The term “critical approach” refers to a broad, interdisciplinary body of theory and research that conceives of organizations as dynamic sites of control and resistance. “Critical studies” covers several distinct yet related intellectual traditions, each of which examines the communicative practices through which control and resistance are produced, reproduced, and transformed in the process of organizing. These traditions include: neo-Marxism, critical theory, postmodernism, and feminism. Each of these traditions shares the “post-linguistic turn” assumption that language and discourse are central, constitutive elements of human meaning and reality formation.
In the context of organizational communication studies, this assumption translates into a view of communication and organization as co-constitutive. That is, communication is viewed as creating organizations as meaning-based, social constructions; organizations are conceived as both enabling and constraining the everyday communication processes of their members. Common to all traditions within the critical perspective, however, is the notion that such co-constitutive processes are not arbitrary or spontaneous, but rather occur within the context of complex relations of power. Thus, all perspectives in critical organizational communication studies view organizing as a fundamentally political process that gets played out in the dynamics of various competing interests.
Furthermore, critical perspectives share a praxis orientation toward theory and research. Simply put, praxis – the synthesis of theory and practice – invokes the possibility of social transformation. As Marx famously put it, “The philosophers have only described the world; the point is to change it.” In the context of organizational communication research, praxis translates into efforts to conceptualize and realize more democratic and participatory organizational forms (Deetz 1992). As such, all critical research invokes, whether implicitly or explicitly, the possibility of alternative organizing processes. In this sense, all critical research operates according to an emancipatory logic that recognizes the possibilities for self-reflection and social change.
The critical perspective came into its own in the early 1980s as part of a broader rise to prominence of an interpretive, meaning-based approach to the study of organizations. Both Putnam and Pacanowsky’s (1983) important edited volume, Communication and organizations: An interpretive approach, and a special issue of the Western Journal of Speech Communication edited by Putnam and Pacanowsky in 1982 featured essays by Conrad (1983), Deetz and Kersten (1983), and Deetz (1982) that together formed early efforts to define the conceptual terrain of critical studies, exploring the connections among communication, power, and organizing.
The intellectual origins of the critical perspective, however, are far older. Much is owed, of course, to Marx’s rewriting of political economy and his groundbreaking analysis of the capitalist accumulation process. Despite its limitations, Marxist theory still resonates for critical organization scholars in its acute analysis of the expropriation, alienation, and commodification of labor. In this sense, critical organization studies has inherited from classic Marxist theory an understanding of the materiality of the capitalist labor process and the ways that workplace power and exploitation are structured into capitalist relations of production.
A much stronger influence on critical organizational communication studies has been exerted by efforts to reinterpret Marxism in the face of the changing character of capitalism and the workplace in the twentieth century. In particular, the work of the Frankfurt School and a number of western Marxist theorists, including Antonio Gramsci, Gyorgy Lukács, and Louis Althusser, have been instrumental in shaping critical studies of workplace “control through consent.” This phrase captures the evolution of the capitalist workplace as it moved away from coercive, exploitative practices – described so vividly by Marx in Capital – toward forms of control that, paradoxically, relied more heavily on worker autonomy. For critical studies, then, theory and research have been centrally concerned with explaining the communicative dynamics through which apparent worker autonomy and consent to an exploitative labor process reside together.
Central to critical efforts to address this problematic have been the concepts of “ideology” and “hegemony.” “Ideology,” particularly as developed in the works of Althusser and Gramsci, refers not simply to a system of ideas, but rather to everyday discourses and practices which constitute the lived reality of social actors. From a critical perspective, ideology provides the interpretive mechanism through which certain social realities and interests are privileged over others. Furthermore, ideology does not simply reflect these dominant interests in a straightforward manner, but rather transforms and obscures these interests such that they are not immediately accessible to everyday experience. For example, Willis’s (1977) classic study of a working-class sub-culture of “lads” in a British high school illustrates how their rejection of middle-class values of education, enterprise, and upward mobility and their embracing of a culture of violence and “having a laff ” prepares them for insertion into the capitalist labor process in a way that reproduces their role as generalized, abstract labor. Thus, the lads’ sub-culture functions ideologically to simultaneously secure and obscure their relationship to capitalist relations of production.
Gramsci’s (1971) concept of “hegemony” is equally important in its conception of capitalism not as coercive, but as a structure of relations and institutions that creates a “collective will” among classes and interest groups with competing interests. A group or class that is hegemonic does not act in a coercive fashion (though coercion may be a control mechanism of last resort) but rather is able to articulate the beliefs, values, and interests of other groups and classes with its own. Hegemony therefore functions primarily in the ideological and cultural realms through the institutions of civil society such as the family, religion, education, and the mass media.
In the context of critical organization studies, Gramsci’s concept is taken up to address the subjective experience of workers as they participate in the labor process. Burawoy (1979), for example, shows how capitalist relations of production are hegemonic in part by virtue of the workers’ construction of a culture of “making out” that functions ideologically to obscure the exploitative character of capitalist relations of production. Hegemonic relations, then, involve not passive consent to a system of beliefs, but rather the active appropriation and reproduction of those beliefs by subordinate groups.
The final neo-Marxist influence on critical organization studies comes out of the Frankfurt School of critical theory and, more specifically, the work of second-generation Frankfurt School philosopher Jürgen Habermas. Habermas’s work has been particularly influential on two related fronts. First, he argues that contemporary modernity has privileged technical forms of rationality over practical and emancipatory rationality, resulting in the dominance of instrumental, means–end forms of knowledge. This colonization and rationalization of the life-world lead to impoverished notions of human knowledge and community, and negate possibilities for critical reflection and social transformation. Second, Habermas posits the notion of “systematically distorted communication” to address the ways in which technical rationality functions ideologically, through discourse, to co-opt other forms of rationality. Critical organization scholars (e.g., Deetz 1992; Mumby 1988) have used Habermas’s work to explore the central role of organizations in processes of the colonization of human identity formation. This not only includes research into the discursive mechanisms through which employees themselves are colonized by corporate ideologies and values, but extends also to larger corporate efforts to shape human identity, what counts as knowledge, definitions of excellence, and so forth.
Recent Developments In The Field
Much of the critical organizational communication research conducted in the last 25 years has taken the form of extended “ideology critique,” focusing on the discursive mechanisms through which organizations construct social realities that produce and reproduce the interests of “managerialism” (Deetz 1992). Early examples of such research include ideological analyses of organizational storytelling (Mumby 1988), work songs (Conrad 1988), and workplace rituals (Rosen 1985). In each instance, analyses focus on the intrinsic connection between ideology and discourse, examining how particular discursive practices “interpellate” social actors as organizational subjects in specific ways. Frequently repeated organizational stories, for example, “narrate” particular organizational realities into being and position members as subjects within those realities.
In the last 15 years the conceptual terrain of critical organization studies has broadened considerably, particularly with the emergence of research informed by postmodern theory and feminist theory. While postmodernism approaches are addressed in another article, it is worth noting that there are certain continuities between critical theory proper and postmodern analytics. First, while both perspectives focus on power and its dynamics, postmodernism is concerned less with liberating truth from power and more with explicating the discursive mechanisms through which power and truth are articulated together in particular ways. Second, both focus on the discursive construction of social reality. However, while critical theory examines discourse through the lens of ideology critique, postmodern thought examines discourse as a complex constellation of intertextual practices that construct subject positions in complex and often contradictory ways. Third, and related, while critical theory views the social actor as a rational, conscious – though linguistically mediated – subject, postmodernism views the subject as decentered, fragmented, and the effect of discourses.
Since the mid-1990s feminist organization studies has exercised increasing influence in critical organization studies. Unlike earlier “gender as variable” research that examined, for example, differences in managerial leadership style between men and women, critical feminist studies take up Acker’s (1990) idea that organizations are “gendered” cultural forms, constituted around systems of difference that take “masculine” and “feminine” as the primary binary opposition. This reframing of the relationship between gender and organization has generated theory and research that examine the ongoing, communicative construction of masculine and feminine identities in the process of organizing. Of particular significance here is the shift away from an essentialist conception of gender, almost exclusively concerned with women’s roles in the workplace, to a much more nuanced exploration of the multiple and intersecting gendered identities that are socially constructed through everyday discursive practices. Consistent with other critical approaches, feminist scholarship focuses on the intersection of discourse, power, and organizing in everyday social practice; what differentiates it from other forms of critical research is its careful exploration of power as a gendered process.
Feminist theory and research in organizational communication have had three broad foci: (1) feminist deconstructions of the gendered underpinnings of mainstream organization theory (e.g., Mumby & Putnam 1992); (2) empirical analyses of everyday gendered organizing processes (e.g., Trethewey 1997); and (3) studies of feminist organizational structures and their possibilities for alternative means of democratic decision-making (e.g., Ashcraft 2001). It is important to note that while feminist organization studies can be placed under the broader umbrella of critical studies, this area also has a distinct and independent history, with much of early feminist thought and practice maintaining a skeptical posture in regard to the male-dominated theory work conducted in critical studies. Indeed, a strong case can be made that while many critical scholars were theorizing about the possibilities for alternative democratic institutional forms, many feminists were engaging such possibilities in a praxis-oriented manner through the creation of womencentered, collectivist organizations.
Current Research Foci
While it is not possible to provide an exhaustive account of the current state of research informed by critical approaches, there are certain broadly identifiable empirical foci. These include: (1) professional identities; (2) knowledge-intensive organizations; (3) work– home relationships; (4) the body, sexuality, and emotion; and (5) employee resistance.
The discursive construction of employee identities has become a central preoccupation of much critical scholarship. Such work takes a number of forms. For example, the European Labor Process Group of Knights, Willmott, and colleagues focuses on the ways in which employees maintain professional identities in the face of increasingly insecure work environments, where traditional conceptions of “job stability” and upward mobility have largely disappeared in the new, post-Fordist economy. In organizational communication studies proper, a number of scholars have shifted focus away from organizations as physical sites, within which members construct meanings and identities, and toward examination of the professional discourses that are both medium and outcome of organization members’ identities. In this context, organizations per se are less important than the constellation of discursive resources (e.g., race, class, gender, sexuality) that social actors draw upon in constructing such professional identities.
The shift from the Fordist to the post-Fordist organizational form has led a number of critical researchers to examine the effects of this transformation on issues of power, control, and identity. For example, researchers have investigated the implications of flatter, more knowledge-intensive organizational hierarchies for issues of employee autonomy and decision-making.
One of the more interesting findings of this work is that greater decentralization of decision-making and control processes has actually led to increased, though more subtle and insidious, control over workers. This is particularly true in team-based organizations, where workers engage in “concertive control,” constructing their own collective value premises that act to internalize self-surveillance at the level of everyday work activities (Barker 1993).
The critical focus on issues of “corporate colonization” and “managerialism” has led some scholars to investigate more closely the increasingly complex relations between work and others spheres of life, particularly home. Again, the advent of the post-Fordist organization and attendant phenomena, such as corporate campuses, telecommuting, flex-time, and so forth, has produced increased critical focus on the ways in which such structural shifts have changed employees’ relationships to work.
Perhaps most significantly, this research has drawn increased attention to the impact of these shifts on the construction of subject positions and the ability of social actors to even contemplate identities separate from work. If, indeed, distinctions between work and the private spheres of life are increasingly amorphous, then it is arguably increasingly difficult for social actors to articulate identities that are autonomous from corporate rationalization processes. In this context, critical organization research is particularly interested in the impact of such structural shifts on civil society; that is, to what extent corporate forms have subsumed other spheres of civil society such as family, education, and religion, thus constraining possibilities for the construction of meaning systems that function autonomously from corporate discourses including efficiency, rationality, and branding.
The Body, Sexuality, And Emotion
The move in the last few years to studies of the body, sexuality, and emotion reflects increased critical attention to both the gendered and material character of organizing. In the latter case, this shift perhaps reflects the recognition that, in privileging the discursive/symbolic character of organizing, critical scholars have sometimes overlooked the flesh-and-blood social actors who people organizations.
Studies of the body and sexuality focus on how these issues are read through, and coded into, organizational discourses and practices. For example, Trethewey’s (2001) study of mid-life professional women’s experience of aging addresses their efforts to situate themselves and their bodies in relation to patriarchal/managerial discourses that interpellate such women within a “master narrative” of decline. In this sense, questions of the body, sexuality, and emotion are examined in terms of how they are structured into larger discourses of power, resistance, and identity. Emotion, for example, has been recognized by critical and feminist scholars as an important site of struggle in contemporary organizations; managerial control efforts aim at harnessing employee emotions as a way to enhance customer satisfaction, while employees struggle to maintain their right to express unmediated, genuine emotion.
Finally, the last few years have seen a marked increase in critical studies that focus on employee efforts to resist organizational control mechanisms. This is in contrast to the early emphasis on control processes and the conceptual and empirical marginalization of resistance practices.
This recent effort to capture employee recalcitrance in the face of increasingly sophisticated managerial control efforts reflects greater sensitivity regarding the control– resistance dialectic in everyday organizing. Moreover, it suggests a greater recognition that, from a discursive, meaning-centered perspective, critical research is less about identifying and critiquing specific control (or resistance) practices, and more about explicating the – gendered, classed, raced, etc. – dialectical struggle between multiple interest groups over organizational meaning and identity. In this sense, critical organization studies at its most effective unpacks the ways that discourses, identities, control/resistance, and organizing get articulated together to create particular constellations of meaning. It is through understanding the political interests informing such articulation processes that alternative organizing practices become possible.
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