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date: 14 December 2018

Summary and Keywords

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.

Keywords: Marxism, critical and structuration theory, Foucauldian theory, governmentality, communication and critical and cultural studies

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