Postmodern approaches to organizational communication elude easy description. Broadly speaking, they are diverse forms of inquiry that challenge and reconstruct systems of power, identity, and representation. Since the 1980s, postmodern approaches, situated with reference to a larger critical tradition, have burgeoned in organizational communication studies. Under this rubric, many extant theories and methods in organizational communication inquiry have been challenged and refashioned.
Yet scholars working in this tradition sometimes eschew the label “postmodern” and its attendant baggage, adopting other terms such as “dialogic” (Deetz 1996) or “discursive.” Inevitably then, the task of describing “postmodern approaches” is likely to be partial and fragmented – much like the approaches it seeks to describe. This article thus proceeds tentatively, by examining the relationship between postmodernism and the critical tradition, and discusses some key tenets, trends, and futures of postmodern approaches to organizational communication studies.
Modernity And Organizational Communication
Postmodern thought has been a relatively new entrant in organizational communication studies due largely to the dominance of managerial perspectives and quantitative methodologies – approaches against which postmodern and critical approaches in part set themselves (Deetz 1992). As such, the emergence of postmodern thought in organizational communication studies has to be seen with reference to the critical turn in organizational studies, which began in the late 1970s when scholars began to consider issues of power and language as central to organizational life (Mumby 1988).
Like those in most disciplines that are engaged in investigations of “the social,” organizational communication scholars have wrestled with the central problematic of modernity. The engagement with modernity both as a historical epoch and as an epistemological stance has been most overt in critical and postmodern approaches to organizational communication. Both approaches invoke a broad conception of power, and theorize issues of domination, control, and resistance. It is therefore a mistake to examine critical and postmodern approaches to organizational communication in oppositional terms. Indeed, there are important continuities between them in organizational communication studies, with many scholars combining both traditions (Cheney 1999).
A crucial difference between critical and postmodern approaches lies in their respective critiques of modernity. While critical approaches tend to offer an internal critique of modernity, endorsing some central Enlightenment ideals such as emancipation or progress, postmodern thought tends to take an external critique of modernity, sometimes rejecting it wholesale. Yet the relationship between postmodern thought and modernity is complex, and such complexity reflects the broad range of philosophical positions encapsulated in the term “postmodern.” For instance, Mumby (1997) argues that there are at least two major strands of postmodern thought: affirmative postmodernism and skeptical postmodernism. The former maintains the viability of resistance, albeit fragmented, to dominant systems of power and is in some ways continuous with critical research in its belief in social transformation. In contrast, the latter eschews the possibility of any form of viable resistance to dominant control systems.
In addition to positioning their work as a critique of modernity, postmodern scholars in organizational communication examine postmodern organizational phenomena that arise from modernity itself. These include the replacement of structure with flux, the increasing fragmentation of labor, the emergence of bewildering arrays of difference and identity, the dominance of information and postcolonial economies, and so forth (Taylor 2005).
Some Tenets Of Postmodern Thought In Organizational Communication
First, postmodern approaches, drawing from Foucault, consider power in terms of diffuse and disciplinary networks, operating normatively and unobtrusively. Rather than power being conceptualized in terms of repression, it is thought of in terms of its ability to produce identities, languages, and realities. In particular, discourse is understood as the means through which power produces and reproduces. Zoller’s (2003) work, for example, examines occupational health and safety standards as a discourse that serves to produce a range of norms that construct work practices and identities.
Second, embodied individual identities are seen as fragmented (Tracy and Trethewey 2005). Postmodern thought is characterized by complex examinations of (the death of ) individual subjectivity and the imposition of regulatory constructions upon categories such as pleasure and desire. Nadesan and Trethewey’s (2000) analysis of women’s popular success literature and the ways in which it constructs incomplete entrepreneurial identities among professional women exemplifies such research.
Third, issues of representation are examined discursively. Reality, for postmodern approaches, is a suspect category, never fully represented in discourse. Yet discourse and discursive formations remain our only means of accessing reality. Derrida’s idea of “différance” points precisely to this: that which is referred to or signified in discourse is always deferred and set back. Postmodern approaches to organizational communication therefore often treat organizations themselves as discursive formations, a form of hyperreality, subsequently treating organizing and communicating as synonymous (Fairhurst & Putnam 2004).
Further, postmodern thought attempts to move beyond the examinations of distinct economic, social, political, or cultural foundations for explaining or understanding organizational life. Rather, postmodern scholars either consider their work as without foundations (the collapsing of categories such as economy or society) or as post-foundational proper (the construction of multiple foundations of organizational thought and practice).
Finally, postmodern scholars theorize issues of resistance to disciplinary practices. Here, resistance is conceived as a means of subverting or engaging in opposition to such practices. Research on resistance often characterizes organizations and communication as constituting systems of disciplinary practice, and examines fragmented and partial individual resistance in the context of such formations (Nadesan 1996).
Postmodern Research Trends In Organizational Communication
Organizational communication scholars emphasize some tenets of postmodern research over others, and in some respects the area is distinct from postmodern research in other areas of communication inquiry. First, postmodern work in organizational communication studies often foregrounds questions of identity, resistance, and control, treating questions of reality, truth, and representation as larger, background issues. This is especially visible in studies of concertive control (Tompkins and Cheney 1985), which show how unobtrusive systems of normative power in organizations simultaneously shape individual identities and create possibilities for fragmented resistance (Larson & Tompkins 2005). Researchers have examined a wide range of phenomena under the rubric of concertive control, including social development programs, high-tech work teams, temporary labor, and fire-fighters (Cheney et al. 2003).
Second, postmodern research is friendly to issues of voice and otherness, emphasizing the study of difference, fragmentation, ethics, and politics. Postmodern organizational communication studies is marked by a tendency toward inclusiveness, most clearly evidenced by emerging feminist scholarship on the subject (Ashcraft & Mumby 2003). While feminist thought itself is remarkably complex in its liberal, radical, Marxist, postmodern, and postcolonial manifestations, it contributes to postmodern thought in organizational communication studies the examination of gender as a key site of complex difference. Feminist thought and practice serves to deconstruct dominant organizational theory, enabling a constant engagement in the search for and the theorizing of difference. Such retheorizing is also evident in recent attempts, for example, to uncover the racial foundations of organizational communication thought (Ashcraft & Allen 2003). More recently, the emphasis on difference is turning into a productive engagement with issues of occupational and professional identity (Ashcraft 2006). Other organizational communication researchers have begun to examine organizational communication through postcolonial perspectives, which in turn are often informed by post-Foucauldian thought (Kurian & Munshi 2006). However, there is as yet no significant emerging corpus of research on postmodern difference informed by queer theory.
Third, postmodern approaches in organizational communication tend to be more affirmative than skeptical; this is evident in the emergence, since the early 1990s, of a significant body of work that examines various aspects of resistance. In many ways, the study of resistance can be said to constitute the central concern of postmodern organizational communication studies in the 1990s and the early part of this century. Such research often treats resistance in individualized, fragmented, and open-ended terms, although more recently scholars have also begun to call for attention to the more collective aspects of such resistance (Ganesh et al. 2005).
Finally, in the last few years postmodern approaches to organizational communication studies have begun to play with the boundaries of what “counts” as organizational communication itself. For instance, sparked by Cheney and Christensen’s (2000) work on how organizational identity issues coalesce both “internal” and “external” forms of communication, scholars have begun to examine the intersections between organizational communication and public relations scholarship (McKie et al. 2004).
It is hard to predict any single direction for postmodern organizational communication research. However, it is safe to say that postmodern approaches will continue to explore the dialectics of identity and difference, highlighting the contradictory and tension-laden character of organizational formations. Further, such approaches are likely to push collective understandings of the boundaries of organizational communication itself, as they continue to chart the shifting and dynamic interplay between internal and external forms of communication, and discursive and material realms. Finally, postmodern scholars are likely to continue working within the qualitative tradition, expanding their work to include both ethnographic and historical methods.
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