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.
The critical study of cultural and creative industries involves the interrogation of the ways in which different social forces impact the production of culture, its forms, and its producers as inherently creative creatures. In historical terms, the notion of “the culture industry” may be traced to a series of postwar period theorists whose concerns reflected the industrialization of mass cultural forms and their attendant marketing across public and private spheres. For them, the key terms alienation and reification spoke to the negative impacts of an industrial cycle of production, distribution, and consumption, which controlled workers’ daily lives and distanced them from their own creative expressions. Fears of the culture industry drove a mass culture critique that led social scientists to address the structures of various media industries, the division of labor in the production of culture, and the hegemonic consent between government and culture industries in the military-industrial complex. The crisis of capitalism in the 1970s further directed critical scholars to theorize new dialectics of cultural production, its flexibilization via new communications technologies and transnational capital flows, as well as its capture via new property regimes. Reflecting government discourses for capital accumulation in a post-industrial economy, these theories have generally subsumed cultural industries into a creative economy composed of a variety of extra-industrial workers, consumers, and communicative agents. Although some social theorists have extended cultural industry critiques to the new conjuncture, more critical studies of creative industries focus on middle-range theories of power relations and contradictions within particular industrial sites and organizational settings. Work on immaterial labor, digital enclosures, and production cultures have developed the ways creative industries are both affective and effective structures for the temporal and spatial formation of individuals’ identities.
George Cheney and Debashish Munshi
Alternative organizational culture is an evocative yet ambiguous term. In disciplines like communication, sociology, anthropology, management, economics, and political science, the term leads us not only to consider existing models and cases of organizing differently from the norm but also to imagine paths and possibilities yet to be realized. The ambiguity and referents of the term are important to probe. The term and its associations should be understood historically as well as culturally. Alternative organizational culture also implies certain dialectics, leading to questions about both principles and applications.
Hans J. Ladegaard
Although there is no exact definition of globalization, and relatively little empirical evidence on how it affects people’s lives, most scholars argue that it reflects an increasingly mobile and interconnected world. People travel for pleasure or work, or they migrate to other parts of the world. They also communicate with linguistic and cultural others, either face-to-face or via modern communication technologies, which requires them to use a global lingua franca (English). This leads to greater interdependence and a sense of sharedness, but also to more intergroup conflicts. Thus, the world has become more interconnected, but also more fragmented, and social and economic inequality both within and across nation-states has become more visible.
The importance of culture as an analytical concept in (intercultural) communication research is another pertinent topic in the literature. Some scholars have argued that culture has lost its potency as a meaningful analytical concept and therefore should no longer take center stage in communication research. Others claim that culture will always be salient and influence behavior. How and to what extent globalization changes culture has also been discussed extensively in recent years. Some scholars argue that globalization leads to sameness and uniformity, and ultimately to the end of the nation-state. Others disagree and posit that globalization leads to a strengthening of the nation-state and of the cultural values we associate with it.
A meaningful way to test theoretical assumptions about globalization and culture is to analyze communication and work practices in global organizations. Research from these contexts suggests that globalization has not led to cultural assimilation and uniformity. Employees in the global workplace and student sojourners use national stereotypes as a frame of reference when they communicate with cultural others, and they demonstrate high awareness of cultural differences and how they impact their communication, study, and work practices.
Recent research on cultural change and globalization has included a critical dimension that questions a world order where the increase in power and cultural and economic wealth in developed countries happens at the expense of poor people with no voice and little visibility living in developing countries. Critical (intercultural) communication research considers these imbalances and also provides a critique of Anglocentric research paradigms, which do not include the cultural and linguistic experiences of non-Western cultural others.
Colleen E. Arendt and Patrice M. Buzzanell
Feminist organizational communication scholarship can be framed in four ways. The four frames display how feminisms encourage: (a) questioning gender difference; (b) performing/queering organizing; (c) disrupting online and offline organizations and their alternatives; and (d) challenging macro-Discourses and structures of gender inequality. In discussing discourses and structures, it is important to include how feminist organizational communication scholars generate knowledge(s) within and across particularities and unities, engage contradiction, and unveil neoliberalism, especially meritocracy and ideal worker norms. In discussing feminist organizational communication, the emerging trends in discovery, learning, and engagement focus on: (a) contradiction, (b) context, (c) difference, and (d) resistance through and by human and nonhuman agents.
Brenda L. Berkelaar and LaRae Tronstad
How people negotiate the work–life interface remains a popular topic for scholars and the public. Work–life research is a large body of interdisciplinary scholarship that considers how people experience, navigate, and negotiate different roles, commitments, and boundaries within and across life domains—often with the goal of improving individual, organizational, and social well-being and success. Spurred by demographic, social, economic, and technological changes, scholars take difference perspectives on overlapping research areas which include work–life balance, work–life conflict, work–family conflict, boundary management, work–life enrichment or facilitation, as well as positive or negative spillover. Key issues addressed include the implications of framing work–life as a dichotomy, drivers of work–life outcomes, how ideals shape work–life negotiations, how individuals negotiate everyday work–life challenges and opportunities, and the influence of evolving information and communication technologies on the work–life interface. Research from multiple disciplines highlights the demographic, economic, moral, cultural, and national factors that affect work–life practices, processes, policies, tactics, and outcomes. This multidisciplinary perspective provides relevant insights for generative research and resilient practice for individuals, groups, organizations, or societies.
Michael Chouinard and Daniel Cronn-Mills
The words speech and debate hold a variety of connotations. For some, they refer to the dissemination or exchange of ideas in a general sense, while others will be more familiar with speech and debate as co-curricular activities, commonly referred to using the umbrella term forensics. Not to be confused with the modern understanding of forensic science, the term forensics stems from the Latin forensis, which relates to assembly in public forums. Forensic programs can be found at a broad range of secondary and post-secondary institutions. Students prepare speeches, performances, or arguments for tournaments where they can win individual and team awards. Despite the individual nature of many speech and debate events, teams play a vital role in forensics. In fact, numerous studies have indicated critical thinking is a necessary component to succeed in our fast-paced society. According to Allen, Berkowitz, Hunt, and Louden, education in communication enhances critical thinking by 44%. Forensics involvement is the activity most identified for advancing critical thinking abilities. Both in and out of competition, team membership is widely understood to be a key component of forensic participation.
In many ways, speech and debate serve as laboratories for the study of small groups. For scholars of group dynamics and intergroup communication, forensics provides a plethora of avenues for exploration, related to such key group concepts as integration, group identity, team culture, conflict management, leadership, administration, and competition. The competitive nature of forensics plays a vital role in shaping the activity, and contributes to a unique opportunity for the study of groups. While some scholars (such as Burnett, Brand, Meister, Wood, and Rowland-Morin) perceive tension between the competitive and educational objectives of the activity, others remain adamant that much education comes through competition, and as such, the two are harmonious rather than dissonant ideals. Both philosophies acknowledge the important role of competition in forensics. For scholars of group communication, the features of competitive speech and debate teams make them unique and insightful subjects for examination.
Robert M. McCann
In the last 20 years or so, the field of intergenerational communication as seen from an intergroup perspective has evolved to encompass a wide range of social, cultural, and relational contexts. Research into communication and age in organizations represents one particularly exciting and rapidly changing area of investigation within the intergenerational communication domain. The workplace, by its very nature, is rich with intergroup dynamics, with age in/out group distinctions being but one of many intergroup characterizations. Stereotypical age expectations—by management and coworkers alike—can serve as powerful harbingers to behavioral outcomes such as ageist communication, considerations of (early) retirement and reduced and/or lost training among older workers, and even reduced intentions among young individuals to take up careers involving older people. Ageist behaviors (including communication) are also at the core of many types of discriminatory practices toward older (and sometimes younger) workers. Age diversity strategies, which include intergenerational contact programs, cross-generational mentoring, age diverse teams, and the use of positive symbols of older age, are becoming more common in organizations.
Kami J. Silk and Daniel Totzkay
The Breast Cancer and Environment Research Program (BCERP) is a transdisciplinary program of research created to investigate environmental exposures and their relationship to breast cancer with a particular focus on puberty as a potential window of increased susceptibility to environmental exposures. A transdisciplinary approach has a strong focus on translating scientific findings into usable health practices as well as health prevention messages so that current research informs practice as well as communication to the lay public. BCERP engaged in communication science to develop health messages for lay audiences, health professionals, and outreach organizations. The precautionary principle, used as a primary guide in regards to message translation and dissemination, yields a useful discussion of the BCERP organizational structure. An exploration of formative communication science efforts in BCERP, areas of sensitivity for creating BCERP messages, and resources created for BCERP toolkits serves to illustrate and describe this one approach to designing health and risk messages.
A community of practice (CoP) situated in a health and risk context is an approach to collaboration among members that promotes learning and development. In a CoP, individuals come together virtually or physically and coalesce around a common purpose. CoPs are defined by knowledge, rather than task, and encourage novices and experienced practitioners to work together to co-create and embed sustainable outputs that impact on theory and practice development. As a result, CoPs provide an innovative approach to incorporating evidence-based research associated with health and risk into systems and organizations aligned with public well-being.
CoPs provide a framework for constructing authentic and collaborative learning. Jeanne Lave and Etienne Wenger are credited with the original description of a CoP as an approach to learning that encompasses elements of identity, situation, and active participation. CoPs blend a constructivist view of learning, where meaningful experience is set in the context of “self” and the relationship of “self” with the wider professional community. The result is an integrated approach to learning and development achieved through a combination of social engagement and collaborative working in an authentic practice environment. CoPs therefore provide a strategic approach to acknowledging cultural differences related to translating health and risk theory into practice.
In health and risk settings, CoPs situate and blend theory and practice to create a portal for practitioners to generate, shape, test, and evaluate new ideas and innovations. Membership of a CoP supports the development of professional identity within a wider professional sphere and may support community members to attain long range goals.