«University of Colorado, Boulder CU Scholar Communication Graduate Theses & Dissertations Communication Spring 5-28-2014 Form, Function, and Figure: ...»
By taking meetings to be a changing communicative practice, I must also own my participation in the changes. As both participant and researcher, this placed me in a position to influence the changing of the communicative practice that I studied. Some ethnographers of communication have been wary of participating in such change, especially when approaching communities from an outsider’s perspective. Philipsen (2008) discussed his own attempt, saying “Forty years ago I tried to change a culture. I failed” (p. 1). Philipsen tried and failed to change the racist talk in an afterschool program in inner city Chicago (see Philipsen 1975, 1976). This failure propelled him to change his goal “from trying to change a culture to working and living among people in a way that I might be useful to them, on their terms, yet without sacrificing altogether my ideals” (p. 2). Although this failure propelled him into this research tradition, which has been taken up by many other communication scholars after him, his failure also serves as a warning to ambitious scholars who believe in changing or altering the cultures with which they work.
meetings. Part of this awareness included seeing how ethnographers have previously handled studies in organizations.
Ethnography of Communication in Organizations Organizations have served as a site of study for ethnographers of communication since the 1980s. Carbaugh (1985) linked his study of a television studio to the organizational culture literature that was popular at the time. He provided a definition of organizational culture combining literature from the traditions of the ethnography of communication and organizational communication. At that time, organizational culture was a popular metaphor used by organizational communication researchers (Taylor, McDonald & Fortney, 2013). Carbaugh (1985) states that organizational culture is “a shared system of symbols and meanings, performed in speech, that constitutes and reveals a sense of work life; it is a particular way of speaking and meaning, a way of sense-making, that recurs in the oral activities surrounding common tasks” (p.
37). Taking this definition, I mean to examine the particular ways of speaking and sense-making that constitute and surround the common task of meetings. These particularities establish an aspect of the work life in SPC. The sense-making that Carbaugh refers to here is similar to the sense-making that Schwartzman’s (1989) framework category for norms of interpretation includes. Therefore, by explicating the norms of interpretation that SPC has for meetings, I am explicating a cultural view of meetings.
Since Carbaugh’s work on organizational culture, three ethnographers of communication have notably used the perspective to look at issues in organizations. The first of these is Baxter (1993), who conducted research in a small university. Baxter was a member of this university at the time of her research, and held a position as a faculty member and an appointed part-time
appointed by the board of trustees to improve the governance of the organization. The first of these codes, called “talking things through”, favored verbal communication and collegiality between members, and was preferred by faculty members. The second code, called “putting it in writing”, favored written communication and professionalism between members, and was preferred by members of the administration. Baxter showed that these codes indexed different models of personhood, social relations, and beliefs about channel effectiveness and efficiency.
In her conclusion, she wrote that the tension between the two groups accessing these different codes could also be due to competition over organizational resources, not just a tension between codes. This is an example of how limiting a study to only the ethnography of communication could limit the researcher’s potential understanding of the complexity of what is happening within a community.
Later, another ethnographer, Ruud (1995, 2000) found a similar situation in his research with a regional symphony. Viewing that group as a speech community allowed Ruud to find that the artists and administrators used two conflicting codes, or sets of rules and norms for speech.
The study, thus, showed that one community could have multiple speech codes that are used by different members to achieve various ends. In that particular symphony, the codes were interdependent and competed with each other, which matched the tensions felt by symphony members. In Ruud’s (2000) applied research, he recommended that symphony members should attend to these competing codes and understand how the discourse (re)creates their social relationships and organizational life. While he did not explicitly state in his research report whether he gave this research and these recommendations to the symphony members, this is a
such recommendations to SPC’s members could prove fruitful as they continue to change and potentially improve meetings.
More recently, Milburn’s (2009) study of two nonprofit organizations shows how members of nonprofit organizations organize, communicate with and about each other, and what particular speech acts constitute membership and the organization itself. An important communicative event for these organizations, as with SPC and my research in this project, is the meeting. In meetings, Milburn notes that speakers utilize certain ways of making arguments during decision-making in meetings that are associated with certain membership categories. By accessing the same membership categories through their speech, speakers established their membership in the organization and speech community. Milburn utilized membership categorization analysis along with the ethnography of communication in order to show how through membering this group developed a sense of community as an organization. Her focus of investigation more closely aligns with Schwartzman’s (1989) call for research about meetings, and with the current literatures on meetings. However, unlike Schwartzman, Milburn (2009) did not examine the form and function of the meetings themselves.
The second perspective that I take in this research is ventriloquism, as informed by the Montreal School version of the communicative constitution of organizations (CCO). Like the ethnography of communication, this perspective relies on a social constructionist ontology. I will first situate the perspective within organizational discourse studies and the Montreal School.
Then I will describe ventriloquism and its focus on agency as a major analytical concept.
Organizational Discourse Studies
as discursive constructions (Alvesson & Kärreman, 2000a, 2000b; Fairhurst & Putnam, 2004;
Putnam & Fairhurst, 2001). Taylor (2013) explains that this is part of the turn in organizational communication studies toward studying the process of organizing. Scholars in this subdivision use various discourse analytic methods to study the everyday talk between organizational members, and how this talk may reflect larger Discourses (Alvesson & Kärreman, 2000b).
Fairhurst and Putnam (2004) pose that there are three distinct traditions of research within this research area. Each perspective casts the discourse/Discourse to organization relationship differently. The first takes the organization as an object, and it serves as a container for discourse and talk. They pose the ethnography of communication as one of the methodologies that tends to take this perspective, citing Philipsen (1992) as an example. I would agree that the four studies that I examined in the previous section (Carbaugh, 1985; Baxter, 1993; Milburn, 2009; Ruud, 1995, 2000) also fit in this perspective as opposed to the other two. The second organizational discourse perspective sees discourse as existing prior to the organization, thus casting the organization in a constant state of becoming. Scholars conducting discourse studies informed by Foucault (1972, 1979) typically fall into this perspective. Finally, the third perspective that Fairhurst and Putnam (2004) describe is the grounded-in-action perspective.
This encompasses structuration theory (Giddens, 1984), actor-network theory (Latour, 2005), and the Montreal School informed by Taylor and Van Every (2000). This perspective focuses on how discourse and organizations are mutually constitutive of each other.
The Montreal School The Montreal School of CCO, especially Cooren’s (2010; Cooren, Matte, Benoit-Barné, & Brummans, 2013) ventriloquism perspective, is heavily informed by Latour (1996, 2005),
(Austin 1962/2006). Taylor, Cooren, Giroux, and Robichaud’s (1996) Communication Theory piece and Taylor and Van Every’s (2000) tome are often cited as the foundation of the Montreal School perspective. This perspective focuses on how everyday talk, what they term “conversation”, turns into more permanent “texts”, both literally and figuratively. Literal texts may include meeting minutes, articles of incorporation, or memos, whereas figurative texts can include issues like authority, organizational identity, and agency. These texts then contextualize future conversations in organizations (Taylor & Robichaud, 2004; Taylor & Van Every, 2000).
Scholars in this tradition thus reject the duality of structure and action, and instead emphasize that action yields structure (Ashcraft, Kuhn, & Cooren, 2009). This cyclical process renders the micro-macro divide and debate unnecessary to understanding the link between discourse and organizations (Fairhurst & Putnam, 2004; Milburn, 2011). From this foundation, Cooren (2004, 2006, 2010) developed ventriloquism as a perspective for examining how objects and other nonhuman entities are constituted as part of the organizing process, which I examine further in the next section.
Ventriloquizing Agency Cooren’s (2004, 2006, 2010) work introduced nonhuman agents as an important part of the organizing process. Nonhuman agents do not possess such agency on their own; humans are still an essential part to their “hybrid agency” (Cooren, 2004). Humans, as ventriloquists, make these nonhuman agents, or figures, speak and act in their conversations (Cooren, 2010). Once given voice or animation, these figures, reified by human speakers, act on humans in particular ways, enabling and constraining their further actions. Cooren (2006) has defined agency as “making a difference”, and thus an agent as “what or who makes a difference” for organizing (p.
communicating with (and through) others, or acting on behalf of the human members of organizations.
Cooren (2004) focused particularly on how texts are given agency and then subsequently act on humans. He pointed out that “these texts, especially when they become more autonomous (such as policies, contracts, forms), reaffirm the identity and existence of the organization” (Cooren, 2004, p. 380). Later Cooren (2010) added that other nonhuman figures could be given agency as well as texts. This agency can be seen in utterances such as a technician saying, “we thank you for the note… It has- it has been honored” (Cooren, 2010, p. 28), to show that the note detailed some instruction that he had to honor. The note was produced by a human agent, the “you” that he refers to, but once posted it took agency over the technician and the others implied by the “we” of this utterance. Other examples of nonhuman figures that have been studied are euthanasia documents (Brummans, 2007), attitudes (Van Vuuren & Cooren, 2010), and beliefs or values (Cooren et al., 2013). When speakers orient toward objects, they can attribute some agency to these objects, or they can also speak about how the object exerted its agency over their actions.
Cooren (2010) chose ventriloquism as a metaphor for communication in order to show that when people invoke interests, passions, or things in conversation, they act as a ventriloquist who gives life to a figure or “dummy”. Cooren et al. (2013) point out that it is also possible to consider “the ventriloquist as the one who is being ventriloquized” (p. 263, emphasis in original).
The ventriloquist is needed to act as a voice for the figure, and the ventriloquist may make a conscious choice or decision to bring a figure into conversation, but once given a voice, the figure constrains what the ventriloquist can use it to say. For example, a figure of “safety” could
figure constrains the ventriloquist to particular actions that accord with the character of the figure.
In either case, whether the ventriloquist or the figure is ventriloquizing the other, ventriloquism becomes something distinct from the two (or more) people interacting with each other. Rather than wholly concerning themselves with each other, and with each other’s thoughts, opinions, and actions, they are taking particular values or objects to have thoughts, opinions, and actions that are relevant to a central concern of the conversation. Seeing these figures as relevant to a conversation, a person may lend its voice to a figure, or have a figure lend its voice to them. A form of attachment to a figure is enacted when one ventriloquizes with that figure. This attachment may denote both constraint and care for a figure (Cooren et al., 2013), and thus invoking a figure is not only a speaking strategy or tactic toward some end. A person who speaks in the name of a particular value or communicative form could over time even become the recognized voice of that particular figure (Cooren et al., 2013).