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«University of Colorado, Boulder CU Scholar Communication Graduate Theses & Dissertations Communication Spring 5-28-2014 Form, Function, and Figure: ...»

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2007) for work. Without meetings, the only official organizing activity would be postings on Wiggio. These postings are slow to happen, and are more or less “pure” information that might limit the kinds of work that can occur through this form. Meetings, instead, allow “communication” to take place with a sense of “immediacy”, and they enable “working things out” and “showing we’re a team” in ways that Wiggio cannot compare. A meeting can enable members to work together productively, but, for example, it cannot enable therapeutic talk. As an illustration of this, in one meeting Doug brought up an emotional tale about handling a former student’s suicide threat on Facebook. Mary, who is trained in therapeutic strategies, addressed that he did the correct action, but then said that she would save the rest of the discussion with him about that topic for after the meeting because it did not have much to do with the organizing that the meeting was accomplishing. The meeting figure constrained the therapeutic kind of talk, forcing it to another kind of communication, because this is not necessary for accomplishing work. The meeting acts in a gatekeeping capacity to enable productive work and communitybuilding to occur through interaction, as long as all of the upstream agency requirements are also met. Once met, and once the members of SPC show up for a meeting, then the meeting can do its job to enable the kinds of interaction that are needed to organize. A meeting has accomplished a “productive” job when the talk between members is considered “productive” by staying on topic and not straying too far from the purpose that the meeting was called to accomplish in the first place.

The meeting will even usurp ordinary conversation when it turns to organizational talk that “works things out”. If this re-characterization is not just a proposed one, as I stated in February 2013, then the meeting-as-gatekeeper is also constantly on the sidelines of these

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“productive” interaction to occur, thus keeping the boundary between work and informality. The meeting is the only type of communication that is concerned with work and helping the members of SPC to accomplish work. Meetings should take their place among the other agents of the organization, including the human members, within the structure of SPC. This puts the meeting, this nonhuman figure with agency that is constructed by humans, attributed to meetings, and then spoken into action like narrating a character in a story, on the same field as the humans who voice this figure. The meeting may have different attributes, like human agents, and when we put these together to form a figure, this allows us to notice the multiplicity of ways that the figure can act and contribute to the organization through both action-agency and context-agency. The members of SPC pose this figure as a key agent in accomplishing the work of SPC productively and successfully. As an ethnographer, it is important to note that this part of a native point of view on meetings, and thus other organizations and sites might position meetings to serve different agential functions.

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In conclusion, the ventriloquism perspective allows researchers to examine how the everyday objects of our organizational worlds may make as much or more of a difference than the human agents in the scene. Our texts, documents, technologies, spaces, and communication practices certainly affect how work and organizing is accomplished in spaces that are termed “organizations”. For SPC, a nonhuman figure that shapes organizing is the meeting. Meetings help and allow members to work together simultaneously and effectively, both on task and relational components of communication (Keyton, 1999). Although online communication is used more often by this organization to organize, the members of SPC still speak about and hold

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In the “plenum of agencies” (Cooren, 2006) within SPC, meetings are not sole actors without ventriloquists. The human members of SPC must voice and wield the figure in order to accomplish these important aspects of organizing. Mary, the typical voice of meetings, must coordinate, plan, and then execute meetings before the meeting can be said to have done its job.

The other members of the organization must likewise attend the meeting and participate in the actions that it has allowed. Outside of meetings, the figure still waits on the sidelines, as if it could be called at any moment to participate and to reorganize the organization. Ventriloquism allows me to examine “the meeting” and, as Schwartzman (1989) put it, how members “use and are used by” this figure. The meeting figure “uses” members in a gatekeeping role in order to help them accomplish certain aspects of organizational work and organizational life. Members “use” the meeting figure, invoking and enacting it, in order to access the kinds of talk and action

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In the previous chapters I have examined the form, function, and figure of meetings by using two analytic perspectives. First, I reviewed some of the literature on and using meetings.

Then I presented the theoretical background of my two perspectives: the ethnography of communication and ventriloquism. In the second chapter I described the organization that I studied, Suicide Prevention Campaign (SPC), and my methods of data collection and analysis.





In the third chapter I employed my first perspective, the ethnography of communication, to answer my first research question: What is the form and function of SPC’s meetings, and what does metacommunication about meetings reveal about the norms of interpretation of meetings?

Through this analysis I examined the form and function of SPC’s meetings, and then explicated three themes in the norms of interpretation: meetings as “burdens”, “purpose”, and “showing we’re a team”. In the fourth chapter I employed my second perspective, ventriloquism, to answer my second research question: What kinds of agency are given to the meeting figure when members of SPC metacommunicate about meetings? Throughout this analysis, I examined how participants enacted and invoked a meeting figure, ventriloquizing it as a gatekeeper to organizational functions. In this chapter, I summarize my findings from these two perspectives and relate them to each other in order to form a fuller picture of what the members of SPC are doing when they metacommunicate about meetings. Following this, I discuss the compatibility and tensions between the two perspectives that I used. I then detail my study’s contribution and limitations. Finally, I propose some future directions for research in each perspective, their potential combination, and for practitioners.

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As I have shown throughout my thesis, meetings in SPC have a particular form, serve various functions, and can be enacted as a figure. In my study of meetings, the ethnography of communication as a research approach shed light on the culturally particular form and function of this communication practice in the organization SPC. As Schwartzman (1989) defines meetings, they take on particular forms and functions in various groups. The theory of ventriloquism helped me examine the way in which nonhuman objects, or figures, are invoked, incarnated, and enacted in organizing practices. As a ventriloquized figure, the meeting is

attributed and enacts agency in SPC. Together, these two perspectives shed light on the three Fs:

form, function, and figure.

The first F that I examined is the form of SPC’s meetings. In Schwartzman’s (1989) framework, much of the form of meetings is explicated through the categories that deal with structure and meeting talk. SPC’s meetings are framed with an official opening and closing of the meeting, and both of these include a reference to the time that the statement is made. Talk within meetings typically relates to five main topics – an overview of what has happened, the status of the 501(c)(3), recent fundraising efforts and the budget, metacommunication about meetings, and metacommunication about Wiggio – and results in shared information on those topics. Decisions are rarely made in these meetings; rather the discussion provides Mary with a sense of the members’ opinions, which may then affect her final decision. The more recent meetings include less formal turn taking structures, with many meetings including side conversations and interruptions, although Mary still recognizes the speakers before their turns in the primary meeting conversation. The genres and styles of talk included in meetings are

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through video-conferencing software. All meetings are guided by a meeting chair, and with one exception in this data set, this chair is typically Mary.

The second F that I examined is the function of SPC’s meetings. Meetings in SPC serve the functions of information dissemination and occasionally serve as deadlines for tasks.

Another function is for Mary to gather the opinions of other members on a decision that she is considering for the organization. The functions attributed to meetings are not seen as typically exclusive to this practice, and some functions of the meeting, particularly information dissemination, are also accomplished through online postings on Wiggio. Thus, meetings are an infrequent occurrence in SPC, and rarely is there a regular pattern to when meetings occur.

Finally, the norms of interpretation also provide insight into the function of SPC’s meetings.

Early in the organization’s lifetime meetings were associated with being a burden on the organization and its members, which may have contributed to the infrequency with which meetings occur. Meetings were still seen as being called for and fulfilling some purpose associated with them. Finally, meetings also served the function of “showing we’re a team” to the members of SPC. Together, this paints the picture of a purposeful, community-building, yet perhaps burdensome function of meetings in SPC.

The final F that I examined in this thesis related to meetings is the meeting figure. From a ventriloquism perspective, a figure is a nonhuman agent that is incarnated by a speaker and then is said to make a difference. Examining a meeting as an agent is new to both of the research perspectives that I take here. The ethnography of communication focuses on the communicative agency of nonhuman objects, such as thunder that speaks (Hymes, 1974) or the wind and water to which people in the Blackfeet tribe listen (Carbaugh & Boromisza-Habashi, 2011).

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2006), but has expanded outward to other objects (Cooren, 2010), beliefs and values (Cooren et al., 2013), and attitudes (Van Vuuren & Cooren, 2010). In the case of SPC, the meeting figure acts as a gatekeeper, allowing and enabling certain kinds of talk and actions to happen between the members of SPC that are necessary for organizing and accomplishing work. These kinds of actions include “showing we’re a team” and “working things out”. As a gatekeeper, the meeting serves a purpose in organizing that is akin to the purposes of human members. Thus, the meeting figure can be considered one of the essential players in SPC.

How do all of these Fs work together to provide a relatively holistic view of SPC’s meetings? Form, function, and figure are categories that are only theoretically distinct. For the members of SPC there are simply “meetings” and the various implications of what kind of interaction holding a meeting entails. The form of meetings is related to how meetings can function. For example, the topics and results that are usually involved in meetings implicate an informational function of meetings, and vice versa the informational function of meetings implicates certain topics and results that a meeting will include. Likewise, both form and function are related to the figure of meetings. The meeting figure acts as a gatekeeper in SPC, and when it is invoked by human actors, then it can function in certain ways to foster the kinds of talk that may be then associated with the meeting form. The form and function of meetings likewise constrains the meeting figure to certain kinds of gatekeeping actions.

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If theory provides us with a lens through which to view our world, then one theory clarifies certain aspects of a phenomenon while obscuring others. In this research, I have used two theoretical (and methodological) perspectives to clarify my focus on SPC’s meetings. The

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communication events, practices, and codes of groups, communities, and organizations. This theoretical perspective works to clarify the culturally particular forms and functions of communication, and how communicative practices are mutually constitutive with the cultural world in which participants inhabit. This perspective excels at revealing patterns of the local and particular. Thus, it is perhaps less invested in discussing the general, the universal, and the anomalous. Except for a few exceptional cases, this perspective tends not to be sensitive to the influence that nonhuman objects have on human actors and communication.

The second perspective, ventriloquism, excels in revealing how our organizational worlds are comprised of both human and nonhuman agents that act in the process of organizing.

Ventriloquism also purports itself to address both the local and the general levels, albeit rejecting the dichotomy between these. The general, such as structures, organizations, and dominating forces, are examined as they are invoked, incarnated, and enacted in the local, everyday conversations between organizational members. This perspective is less interested in how our ways of communicating with each other are founded in local culture. Ventriloquism assigns marginal significance to the form and function of talk, rather taking it as a resource for examining how agency and action is constructed through talk.



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