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Postmodern Theory
Bryan C. Taylor

I dedicate this chapter to Leonard C. Hawes, whose voice may be heard throughout this chapter.


ostmodernism is an umbrella term that is used in different ways by different speakers. As a result, this term defies easy summary. Typically, however, speakers invoking “postmodernism” are committed to exploring the complex relationships of power, knowledge, and discourse created in the struggle between social groups. Additionally, postmodernism is intertwined with several other perspectives that challenge the conduct of business as usual. These traditions include feminism (Mumby, 1996), neoMarxism, poststructuralism (Parker, 1995), and postcolonialism. Because many of these perspectives are covered elsewhere in this volume—e.g., chapters 4 (rhetorical theory), 5 (critical theory), and 7 (feminist theory)—I encourage you to refer to these chapters and explore their intersections. My charge is to review for you the relationship between postmodernism and organizational communication. I’m game, but to do this I’ll need to make some strategic choices. Generally, I proceed by mapping this relationship as a convergence of several phenomena. I’ll construct and evaluate this map in six sections.




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First, I’ll examine the terms modernity and postmodernity as descriptors of the contemporary period characterized by dramatic changes in global politics, economics, and culture. These changes have also been described as postmodernism. Second, I’ll examine how these changes have shaped—and been shaped by—recent changes in postindustrial organizations. These developments have also been described as creating postmodern organizations. Third, I’ll review key assumptions and critical applications of postmodernism as an intellectual resource for theorizing and studying organizational communication. Fourth, I’ll review what are commonly noted as the strengths and weaknesses of this perspective. Fifth, I’ll discuss a specific case from my own research program. In this discussion, I’ll show how postmodern theory can help us to better understand communication in—and about—organizations that have produced nuclear weapons for the United States during the Cold War. I also discuss here my own journey in discovering this topic, and in developing its relationships with postmodern theory. In this section, I hope to illustrate how organizational communication research is both a personal and a professional activity that joins the abstractions of theory with the messy, sensuous, and improvisational qualities of life as it is actually lived. Finally, I conclude this chapter with some questions for your own reflection. In an important sense, postmodernism invites you—and your fellow organizational members—to take over “writing” this chapter at that point.

Converging Elements of Postmodernism and Organizational Communication
Modernity, Postmodernity, and Postmodernism
The term “postmodernism” is an object of celebration and scorn, both in intellectual discourse and in cultural vernacular. Through repeated use and enduring controversy, it has assumed several forms, including a powerful theoretical resource (e.g., used to analyze self-conscious cultural forms), a political lightning rod (usually struck by the Right to discredit the Left), and a cultural cliché (a catch-all to describe anything that seems unfamiliar, innovative, or transgressive). The ambiguity of this term stems partly from the enormous work that we ask it do. That work involves adequately conceptualizing and engaging the phenomena of postmodernity. This term is used to describe the historical period that has, presumably, succeeded modernity. Modernity, in turn, describes a global historical epoch spanning the 16th to mid-20th centuries. Modernity is often characterized as the heir to—and

. • The rise of multinational corporations and the internationalization of markets. and finally.g. Although the relationship between modernity and postmodernity is often cast as a dichotomy. recruitment. • A drastically fluctuating world economy that binds the fates of nation-states through international trade and loans. integration. It implies that each entity is independent and monolithic. when in fact both are marked by contingency and variety. differentiation (e. Needless to say.g. the experience of modernity for its affected groups has been marked by fluctuation and contradiction.g. Some postmodernists. and the associated industrialization of production. These include • The development of mechanical and electrical technologies.06-Mumby. the simultaneous management of multiple commitments to various groups). for example. and communal traditions. • Large-scale demographic upheaval. observers have categorized varieties of postmodernism that differ based on their proponents’ reaction to changing conditions. in turn. Modernity is characterized by several dominant elements.. • The normalization of “instrumental” rationality (i. affirm and embrace change (although critics have noted that this stance has been appropriated for questionable ends. Other postmodernists are more skeptical.. Postmodernism. • The growth of nation-states projecting ideological influence and military force throughout the globe. nostalgia and hope created by differences between the status quo and actual or imagined alternatives). following the destruction of traditions and the sensing of new possibilities for identity). 1997). including cataclysmic urban migration that disrupted rural. this image is not helpful. • Theoretical revolutions in the physical and social sciences. seeking to direct change toward the subversion of modern rationality. agrarian. For example. • The growth of consumer capitalism. In this way.. describes a series of breaks and continuities between modern and contemporary conditions. 1982).g. organization (e. narrow means-end reasoning) and bureaucracy as paradigms for social life. and reflection (e.qxd 8/3/2004 7:01 PM Page 115 Postmodern Theory——115 fulfillment of—the Enlightenment triumph of Truth and Reason over medieval-era superstition and ignorance (Berman. • The development of powerful mass media systems that enable both totalitarian control of publics and their fragmentation into markets and audiences.. and compulsory performance within institutions). These experiences include transformation (e. it’s best to think of modernism and postmodernism as existing in a mutually constitutive relationship (Mumby. Neither . as in the “creative destruction” of organizational re-engineering). many of which reflected positivist faith in achieving objective knowledge of phenomena.e.

everyday life.. information. The imperatives of corporate survival in this economy include relentless consolidation and/or expansion of markets. Foucault (1972. located in India). Gergen (1991). rapid exploitation of temporary opportunities for improved production. and marketing created by innovations in computing and telecommunication technologies.. • The rise of global media systems whose continuous operations collapse traditional boundaries of space and time. as brands) and knowledge (e. the programs circulated by these systems collapse important distinctions that traditionally have shaped modern cultural identities (e. This is obviously a very broad field to survey. each requires the continued existence of the other in order to appear—through opposition—distinct and coherent. traditions.. as innovation). • The decline of industrial capitalism and the rise of a transnational..g. One consequence for U. 2). Best and Kellner (2001) argue that “the transition to a postmodern society is bound up with fundamental changes that are transforming pivotal phenomena from warfare to education to politics. entertainment. and Said (1983). through immigration). 1978).g. but rather . Derrida (1976. In fact. necessarily produce knowledge or wisdom. social relations. In their recent survey of postmodernism.qxd 8/3/2004 7:01 PM Page 116 116——Engaging Organizational Communication Theory and Research form of life is separate or total.S. information-age economy. 1973b. 1979). each contains the seeds and residues of the other.g.g. Jameson (1983). organizations of this globalization involves the “offshoring” of corporate jobs and functions to international subsidiaries and contractors (e. identities. the Las Vegas “strip”) that relentlessly stimulates their impulses. This stimulation does not. and the subsequent dispersal of people. while reshaping the modes of work. In their cumulative effects. however.” “public” and “private. Some of its most famous explorers (many of whom are European) include Baudrillard (1994). These primary commentators—and their numerous followers and interpreters—have consistently noted particular conditions that bridge the 20th and 21st centuries (Foster. Laclau and Mouffe (1985). Bhaba (1994). decontextualized information. distribution. Lyotard (1984). communication.06-Mumby.g. in which people are encouraged to view themselves as the audience of a flickering spectacle (e.g. and commodities at accelerated rates across geopolitical boundaries (e.. and the commodification of symbols (e..” and “surface” and “depth”). between “high art” and “popular culture. 1973a. These include • The disintegration of colonial systems historically ruled by imperial nation-states. Deleuze and Guattari (1987). Rorty (1989). 1983). These systems create a rapidly shifting phantasm of fragmented. and even bodily existence and life-forms” (p.

Instead. realism.g.. • The erosion of traditional identities premised on stability and essence. fragmentation. intuitive.g. other. the Internet).g.qxd 8/3/2004 7:01 PM Page 117 Postmodern Theory——117 hyper-realities with no “real” referents. these narratives of diversity form potential resources for new and liberating forms of “identity politics” (e. religion. and theatrical modes of resistance (e. reflective—and serious—“play. Powerful groups have had to rethink their traditional strategies for maintaining their positions as they respond to challenges posed by other interests using spontaneous. • Increasing suspicion and rejection of “foundational” narratives that traditionally have authorized the dominant institutions of modern Western culture (e.” As a result. This form of politics is characterized less by participants’ pursuit of strategic goals than by their continuous. and simultaneity. and world. and internal consciousness as frameworks for creating plots and characters. and Christianity. Instead. partiality. original. of heteronormativity). the cyborg) are characterized by ambiguity. .. Personal identity is not viewed as the author or the referent of communication.. including positivism.. For example. permanent. and they combine elements from diverse cultural media and genres in new and unexpected ways (bricolage). they recycle old cultural forms to create newbut-partly-familiar forms (pastiche).g. politics.g. These environments are populated by simulations. coherence. These practices reject artistic modernism’s reliance on linearity. It is one potential form of subjectivity.. it is the effect of discourses that construct and enforce preferred narratives for understanding the self. and copies of something else that has no single. Alternate. postmodern models of identity (e. subordinate. the practice of informal “tactics” in everyday struggle against oppression). gays and lesbians) and challenge hegemonic values (e. traditional relationships between dominant. These stories often are produced by marginalized cultural members (e. “real” source. “the individual” has long dominated modern psychology and philosophy as a figure believed to “author” original thought and then express it as intentional speech or writing. situated. Alternately. and science). and temporary experience. and universal Truth for their audiences. • The rise of new creative and artistic practices (e. fluidity.g. and subversive voices in culture have become less formal and predictable.06-Mumby..g. the schizophrenic. What is common across these challenges is critical disenchantment with the promise of grand stories to provide absolute. models. dispersed. liberal democracy. in literature and television). As they circulate and multiply in culture. patriarchy.. contemporary cultures increasingly embrace the “small” stories of local.

postmodern organizations favor fragmented (niche) markets. critique. . are suddenly vulnerable (Mumby. relationships into things . and reflexivity to heighten our awareness of paradox. It uses the strategies of blankness. It works like a virus to disrupt the tendencies of modernist thinking that “turn verbs into nouns. consistent goals. evolving goals. Since the 1970s. One of the first scholars to analyze this process was American sociologist Daniel Bell (1973). Horsfield.” Because knowledge is inherently abstract and symbolic. you’re not alone. maddeningly. irony. ambiguity. and is exchanged through communication systems. It reminds us that our knowledge and identities—all of the taken-for-granted elements of human organization—might have been. p. 1995. 1997. These elements. Clegg. They are “problematized”—recovered for the purposes of interrogation. and improvised strategies. .” “post-Fordist.” • Where modern organizations favor mass markets. who argued that modern industry was being rapidly transformed by the computerization of information. and localized autonomy in employee decision making.” Several commentators have surveyed these changes (Cheney & Carroll. They note the following characteristics: • Where modern organizations favor centralized authority and hierarchy. 24–27. this argument was especially relevant for organizational communication scholars. and predictable strategies. 1996) replaces the cybernetic drone of authoritarian “command and control. and transformation. postmodern organizations favor decentralized authority. or permanent. organizations have increasingly adopted new structures and cultures described alternately as “postindustrial. 1990. and difference. pp. and might yet be. 2000. process into structure.” and “postmodern. 589). Hatch.qxd 8/3/2004 7:01 PM Page 118 118——Engaging Organizational Communication Theory and Research If you have found this list disorienting or disturbing. transcendent. Postmodernism is. Many of Bell’s predictions were correct. Bell concluded that this transformation would lead to the decline of the manufacturing sector and the rise of a new class of technicians and professionals known as “knowledge workers. Postindustrialism Let’s turn now to the ways that contemporary organizations have both shaped and been shaped by postmodernism. 1995. uncertainty. and constructs into concrete (reified) objects” (Chia. both urgent and playful. Parker. . otherwise. Networks replace pyramids as the dominant icon of organizational structure. 1997. emergence. Dynamic. which we may have viewed as total. lateral relationships within and between units. collaborative “team talk” (Donnellon. 1997).06-Mumby. 1992). Chia.

g. externally imposed organizational discipline is replaced by internally sustained self-discipline. postmodern organizations favor sensitive and interactive technologies enabling customized. Traditional boundaries—such as those between suppliers. are sustained as “new” values of service and responsiveness (e. in the contexts of joint ventures and industry-wide integration of quality standards). those tied to job descriptions and performance contracts). Employees gain new flexibility—and responsibility—in fashioning consistent identities amid controlled chaos (e.06-Mumby. certified production.qxd 8/3/2004 7:01 PM Page 119 Postmodern Theory——119 • Where modern organizations favor bureaucratic structures that formalize roles.e. successfully anticipate and respond to change). • Where modern organizations favor unity and similarity. and based on consensus. and procedures. In this process. and customers—become more permeable and unstable (e. postmodern organizations favor “agile” cultures that unfold dynamically in conditions of paradox and uncertainty. and custom. postmodern organizations favor complex.. tradition. and creativity in the service of organizational performance (e. in the organizational imposition of quotas for and monitoring of phone calls processed by employees of customer service centers). reflexivity... • Where modern organizations favor technologies designed for routine. Paradigms of quality and innovation replace the brute benchmarks of output rate and volume. postmodern organizations favor general and continuous empowerment enabling employees to be proactive (i. as “entrepreneurial” change agents). • Where modern organizations favor coherent cultures grounded in stability.. flexible work processes.. • Where modern organizations favor employee conformity to goals and policies. by recognizing and innovating ineffective procedures).g. identities. however. emergent. rules. negotiated relationships in which employees cultivate dedication. they create multiskilled employees and holistic. • Where modern organizations favor differentiation of units.. competitors. Competitiveness and efficiency. In this process. postmodern organizations favor diversity and difference as resources for increasing useful knowledge and effective performance. authority that is traditionally tied to rank and position is rearticulated with personal or group possession of situationally relevant knowledge. postmodern organizations favor de-differentiation of those elements. mass production. and functions.g. . • Where modern organizations favor standardized systems of reward and punishment (e. postmodern organizations favor democratic processes that are informal. In this process.g.g.

first. It implies that “postmodern organizational communication” is not necessarily tied to postindustrial organizations. not the rule. flux.g. and to offer replacements that are alternately compelling. and ambiguity cuts across these two spheres. Intensive discussion of postmodernism in organizational studies flowered shortly after the field’s adoption of interpretivism (e. Understanding this process requires. Specifically.” One meaning for this term is “communication occurring in postindustrial organizations. As a result.” We have partly characterized these forms and processes in this section. is “theories and studies of organizational communication that are produced using postmodernism as an intellectual resource.g. emergence. 1983).qxd 8/3/2004 7:01 PM Page 120 120——Engaging Organizational Communication Theory and Research Although this list is not comprehensive. 1995). we see that the experience of speed. Postmodernist Theory: Key Assumptions and Critical Applications We arrive now at our main focus: how scholars make use of postmodernism to theorize and study organizational communication. The pure type is probably the exception. We can conclude this section with two caveats. 1998). however. as the “organizational culture” movement) during the 1980s (see Putnam & Pacanowsky. to avoid misunderstanding. image. for example. most contemporary organizations reflect some postmodern tendencies. The second point is that these changes create ambiguity surrounding the term “postmodern organizational communication. A second meaning. in challenging its preferred history by recovering suppressed narratives. it suggests how the organizational and cultural conditions of postmodernism are related (Carlone & Taylor. They note that organizational communicators must find shared grounds of meaning even as conditions conspire to question cherished certainties. In organizational theory. One might conduct.. dubious. 2000. and exhausting. a brief history of how organizational studies assimilated postmodernism. Crucial here was a series of articles published in the international . connection.” This meaning emphasizes how postmodernist scholars view and engage organizational communication. style. Boje.06-Mumby.. postmodernists pit these experiences against the reassuring verities of functionalism. we can recall this distinction when we are using this term. 1988). Pacanowsky. for example. or vice versa. If for no other motivation than to seem current with their competitors. a postmodernist study of a thoroughly modern organization (e. these forms and processes typically coexist in organizations as tendencies. The first is to recall that although it may be useful to identify exemplars of modern or postmodern organizational communication (Horsfield.

. 1988) that reviewed the relevance of postmodern figures and theories for organizational research. 1997. and power. Chia.. the creation of informal networks among dedicated postmodern scholars. conference panel slots. Parker. these developments indicated the emergence of a new theoretical “market.. As a result. 1992). 1993) and disciplinary handbooks (Jablin & Putnam. Gephart. and audiences. dissertations and conference panels) increasingly reflected and reinforced this trend. demonstrated by its inclusion in canonical texts such as undergraduate textbooks (Eisenberg & Goodall. Let’s proceed by discussing five claims that have proven central to organizational communication scholars as they work through the implications of this perspective. journal pages). Deetz’s (1992) analysis of postmodern theories of representation. and the uncoiling of arguments between organizational scholars about its significance and consequences (e. By the turn of the millennium. 1997. Feldman. 1988) exploration of connections between neo-Marxist and Foucauldian theories of narrative.g. This has led them to adopt the metaphor of (inter-)text to study organizational communication. special journal issues (Boje.qxd 8/3/2004 7:01 PM Page 121 Postmodern Theory——121 journal Organization Studies by Gibson Burrell (1988) and Robert Cooper (1989) (see also Cooper & Burrell. Hassard & Parker. textuality.” Because it is a multidisciplinary field. 1996. They view all human understandings and relationships to be constituted and mediated by language. 1993) volumes devoted to postmodernism. such as those attending the Alta (Utah) Conferences on Organizational Communication. May’s (1993) review of the implications of postmodernism for organizational theories of subjectivity. authored (Clegg. Mumby’s (1987. discussion of postmodernism had been normalized—if not legitimated—in the field. 2001). 1992). and Smircich and Calas’s (1987) deconstruction of discourses about organizational culture. subjectivity. organizational communication has always been sensitive to intellectual sea changes. ideology and power.g. The appearance of these primers was accompanied by an explosion of related activities: formal discussion of postmodernism at the meetings of professional groups such as the Academy of Management. As investments of scarce professional resources (e. Landmark works appearing during this period include Browning and Hawes’s (1991) analysis of “consulting” as exemplary postmodern organizational communication. 1990) and edited (Boje. 1995.06-Mumby. McSwite. Organizations Are (Inter-)Texts Postmodernists take discourse to be central and primary to all organizational processes.g. & Thatchenkery. its scholarly forms and practices (e..

In this process. they argue that. 2001). It allows scholars to reconstruct how subjectivity and social reality are (re-)produced in the organizational milieu. It foregrounds how dominant organizational interests invite participation in systems of discourse that nonetheless constrain the expression of experience. 1988) of discourse. organizational communication can be viewed as intertextual. values.g. of subcultural experience) within organizations that are hierarchically distributed and moralized (e. or consensual. Organizational communication. distinctions between “meaning” and “politics” collapse (Brown & McMillan. in supplementing their reading of official corporate statements with participation in systems of gossip and rumor). Historically. Communicators use these discourses in both prescribed and unofficial ways to make meaning (e. and its communicative reproduction.g. conventional patterns of action and understanding) reflects traces of determination by “deep structure” (core organizational rules and metaphors). Rather. As a result. they are not singular.qxd 8/3/2004 7:01 PM Page 122 122——Engaging Organizational Communication Theory and Research In this process. This metaphor extends the significance of organizational communication beyond its immediate. clarify. Most importantly. situational reference and productivity. and manage the conditions of their organizational lives. In this metaphor. In this process. It alerts us to the presence of multiple and competing narratives (e. postmodernists extend traditional usage of the metaphor organization-as-“text” by interpretivists (Westwood & Linstead. Taylor. the potential meaningfulness of organizational texts is both precarious and prolific. can be “read” as a text whose “surface structure” (its stable. and beliefs as resources for sensemaking and expression. stable. Postmodernists extend this metaphor in several ways. In this view. subsequently. they draw upon cultural ideologies that prescribe the use of particular norms. “illegitimate”).06-Mumby. textualization occurs as organizational members use discourse to define. as “official” vs.. It suggests that organizational members are simultaneously oriented to and by multiple discourses. This metaphor has legitimated the use of hermeneutic methods to unravel the nature and significance of communication by focusing on its modes of production and interpretation.. interpretivists have invoked this metaphor to study organizational culture as-if the symbolic document of a structured life-world. This position reflects a postmodernist view that texts are situated in a continuous “infinite intercourse” (Cheney & Tompkins. Postmodernists use this metaphor to conceptualize organizations as fluid entities that are situated within a broader cultural “economy” of textual interaction (e. organizational communication is meaningful because it is variously configured . although organizational texts are collaboratively authored.g..g. 1990). between popular-cultural images of work. and the actual performance of work in organizational settings). 1991..

Wendt. it is not necessarily so. Organizational cultures are viewed. and paradoxes that oppress their members by prematurely foreclosing options for (self-)understanding and action (Trethewey. In this process. postmodernists defer such claims. postmodernists adopt the image of fragmentation to characterize some organizational cultures and identities (Martin. Organizational Cultures and Identities Are Fragmented and De-centered Postmodernists argue that organizations are marked by irony. they alternately accept and reject preferred identities. while those theorists interpret organizational texts to reveal the concealed truths of domination.g. Postmodern scholarship examines how these potential relationships between texts are constructed. 1995). they are nonetheless constructed “fictions” that are arbitrarily imposed on the chaos of organizational life. It is important to note that postmodernist use of this metaphor differs from that of interpretivists. as entangled textualities (Carlone & Taylor. Taylor. and they form competing interpretations. 1996). Specifically. 114). We may cheer for identity entrepreneurs who overcome objectification and reclaim their potential for self-determination. 1992). p. 2001. This condition is presumed to result from several factors.. organizational members continually register the gap between these ideals and their actual situations (e. in confronting unsolvable problems). As a result. “fragmentation results from multiple voices and interpretations that separate rather than coalesce into a consensus” (Putnam & Fairhurst. contradiction. 1999. ambiguity. One is that organizational members are subject to dominant narratives promoting modernist values (e. 1998.06-Mumby. 1999). Although this condition may sound dire. we are better able to appreciate the skillful efforts (the artfulness) of organizational members as they coordinate their actions and create shared meaning—however fleeting these accomplishments may be. focusing on how their relationships destabilize taken-for-granted claims and reveal the dynamic interaction of domination and resistance (Boje. By taking fragmentation seriously. subsequently. As these interpretations proliferate. they prefer to juxtapose and relativize competing organizational texts. . 2001).g. Although these narratives—and their associated identities—are at least partly effective.qxd 8/3/2004 7:01 PM Page 123 Postmodern Theory——123 with other cultural and historical discourses—such as when employees are constructed using the language of “character” (Jacques. 1996) and “enterprise” (du Gay. Instead of generating single or final claims about truth.. of efficiency and rationality) as imperatives for performance. In their ongoing activities.

4) conclude.g. and the World as objects. and discontinuous. and to reflect upon those actions. the subject continually draws upon discursive resources to interact with others. In this process. Significantly. Other. Because language is the medium for the reproduction of ideology. partial. to challenge modernist theories of identity and agency. He or she continually shifts between multiple.” Postmodernists subsequently focus on how particular discourses of identity inevitably constitute their coherence and effectiveness by marginalizing alternate discourses. that they exercise these capacities through free will.qxd 8/3/2004 7:01 PM Page 124 124——Engaging Organizational Communication Theory and Research Postmodernists use a related term. In this view. All identities spring from the capacities of language to organize subjectivity. Organizational members act .e. and that identity is co-extensive with the material body (i. the organizational subject is fragmented. syntax and semantics) creates a cultural technology that is utilized by institutions to shape the processes of human development. In this view.06-Mumby. finally. then we have grasped the postmodernist view. this process also means that the particular identities (or subject positions) we are “hailed” to assume by organizational discourses are prestructured to facilitate actions that are ideologically productive. When. we note that multiple ideologies operate simultaneously and unpredictably to overdetermine organizational identities.” Calas and Smircich (1987. postmodernists—particularly those affiliated with the theory of poststructuralism— argue that human experience (including that of the self and the body) is never direct. or immediate. we are nothing more than transgressing points in networks of discourses. In this process. For example. Instead. the apparently unified subject is a productive—but potentially dangerous—entity.. it is always-already structured by language. pure. “We are nothing but the discourses through and in which we live. In affirming this “death of the subject. Alternately. These theories generally assume that individuals are the original source of their intentions and actions. He or she is the site of struggle between often-conflicting ideological narratives seeking to reproduce their associated interests through the interpellation of subjectivity. this view assumes there is no original. This is because the structure of language (e.. p. the discourse of “professionalism” hails organizational consultants to assume identities whose corresponding performances may include advising corporate clients on “effectively” communicating the results of their downsizing decisions to affected employees. potential human subjectivity is structured through discursive operations as an actual orientation (or interpellation) of the knowing subject toward Self. transcendent “person” standing behind or outside discourse to accomplish these actions. In a sense. de-centered. and scripted voices that have been internalized and assimilated—stitched together—as the self. discontinuous. as a unique “personality”).

might nonetheless be other-wise (Hawes.. power. individuals adopt “technologies of the self” (e.. 1993). They argued that apparent truth was the contingent product of systems of discourse. however. While postmodernism is sobering in identifying discourse as the means of ideological reproduction.g. indirect and subtle discipline—in which individuals internalized customs of speech and deportment—had replaced direct. we gain a new sense of alternatives—forms of identity that. programs of diet. their sexuality and labor). knowledge. discourse. Foucault focused on diagnosing the relationships between power. This is partly because individuals subsequently mobilize their productivity in ways that are not in their interests (e. coercive punishment as the dominant system of organizational and cultural power. and time management) to reflectively manage their potential productivity (e. Foucault was committed to rejecting visions of history that emphasized coherence and progress. he was committed to de-centering the dominant images of subjectivity that were produced by institutions and theories. Postmodernists draw heavily in their orientation to these topics on the work of French philosopher and historian Michel Foucault. 1988. Under regimes of discipline.qxd 8/3/2004 7:01 PM Page 125 Postmodern Theory——125 repeatedly in ways that are familiar.” but they are not always aware of who is “calling.g. Generally. Foucault argued that they are not necessarily or completely so. of human sexuality) emphasized the role of ruptures and repetitions in the development of social life. Foucault argued. while never finished. Foucault’s arguments were complex and counterintuitive.. Power. and at least partly or temporarily effective. As we help each other to reflect on the costs and consequences of our complicity in organizational identification. They “do what is called for. a memory of their own contingency that would open them to alternatives producing different outcomes. on the relationships between knowledge.. Again. Their Relations Should Be Deconstructed The literature on organizational power and control is vast indeed (Hardy & Clegg. consoling. 1996. exercise. however.g. it also locates the potential for personal and organizational transformation in the micro-practices of mundane interaction. and identity (Burrell. Instead. They centered consistently. Additionally. in working longer hours to maintain the apparent . Mumby. it is not necessarily so. and the body.” or how. They lack. Although individuals may experience these acts of subordination as voluntary and empowering. 1998). Organizational Knowledge.g. He argued that. 2001). although this condition may sound dire. his histories (e. Marsden. and they evolved significantly over the course of his career. throughout modernity. and Discourse Are Inseparable.06-Mumby.

06-Mumby. and serves the interests of.. Secondly. of technologies. absences.e. Even though they appear to be diverse. One example of this type of research is Barker and Cheney’s (1994) analysis of apparently progressive. Instead of focusing on the relative power of groups (e.g. Power is manifest in the capacity of organizational discourse to produce and maintain distinctions that produce identities and differences that form the objects of power relations (e. it means that. implicit. but dispersed throughout .. This is also true because the forces of discipline are systematically coordinated between multiple institutions. 117).. For postmodernists. their discourses. postmodernists argue that we should study how their distinctions are produced in and through discourse. Against the organizational nexus of power-knowledge-discourse. “power reaches into the very grain of individuals. First. This is because it is inevitably produced through. neutrality. As a result. 1998). institutions are commonly invested in channeling and exploiting human productivity in particular ways. instead of residing in specific organizational positions or actors. through its capacities to objectify phenomena and normalize those very objectifications.g. discipline. This term formally describes the literary-critical process of disassembling a text and uncovering its tensions. peer-based systems of team management. touches their bodies and inserts itself into their actions and attitudes. those that are indirect. facile organizational claims to objectivity. 2001. when it is characterized as the undistorted alignment and voluntary resolution of individual wills) are no longer tenable. It “resides in the discursive practices and formations themselves” (Deetz. 1993.e. meaning is not contained in the superficial content of the text. “unproductive” employees). and focused on the development of premises for decision making).g. Deetz. and paradoxes. and consensus (i. clients) is a central. contradictions. learning processes and everyday lives” (Foucault. In this view. those systems can lead team members to develop increasingly “concertive” control practices (i. quoted in Marsden. this view emphasizes that knowledge is inextricably tied to power. regulations.. Instead. surrounding “productive” vs. the organizational production of knowledge (e.qxd 8/3/2004 7:01 PM Page 126 126——Engaging Organizational Communication Theory and Research freedom and privilege of working as consultants. normalized practice through which particular groups establish their authority and legitimacy over other groups. power is pervasive and fluid. 1992). By successfully enlisting the self as an agent of its reproduction. knowledge serves power by shaping the boundaries of what may legitimately be thought and spoken in organizational settings (Fletcher. power circulates multilaterally and unpredictably throughout organizations. postmodernists pose the technology of deconstruction.. Foucault’s work holds several implications for studying organizational communication. p. reflected in their possession of resources). 35). p. Ironically. In this view.

e.06-Mumby. 1993. but to question how these concepts are present in texts and how they are employed to systematically exclude certain categories of thought and communication” (Kilduff. between the text and all other texts from which it draws its significance (i. and legitimates itself as an account of that mystery. in which potent male authority figures “arouse. Additional examples of deconstruction may be found in Boje (1997). Leadership may thus be viewed as sexualized interaction. Although it is apparently rational. This analysis is shocking to many readers. its intertextuality). In one example. logic. inauthentic. Holmer-Nadesan (1997). thoughts. By simultaneously evoking and denying this imagery. although organizational members are recruited to actively consent to their domination. Martin and Knopoff (1997). p.” “probe. partial. normalizes the arbitrary relationship between male sexuality and organizational authority. and . Their reading is controversial because it reveals a suppressed homosocial dimension in that discourse. These studies demonstrate that “deconstruction is used not to abolish truth. Organizational Communication Involves Complex Relations of Power and Resistance Postmodernists view organizations as sites of intersection between two modes of power. Specifically.qxd 8/3/2004 7:01 PM Page 127 Postmodern Theory——127 various relationships activated by its component signs.. and voices to ensure their conformity and productivity. they argue. sexualized imagery. that consent is often grudging. These relationships include those between textual signs and their multiple connotations. leadership discourse is nonetheless shadowed by visceral. The other mode emerges in relation to the first.” and “satisfy” the desires of feminized subordinates for direction and coherence. created as they apply differing frameworks of interpretation that are shaped by their relationships to the text’s encoded ideologies (a condition known as polysemy). and philosophy. and between the text and its readers. leadership discourse accomplishes several outcomes: It mystifies leadership. The first mode involves strategic systems that seek control over bodies. and Mumby and Putnam (1992). It arises from the fact that. science. 15). and for Calas and Smircich this reaction is exactly the point. Calas and Smircich (1991) provide a vivid deconstruction of conventional discourse about organizational leadership. The goal of deconstruction is to reveal arbitrary patterns of language use and to open the text to alternative interpretations that are otherwise hidden by dominant meanings. they argue that leadership is shaped by images of communication as “seduction” practiced between male and male-identified members.

organizational hegemony is precarious. organizational figures can experience both states simultaneously and multilaterally. those associated with discretionary role performances and the formation of alliances). Instead. dignity.g. It is performed by organizational members to increase their margins of freedom.g.” “oppressors. It inevitably provokes tactical exploitation by organizational members of system paradoxes and vulnerabilities (e. This argument is controversial because we are often encouraged to view the use and experience of power by organizational actors through discrete.” and “victims.” Each of these cultural frames possesses an accompanying script that specifies the amount. as “heroes. and pleasure. supporting or challenging organizational members who adopt these . Instead. however. There are two counterintuitive implications that follow from this argument. and control. Secondly. as Deetz and Mumby (1990) and Shorris (1978) have demonstrated in their analyses of embattled middle managers. ambiguous.06-Mumby. postmodernists assume that potential modes of power in organizations are multiple and widely distributed. This resistance is often local. through contradiction.” “villains.. limited. organizational superiors may find themselves subject to ironic and unanticipated disruptions that exceed their official scripts for interaction.g... and moralized categories—viewing those actors. for example. Indeed. they seek to open up the indeterminacy of meaning and action that is foreclosed by organizations in their quest for certainty. They are equally likely to be temporarily and partially effective. progress. and micropractical (Trethewey. legitimacy. and in continuous need of refreshment. As a result. that inversions of power relationships will always or totally determine the outcomes of interaction. As a result. 1997). this perspective reminds us that “powerful” and “powerless” are not binary states that occur discretely in organizational communication. In this process. They can exercise agency even as they are being subjected to organizational control—either within a single relationship or across multiple relationships. 1996). HolmerNadesan. subtle. The first is that power is not neatly mapped or conducted in ways that conform to organizational hierarchies (e. the argument alerts us to the simultaneity and unpredictability of actual power flows within the circuits of organizational communication. and consequences of power-use by their associated figures. Indeed. the exercise of power by organizational members does not necessarily spring from a single identity. It may instead result from the subjective articulation of multiple identities whose unpredictable interaction produces the conditions for new forms of action (e.qxd 8/3/2004 7:01 PM Page 128 128——Engaging Organizational Communication Theory and Research temporary. Indeed. It does not follow from this argument. which imply that senior staff are always more powerful than junior staff). rather than singular and narrowly bounded.

and by their encoded logics. meeting talk) that are structured according to particular rules and conventions.g..g. and resisting domination. we can realize how these stories—as discourse—activate particular games and produce particular effects (e. We can accept responsibility for changing the undesirable conditions that bind our selves with others. Becoming aware of how these elements shape our claims about organizational communication can make us skillful players in these games. religion. Knowledge of Organizational Communication Is Representational. by reinforcing preferred identities and relationships). of organizational socialization). it focuses on how knowledge is produced as an effect of discourse’s ability to constitute relationships between subjects and objects—for example. this analysis focuses on the messy. organizational members come to believe that some choices (but not others) are possible.qxd 8/3/2004 7:01 PM Page 129 Postmodern Theory——129 identities for themselves and attribute them to others in contested events forms a significant act of organizational power. How did this happen? Why those choices? How would things be different if we made other choices? Potentially. The connection lies in the postmodern argument that all depictions of organizational communication—particularly scholarly ones—are always-already shaped by prior texts. it examines how those choices and identifications have been shaped historically by discursive processes (e. and methods.06-Mumby. One theme in this process involves analyzing organizational “language games” (e. At a more complex level. and formal organization) in key moments of interaction. Communication Should Be Reflexive Postmodernism rejects so-called “reference” theories of language that assume symbols have naturally corresponding and preexisting objects. we discover. evolving choices that organizational members make in accepting. postmodernism encourages us to examine the complex and conflicted relations that organizational members actually have with power. Instead. or theatrical skits enacted at staff retreats. Instead of narrowly insisting on the objective accuracy of organizational stories.g. written memos. procedures. for example.. effective. and legitimate. Thus. The questions then become. this analysis focuses on how organizational members “hear” converging disciplinary voices (e. In this process.. Under this condition (which has been described as . At a basic level.. negotiating. of family. discussed above. education. we can distinguish between asking members to be accountable for their participation in organizational power. as a Result. In experiencing these processes. in oral storytelling. and blaming them.g. This theme is closely related to the theme of organizational (inter-)textuality.

The term “poetics” here refers to the presence and operation of rhetorical elements in these representations (e. these representations evoke multifaceted qualities of organizational experience—the whole beautiful. The first—and most frequent—charge is that postmodernism’s radical critique of ontology and epistemology creates a condition in which “anything . Prominent examples include Pacanowsky’s (1983) experimental account of a police officer’s unfolding reaction to posttraumatic stress. embodied knowledge. 1993). 1995).qxd 8/3/2004 7:01 PM Page 130 130——Engaging Organizational Communication Theory and Research a crisis of representation. boring. they remind audiences about the contingency of all such discourse. researchers strive to collaborate with organizational members as coproducers of situated. and horrifying mess. and dialogic. and questionnaires. As a result. As a result.. metaphors). we become more sharply attuned to the poetics and politics of these representations. They incorporate diverse voices in their research narratives not only to demonstrate the plurality of organizational sensemaking but also to relativize their authority as researchers and narrators. Do you find postmodern theory exciting.g. I’ll review here three of these arguments. or outrageous? If so. speech. 1995). In completing them.06-Mumby. beginning with the associated critique and following with its defense. and performance (Jeffcutt. organizational identities such as “welfare client”) that reproduce and transform existing power relations. 174–181. for that matter. Instead of “capturing” a single. In organizational communication scholarship.. pp. preexisting organizational reality. exciting. 2001.g. Evaluation: Advantages and Disadvantages This may be a good point to stop and assess your own reactions so far to this chapter. 1986). you’re not alone. any truth about it—except through contingent representations such as fieldnotes. some researchers have attempted to achieve this goal by producing postmodern ethnographies (Taylor and Trujillo. Brown and McMillan’s (1991) “synthetic” narrative of a new employee’s socialization in a nursing home. Clifford & Marcus. improvisational. postmodernists encourage audiences of these representations to continuously reflect on—and potentially challenge— the means by which their knowledge is constituted through specific conventions of writing. we accept that we cannot know a total. “Politics” refers to the ability of these representations to produce normalized effects (e. In this process. This body of theory has generated considerable controversy (Parker. confusing. final truth about organizational communication—or. These qualitative studies of organizational communication are uniquely reflexive. Van Maanen. and Goodall’s (1989) hilarious and disturbing depictions of organizational and community life in the New South. interview transcripts.

. for example. p. modernist criteria to reflection and critique. 1991.. 223). however comforting and appealing. total.qxd 8/3/2004 7:01 PM Page 131 Postmodern Theory——131 goes. by abandoning our unreflective faith in abstract sources of certainty. It questions how particular meanings are produced in the situated. some of them caricature the category rather than examine specific studies). and particularly elements such as the role of intention in the production of meaning. students initially exposed to postmodern theory often wonder how the theory is supposed to be “practical” or “useful. neutral. as well as how those configurations might be changed. The postmodernist concession. may challenge dominant images of human identity. “I do not know anything. Closely associated with these attacks is a spirited defense of modernist communication theory. it emphasizes that meaning is accomplished continuously. (p. to represent. conflict. the adequacy with which these critiques represent the breadth of postmodern theory is questionable (e. that postmodernism does not deny that meaning is possible—indeed. and the continuous accomplishment by individuals—despite the instability of signification—of shared meaning in their interaction.” These studies. emphasizing abstract textual contingencies at the expense of appreciating actual and successful language use. One might reply. . in other words.” and therefore no interpretation should assume priority over an alternative. cult-like.06-Mumby. is not likely to be useful if it ignores important complexities in the world it attempts. or permanent. In this argument. faddish. as a result. including who I am. An oversimplified theory. Indeed. we may turn anew to each other and gain a renewed appreciation for our interdependency in the ongoing production of meaning—one turn at a time. Instead. and misguided postmodernists have “fire[d] up the semiosis machine” (Ellis. for certain. but not inhumane. 9) . Although these charges have enormous visceral appeal.g. Also relevant here is a comment (attributed to Foucault) that postmodern studies are “antihumanist. in all their discomforting complexity. Second. but this does not preclude their appreciation of the experience and creativity of organizational members as they negotiate their ongoing relationships with power.” Postmodernists typically respond by observing that the point of this theory is precisely to subject these entrenched.” may mark the beginning of a liberating—even if painful—journey. imperfectly. Joanne Martin (2002) summarizes this defense as follows: The purpose of a social science theory is not to comfort managers with promises of relatively easy solutions but to capture and perhaps even construct organizational experiences. paralyzed by postmodern analysis. Crucial activities of judgment and evaluation are. postmodern theory reminds us that meaning is never universal. . arbitrary. ambiguity. and interested fixing of relations between signifiers. and flux.

improvisational. it uses us. you may learn more about how you are already aligned with various ideologies circulating in organizations. One solution to this dilemma involves revising our understanding of “theory” as representations of organizational communication that—now matter how local or specific their scope—support relationships and structures that we feel create positive. of course. ethical dialogue between groups holding a stake in the outcome (Hassard. and our fears.06-Mumby. Our criteria for developing postmodern organizational theory. then. But in reflecting on your response to this invitation. Let me begin by disclosing what many communication scholars know but rarely have a chance to say: Our relationship with theory is part of our biography. Finally. and the Nuclear Weapons Organization As one example of how postmodern theory can be applied in the study of organizational communication. As we use it. Over time. or even useful. believe that it is “useful” (or even possible!) to interrupt the dominant power-knowledge regime operating in your organization in order to recover suppressed values. positivist sense as a valid. our hopes. Communication. the students we have taught. Case Study: Postmodernism. You may become more aware of how you are already doing this. the texts we have read. It is possible in narratives like this to sift a relationship with theory out of the totality of one’s life. for example. and the personal and professional relationships we have developed. consequences for organizations and society. the studies we have conducted. and tactical resistance. You may or may not. 1993).qxd 8/3/2004 7:01 PM Page 132 132——Engaging Organizational Communication Theory and Research This response is acceptable. the lectures we have heard. You may sharpen your sense of the malleability of organizational power—for example. generalizable explanation of the objective world. it is not clear in this perspective if and how organizational communication research is supposed to contribute to theory—particularly if “theory” is understood in its traditional. its openness to indirect. But it is no longer clear that such a ruse is necessary. . rather than negative. our questions. I now turn to a brief discussion of my own research on nuclear weapons organizations.” but only to the extent that these can be developed in an accountable. It is tied up in the specifics of the places and times we have lived and studied. would include “intelligibility” and “usefulness. theory merges—at least partly—with our ambitions. to the extent that one is willing to revise one’s expectations.

Instead. Adequate understanding of this history involved sensitivity to organizations as the corporate authors and audiences of discourse. I came to understand that organizations like Los Alamos were not just the recurring topic of popular-cultural texts. institutions. The second form involved the historical influence of official agencies such as the Atomic Energy Commission in shaping accounts of nuclear weapons development. 2002). I am a cultural studies scholar whose encounter with postmodernism led me—with some ambivalence—to affiliate with the goals and projects of organizational communication.S. These organizations. Taylor & Freer. depending on whom you ask. I became increasingly interested in rhetoric surrounding the history of U. Because my life experience had sensitized me to the relationships between violence and voice (see Taylor. events. the organizational history surrounding nuclear weapons development is highly contested between officials and affected stakeholders (Taylor. manufactured through rational and mundane processes of communication. worker safety.06-Mumby. At the University of Utah during the 1980s. I am. and its consequences for public health. As a result. and the environment. graduate students were permitted to pursue problems and explore connections in an entrepreneurial fashion. 1993a. and technologies that constitute the material of nuclear history (Taylor. in other words. 1997a). either a convert or a poacher. many of the graduate faculty in the Department of Communication embraced the interpretive and critical “turns” in theory. That is. Space does not permit discussion of the associated figures or events. government agencies. a mildly scandalous confession: I am not a “true” organizational communication scholar who “chose” postmodernism. The first involved the basic condition that nuclear weapons are organizational products. This mediation occurred in at least three forms. I quickly came to appreciate the role played by organizations in shaping knowledge of that history. Suffice it to say that in this intellectual climate. Some context will make this clearer. I began to think about nuclear weapons as phenomena that simultaneously involved both organizational culture and cultural . had been appropriated as narrative devices. in other words.qxd 8/3/2004 7:01 PM Page 133 Postmodern Theory——133 As a result. 1997c. where the atomic bombs dropped on Japan were developed—as significant symbols in historical narratives. Adequate understanding of this history required sensitivity to the interrelated organizational scenes of laboratories. nuclear weapons development. In this way. policies. As I tried to conceptualize this topic. 1993b. and factories. 2002). A final mediation involved the role played by nuclear weapons organizations—such as the wartime Los Alamos (New Mexico) Laboratory. but that they also functioned as “portals” that textual producers could use to organize audience understanding of the highly complex and ambiguous relationships between the signs of figures.

and all the others who participate in your ongoing organization. These questions are not designed to have “right” or “wrong” answers. elitism. in museum exhibits). Conclusion In the spirit of postmodernism. I’ll suggest these choices by posing the questions below. was the possibility of undistorted and democratic deliberation concerning the consequences of nuclear weapons development in post–Cold War culture (Taylor. What is at stake in both processes. leading me to make deeper and broader connections with the literature of organizational culture and power as ways of explaining what I was “seeing. and patriotism) in shaping the experience and expression of nuclear-organizational members (Taylor. I hope. But I hope it helps to show how this conceptualization of the research “problem” was shaped by my growing familiarity with postmodern theory.” Along with some practical career advice from a mentor. • How willing are you willing to consider that your “self” is not a unique. 1996.qxd 8/3/2004 7:01 PM Page 134 134——Engaging Organizational Communication Theory and Research organization.g. I came to believe. that is. The first process involved the role played by systems of ideology (e. but by evoking its implications. I’ll conclude this chapter not by summarizing its content. What I did not anticipate was the way in which the assimilation of postmodernism within organizational communication (described above) would fuel my research.g. and with whom you respond to them is up to you—you. where.06-Mumby. More important is to note how my career demonstrates the opportunities both for bridging fields of study and for expanding traditional conceptualizations of “true” and “real” organizational communication research that were created by the field’s assimilation of postmodernism. This recounting is a little deceptive in making it seem like these impressions emerged fully formed (they didn’t). 1997b).. The second process involved the development of cultural rules and traditions—a discursive apparatus—for representing that organizational activity (e. To stimulate your reflection. 1990).” Recounting the consequences of that decision would require another narrative. . this connection led me to market myself in my first job search as an “organizational communication scholar. involving secrecy. I have benefited from— and. contributed to—the work of my mentors and colleagues who blazed this trail. When. coherent individual.. These implications include whether—and how—you might choose to further engage postmodern theory in your practice and study of organizational communication. but a fragmented collection of multiple.

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