Adrienne Shaw, Katherine Sender, and Patrick Murphy
Critical audience studies is the branch of media research primarily concerned with what people do with the media they consume, rather than on the supposedly negative effects of media on people. Critical audience studies has long drawn on “ethnographic ways of seeing” to investigate the everyday uses of media in myriad contexts. This area of audience research has had to define who and what constitutes “an audience,” where audiences are located, and how best to understand how people’s lives intersect with media. Changes in media production and distribution technologies have meant that texts are increasingly consumed in transnational and transplatform ways. These changes have disrupted historical distinctions between producers and audiences. Critical cultural approaches should be considered from a largely qualitative perspective and look at feminist and global reception studies as foundational to the understandings of what audiences might be and how to study them. Taking video game players as a boundary example, we need to reconsider how contemporary media forms and genres, modes of engagement, and niche and geographically dispersed media publics affect audiences and audience research: what, or who, is an audience, how can we understand it, and through what methods might we research it now?
Rebecca S. Richards
For much of human history, “femininity” and “masculinity” were unknown terms. But that does not mean that the concept of gender did not exist. Indeed, many societies in recorded history had conceptions of what it means to be a gendered person—most often noted in the binary of “man” and “woman”—but these conceptions were normative and perceived as intrinsic to human behavior and culture. Masculinity and femininity were naturalized concepts, assumed to be the ways in which men and women should act, look, or communicate.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, scholars and activists noted that femininity and masculinity are social constructions of a gendered society, often denoting the ways in which people, objects, and practices conform to or transgress gendered expectations. Both terms are highly contingent upon the cultural, historical, and geopolitical locations in which they are used, meaning that they can only be accurately understood or defined for a given time or context; it is impossible to define either term in a universal manner. Femininity, as an articulated concept, has a longer history of being visible and enforced by communities. Masculinity, on the contrary, historically elided critique or visibility because its attributes were often the normative and prized values and characteristics of a given social context. However, feminist movements and intellectual projects have brought masculinity to light, showing the ways in which masculinity, just as much as femininity, is a learned and enforced way of viewing actions, people, and things.
In communication studies, current scholarship on masculinity and femininity examine how they circulate in a globalized world, picking up new definitions and often restructuring people’s lives. Even though both terms are abstractions with shifting definitions and applications, they create the conditions for people’s sense of identity and limit or enhance their ability to engage in communicative acts. Differently stated, while abstract concepts, they have material consequences. To understand how an abstract social construction creates material consequences, communication scholars have looked at several research locations where masculinity and femininity most obviously manifest, such as leadership and authority, media representations, rhetorical style and delivery, and interpersonal communications.
Judith Butler is one of the most important contemporary critical theorists. Best known for her influential concept of gender as performance and her critique of the idea of natural binary sexual difference, Butler also develops a critical perspective on wider issues arising from the idea that “being is doing,” insisting on the many alternate possibilities of lives that can always be “done” differently. In this context Butler develops a complex account of what it is to be a subject and revises some basic philosophical assumptions regarding how to think about moral deliberation. Butler displaces the assumption that the human subject is responsible only on the condition of being autonomous in order to reconceptualize subjects as beings thrown into a world of interdependency and cohabitation. Butler characterizes us as part of “precarious life,” beings whose exposure to desire, loss, and grief is constitutive of our existence, but who nonetheless find agency within a critical relation to constituting social norms and through building more generous public worlds.
It is helpful to understand the rich engagement that Butler’s work has with the philosophical perspectives in the background of these ideas, from the Hegelian criticism of abstract universalism to genealogy, deconstruction, queer and feminist theory, speech act theory, and the psychoanalytic account of subject formation, as well as the interlocutors who have become increasingly important in Butler’s recent work, including Levinas, Benjamin, and Arendt. These engagements ground a distinctive ethical and political approach that Butler brings to bear on contemporary and urgent questions, central to which is how alterity is engaged with. With a focus on how lives become “intelligible” as those of the kinds of beings that are recognized and find protection in law, Butler contributes rich insights into contemporary political phenomena. In particular, she describes how only certain lives appear as valuable in public discourses, while others lives and deaths become a matter of indifference, tracking the role of images and rhetoric in enforcing such differences. In demonstrating how state violence is bound up with this differentiation between “grievable and ungrievable lives,” Butler draws out a complex account of the relationship between violence, law, and justice. There are clear continuities between Butler’s earliest and latest work in the exploration of these issues, based in her methodological commitments to practices of critique and genealogy.
Robert Alan Brookey and Jason Phillips
Michael Warner is the Seymour H. Knox Professor of English and American Studies at Yale University, and his career has followed an interesting trajectory, beginning with the study of print and its importance to the emerging American nation and extending into queer theory and contemporary politics. There is an important line of thought that connects three of Michael Warner’s books: The Letters of the Republic (1990), Publics and Counterpublics (2002), and The Trouble with Normal (1999). In The Letters of the Republic, Warner begins to outline the way in which publics emerge and are discursively produced. In Publics and Counterpublics, he more thoroughly engages both the production of normative publics and the resistant communities of counterpublics, the latter of which he often illustrates with examples drawn from queer communities. Finally, in The Trouble with Normal, Warner challenges the efforts of gay and lesbian rights advocates to accommodate and assimilate to heteronormative standards in an effort to join the public constituted by the dominant heterosexual society. As he notes, these efforts effectively undermine the transformative qualities that queerness can bring to a society in refiguring the way sex and relationships are regarded. In effect, The Trouble with Normal seems to be a queer, counterpublic polemic, one that mirrors (in purpose, if not in content) the emerging revolutionary discourse in 18th-century America. In addition, Warner provides some valuable perspectives on the development of public discourse in American, and makes several observations that pre-date, yet bring into sharp relief, some of the issues and concerns that have been raised about social media.
In 2009, one of the most powerful executives in the world, Goldman Sach’s CEO Lloyd Blankfein, asserted that his firm was “doing God’s work.” This comment was made in the wake of the worst financial crisis since the 1930s, a crisis that Goldman Sachs and other U.S. and European investment banks played important roles in creating. The comment’s audacity did not escape notice, raising eyebrows even in the mainstream news media given its historical situatedness at the tail end of the crisis. Although Blankfein’s comment was coded negatively in the cultural consciousness, it was also represented as iconic of the culture of Wall Street’s “Masters of the Universe,” as referred to in the popular vernacular. Blankfein’s comment is deployed to illustrate the conceptual models and methodologies of those fields of study known as critical and cultural organizational communication research. These closely coupled but distinct fields of study will be delimited with special attention to their objects of investigation and methodological deployments using this example.
Cultural and critical organizational communication represent closely coupled fields of study defined primarily by their phenomena or objects of study—organizational communications. Scholarship maps and analyzes communications to understand how organizations are constituted through communications that decide organizational policies, programs, practices, and values. Typically, organizational communications include all formal and informal signifying systems produced by members of the particular organization under investigation. Cultural approaches to organizational communication emphasize how these communications produce meaning and experience, while critical approaches address the systemic and historically sedimented power relations that are inscribed and reproduced through organizational communication signifying systems.
Organizational communication scholarship from a cultural approach would ordinarily seek to represent the organizational culture primarily using ethnographic methods aimed at disclosing an organization’s employee articulations, rituals, performances, and other circulations of symbol systems in the course of workaday life. However, the challenges to accessing Goldman Sach’s hallow grounds might defeat even the most intrepid ethnographer. Lacking direct access to the day-to-day practices and experiences of investment bankers, challenges of access to work-a-day spaces have encouraged researchers to adopt rhetorical and/or discourse analytical methods to understand the culture as represented in available cultural texts, such as internal communications, press announcements, available corporate policies, shareholder reports, and so on. Ethnographies of communication and rhetorical/discourse analysis together represent the primary nonfunctionalist methodologies commonly used to study how organizational meanings are produced, disseminated, and transformed.
Across disciplines, organizational cultural analysis, particularly when pursued ethnographically, is typically rooted in an interpretive tradition known as verstehen, which understands meaning as agentively produced through a temporally emergent fusion of subjective horizons. Culture is therefore regarded as emergent and is believed to be actively constructed by its interlocutors, who are afforded great agency within the tradition of verstehen. The emergent aspects of culture are fertile and seed subcultures that produce novel cultural performances as members delineate symbolic boundaries. Power is regarded by this tradition as largely visible to the everyday interpretive gaze, although admittedly fixed in institutions by rules, roles, and norms. The relatively visible character of institutional power hierarchies is believed to beget open conflict when disagreement exists over the legitimacy of power relations. Power is believed to circulate visibly and is thus subject to re-negotiation. This emergent and negotiated social ontology encourages researchers to adopt a pluralist view of power and a more relativistic approach to evaluating the social implications of specific organizational cultures. However, the Blankfein example raises complex moral questions about organizational cultures. Does everyone at Goldman Sachs really think they are doing God’s work? If they do, what does that actually mean, and is it a good thing for society given the firm’s demonstrable appetite for risk? More deeply, what are the conditions of possibility for the CEO of one of the world’s most powerful organizations saying that his firm is pursuing God’s work?
Critical organizational communication adopts the methods of verstehen, in addition to methods from other critical traditions, but interjects ethical interrogation of systemic inequities in access to power and resources that are found across many social institutions and are deeply embedded historically. For example, a critical scholar might interrogate whether Goldman Sach’s cultural exceptionalism is found across the financial sector’s elite organizations and then seek to explore the roots of this exceptionalism in historical event and power trajectories. The critical scholar might address the systemic effects of a risk-seeking culture that is rooted in the collective belief it is doing God’s work. Critical organizational communication research seeks to understand how organizational communications naturalize or reify particular organizational interests, elevating them above the interests of other stakeholders who are consequently denied equitable opportunities for agency.
Cultural and critical organizational communication studies have prioritized various discourse-based methodologies over the last 20 or so years. The challenges with ethnographic access may have helped drive this shift, which has been decried by those who see discourse analysis as too disconnected from the daily performances and meaning-makings of organizational members. However, the primary challenge facing these fields of study is the one long recognized as the “container metaphor” (Smith & Turner, 1995). The study of organizational communication too often represents its field of study as a self-contained syntagm—a closed signifying system—that too narrowly delimits boundaries of investigation to communications produced in and by particular organizational members with less examination of the material and symbolic embeddedness of those organizational communications within a wider social milieu of networked systems and historically embedded social structures. In essence, organizational communication has struggled to embed its observations of discrete communications/practices within more encompassing and/or networked social systems and structures.
Isaac N. West
Queer studies in critical and cultural communication studies concerns itself with interrogating the symbolic and material manifestations of desires, sexualities, genders, and bodies in all manners of our lives, including public policy, everyday talk, protests and direct political actions, and media representations. Although the genealogy of this subfield often rehearses queer studies’ emergence as a point of radical rupture from previous theories and perspectives, another mapping of queer studies is possible if it is understood as an evolution of core questions at the heart of communication studies. Queer studies’ mode of inquiry generally involves a double gesture of identifying implicit and/or explicit biases of a communicative norm and promoting alternative ways of being in the world that do not comport with those norms. Indebted to and conversant with critical race, feminist, and lesbian gay, bisexual, and transgender studies, queer studies in critical and cultural communication studies occupies and contests the terrain of its own possibility in its attention to the intended and unintended consequences of privileging one set of cultural arrangements over another. Without any pure vantage point from which one may start or end a cultural analysis, communication scholars have embraced the contingencies afforded by queer studies to imagine otherwise the cultural legitimacy afforded to some bodies and not others; the necessity of sanctioning some sexual desires and not others; the intersectional affordances of sexuality, race, gender, ability, and class; more and less effective modes of dissent from the various normativities governing our behaviors and beliefs; and the necessity of memory politics and their pedagogical implications.
Gayatri Spivak is one of the foremost intellectuals of the 20th and 21st centuries. Although a literary critic, her work can be seen as philosophical as it is concerned with how to develop a transnational ethical responsibility to the radical “other,” who cannot be accessed by our discursive (and thus institutionalized) regimes of knowledge. Regarded as a leading postcolonial theorist, Spivak is probably best seen as a postcolonial Marxist feminist theorist, although she herself does not feel comfortable with rigid academic labeling. Her work is significantly influenced by the deconstructionist impulses of Jacques Derrida. Additionally, the influence of Gramsci and Marx is prominent in her thinking.
Spivak’s work has consistently called attention to the logics of imperialism that inform texts in the West, including in Western feminist scholarship. Relatedly, she has also written significantly on how the nation, in attempting to represent the entirety of a population, cannot access otherness or radical alterity. This is best seen in her work on the subaltern and in her intervention into the famous Indian group of Subaltern Studies scholars. Other related foci of her work have been on comprehending translation as a transnational cultural politics, and what it means to develop a transnational ethics of literacy.
Christina R. Foust and Raisa Alvarado
What moves the social? And what is rhetoric’s relationship to social movement? Since 1950, scholars studying the art of public persuasion have offered different answers to these questions. Early approaches to social movements defined them as out-groups that made use of persuasion to achieve goals and meet persistent challenges. However, protest tactics that flaunted the body and spectacle (e.g., 1960s-era dissent) challenged early emphasis on social movements as nouns or “things” that used rhetoric. Influenced by intersectional feminist theories and movements that featured identity transformations (along with ending oppression) as political, rhetoric scholars began to view “a social movement” as an outcome or effect of rhetoric. Scholars treated movements as “fictions,” identifying the ways in which these collective subjects did not empirically exist—but were nonetheless significant, as people came to invest their identities and desires for a new order into social movements. Scholars argued that people manifested “a social movement’s” presence by identifying themselves as representatives of it. More recently, though, rhetoric scholars emphasize what is moving in the social, by following the circulation of rhetoric across nodes and pathways in networks, as well as bodies in protest. Inspired by social media activism, as well as theories of performance and the body, scholars concentrate on how symbolic action (or the affects it helps create) interrupts business as usual in everyday life. To study rhetoric and social movement is to study how dissent from poor and working-class people, women, people of color, LGBTQ activists, the disabled, immigrants, and other non-normative, incongruous voices and bodies coalesce in myriad ways, helping move humanity along the long arc of the moral universe that bends toward justice.
V. Skye Wingate and Nicholas A. Palomares
Gender is conceptualized as a social construct rather than biologically determined. Gender shapes communication in intergroup contexts. Gender influences communication in assorted domains, such as nonverbal behavior and emotion, language, friendship, self-disclosure, social support and advice, group decision making, leadership emergence, gaming, and aggression. Considering gender-based communication in each of these domains provides insight into the manner in which gender-based communication is conceptualized and understood. Gender is a meaningful factor, but not the sole determinant, of communication because other factors can moderate gender’s influence.
Michela Menegatti and Monica Rubini
Language is one of the most powerful means through which sexism and gender discrimination are perpetrated and reproduced. The content of gender stereotypes, according to which women should display communal/warmth traits and men should display agentic/competence traits, is reflected in the lexical choices of everyday communication. As a consequence, language subtly reproduces the societal asymmetries of status and power in favor of men, which are attached to the corresponding social roles. Moreover, the hidden yet consensual norm according to which the prototypical human being is male is embedded in the structure of many languages. Grammatical and syntactical rules are built in a way that feminine terms usually derive from the corresponding masculine form. Similarly, masculine nouns and pronouns are often used with a generic function to refer to both men and women. However, such linguistic forms have the negative effects of making women disappear in mental representations. Although the use of gender-fair linguistic expressions can effectively prevent these negative consequences and promote gender equality, there are even more implicit forms of gender bias in language that are difficult to suppress. By choosing terms at different levels of abstraction, people can affect the attributions of the receiver in a way that is consistent with their stereotypical beliefs. Linguistic abstraction, thus, is a very subtle resource used to represent women in a less favorable way and thus to enact gender discrimination without meaning to discriminate or even be aware that this linguistic behavior has discriminatory results. In order to reduce gender bias, it is necessary to change people’s linguistic habits by making them aware of the beneficial effects of gender-fair expressions.