Am I still an organizational Communication Scholar? Yes.
My answer continues to be yes, despite my forays into personal narrative, popular culture, media studies, and philosophy notwithstanding. In fact, it is because I am an organizational communication scholar that I have delved into these other areas of research. I suppose I should explain myself for the uninitiated who can’t see the connections immediately.
I was not, nor have ever been interested in organizational communication qua organizational communication. What initially attracted me to organizational communication were questions about my own life in organizations, and the lives of others in organizations. From the very beginning, I was interested in the intersection of organizational communication and personal identity.
How do places of work impact who I am and what I do? What do I “give up” (think autonomy) when I join an organization? Why are organizations all screwed up and why do people make work life more difficult then necessary in the workplace? Why is it necessary for work to follow-us home? How do organizations affect our concepts of ethics and morality – why do people do things at work that they would never do in their private lives? These are the inquiries that have – and still do – push me on my quest.
However, a strange thing happened on this quest, and it was actually some of the answers I got from organizational communication scholarship that made me think bigger, broader, and deeper.
Let’s start with one concept in particular. Karl Weick developed his concepts of sensemaking and organizing over a long period of time. I learned Weick’s theory pretty early in my graduate career. The theoretical underpinnings that form the foundation of Weick’s concepts of sensemaking include information processing, systems theory, and sociocultural evolution. Despite the theoretical fusion, his conceptual framework for sensemaking and organizing falls within practicable communicative processes in both interpersonal and organizational settings. Sensemaking is the reduction of message equivocality, that is, messages with too many possible meanings, accomplished through communicative action. OK. Fine. So what?
Well, it is Weick’s flipping the nouns organization to “organizing” and sense to “sensemaking” that seemed to me revolutionary. Rather than looking at the products of these activities alone, it is the process, the how, the decision-making, and the communicating that create those end products. It is individuals-in-action, people working out muddled ideas, communicating about problems, people bouncing guesses and thoughts, and improvising until they arrived (or did not arrive) at "sense" and “organization.”
Then something else happened. I read a lot about organizational culture. Organizational communication scholars switched up the paradigm of organizational culture: moving away from the idea that a culture is something an organization HAS to something that an organization IS. And that thing that IS is created through various and sundry communicative process. Communication isn’t something that happens IN organizations, but co-creates organizations and their differing cultures, organizational cultural artifacts, and the mores, and values organizational members subscribe to. These two ideas about organizing pushed me back to thinking a lot about philosophy, and in particular existentialism and phenomenology. (I was, after all, a philosophy major as an undergraduate.)
These two ideas from organizational communication seemed to fit well within this philosophical framework. It also made me realize that organizing happens not just in organizations, but in our personal lives as well. After all the stories we tell, and the narratives we live by, are also the result of trying to make sense of our lives. We continually reconstruct those narratives, and “reorganize” those stories to fit and match and make sense of our lives right now. Add to this the large cultural and canonical stories in our “surround” and narrative turns out to be – if not the primary way we organize our lives (and are organized) – they are certainly not unsubstantial. It was this acknowledgement that made me realize that “organizing” is in no way restricted to organizations. Organizing is bigger that that. This begat larger and different questions.
How do my choices of music, movies, television shows, and other pop culture artifacts, help me to organize my personal identity into some type of whole that can be narrated? How do these various media – from Frank Zappa albums, to my collection of Buffy the Vampire Slayer action figures, to my collection of horror movies – not only help me organize my life, but impose narratives of organizing upon me? How does what happened in the past help me to understand and project myself into the future? What happens when my narrative falls apart and my identity becomes “disorganized?” While none of these questions fall under the auspices of “organizational communication" proper, they all fall under organizing as a communicative process.
And these questions brought me right back to organizations proper. How do I organize my life in a time of corporate colonization – when all these popular culture artifacts are created within the bureucratic auspices of late capitalism? How do stories and narratives “create” organizing and organizations? Why do we still insist people check their emotions and their various proclivities “at the door” when they enter the workplace? How has polymediation (what we used to call new media) created opportunities and challenges to organizing and making sense? How do the narratives of popular culture reflect - or antagonize my own beliefs?
I still look at human resources in organizations. I still examine organizational narratives. I still do organizational ethnography proper. I still study organizations: businesses, churches, non-profits, etc. However, my concept of organizing is no longer framed by "organizations." That framework is too restrictive. Organizing as a communicative process is why I look at larger cultural narratives, from the American Dream to the academic success narrative. It is why I look at how Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer went from “Big Bad” to Byronic hero, and why I have a co-authored piece on Xander Harris under review. It is why I look at how we communicate in polymediated contexts. It is why I look at fandom and geek culture.
This is why I don’t readily fit into organizational communication scholarship as is defined by the academy. It isn’t that I’ve left organizational communication behind. It is simply that my conception of organizing as a communicative process grew larger and more encompassing.
So yes, I am still an organizational communication scholar, if by that you mean I study organizing and communicating.