not selling a specific amount of labor but, rather, a certain capacity to labor for a particular period of time. For example, a worker may be hired to work 10 hours a day at a particular hourly rate (say, $10). The capitalist’s goal is to extract as much labor as possible from the worker during that 10-hour period (e.g., by constant supervision, speeding up the work process, etc.). As Marx points out, this means that the labor of the worker produces more value than that at which it is purchased (indeed, the value of the labor is infinitely expandable, limited only by technology, machine efficiency, and the worker’s physical capacity). Marx refers to this difference between the value of the labor power, as purchased by the capitalist, and the actual value produced by the laborer as surplus value. This is the source of profit for the capitalist. Surplus value is hidden because the worker appears to be paid for a full day’s work. However, as Marx shows, the worker is paid for only that portion of the working day that is necessary to maintain the worker, that is, feed and clothe him or her—what Marx calls “necessary labor.” The rest of the working day is surplus labor and is actually unpaid.

Summarizing Marx’s analysis, sociologist Ken Morrison (1995, p. 81)




describes the features of surplus value in the following manner:

1. It is created by the surplus labor of the worker. 2. It is unpaid and hence creates value for the capitalist. 3. It represents deception because it claims to be paid labor. 4. It is at the heart of capitalist exploitation since the worker is not paid for the

wealth created.

While Marx was obviously addressing the conditions that existed in 19th century factories, the same principles—and in some cases working conditions— still exist today (indeed, one of the reasons many companies move production overseas is that labor laws regarding minimum wage, length of working day, workplace safety, and so on are less strict or even nonexistent, thus creating more surplus value).

In her participant-observation study of Subaru-Isuzu Automotive, for example, sociologist Laurie Graham (1993) shows how contemporary capitalist organizations attempt to increase the amount of surplus value that workers produce. Graham discusses how workers are grouped into teams and required to perform a long list of tasks on a moving production line. When the plant first opened, the workers struggled to complete the tasks (22 in all) in the designated 5-minute time period. However, through increased efficiency and line speed up, the same tasks were soon performed in 3 minutes and 40 seconds. As Graham indicates, “Everyone was expected to continually make his or her job more efficient, striving to work to maximum capacity” (p. 160). In Marx’s terms, we can say that the workers are producing an increasing amount of surplus value, while the value they accrue to themselves in the form of wages remains the same.

This example is interesting because the workers are apparently happy to work ever harder while receiving no reward for this extra work (except perhaps a pat on the back, although there is a long history of companies firing employees as they become more efficient—hence, paradoxically, it is not always in employees’ best interests to work hard!). This apparent willingness to put up with a system of exploitation brings us to the next crucial aspect of Marx’s critique of capitalism— his theory of ideology. This concept will play an important role in later chapters of this book, so it is important to get a basic understanding of it now.


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