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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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Although seemingly opposite in what these perspectives reveal and neglect, they are not insurmountably incompatible. Both perspectives take communication as constitutive of our social and organizational worlds. Both perspectives also use microanalytic methods of discourse to examine how our worlds are constituted. Organizations and organizing practices are topics of interest for both perspectives, although more so for ventriloquism than the ethnography of communication. On the foundational levels, these theoretical perspectives are compatible. Both

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study it. They do diverge from there. The ethnography of communication tends to focus on the form and function of communication in groups, examining the cultural patterns behind our communication. Ventriloquism has been uninterested in this focus on form and function, except for the differences between talk and text (Cooren, 2004). Instead, ventriloquism tends to focus on the nonhuman figures that are enacted as agents in organizational scenes, including, as I propose here, communicative forms like meetings. The ethnography of communication has been uninterested in nonhuman agency unless the nonhuman agents are said to communicate with the human actors in a cultural scene (cf. Carbaugh & Boromisza-Habashi, 2011; Hymes, 1974).

These perspectives diverge and congregate around their own core concepts. The ethnography of communication congregates around culture, whereas ventriloquism congregates around agency. These concepts are not mutually exclusive, and each perspective, as I demonstrate in this thesis, can benefit from expanding toward the other. The ethnography of communication perspective benefits from expanding its conception of agency to include how nonhuman objects act in communities and organizations. Certainly we use objects such as a laptop with a webcam in order to hold meetings, as in SPC, but ethnographers of communication have not examined how that laptop enables and constrains action, and how it might also act in these meetings. As in the case of my thesis here, we also certainly use meetings, but rarely examine how meetings enable and constrain action like gatekeepers. Ventriloquism was founded on a belief that communication acts, which is compatible with the constitutive view of communication that the ethnography of communication takes. By asking ourselves how communication enacts objects, and how actions attributed to objects might be communicative, the leap to nonhuman agency as conceptualized by ventriloquism is no longer an insurmountable

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Likewise, ventriloquism benefits from expanding its view of communication and action to include how these are culturally constituted. Objects and figures do not arise from a vacuum of time and space, but rather they have been constituted by people for specific purposes, and thus have histories. Communicative forms, like meetings, also have such histories (see van Vree, 1999). Objects, communicative forms, beliefs, values, and attitudes have all been shaped by culture on a local level. These are all symbolic objects, and they are all part of our worlds.

Ventriloquism has recognized that figures are shaped by the human actors that ventriloquize them. It has also recognized that these figures are part of our organizations, existing among rather than beneath the human actors in a scene. To include culture in this perspective, a researcher would need to recognize the particularity of the ventriloquized objects. For example, the meeting figure would not act the same way in another organization as it does in SPC, because the form and function of meetings vary between organizations and groups. From the ethnography of communication’s view, to call this figure cultural is almost simply a substitute for calling this figure particular to a group of people.

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This thesis makes contributions to the field through the two perspectives that I took in this research. First, to the ethnography of communication, I have contributed to the cataloguing and analysis of the forms and functions of various communicative events and practices. The form and function of SPC’s meetings are unique and based on a budding organizational culture.

In the future a researcher could use this catalogue entry, so to speak, to compare SPC’s meetings to other communicative events and practices. I have also introduced one possibility for using time to study how meetings and other communication practices change, rather than reproducing

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address norms of interpretation, but other categories could be studied through a similar means of detailing a snapshot of the strategies used in one meeting, and then comparing snapshots to find themes that can be traced across time.

I have also made a contribution to ventriloquism. So far, the perspective has ignored how types of communication may be invoked as figures, and how these types even have agency in our organizations. As I have shown here, meetings in SPC served a gatekeeping role in the organization. In order for certain kinds of communication and action to occur, the meeting figure had to be invoked in the scene. The nature of the gatekeeping role of meetings was often discussed in SPC’s meetings through metacommunicative talk. Metacommunicative talk, therefore, could serve as a resource for ventriloquism to examine how our communicative forms (are said to) act.





A final contribution of my work is the comparison between the ethnography of communication and ventriloquism, and a proposed working relationship between them, as I detailed in the previous section. The working relationship between the ethnography of communication and ventriloquism could work for scholars who primarily associate with either area. As I have shown in this thesis, one way to use both perspectives is to first address how one perspective would view a phenomenon and then address how the other would view the same or similar phenomenon. Using both perspectives widens the area of focus for each, allowing a researcher to provide a more holistic view of the phenomenon of focus, as I have done in this thesis.

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held during this time, and I was able to attend seven of them. Additionally, only three out of the eight board members were able to schedule interviews with me, and only one person, Mary, scheduled several of them with me throughout the length of my study.

This study was, secondly, limited by my ability to participate only through virtual means.

Although I was in Pennsylvania for a total of three months out of the eighteen months of my study, most of the meetings and other activities that SPC conducted were held during the fifteen months while I was living and attending school in Colorado. By virtually attending meetings, as I discussed in chapter three, my field of sight was limited primarily to Mary and one or two other members of a meeting party. Thus, I missed potentially useful and insightful nonverbal behaviors exhibited by the members not in frame. I also usually missed pre-meeting and postmeeting talk, and could not participate in any of the informal side conversations that occasionally happened in the more recent meetings. As I addressed in chapter four, my physical location in Colorado has also prevented me from becoming acquainted with some of the new volunteers who have recently joined SPC.

Finally, the organization’s state affected my study. Mary had related the lack of a 501(c)(3) certification to a luxury of time that allows for fewer meetings to occur and less often.

An organization with this status may have meetings more often, which would have provided me with more data with which to work. SPC is also still in a budding phase of its organizational culture, which might mean that the form, function, and figure of meetings are still changing and altering, and therefore have not yet settled into a set pattern. More mature organizations that have had held more meetings may have developed a definite pattern for their form, function, and potential figure.

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On its own, the ethnography of communication has some interesting future directions that it could take in studying meetings. First, what are the forms and functions of various kinds of meetings, within and outside of organizations? Future studies could catalogue a variety of forms and functions to be compared across cases. Differences could be found between community meetings and organizational meetings, for example, to expand upon the initial findings of Tracy and Dimock (2004). Similarities and differences could be found across organizations to examine why certain aspects of meetings change to meet the needs of certain kinds of organizations. Do nonprofit organizations hold meetings in a different way than for-profit organizations? Issues of power could also be examined, using Carbaugh’s (2007) critical mode of inquiry. Who usually has power in meetings? What privilege does this grant them? My study in particular challenges ethnographers who study meetings to examine how members of organizations and communities may treat meetings as agents or gatekeepers. Such examination would address the reciprocal relationship that Schwartzman (1989) posed, that members use and are used by meetings. These are all questions and issues that the ethnography of communication, on its own terms, could address. However, to productively engage with audiences outside of our small community of scholars, we need to engage in their conversations. If ethnographers of communication only focus on form and function, what are they (we) leaving out?

Ventriloquism could also take some interesting future directions based on my findings.

First, it could examine how communication practices act and are enacted as figures in organizations. Language, talk, and its various forms, like meetings, are technologies that have been created for use by particular groups. Meetings have been shaped for organizational use, and thus can be ventriloquized in particular ways like memos or documents, which are other

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how they enable and constrain certain kinds of action to occur, whether in a gatekeeping role or as an agent of some other kind. Meetings could also be researched as an agent in other organizations to find whether there are certain generalized ways of ventriloquizing meetings or if these are only particular.

There are also future directions that research using both of these perspectives could take, in perhaps a dissertation. Further theoretical work could be done to determine whether these perspectives could be combined to form a unique perspective drawing from the strengths of each.

More empirical work could be completed to examine meetings as this unique perspective emerges from the combination of both the ethnography of communication and ventriloquism.

However, even without this merging, a possible future direction would be to expand from meetings to examine other organizing practices from both lenses. Such work would further illuminate the strengths, weaknesses, and idiosyncrasies of using both of these perspectives together to examine the same phenomena.

Finally, out of this research, there are a few directions that SPC could consider regarding its meetings. The specific form and function of meetings may allow insight into aspects of meetings that may be changed to make them better. For example, positioning the webcam so that members virtually attending meetings can see more members attending in-person might better foster “showing we’re a team”. The members of SPC may also more closely consider how they interpret meetings. By noticing the changes between early interpretations and more recent interpretations, then the members of SPC may better recognize that meetings are less of a burden and more about “showing we’re a team”. The members of SPC could also consider some of the implications of the meeting as a gatekeeper for the organization. Without meetings, then the

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accomplished and (re-)organization could be ensured. Currently, this is the key role that meetings play for SPC. Recognizing this gatekeeping role may strengthen the position of meetings in SPC, perhaps giving them a stronger purpose and leading to better productivity and

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agency, agency is hotly debated term among organizational communication scholars. The journal, Organization, published an issue on defining text and agency from several perspectives, including Cooren’s (2004) and Taylor and Robichaud’s (2004) pieces that are cited here. One of the staunchest critics of the ventriloquism definition of agency is McPhee (2004), who, based on structuration theory, defends agency as a means of engaging with texts, which he also defined differently than the Montreal School defined texts. Other conceptualizations of agency in this issue are provided by Conrad (2004), Fairhurst (2004), Hardy (2004), and Putnam and Cooren (2004). This is to say that although the definition of agency provided here is true for those using ventriloquism, as I do in this study, this is not generalizable to other organizational scholars.

When discussing how to accommodate potential volunteers who are not very computer savvy, members still made assumptions that anyone who volunteers would have an email address and at least know how to use email.

The December 2013 meeting did include burritos, chips, guacamole, and salsa purchased by Mary for the board to eat during the meeting. When asked about the food, she said that we, the board, had asked for a “fiesta meeting”, so she brought the food for it. Interestingly, this “fiesta meeting” did not include much metacommunication about meetings or Wiggio, which are two out of the five normal topics included in a meeting.

I do wonder if the use of technology does emphasize this team aspect of SPC, or if instead it reinforces Mary’s importance to the meeting ritual, because she is usually the only full person

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Aakhus, M., & Jackson, S. (2005). Technology, interaction, and design. In K. L. Fitch, & R. E.

Sanders (Eds.), Handbook of language and social interaction (pp. 411-436). Mahwah,

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Agar, M. H. (2008). The professional stranger: An informal introduction to ethnography (2nd ed.). Bingley, UK: Emerald Group Publishing.



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