Power and Politics


: Purdue University

This chapter focuses on the relationships among communication, power, and organization. Its central premise is that organizations are intersubjective structures of meaning that are produced, reproduced, and transfonned through the ongoing communicative activities of its members. As a critical organization scholar, however, I will argue that this process is fundamentally mediated by power, which I see as a defining, ubiquitous feature of organizational life. At the same time, and to be appreciated in aU its complexities, power itself must be made sense of through a communication lens. From this perspective, com-

munication, power, and organization are interdependent and coconstructed phenomena. The primary goal of this chapter is to explore this tripartite relationship, and to show how, as a field, we can contribute to an understanding of organizational power that is distinct from that offered by such disciplines as management studies, sociology, and political science.

Because of this distinctly communication focus, a secondary goal will be to examine noncommunication views of organizational power, and to show how such work both provides insights into, and places limitations on, our understanding of power. Indeed, given

AUTHOR'S NOTE: lthank George Cheney, Bob Gephart, Fred Sahlin, Linda Putnam, and Cynthia Stohl for their constructive and challenging critiques of various drafts of this chapter.


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that power has been a focus of research in various disciplines for several decades, it makes sense that such work will have loci of inquiry other than communication processes. Individual, interpersonal, and structural theories of power are all common in this vast and complex literature. However, many of these approaches contain implicit notions of communication that often remain untheorized. A tertiary goal of this chapter, then, will be to tease out, where relevant and appropriate, implicit perspectives on communication that are built into theories of power developed in other disciplines.

Given the complex terrain of the power literature, Table 15.1 provides definitions of constructs that will be central to the argument I develop. Definitions of each concept are drawn not from specific theorists (although in many ways each definition is the distillation of the work of many authors), but from my own attempt to privilege a communication orientation toward the literature reviewed in this chapter. Thus, each term reflects a perspective--rooted in my own work-that views communication as creating the very possibility for organizing. exercising power, engaging in political activity, and so forth. This conception of communication as constitutive of both organizing and power therefore serves as the benchmark against which we can review and critique the theory and research on organizational power and politics.

The structure of this chapter will unfold in the following manner. First is a brief historical and theoretical context for the study of power, focusing on Weber, Marx, and the sociological study of power since the 1950s. Second. I pick up the point at which power became an object of study in the management literature. beginning with the structural-functional tradition. Third. I delineate interpretive approaches to power and, fourth. examine the emergence of the critical perspective on organizations and power. Fifth. I discuss the recent emergence of postmodern conceptions of organizational power. Finally, I situate feminist studies as the latest contribution to understanding the

relations among communication, power. and organization.



It is difficult to make sense out of organizational power without reference to the works of Marx (1967) and Weber (1978). Both were concerned-albeit in different ways-with explaining how power is exercised under conditions of the division of labor. Neither paid much attention to power as a communication phenomenon, although Marx's theory of ideology presumes a process by which the ideas of the capitalist class are widely disseminated, and Weber envisions a bureaucratic system of rules, the communication and internalization of which legitimate a rational system of authority. For Marx, the focus was on the means by which capitalist relations of production extracted surplus value from expropriated labor through various coercive techniques, including the lengthening of the working day and the intensification of the labor process. Marx provides us with a class analysis of the capitalist relations of production as a means of critiquing bourgeois economic models and exposing the contradictions inherent in capitalism.

Weber, on the other hand, was more concerned with analyzing the system of rationality manifest in Western industrial societies. Weber (1978) situates his discussion of bureaucracy within the larger context of a general model of authority. Situating rational, bureaucratic authority in relation to traditional and charismatic forms of authority, Weber conceives of the former as "modernist" in its rejection of forms of power characterized by nepotism, raw force, and arbitrary decision making. As Cheney (personal correspondence) has suggested, Weber shows "how the bureaucratic ethos narrows our vision" to rationally, systematically-and perhaps most important-exercise authority in a nonarb-

Power and Politics • 587

TABLE 15.1 Definitions of Central Concepts

CommUnication: The process Of crea1lng InleraubjectlYe meanings Itvough ongoing, Interocttonal symbollc-verbol and nonverbal-practIc8l, including conversation. metaphOl's, rituals. st0ll8l. dress, space. and 10 forth.

organIZational communlcoflon: The process of crea1lng coIlecttve, cOOl'dlnated structures of meaning Itvough symbolic prac11c8li oriented toward the achievement or OI'ganlzatlonal goals.

Power: The pl'oducfIon and reproduction of, reslsfance to. or transformation of relatively Hxed (sedlmented) stNctur81 of commr.ncatlon and meantng that support the Interests (symboHc, poIIticoI. and economIC) of some 0fg0flizat1on member1 or groups over others.

Polme.: The arltculatlon of varIoUs Individual and group Interem through the everyday enactment of communiCOttve pl'ocesses fhaf produce, reproduce. relilst. ond transform collective OntersubJecttve) stNctU'es of meaning. PoIHlcs Is power enacted and resisted.

Ideology: The pl'ocess Of symbolically creating ayltems of meaning hough Which social acton' IdentttIea are constructed and snuated wtthln r~ or power. 1deoIoglcallfruggle entoNs the attempts of varIoUs groups to .fbI" and ·naturallze· their workMew over others (Althusaer, 1971; 1herbom, 1980).

Hegemony: The ability of one class or group to Unk the Interem and wOOdvlews of other groups wtth HI own. Hegemony does not refer to slmple domination, but rather Involves attempts by varlOlJl groups to articulate meaning systems that are actively" takan up by other groups (Gramscl, 1971).

Relflcatlon: The pI'OCess Itvough WhIch humanly created struc:f\I'eI take on an obJecttve, "natural" existence, Independent trom those who cons1ructed them. Relflcatlon leads to a sense of alienation, Which engenders the poaIbUIIy for selr-teflectton and social change (tuk6cs, 1971).

itrary fashion. Weber thus left us with both a structural and ideological legacy: a bureaucratic system of rules and regulations constitutive of authority. along with an ideology of rationality that shapes and constrains the behavior of actors in organizational contexts.

Both Marx and Weber were concerned with the direction in which modernity was moving: Marx focused on the exploitative nature of capitalism, while Weber expressed reservations with bureaucratic rationality and its eclipsing of other forms of rationality. particularly the charismatic, which he saw as an essential, magical feature of human collective action. Thus, while Weber articulated an "ideal type" of rational legal authority-

rooted in technical criteria and expertise-that overcame the capriciousness of other authority systems, he was concerned with the reification of this ideal type and its manifestation as an "iron cage" that imprisoned those it was intended to empower.

How does this translate into contemporary accounts of organizational power? While Marx's legacy has been fairly diverse in its spawning of a variety of Marxisms (neo, structural, functional, etc.), some of which impinge on organization studies (see below). Weber tends to be rather narrowly appropriated as the .. theorist of bureaucracy," rather than as a social theorist in the wider sense (for exceptions, see Barker, 1993, 1999; Barker &

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Cheney, 1994; Clegg, 1975, 1994b; O'Neill, 1986). Thus, although radical readings of Weber exist, most of management and organization studies read his work as a simple affirmation of bureaucratic rationality. For example, his work on Verstehen (understanding) as an interpretive method for analyzing human behavior is almost completely ignored. As such, most of the work on organizational power in the 1960s and I 970s was conducted in the context of this rather narrow reading of Weber. Power, then, is conceptualized largely within a systems-rational model of organizational structure, which sees decision making and the concomitant exercising of power as the logical, optimal, and adaptive response to changes in an organization's environment.

A debate in the field of political science that slightly predates such work implicitly embodies the tension between the conservative and radical readings of Weber. TIle "community power debate," conducted during the 1950s, 1960s, and 19705 addressed the status of power as an empirical phenomenon. That is, what is the structure and distribution of power in contemporary society? Attempts to answer this question developed roughly into two camps: the pluralists (Dahl, 1957, 1958, 1961; Wolfinger, 1971), and the elitists (Bachrach & Baratz, 1962, 1963; Hunter, 1953; Mills, 1956). The pluralists argued that power was equitably distributed throughout society and that no particular group had undue influence over decision-making processes. The elitists, on the other hand, claimed that power was concentrated in the hands of a privileged few who controlled political agendas.

In some respects, the two groups represent conservative (pluralist) and radical (elitist) readings of modernity, the former claiming that modernity/capitalism!bureaucracy has largely realized democracy, while the latter argues that modernity has emancipated only a privileged few. Dahl (1957) reflects this conservative reading of modernity with a rational, causal, behavioral model of power conceived in tenns of decision-making processes. Thus, "A has power over B to the extent that he [or she] can get B to do something that B would

not otherwise do" (Dahl, 1957, pp. 202-203). This often cited definition focuses on the manifest exercise of power, and not on power as a potential or dispositional quality of actors. Such exercising can be identified only in explicit decision-making situations Where overt conflict between parties is present.

On the other hand, Bachrach and Baratz (1962) criticize Dahl's exclusive focus on concrete decision-making situations, arguing that power is also exercised in situations of "non-decision making." They suggest that in this context, power is exercised when A is able to create and reinforce situations in which the political process is limited to the consideration of issues that do not endanger A's power. "To the extent that A succeeds in doing this, B is prevented, for all practical purposes, from bringing to the fore any issues that might in their resolution be seriously detrimental to A's set of preferences" (Bachrach & Baratz, 1962, p. 948). Quoting Schattschneider (1960), Bachrach and Baratz refer to this process as the "mobilization of bias":

All forms of political organization have a bias in favour of the exploitation of some kinds of conflict and the suppression of other because organization is lhe mobiliuuion of bia.s. Some issues are organized into politics while others are organized ouL (Schattschneider, 1960, p. 71, emphasis in original)

While there is no explicit model of organizational communication operating here, Bachrach and Baratz set the stage for a rhetorical approach to organizational power taken up by theorists such as Tompkins and Cheney (Bullis & Tompkins, 1989; Cheney, 1983; Tompkins & Cheney, 1985) in which they examine the processes through which organizational identification and control are rhetorically managed. Further, Clegg (l989a, p. 75) suggests that Bachrach and Baratz's "two faces of power" is an attempt to make explicit the link between agency and structure, demonstrating that power resides not simply in relations of cause and effect (as Dahl suggests), but in the structured relations

· autonomy and dependence that are an enfeature of organizational life. In many communication is the mediating between agency and structure, as the that functions as the constitutive elein relations of autonomy and depend-

The last move in the community power deis provided by Lukes's (1974) "radical," three-dimensional view of power that criticizes both Dahl's "one-dimensional" model and Bachrach and Baratz's "two-dimensional" model. Lukes argues that both models are problematic because they reduce power to a focus on decision-making processes and actual, observable conflict (p, 22). In contrast, he argues that power may be exercised in the absence of any observable conflict, suggesting that A exercises power over B "by influencing, shaping or determining his [sic] very wants" (Lukes, 1974, p. 23). In addition, Lukes rejects Bachrach and Baratz's notion that non-decision-making power exists only where grievances are denied access to the p0- litical process. Lukes disputes the idea that if a group has no grievances, then there must be a genuine consensus, and no one's interests are being hurt. Sounding remarkably like Habermas, Lukes (1974) argues that "to assume that the absence of grievance equals genuine consensus is simply to rule out the possibility of false or manipulated consensus by definitional fiat" (p, 24). Gaventa's (1980) analysis of the effects of landlord absenteeism on the local population in Appalachia provides an insightful application of this model to a real-world context.

Again, Lukes has no explicit conception of communication in his framework, but there is an implicit one that expands our view of power and makes muted connections to organizational communication studies. For example, his model clearly suggests that processes of socialization and identiflcaticn=-central concerns in our field-are important contexts for the exercise of power (Cheney, 1983; Tompkins & Cheney, 1985). That is, he suggests that power is exercised most effectively when social actors internalize and identify

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with the interests of dominant groups-a process that is accomplished rhetorically. Further, his tying of power to false or manipulated interests prefigures critical studies of organizational communication, in which connections are made among communication, ideology, and power (see below). As such, the community power debate represents an important attempt to come to grips with how power functions in institutional settings, providing organizational scholars with insight into how to move beyond individual and relationally focused conceptions of power.

Power, Systems Rationality, and Management Studies

While power has clearly been a central analytic construct in sociology and political science for decades, its emergence as a focal point of research among management researchers is more recent. This is perhaps partly explainable by the field of management's rather narrow appropriation of Weber, resulting in an almost exclusive focus on organizations as sites of rational decision making. In other words, organizational behavior is viewed as explicable through mathematical, economic models of decision making, hence making power irrelevant as an explanatory construct.

This "classic" model of organizational behavior is somewhat modified by the work of the Carnegie group and its development of a model of "administrative man" that focuses on the cognitive and contextual limitations placed on "pure" forms of decision making (Cyert & March, 1963; March & Simon, 1958; Simon, 1976). In Simon's (1976) terms, an individual "satisfices" (makes decisions based on limited information) rather than "optimizes" (makes decisions based on the assessment of all available information). As March and Simon (1958) state:

This, then, is the general picture of the human organism that we will use to analyze organizational behavior. It is a picture of a choosing, decision- making, problem-sol ving, organism

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that can do only one or a few things at a time, and that can only attend to a small part of the information recorded in its memory and presented by the environment. (p. II)

Cyert and March (1963) extend this model by shifting focus away from individual levels of decision making, and instead develop a decision-making coalition model. In this context, decision making is seen as a political process, resulting from the conflicts of interest characteristic of subgoal differentiation within organizational life.

As Pettigrew (1973) points out, however, the Carnegie group has a consistent bias in favor of psychological explanations of behavior, drawing heavily on learning theory and individual psychology. Little attention is paid to the larger, structural mechanisms that organizations use in making decisions and forming coalitions. Pettigrew argues that "critical questions related to the generation of support and how the structure of the organization might limit such a process are ignored. . . . [Further} they ignore role and communication structures and how they are devised and changed" (p. 10). Thus, for our purposes, the Carnegie group has little to say about the communicative dimensions of power and decision making. Although Simon (1976) does address the role of decision premises in shaping organizational behavior and decision making, there is no attempt to explicitly articulate this process as communication based.

Thompson's (1967) study extends the work of the Carnegie group through an early appropriation of the newly emergent systems per. spective (Von BertaJanffy. 1968). Thompson (1967) defines complex organizations as "open systems, hence indeterminate and faced with uncertainty. but at the same time as sub. ject to criteria of rationality and hence needing determinateness and certainty" (p. 10). The central problem of organization thus involves coping with uncertainty and assessing the impact of technologies and environments on the process of uncertainty absorption. Thompson's work is important not only because he fleshes out and extends the work of

the Carnegie group, but also because he situates power as a critical element in the process of problem solving and uncertainty absorption. He recognizes that the indeterminacy of organizational processes creates relations of dependence that shape organizational prob. lem solving and task orientation. Bounded rationality cannot be explaineo-lhroug!t purely cognitive means, but must be understccd as a fundamentally political phenomenon. Thompson's discussion of organizational systems, decision making. and power lays the groundwork for the emergence in the 1970s of two of the most widely adopted theories of organiza· tional power: strategic contingencies theory (Hickson, Hinings, Lee, Schneck, & Pennings, 1971; Hinings, Hickson, Pennings, & Schneck, 1974) and resource dependency theory (Pfeffer, 1981; Pfeffer & Salancik, 1974. 1978; Salancik & Pfeffer, 1974, 1977).

The advent of these theories marks an intense period of study of organizational power in management studies proper, an intensity that has led some researchers to claim that "power is the cornerstone of both management theory and management practice ... and ... is a vital and ubiquitous reality in organizational life" (Cavanagh. Moberg, & Velasquez, 1981, p. 363). Some scholars claim that "power" is a better explanatory factor in organization studies than either "goals" or "rationality;' given that organizations are not the paragons of logical decision making they were at one time conceived to be (Sunesson, 1985). This research macks a shift from a focus on individual power to departmenta1Istnx:tura1 power (Enz, 1988). Indeed, criticism of individual and interpersonal models of power is one of the most persistent features of the wave of research that began in the early 19705:

The term {power] takes on different meanings when the unit, or power-holder. is a formal group in an open system with ,,",lriple goals, and the system is assumed to reflect a political-domination model of organization, rather than only B co-operative model. (perrow, 1970. p. 84. emphasis in original)

Despite this shift in emphasis, much of the work carried out during this period still had little to do directly with communication (conceived as constitutive of the organizing process). Below I briefly adumbrate both strategic contingencies theory and resource dependency theory, suggesting why both have limited application to our understanding of the relationship between power and organizational communication.

Hickson et al. (1971; Hinings et al., 1974) pull together a number of different perspectives to create a theory that places power at the center of their definition of organization. Operating on the principle that organizations are fundamentally characterized by a division of labor, they argue that power must be examined as that which characterizes the reJationships among functional subunits of organizations:

Thus organizations are conceived of as interdepartmental systems in which a major task element is coping with uncertainty .... The essence of an organization is limitation of the autonomy of all its members or parts, since all are subject to power from the others; for subunits, unlike individuals, are not free to make a decision to participate, as March and Simon (1958) put it, nor to decide whether or not to come together in political relationships. They must. They exist to do so. (Hickson et al., 1971,p.217)

Strategic contingencies theory is a structural theory of power, concerning itself not with the psychological attributes of individuals, but with the sources of power that result from the structural characteristics of collective, task-oriented behavior. For Hickson et at (1971, p. 217), following Emerson (1962), the central question in the study of organizations is: What factors function to vary dependency, and thus to vary power? They identify uncertainty (and coping with uncertainty), substitutability, and centrality as the principal variables that determine the relations of power and dependence among organizational subunits. Hinings et a1. (1974) pro-

Power and Politics • 591

vide a test of the initial formulation of this theory, concluding that coping with uncertainty does not in itself explain subunit power, but rather, as their initial theory suggests, such coping must be accompanied by workflow centrality (immediacy and pervasiveness) and low substitutability. Uncertainty is a theme common to the work of March and Simon (1958), Thompson, (1967), and Crozier (1964), the last theorist suggesting-in his study of maintenance engineers in French tobacco manufacturing plants-that power and uncertainty are closely interrelated. In Crozier's study, the maintenance engineers enjoyed a level of power out of all proportion with their positions in the bureaucratic hierarchy, due largely to the unpredictability of machine breakdowns. Crozier was able to assert that these engineers had "control over the last source of uncertainty remaining in a completely routinized organizational system" (p. 154).

The development of resource dependency theory is another important critique of the "rational choice" model of organizational behavior and, particularly. decision-making processes (Pfeffer, 1981; Pfeffer & Salanci k, 1974, 1978; Salancik & Pfeffer, 1974, 1977). Drawing on the work of Cyert and March (1963), Pfeffer and Salancik develop a coalitional model of power, which argues that--especially with regard to resource allocation-organizational decision making is a political process that can be explained by considering the relative power of the various subunits within an organization. Resource dependency theory represents a variation of the strategic contingencies theory of power. As Pfeffer (1981) indicates, both perspectives "focus either on the dependence of the organization as a whole or of other subunits on the particular resources or certainty provided by other social actors within the organization" (p. tOl). In addition, both theories view power as being derived from the ability of social actors or organizational subunits to address and to ameliorate objectively defined organizational exigencies.

592 • Process

Resource dependency theory studies power both within and between organizations (Pfeffer & Salancik, 1978). Organizations are viewed as open systems that are constantly in need of an ongoing supply of resources, and hence must engage in a continual series of transactions with their environments to secure these resources. Necessary organizational resources include money, prestige, legitimacy, rewards and sanctions, expertise, and the ability to deal with uncertainty. Two early studies by Pfeffer and Salancik (1974; Salancik & Pfeffer, 1974) examine the relative power of subunits (departments) within a university through an analysis of budget allocations. Both studies view organizational decision making as a political process that can be explained only through the analysis of relative subunit power. In addition, Pfeffer and Salancik adopt a coalitional view of organizations that emphasizes differences in the objectives and preferences of the various departments and attempts to demonstrate how conflict between competing preferences and beliefs are resolved. The political character of organization life is rooted in "non bureaucratic decision mechanisms" (Salancik & Pfeffer, 1974, p. 454) that are used to resolve conflicts between subunits. For resource dependency theory, then, "power is first and foremost a structural phenomenon. and should be understood as such" (Pfeffer. 1981, p. x).

Both strategic contingencies theory and resource dependency theory have been heavily influential in the study of organizational power and politics. Recent literature in this area would suggest that. while modifications of the initial formulations of power have been fairly frequent. little related work has appeared that questions the fundamental assumptions of this early work. Rather, the tendency has been to build on and expand these perspectives (Astley & Sachdeva, 1984; Cobb, 1984; Enz, 1988; Lachman, 1989; Turow, 1984). For example. Astley and Sachdeva bemoan the theoretically fragmented character of work on power and suggest integration through a focus on the interdependent

relationships among three structural sources of power: hierarchical authority, resource Control. and network centrality. However, the three sources of power are each borrOWed from different theoretical perspectives. and the connections between them are emphasized (hierarchical authority from bureaucratic theory, resource control from resource dependency theory, and network centrality from strategic contingencies theory). As such. Astley and Sachdeva's intervention represents not so much a theoretical synthesis as a theoretical aggregation.

With few exceptions (Pettigrew, 1973; Pfeffer, 1981). little attention has been paid to the relationship between communication and power in this body of research. This stems from rather primitive conceptions of the communication-organization relationship. As Axley (1984) has demonstrated, most managerial conceptions of communication function according to a "conduit" model in which communication involves the relatively unproblematic transmission of ideas and information between senders and receivers. In research on organizational power, communication is largely taken for granted. While a subunit's power is measured in terms of its centrality, autonomy, and access to resources, little or no attention is paid to how this power is communicated to other subunits. The presumption is that such communication occurs mechanically and unproblematically, simply relaying or representing the power of a subunit.

Pfeffer (1981) provides the most sophisticated resource dependence model of communication, examining political language and symbols as a way to mobilize organizational support and reduce opposition. Using Edelman (1964) as a conceptual foundation, Pfeffer discusses the various linguistic and symbolic practices that organizational actors draw on to solidify or enhance their influence in organizations. However, Pfeffer ( 1981) places strict parameters on the role of communicative processes in relation to organizational power:

The view developed here ... is that language and symbolism are important in the exercise of power. It is helpful for social actors with power to use appropriate political language and symbols to legitimate and develop support for the decisions that are reached on the basis of power. However, in this formulation, language and the ability to use political symbols contribute only marginally to the development of the power of various organizational participants; rather, power deri ves from the conditions of resource control and resource interdependence. (p. 184, emphasis in original)

This representational view positions communication as auxiliary to power relations. rather than constituting them. For Pfeffer, relations of power are established prior to the communication of relations of autonomy and dependence. Despite the careful consideration of communication as an important organizational phenomenon, Pfeffer ultimately relegates it to the role of reproducing and legitimating already existing relations within the organization. Pfeffer privileges resource control over communication, failing to recognize that the latter constitutes a resource that controls organizational goals. Pfeffer thus neglects communication as an intersubjective process in which what counts as power involves struggles over meaning.

In sum, while the systems-rational approach established power as a legitimate area of research, its narrow conceptions of communication and power limit the kind of insights that can be developed about the political character of organizing. Table 15.2 outlines the principal strengths and weaknesses of this early research on organizational power and summarizes the other approaches to communication, power, and organizing to be discussed in this chapter. Readers are encouraged to refer back to this table as my argument unfolds.

The next section examines interpretive approaches to organizational power, a development that occurred in the wake of the so-called linguistic tum in philosophy and social theory (Rorty, 1967).

Power and Politics • 593


Interpretive research on power represents an important paradigm shift in organizational communication research and signals the point at which communication becomes central to our understanding of organizing processes. While the work reviewed in the previous section either ignored communication entirely or positioned it as an unproblematic extension of cognitive or structural factors, research conducted from an interpretive perspective sees communication as constitutive of organizing (Pacanowsky & O'DonnellTrujillo, 1982; Putnam, 1983; Smith & Eisenberg, 1987). In other words. organizations have ontological status only insofar as members communicatively and collectively construct a shared reality.

Much of this literature develops out of the phenomenological, ethnomethodological, and hermeneutic traditions, where the central concern is intersubjectivity, That is, how does one articulate an alternative to the Cartesian bifurcation of subject and object, which positions knowledge as the mind's discovery of a preexisting reality? The interpretive approach shows how subject and world (including other subjects) are mutually constituted. In this perspective, communication is the process of creating an intersubjectively meaningful reality (Gadamer, 1989; Mehan & Wood, 1975; Merleau-Ponty, 1960; Schutz, 1962). It is not possible to review the entire sociological tradition that has emerged out of this work, but its orientation is perhaps expressed most forcefully by Gadamer's (1989) notion of Sprachlichkeit (linguisticality) and Heidegger's (1977) conception of language as the "house of being." In both perspectives, language is not merely a vehicle for the expression of already formed thoughts and identities, but is that which creates self. meaning. and the world as we know it.

The elements of this intersubjective approach to meaning have existed in the field of communication for more than 25 years

~~- ----~_--------------------~_------

• •

! i







'(Deetz, 1973a, 1973b, 1978; Hawes, 1977), but the impact on organizational communica. lion studies is more recent. The "interpretive paradigm" thus centers on the process of organizing as emerging from the intersubjective act of communication (Bittner, 1974; Burrell & Morgan, 1979; Gephart, 1978; Putnam, 1983; Putnam & Pacanowsky, 1983).

In studying power, the interpretive approach focuses on the relationships among communication, power, and meaning (Fowler, Hodge, Kress, & Trew, 1979). Kunda (1992) provides an insightful account of these rela-

tionships in his ethnographic study of the culture at a high-tech engineering company. Examining culture as a form of nonnative control (i.e., the process of shaping organization members' underlying experiences, feelings, and values in an effort to guide behavior), Kunda shows that employees do not simply behave in the corporation's interests, but actually develop a sense of identity through commitment to the organization and its goals. Such a commitment is not realized unproblematically, but occurs through a "struggle over meaning" in which the corporation and its members compete over definitions of organizational reality. As Kunda states: "The struggle between organizations bent on nonnative control and individuals subjected to it is over the definition of reality, and it is a difficult one, for meanings both personal and collective have become part of the contested terrain" (p. 227).

Kunda's study focuses on the communicative practices in which organization members engage, showing how organizing is produced in the moment to moment, as members "do" meetings, engage in hallway talk, and tell stories (Boden, 1994; Taylor, 1995; Taylor, Cooren, Giroux, & Robichaud, 1996). At issue, then, are the sensemaking practices of social actors. That is, how do organization members construct meanings--both collective and individual-cut of communication processes that are inherently ambiguous and open to multiple interpretations? As Eisenberg (1984) has shown, such ambiguity can be used strate-

Power and Politics • 595

gically by managers as forms of control. Sensemaking is not simply the product of mutually shared assumptions and interpretive procedures, but rather is shaped by the political context in which it occurs. Sensemaking and the creation of intersubjective structures of meaning exist in a dialectical relationship with organizational relations of power. Organizational power is defined in terms of the ability of individuals and groups to control and shape dominant interpretations of organizational events,

Although a ubiquitous feature of organizational life, control over meanings becomes particularly salient in organizational crises. At such times, dominant interpretations are challenged and taken-for-granted meanings are problematized. Gephart's (1988, 1992; Gephart, Steier, & Lawrence, 1990) study of inquiries into industrial accidents demonstrates this process at work, showing how various interest groups (the company, government investigators, families of employees) compete to shape interpretations of such events. For Gephart (1992), the key issue involves "determining how sensemaking practices are used to transform (varied) preliminary interpretations of disasters into culturally rational, sensible, and standardized interpretations assumedly shared by key inquiry participants" (p. 119). One of the most interesting features of this research is the extent to which dominant, institutionalized meanings appropriate and thus neutralize alternative, oppositional interpretations of events. For example, in his analysis of testimony at a public inquiry into a gas pipeline fire, Gephart (1992) shows how the official, "top-down," regulatory logic of the organization prevails over the "situated logic" (that developed on-site by workers) of work in action. The latter operates informally, makes sense to workers, and reflects an ad hoc, commonsense way of dealing with safety issues; however, it conflicts with the deductive, state-mandated logic employed by the company. In this context, the public inquiry is analyzed as a remedial process that attempts to relegitimate the state's role as the arbiter of

596 • Process

"correct" organizational safety procedures, while simultaneously closing off alternative interpretations of events.

Gephart's work helps us to see the interconnections among communication, power, and meaning by showing how discourse can construct (as opposed to simply represent) meanings and sensernaking practices that legitimate certain interests over others. However, his studies focus on public discourse and its construction practices rather than the day-to-day communication in which organization members engage. In the latter case, focus is on the emergent, interactional, and often precarious character of organizing. In terms of power issues, the question is one of how organization members co-construct meanings that legitimate authority and control, moment to moment. Such research is relatively rare (given the difficulty of collecting interaction-based data), but the little that has been conducted provides insight into intersubjectivity as an ongoing process. For example, Boje's (1991) analysis of organizational storytelling-although not explicitly addressing power issues-shows that stories are co-constructed phenomena rather than symbolic artifacts produced by a single actor with a passive audience. This work contrasts with other research on organizational narrative that treats stories as self-contained events (e.g., J. Martin, 1990; Martin, Feldman, Hatch, & Sirkin, 1983; Mumby, 1987; Witten, 1993).

Fairhurst's (1993) discourse approach to the leader-member exchange (LMX) model of leadership is a further example of interpretive work that examines power and authority as an ongoing, situational accomplishment involving the management of meaning. Fairhurst operates from the premise that "as members of speech communities, leaders and members draw upon different strategies and use linguistic resources in particular ways because of the dilemmas they face at that moment and the meaningfulness ofthe social relation of which they are a part" (p. 322). Taking women leaders as the focus of her study, Fairhurst shows

that in high LMX situations (characterized by mutual trust, internalization of common goals, and mutual influence and support), leaders successfully manage interactions through particular communication strategies that enhance and, indeed, constitute the ongoing character of the relationship. Thus, leadership is Conceived as the product of the interaction between leader and member. Fairhurst's focus on gender issues also points to important ways in which women leaders "do gender" interactionally by negotiating issues of power, conflict, and participation.

In sum, interpretive studies of organizational power provide important insight into the constitutive character of communication and the relationship of communication to both organizing and power. By treating power as socially constructed, researchers show how organization members employ interpretive procedures that produce, reproduce, or resist dominant organizational realities. However, such work often fails to address adequately the larger political and economic contexts within which relations of power develop. Issues such as ideology, hegemony, and contradiction go largely untheorized in the interpretive literature. In the next section, therefore, I address critical studies of organizational power, which draw extensively on Marxist and nee-Marxist traditions.


This section focuses on the ways that critical studies have helped to reshape conceptions of organizational power. Again, this approach will be examined from a communication perspective, with a focus on the processes through which systems of organizational power are produced, reproduced, and resisted. An appreciation of the richness of this work requires that one understands three of its central concepts: ideology, hegemony (Gramsci, 1971), and reification (Lukacs, 1971). Thus, prior to examining the critical

literature I briefly discuss these concepts. Then, I contextualize critical organizational communication studies with an examination of work that emanates from the sociological tradition. Finally, I examine the emergence of the critical perspective in organizational communication studies proper.

Central Concepts in the Critical Tradition

The concept of ideology plays a central role in neo-Marxist critiques of capitalism and, by extension, organizations (Eagleton, 1991; Geuss, 1981; Larrain, 1979; McClellan, 1986; Therborn, 1980; Thompson, 1984). Despite its slippery and contentious status, we can operate from a number of premises regarding this concept:

1. Ideology is most usefully conceived not as beliefs that are epiphenomenal to social actors' identities, but as that which constitutes those identities, or subjectivities (Althusser, 1971).

2. Ideology creates complex systems and chains of signification and interpretive schemas (Hall, 1985) through which people experience intersubjectively their social relations.

3. Ideology provides the framework for the privileging of certain interpretive schemas and interests over others. Hence, ideology has a strong legitimation function in its production and reproduction of the dominant relations of power (Habermas, 1975).

4. Ideology does not simply reflect the dominant relations of power in a straightforward manner, but rather transforms and hence obscures these relations, hiding them from immediate experience (Deetz & Kersten, 1983; Mumby, 1989).

5. Ideology is not simply ideational; rather, it is material insofar as (a) it is expressed in the everyday communication and behavioral practices of social actors, and (b) it has direct consequences in the construction of the lived experience of those actors.

Power and Politics • 597

6. Ideology is not monolithic, simply reproducing a seamless and totalizing reality. Rather. "ideology ... sets limits to the degree to which a society-in-dominance can easily, smoothly, and functionally reproduce itself' (Hall, 1985, p. 113).

7. Social actors are thus never completely determined by ideology but are, in Therborn's (1980) terms, constantly implicated in the process of "subjection-qualification" whereby they are both "subjects" of (in the dual sense) and "qualified" by (in the dual sense) ideology.

For organizational communication studies, ideology concerns the ways in which the identities of organization members are constructed through everyday communicative practices, such that particular relations of power are produced, reproduced, or transfonned (Deetz, 1982; Deetz & Kersten, 1983; Mumby, 1987, 1988). In this context, Gramsci's (1971) concept of hegemony plays an important role in critical organization studies.

Much confusion exists regarding the relationship between ideology and hegemony. In Gramsci's (1971) terms, hegemony involves not simple domination of one group by another, but rather the development of a "collective will" through "intellectual and moral reform" (pp. 60-61). Thus, hegemony explains "the ability of one class to articulate the interests of other social groups to its own" (Mouffe, 1979, p. 183) and is achieved through "the colonization of popular consciousness" (Grossberg, 1984, p. 412). Hegemony therefore includes the ideological but cannot be reduced to it. For Gramsci, hegemony places focus on the dialectical relation of various class forces not only in the ideological and cultural realms but also in the economic and political realms. Eagleton (1991) provides a useful way of distinguishing ideology and hegemony when he states:

Ideology refers specifically to the way power-struggles are fought out at the level of signification; and though such signification is

598 • Process

involved in all hegemonic processes, it is not in all cases the dominant level by which rule is sustained. Singing the National Anthem comes as close to a "purely" ideological activity as one could imagine .... Religion. similarly, is probably the most purely ideological of the various institutions of civil society. But hegemony is also carried in cultural, political, and economic forms-in non-discursive practices as well as in rhetorical utterances. (p. 113)

Gramsci's notion of hegemony is important insofar as it marks a shift from ideology viewed as a relatively fixed, static "system of ideas" imposed on subordinate groups, to a dynamic conception of the lived relations of social groups and the various struggles that constantly unfold between and among these groups. As such, hegemony can be viewed as a process that is communicative in character, involving attempts by various groups to articulate systems of meaning that are actively taken up by other groups. By focusing on "civil society"-the "ensemble of organisms called 'private,''' including the media, family. religion, education, and so forth-as the primary realm where hegemony is exercised, Gramsci is able to conceptualize power as a consensual, noncoercive, and contested process.

Finally, the concept of reification is central to critical models of organizational communication. Lukacs's (1971) History and Class Consciousness represents a restoration of the Hegelian influence in Marxism. He develops a humanist position that conceives of Marxism as an articulation of working-class, revolutionary consciousness. Extending Marx's analysis of the commodity form, which focuses primarily on the economic dimensions of the process of reification, Lukacs asks the question, "How far is commodity exchange together with its structural consequences able to influence the total outer and inner life of society?" (p. 84). For him, the commodity fonn pervades every dimension of social life, mechanizing and dehumanizing experience such that "man's activity becomes estranged

from himself' (Lukacs, 1971, p. 87) and develops a "phantom objectivity." This alienated existence provides the catalyst for a self-recognition in which the working class transcends itself. The moment of revolutionary recognition occurs "when the working class acknowledges this alienated world as its own confiscated creation, reclaiming it through political praxis" (Eagleton, 1991, p. 98).

The concept of reification figures prominently in critical approaches to organizational communication. Ranson, Hinings, and Greenwood (1980) develop a structurational approach to power in arguing that "interested action is typically oriented toward the framework of an organization, with members striving to secure their sectional claims within its very structure, which then operates to mediate or reconstitute those interests" (p. 7). In other words, groups strive to reify organizational structures that serve their interests. Deetz (1992a) discusses the various discursive strategies employed in the systematic distortion of communication (Habermas, 1970, 1979), showing how discourse "naturalizes" socially constructed. human creations, providing them with objective qualities that appear to be independent from their creators.

CrihCalS~iesandthe Sociology of Organizations

The critical sociological tradition has long attempted to come to grips with, and explain, the exploitative character of capitalism. For Marx, the expropriation of labor and the securing of surplus value was largely a coercive process. The ongoing accumulation of capital meant wresting more and more work from the laborer, either through lengthening the working day or by speeding up the labor process. Braverman's (1974) famous analysis of deskilling shows how 2Oth-century monopoly capitalism secures surplus value by Simplifying and cheapening the cost of labor, reducing workers to abstract and undifferentiated ele-. ments in the labor process. While these meth-

ods are still ubiquitous in corporate America (studies suggest that the average employee now works longer hours for the same or less pay), much of the critical sociological literature-particularly that associated with the cultural studies tradition (Grossberg, 1984; Hall, 1985)--addresses the cultural and symbolic processes through which capitalism is produced and reproduced. This marks a shift from studying power as principally located within the system of economic production to a focus on power as situated mainly within communication and discourse processes.

Two studies that reflect this shift toward cultural, ideological conceptions of power and organizing are Willis's (1977) study of British working-class school-leavers and Burawoy's (1979) analysis of a shop floor culture of "making out." In his analysis of a group of "lads" in their final school year before going into the workplace, Willis shows how they resist the dominant educational culture of good behavior and studiousness by creating their own counterculture founded on "having a laff" and fighting. The lads intersubjectively construct an alternative system of meaning that radically inverts the values of the dominant culture, thus creating a space of resistance. Willis argues that, ironically, such resistance ultimately functions to prepare the lads for working-class jobs--their rejection of education condemns them to a life of manual labor. In this sense, opposition to the dominant system of ideas functions to reproduce those ideas along with the capitalist relations of production that undergird them.

Burawoy's (1979) critical ethnography of the labor process critiques 20th-century Marxism for reducing wage laborers to objects of manipulation and coercion, creating what he calls a "subjectless subject" (p. 77). In redressing this limitation, Burawoy is interested in exploring the dynamics of Gramsci's (1971, p. 285) claim that "hegemony is born in the factory" (Burawoy, 1979, p. xi). Thus, he focuses on the organization of relations of domination through consent. Arguing that

Power Clnd Politics • 599

"the defining essence of the capitalist labor process is the simultaneous securing and obscuring of surplus value" (p. 30), Burawoy shows how the game of "making out" (played by workers as a way of maximizing wages under a modified piece-rate system) organizes consent and maintains a culture of cooperation with management in the production of surplus value. In this sense, the game functions ideologically and dialectically, embodying worker autonomy and resistance to management control over the labor process, while simultaneously obscuring the relations of production in response to which the game was originally constructed.

Interestingly, Collinson (1988,1992,1994) critiques both Willis and Burawoy for their lack of an adequate theory of the subject and an overly structuralist conception of power:

In the absence of any theorizing of subjectivity, Burawoy cannot fully explain workers' active involvement in the game of making out or the subjective conditions that shape how and why workers routinely reproduce the conditions of their own subordination. Hence, whilst Willis exaggerates working-class resistance and penetrations, Burawoy, conversely, overstates consent and conformity on the shop floor. What unites these authors, however, is their failure to theorize subjectivity and their dualistic analyses that focus upon structuralist theories of power on the one hand and working-class culture on the other. (1992, pp. lSD-lSI)

In his own study of a British engineering plant, Collinson (1988, 1992) reveals a complex system of meaning and identity formation that revolves around the deployment of humor by the engineers. Collinson interrogates the ways in which a working-class masculine identity is symbolically constructed through humor and how, ultimately, the particular form that this identity takes serves to undermine the possibilities for genuine resistance to capitalist alienation and reification processes. He argues that resistance is under-

600 • Process

mined through a use of humor that constructs a form of masculine identity-rooted in aggressive sexuality, a careful separation of private and work lives, and competitive individualism-that limits the possibilities for solidarity and collective action.

From a communication perspective, Collinson's study advances beyond Willis's and Burawoy's insofar as it focuses on the communicative construction of identity, power, and resistance. While both Willis and Burawoy present undertheorized and essentialist conceptions of subjectivity tied to class (even though their aim is to show how these subjectivities are socially constructed), Collinson demonstrates how subjectivity is constructed through complex and often contradictory processes of communication and meaning formation; in this sense, subjectivity itself is contradictory and fragmented. Just as important, Collinson avoids the production of a dualism between agency and structure insofar as communication is situated as central to both, providing the possibility for agency and defining structure in terms of routinized patterns of communication. For example, Collinson (1988, 1992) identifies humor as performing the three functions of resisting managerial authority, controlling workers perceived as lazy, and promoting consent to the prevailing form of masculine identity. These three functions simultaneously produce routinized behavior (workers are expected to exhibit masculine bravado or risk ostracism) and create possibilities for agency (workers "see through" and resist management attempts to co-opt them into a more informal "Americanized" corporate culture).

In summariz.ing the critical sociological approach to organizational power, then, three themes can be identified. First, power is conceived in dialectical terms (Benson, 1977; Brown, 1978; Clegg, 1975, 1981, 1987; Clegg & Dunkerley, 1980; Edwards, 1979; Goldman & Van Houten, 1977; Hindess, 1982; Ranson et al., 1980). This move situates power not as a purely structural, coalitional phenomenon, but as rooted in the dialectical interplay between conscious, acting subjects and the insti-


tutionalized, sedimented structures that renect the underlying relations of production in the workplace. In other words, the relationship between agency and structure, first hinted at by Bachrach and Baratz in their two-dimensional model, becomes a central issue in institutional studies of power.

Second, power is not framed simply as a struggle over resources (economic, political, informational, etc.) but rather as a struggle over meaning (Clegg, 1989a). Against Pfeffer's (1981) explicit separation of symbolic and material resources, neo-Marxism theorizes the dialectical interplay among the economic, political, and ideological dimensions of social relations (Benson, 1977). Interest lies in examining how social actors construct a meaning environment that functions ideologically, simultaneously securing and obscuring the power relations that undergird everyday practices.

Third, critical sociology of organizations is concerned with what might be termed a "hermeneutics of suspicion" (Ricoeur, 1970). This orientation eschews the notion that organizations can be read by examining the surface, relatively visible features of organizational life and argues for a distinction between "surface" and "deep structure" dimensions of organizations. The concept of ideology is central to this distinction insofar as it functions to obscure deep-structure power relations, articulating a relatively coherent and orderly surface structure of organizational life. It is only through "ideology critique" that the pathological, contradictory, and coercive features of capitalist institutional forms can be unmasked.

Despite this shift to a meaning-centered, dialectical approach to power and organiz.ing, little of this work explicitly examines communication as a constitutive feature of this relationship. Thus, studies do not center on language, discourse, or symbolic proeesses per se. Despite the occasional exception (e.g., Clegg, 1975; Collinson, 1992), most studies presume that organizations are constituted through social actors' practices, but the communicative dimension of these practices is af-

forded little scrutiny. Ironically, as long ago as the 1920s, Volosinov (1973) was arguing for "the sign" as the primary arena of class struggle: "Everything ideological possesses meaning: it represents, depicts, or stands for something lying outside itself. In other words, it is a sign. Without signs there is no ideology" (p. 9, emphasis in original), Thus, the most important exercise of power is at the level of signification (i.e., communication); the group that is best able to get a certain meaning system to "stick" is the group that has the most power. It is the study of the communicative dimensions of this process that provides critical organizational communication studies with its distinctive character.

C~aIApproache$to Communication, Power, and Organization

I divide critical studies of organizational communication into two areas. First, there is a large body of work that is theory oriented, simultaneously challenging the managerial assumptions that undergird most organization studies and developing alternative perspectives that focus heavily on issues of power and politics (Alvesson, 1985; Alvesson & Willmott, 1992a, 1992b; Deetz. 1982, 1985; Frost, 1980, 1987; Mumby, 1993a, 1997; Steffy & Grimes, 1986), In terms of the connections among power, hegemony. ideology, and reification, critical theorists show how management theory functions ideologically by reifying and naturalizing a particular way of knowing, thus excluding as illegitimate other forms of representing knowledge claims. Here. the concern is to make explicit the politics of knowledge representation, and to demonstrate how managerially defined theories of knowledge serve to sustain the hegemony of management interests.

Second, there is a growing body of research that examines empiricaI1y the relationships among communication, power, and organization, focusing on the ways in which

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power and resistance are manifested at the everyday level of organizing (Collinson, 1988, 1992; Graham. 1993; Huspek & Kendall, 1991 ; Markham. 1996; Murphy, 1998; Rosen, 1985. 1988; Scheibel, 1996; Witten, 1993; Young, 1989). This research takes seriously the notion that meaning. identity, and power relationships are produced, maintained. and reproduced through ongoing communicative practices. Researchers have examined specific forms of communication, including stories (Ehrenhaus, 1993; Helmer. 1993; Mumby, 1987, 1993b; Witten, 1993), rituals (Izraeli & Jick., 1986; Rosen, 1985. 1988), metaphors (Deetz & Mumby, 1985; McMillan & Cheney, 1996; Salvador & Markham, 1995; Wendt, 1994), corporate advertising (Fairclough, 1993), public announcements (Banks, 1994). conversational interaction (Clegg, 1975; Huspek & Kendall, 1991; Penkoff, 1995; van Dijk, 1993), work songs (Conrad, 1988), humor (Collinson, 1988, 1992), and organizational texts (Laird Brenton, 1993) as ways of getting at the complex dynamics that characterize the ideological structuring of organizations.

Given space limitations, I focus primarily on empirical work as a way of demonstrating the importance to critical studies of a communicative conception of organizational power. Here, power is conceptualized primarily as a struggle over meaning; the group that is best able to "fix" meaning and articulate it to its own interests is the one that will be best able to maintain and reproduce relations of power (Deetz, I 992a; Deetz & Mumby, 1990; Giddens, 1979; Gray, Bougon, & Donnellon, 1985; Hall, 1985; Mumby, 1987.1988,1989), As suggested above, issues of ideology, hegemony, and reification are central issues in this work, with critical researchers viewing language and communication as constitutive of organizational power relations.

The examination of this constitutive process has taken a number of different forms. Several critical scholars have used Giddens's (1976, 1979, 1984) structurational approach as a theoretical lens for explicating the rela-

602 • Process

tionship between agency (communication) and structure (rules and resources) (Banks & Riley, 1993; Mumby, 1987, 1988; Penkoff, 1995; Riley, 1983). Even though Giddens's work has been widely disseminated in our field, for the most part it has been appropriated in a rather conservative fashion, with emphasis on its compatibility with systems theory (e.g., Poole & DeSanctis, 1990). However, some organizational communication scholars have thematized the radical dimension of Giddens's work through a focus on the relationship between the notions of "duality of structure" and "dialectic of control." Giddens (1979, p. 69) argues that structure is both the medium and outcome of communicative practices. In this sense, structure is both enabling and constraining, simultaneously providing the possibility for agency and limiting its scope. Social actors draw on rules and resources to engage in communicative behavior and coordinated action, at the same time reproducing, resisting, or transforming that structure through social action. The dialectic of control thus addresses the extent to which a social actor could "act otherwise" (Giddens, 1979, pp. 145-150) as part of a structure of enablement and constraint.

Critical organization scholars have addressed the relationship between the structurational process and the communicative practices of organization members (Helmer, 1993; Howard & Geist, 1995; Mumby, 1987, 1988; Papa, Auwal, & Singhal, 1995; Ranson et al., 1980; Riley, 1983). Power, conceived as the ability to "act otherwise" in the context of the dialectic of control, is examined by focusing on how social actors draw on communication resources to privilege a structurationa1 process that favors their interests. Researchers attempt to show the relationship between systems of signification and structures of domination. For example, Mumby (1987) provides an in-depth interpretation of an organizational story to demonstrate how it functions ideologically to maintain and reproduce relations of power. In analyzing the story, Mumby uses Giddens's (1979) three functions of ideology

and adds a fourth of his own. Thus, ideology functions to (1) transmute or deny contradictions, (2) naturalize the present through reification, (3) present sectional interests as universal, and (4) foster hegemonic forms of control.

While such an analysis is useful in drawing attention to the narrative-ideology-power constellation, it is limited insofar as (a) it is a secondary analysis (drawn from Martin et al., 1983); (b) the analysis is based on a single, fixed organizational story and must therefore make some large interpretive leaps (Boje, 1991); and (c) it lacks the context of naturally occurring storytel1ing events and is therefore limited in the kinds of conclusions it can draw. On the other hand, Helmer (1993) uses a structurational approach as the theoretical framework for his critical ethnography of a harness racing track. Through an analysis of the stories told by various groups (trainers, jockeys, etc.), he is able to provide insight into the system of legitimation and stratification that operates at the track, privileging some voices and marginalizing others. His analysis suggests that the discourse of the track is both characterized by, and understood through, three oppositional constructs: trainers versus administrators, "chemists" versus honest horsemen, and men versus women. Helmer shows how systems of signification (in this case, storytelling) connect to relations of domination by suggesting that these oppositional constructs function as sensemaking mechanisms, providing organization members with interpretive frames through which they produce, reproduce, or resist the dominant systems of meaning of the track as a capitalist site of profit making and labor exploitation.

While Giddens has provided critical scholars with a useful frame by which to examine organizational power, a number of researchers have taken up Habennas's (1979, 1984, 1987) critical theory of society as a way of critically exploring institutional power. The body of literature spawned by Habennas's work is voluminous, and it cannot be addressed fully here.



However, I will provide a sense of how it has been appl ied to organization studies.

Forester (1989, 1992, 1993) has applied Habermas's theory of communicative action to fieldwork settings, arguing that it "enables us to explore the continuing performance and practical accomplishment of relations of power. By refining Habermas's attention to a 'double structure of speech,' we come to examine specifically the micropolitics of speech and interaction" (1992, p. 62). Forester has used Habermas's "ideal speech situation" as a model for examining the ways in which discursive closure can occur in everyday organizational settings. Slightly reformulating Habermas's four claims to validity, he attempts to link them directly to issues of power and legitimation. Forester (1989) views organizations as structures of communicative interaction that reproduce particular social relations through relations of knowledge (truth), consent (rightness), trust (truthfulness), and comprehension (intelligibility). Placing these in a 3 by 4 matrix with three forms of power -decision making (Dahl, 1957). agenda setting (Bachrach & Baratz, 1962), and shaping felt needs (Lukes, I 974}-Forester (1989) comes up with 12 "forms of misinformation" that provide a map of the "micropolitics" of speech and interaction. Forester's work is unique in the extent to which it faithfully applies the principles of Habermas's work to ethnographies of organizational power.

Deetz (1992a, 1994, 1995) provides another important application of Habermas's work to the critical analysis of organizational power. Deetz's (1992a) work is particularly important in its development of a conception of power that is situated within a sociohistorical framework and that places issues of communication, identity, and meaning formation at its center. In brief, Deetz argues that the modem corporation has become the most important site of political decision making and, as such, plays a pivotal role in the development of our identities. Following Habermas (1984, 1987), Deetz argues that corporations have colonized the lifeworld (our sense of

Power and Politics • 603

community) and the institutional forms associated with it (e.g., education, interpersonal relations, family), such that any productive conceptions of communication, identity, and democracy have been appropriated and reframed in terms of managerial interests and technical forms of rationality (e.g., the reduction of communication to efficient information transmission). Deetz focuses on the ways in which organizational practices produce discursive closure and constitute the corporate individual. As an alternative to this view of modem organizational life, Deetz (1992a, 1995) argues for a communicationbased model in which democracy is the product of open communication among a variety of stakeholders in organizations, rather than being the unproblematic product of a supposedly already existing democratic society, as narrowly defined through the politics of individual expression and voting rights.

Other critical studies of organizational power, while not as well developed as Deetz's, focus similarly on the connections among communication, meaning, identity. and the ongoing dialectic of control in the workplace. Rosen's (1985, 1988) critical ethnography of an advertising agency is a good example of such work, placing emphasis on the role ofritualized corporate behavior in the production and reproduction of capitalist relations of domination. His analyses of a corporate breakfast (1985) and an annual Christmas party (1988) reveal the ways that such events simultaneously provide workers with an interpretive frame by which they can make sense of their corporate identities and ideologically obscure the deep-structure power relations that secure their subordination to managerial corporate interests.

While critical organizational communication studies have focused primarily on the relationships among communication, ideology, and relations of hegemony (defined in terms of domination through consent), recent work has examined processes of resistance, arguing that such resistance does not have to be framed as ultimately reproducing relations of

604 • Process

domination (as in, e.g., Burawoy, 1979, and Willis, 1977). Such work takes up the possibilities for genuine challenges to the "dominant hegemony," and the creation of spaces of resistance that provide alternative worldviews. Scott (1990) adopts this approach in his analysis of the resistant practices of subordinate groups. He argues that the reason why most critical and Marxist studies of power have focused on issues of domination rather than resistance (i.e., "power over" rather than "power to") is because such studies focus almost exclusively on the public contexts for the exercise of power. Distinguishing between "public transcripts" and "hidden transcripts," Scott suggests that much of the creative resistance of subordinate groups takes place not in public, but rather in discourse and behaviors that occur "offstage" and beyond the direct surveillance of those in power. Arguing that "relations of domination are, at the same time, relations of resistance" (p. 45), Scott (1990) focuses his attention on the "infrapolitics of subordinate groups" (p. 19), that is, low-profile fonns of resistance that create dissident subcultures beyond the purview of "official," dominant political structures and systems of meaning.

Scott's analysis is extremely useful in its demonstration that surface-level "quiescence" or silence may actually function as a cover for deeper-level challenges to the apparent seamlessness of the dominant power structure. In this sense, his study provides a provocative reversal of the thesis suggested by both Willis and Burawoy. That is, rather than arguing that apparent resistance obscures deeper-level reproduction of relations of domination, Scott argues that the "manufacture of consent" provides a convenient cover for subordinate groups to create a space for resistance and the articulation of politically alternative worldviews. From this perspective, Scott (1990) offers "a way of addressing the issue of hegemonic incorporation" (p. 19) without ignoring the fundamentally dialectical character of power. Such a thesis is important from a critical communication perspective because it

suggests both that silence has important symbolic functions in terms of resistance and that public forms of communication may not provide researchers with a clear understanding of the dynamics of resistance and control.

In effect, critical studies have provided us with important insights into the relationships among identity, power, and everyday organizational practices. As mentioned earlier, critical studies attempt to explicate the agencystructure relationship, exploring the processes through which organizational actors both reproduce and resist the institutionalized meanings that are embedded in every act of communication. Importantly, critical studies have helped to contextualize discussions of ideology, hegemony, and reification and to situate organizing processes within larger social, political, and economic concerns. Critical studies have politicized organizational communication studies by exploring the intimate connections among communication, power, and identity formation and by suggesting possibilities for social change. However, the Marxist legacy of critical studies sometimes leads to rather totalizing, monolithic conceptions of power and resistance that overlook the multiple sites of struggle characteristic of modem social formations.

Partly in response to this limitation a development has occurred recently that has both enriched and complicated the terrain of critical studies, particularly in regards to our understanding of power as a pervasive, constitutive feature of organizational life. This development is the emergence of a postmodern perspective on organizations.


Postmodern analysis has emerged as an important and controversial mode of understanding and deconstructing contemporary human experience; it is the subject of a huge and ever-expanding body of literature in both

the humanities and social sciences (Best & Kellner, 1991; Callinicos, 1989; Featherstone, 1988; Harvey, 1989; Rosenau & Bredemeier, 1993). A large corpus of literature has emerged in the past few years that directly addresses the impact of postmodern thought on organizational theory and research (Boje, Gephart, & Thatchenkery, 1996; Burrell, 1988; Cooper, 1989; Cooper & Burrell, 1988; Hassard, I 993a, 1993b; Hassard & Parker, 1993; Jeffcutt, 1994; Kilduff & Mehra, 1997; Packer, 1992a, I 992b; Tsoukas, 1992). My goal in this section is to map out the "basic contours" of postmodernism (recognizing that such a move is very unpostmodern!), articulating its relationship to organizational communication studies and the study of power. As in previous sections, I will examine the relationship between postmodernism and a conception of communication as constitutive of organizing.

Postmodernism is partly defined in terms of its relationship to modernism-it both comes after modernism and is a response to and critique of modernist sensibilities. In this sense, "the postmodern" characterizes both an epistemological break with "the modem" and a historical break with the epoch of modernity (Cooper & Burrell, 1988; Featherstone, 1988; Hassard, 1993a, 1993b). This distinction between an epistemological (modernism/postmodernism) and epochal (modernity/postmodernity) view of the modern-postmodern debate is also manifest in the literature of organization studies. Some scholars argue that the postmodern is a historical, ontological condition that demands new, postcapitalist, post-Fordist forms of organizing, characterized by small economies of scale, flexible production capabilities, and reintegration of the work process (e.g., Bergquist, 1993; Clegg, 1990; Harvey, 1989). On the other hand, a number of scholars pursue postmodern thought as a way to deconstruct the organization as a site of power that subjects members to various forms of disciplinary practice (Barker & Cheney, 1994; Burrell, 1992, 1993;

Power and Politics • 605

Daudi, 1986; Holmer-Nadesan, 1997, 1999:

Jacques, 1996: Knights & Vurdubakis, 1994; Knights & Willmott, 1992; Linstead, 1993; Linstead & Grafton-Small, 1992). Given the focus of this chapter on the relationship between power and organizing, it is the latter perspective that will be explored here.

Postmodern thought has emerged in the context of a complex modernist landscape. Hassard (I993a, 1993b), for example, following Cooper and Burrell (1988), situates postmodemism in relation to two different and competing modernist orientations: systemic modernism and critical modernism. Systemic modernism represents the dominant orthodoxy in social thought today and, within organization studies, stands for progress in terms of the increasing rationalization of organizational life. From this perspective, "the main purposes of knowledge are to facilitate organizational control and to direct innovation and change" (Hassard, 1993a, p. 117). In most respects, the research discussed in this chapter under systems-rational perspectives falls under the rubric of systemic modernism.

Critical modernism, on the other hand, displays an ambiguous and ambivalent relationship with the Enlightenment project, simultaneously striving to maintain the emancipatory impulse of modernist thought and critiquing the direction that the Enlightenment has taken. It is the project of critical theory to oppose and deconstruct "traditional theory" (Horkheimer, 1986; Horkheimer & Adorno, 1988), and reappropriate self-consciousness and emancipation as the goals of knowledge. Critical modernism is thus both a deconstructive and reconstructive project, critiquing traditional science's lack of reflexivity and its connection to capitalist forms of power and domination, while at the same time developing a social theory that reclaims a sense of community and democracy (Habermas, 1979, 1984, 1987). The work discussed in the previous section falls under this domain.

Given this context, it is helpful to layout some of the central issues that emerge across different postmodern writers:

606 • Process

1. Postrnodemists challenge the very idea of rationality as it is developed in modernist thought. The idea of knowledge as progressive, cumulative, and continuous is rejected for a focus on discontinuity (Foucault, 1979).

2. Postmodernism rejects, or decenters, "the subject" as the origin of knowledge; instead, the subject is investigated as an effect of various powerlknowledge regimes (Foucault, 198Ob).

3. Following from this, language and discourse are conceived not as transparent, but rather as constitutive of knowledge and identity (Laclau, 1990; Laclau & Mouffe, 1985).

4. Postmodernism doesn't distinguish between truth and falsity, but rather attempts to understand how different kinds of power/knowledge relationships emerge at different historical conjunctures, thus laying out the rules for what counts as truth (Foucault, 1979. 198Ob). Truth and power therefore implicate one another.

5. In contrast to the totalizing and universalizing tendencies of modernist thought, postmodem theorists view knowledge as ad hoc, local, and situational. Lyotard (1984) defines postmodernisrn as "incredulity toward metanarratives" (p. xxiv), arguing for paralogy, petit recus (little narratives), and "the search for instabilities" (p. 53) rather than for homology, grand narratives, and consensus.

6. The fomenting of a "crisis of representation" (Jameson. 1984) by postmodernism has translated into a concern with issues of marginality and otherness, and the articulation of world views that challenge the dominant orthodoxy (Clifford, 1988; Clifford & Marcus, 1986; Conquergood, 1991; West, 1993).

What impact have these developments had on our understanding of organizational power? While postmodem studies of organizations are still in a nascent state, there are some distinct trends. First, theorists such as Laclau and Mouffe (1985; Laclau, 1990),


Foucault (1979, 1980a), and Derrida (1976) have provided radical organizational theorists and researchers with important understandings of organizations as sites of discursivepower.

For example, Michel Foucault's (1975, 1979, 1980a, 1988) archaeological and genealogical studies of medicine, discipline, sexuality, and madness as well as his more philosophical writings on the status of knowledge ( 1973, I 980b ) provide us with insight into the relationships among power, knowledge, subjectivity, and institutional forms and practices. Foucault's work has been adopted in organizational communication studies as a way of examining organizations as sites of disciplinary power (Barker, 1993, 1999; Clegg, 1989a, 1989b, 1994a. 1994b; Deetz, I 992a, I 992b; Holmer-Nadesan, 1997; Knights & Vurdubakis, 1994; Knights & Willmott, 1992; Marsden, 1993). In such a conception, power is not imposed from above (what Foucault critiques as a "sovereign" view of power), nor does it originate from a single source (e.g., as with Marxism's framing of all power relations within capitalist relations of domination-a position of which Foucault is highly critical); rather, power is widely dispersed, having multiple sites and modes of functioning. Social actors are "disciplined" to the extent that they become objects of knowledge of various discourses within these sites and thus come to know themselves (as subjects) in particular ways (e.g., as sexual, rule governed, normal), In Foucault's ("Florence;' 1994) terms, "What are the processes of subjectivization and objectivization that allow the subject to become, as subject, an object of knowledge?" (p. 315). Discourses are thus texts and communicative practices that function within (and reproduce) certain "truth games" (rules for what counts as true or false), defining the subject and submitting him or her to processes of normalization,

For example, recent work on self-managing teams (Barker, 1993, 1999; Barker & Cheney, 1994; Mumby & Stohl, 1992) provides insight into how an ostensibly participative form of organizing has reconstituted

the way power is exercised in "postbureaucratic" organizations. Barker (1993) shows how a shift from hierarchical, bureaucratic forms of control to "concertive control" (Tompkins & Cheney, 1985), in which locus of control shifts from managers to the workers themselves, is achieved through the establishment of work teams that engage in self-surveillance (what Foucault, 1979, calls "panopticism"). Power is produced from the bottom up through the everyday discursive practices that construct team members' identities. Similarly, Mumby and Stohl's (1992) analysis of work teams shows how absent members are labeled and identified as "deviant" by other team members and are required to provide an accounting of, or apology for, their deviant behavior. Both of these studies exemplify an important principle of Foucault's conception of power: it is positive rather than negative. Power does not forbid and negate, but rather produces identities, knowledge. and the possibilities for behavior. In this sense, power and knowledge are indissolubly linked, producing each other, and articulating what Foucault (1980a) calls "powerlknow ledge regimes."

Foucault's influence on the study of organizations as sites of disciplinary rnicropractices is complemented by work that evolves from Derrida's (1976, 1978) deconstructive approach to literary texts (Cooper, 1989). Derrida's deconstructive project is a critique of the "metaphysics of presence" as the privileged mode of rationality in Western thinking. This metaphysics is both logocentric and phonocentric, privileging the mind (logocentrisrn) and the speaking subject (phonocentrism) as that which validates human experience. Derrida (1976) deconstructs this metaphysics of presence by arguing that "there is nothing outside of the text" (p. 158); he shows how all attempts to impose meaning are rooted in hierarchically arranged binary oppositions, such that the stability and dominance of one term is dependent on a suppressed or marginalized opposite term (e.g., maleJfemale, mind/body, public/private). De-

Power and Polit;cs • 607

construction therefore involves a double movement of overturning these binary opposites (thus destabilizing the dominant term) and engaging in a process of "metaphorization," by which the opposing terms are shown to implicate and define one another in an endless play of signifiers (Cooper, 1989, p. 483). For example, Mumby and Putnam (I992) deconstruct the concept of "bounded rationality" by juxtaposing it with the notion of "bounded emotionality." However. rather than privileging the latter over the former as an alternate way of organizing, they metaphorically play the one against the other, speculating about "the rationality of emotions" and "the emotionality of the rational" as ways of thinking about organizing processes.

Derrida (1976) appropriates and transforms the Saussurian notion of difference (language as a system of difference) by coining the term difJerance. This term simultaneously conveys the ideas of deferring (or postponing) and differing. Meaning, then, involves a continuous play of differance, in which a text is never fully present to us, but derives its meaning from a system of signifiers that constantly defer to, and are different from, other absent signifiers. Meaning only appears fixed because of an apparently straightforward positive relationship between signifiers and signifieds, Derrida demonstrates that this positive relationship is chimerical by examining the play of presence and absence on which the meaning of a text depends. There is nothing outside of the text, then, in that there is no external referent to which a text refers, only other texts.

Derrida's work has been employed by a number of organization scholars to explore and critique the representational practices of canonical organizational texts (Calas & Smircich, 1991; Kilduff. 1993; Mumby & Putnam. 1992). Each of these researchers attempts to deconstruct the structures of presence and absence in such texts to expose the hierarchical oppositions that privilege certain meanings and forms of knowledge over others. Such deconstructive projects, like much

608 • Process

of Foucault's work, draw attention to the relationships among representational practices, power, and institutionalized orthodoxies regarding what counts as "knowledge" in the field of organization studies. But deconstructionists have not focused purely on organization scholars. Deconstruction of the discursive practices of organizational life is also an emergent area of study. Linstead (1992), for example, argues for the development of a deconstructive ethnography by which to explore the tension between organization and disorganization. From this perspective, "organization ... is continuously emergent, constituted and constituting, produced and consumed by subjects who, like organization, are themselves fields of the trace, sites of intertextuality" (Linstead, 1992, p. 60).

While it is hard to identify full-blown organizational ethnographies that take a deconstructive approach, several scholars have used deconstruction as a means to explore the tensions, absences, and contradictions that connect power and subjectivity (Burrell, 1993; Kondo, 1990; J. Martin, 1990). From this perspective, "organization always harbours within itself that which transgresses it, namely, disorganization" (Cooper, 1989, p. 480). One of the characteristics of such work is its tendency to engage in play, parody, and pastiche, undermining the reader's confidence in the authority of a conventional, linear, narrative style (Martin, 1992). For example, Burrell's (1993) whimsically titled "Eco and the Bunnymen" casts aside conventional academic form to question simultaneously the representational practices of academia and the structure of the modem university, and to provide a witty critique of the commodification of knowledge and bodies at the Academy of Management annual convention.

Finally, a considerable number of deconstructive and genealogical analyses of organizing practices are emerging from the field of accounting (Arrington & Francis, 1989; Hoskin & Macve, 1986, 1988; Miller & O'Leary, 1987; Power & Laughlin, 1992). This research provides an instance where the

work of Derrida and Foucault coincide. Given Derrida's concern with writing, and Foucault's concern with professional discourse and its relationship to disciplinary practices and powerlknowledge regimes, the critical study of accounting practices is an important area through which to examine the relationships between discursive micropractices, on the one hand, and the macrostructures of organizational power, on the other. Thus, this work deconstructs the notion that accounting is "only a techne of progress" (Arrington & Francis, 1989, p. 22), and instead argues that it is "an important calculative practice which is part of a much wider modem apparatus of power which emerges conspicuously in the early years of this [20th] century" (Miller & O'Leary, 1987, p. 234). Similarly. Hoskin and Macve (1988) conceptualize accounting as "a mode of 'writing the world' which, like the modem examination, embodies the power relations and the knowledge relations of a disciplinary and self-disciplinary culture" (p. 68).

In sum, postmodern thought has had a growing influence on the field of organizational communication. Its focus on the relationships among power, knowledge, and discourse provides important insights into how modem organizations function as disciplinary sites that structure meanings and identities. Postmodemism situates communication as central to the creation of multiple, contested, and fragmented subjectivities and power relations. As such, communication is not simply the creation of consensual meanings and communities but is also integral to normalization processes, powerlknowledge regimes, and disciplined subjectivities, as well as the means by which such processes are resisted.

It would be wrong. however, to claim a complete disjuncture between critical and postmodern conceptions of power and discourse. While it is true that the more "skeptical" postmodemists (Rosenau, 1992) are deeply suspicious of theorists who invoke notions of emancipation from systems of oppression, many theorists view the relationship between critical theory and postmodemism as

~ .

productive and dialectical rather than adversarial. For example, Smart (1986) highlights important connections between Grarnsci's (1971) conception of hegemony and Foucault's analysis of disciplinary micropractices, arguing that "Foucault's work has revealed the complex multiple processes from which the strategic combination of forms of hegemony may emerge" (p. 160). Similarly, Lentricchia (1988) suggests that "if Marx gives us the theory of pure capitalism, then Foucault, on discipline. gives us the theory of practical capitalism whose essential category is delair' (p, 60, emphasis in original).

Perhaps one of the tasks of radical organization theorists is not to articulate disjunctures and oppositions between critical theory and postmodernism, but rather to conceptualize ways in which the two function dialectically. hence providing new and insightful means of exploring the relationships among communication, meaning, and organizational power. Although some writers believe no such rapprochement is possible (Callinicos, 1989; Eagleton. 1995), theorists such as Agger (1991). Best and Kellner (1991). and Deetz (I992a) have all suggested ways in which we can overcome both the foundationalism and potential elitism of critical theory. on the one hand (Alvesson & Willmott, 1992b), and the nihilism and relativism of postmodern thought, on the other.

In the next section, I present feminist thought as one perspective through which the study of communication and power can retain the emancipatory potential of critical theory, while simultaneously adopting a multiperspectival approach to knowledge claims and the process of critique.


I tum to feminism as a way of examining organizational power for two reasons. First, this move partly reflects my own intellectual

Power and Politics • 609

development, and my recognition that it is impossible to study and theorize adequately about organizational power without addressing its gendered character. Organizations are "gendered" in the sense that "advantage and disadvantage, exploitation and control, action and emotion, meaning and identity, are patterned through and in terms of a distinction between male and female, masculine and feminine" (Acker, 1990, p. 146). Second, while critical theory and postmodemism provide robust analytic frameworks for studying power, their link to everyday practices is sometimes tenuous. Feminism, on the other hand, emerges directly from recognizing the institutional character of women's economic, political, and ideological subordination. In this sense, feminism never loses sight of the relationship between theory and practice.

In comparison with other disciplines the field of organizational communication has been slow to take up feminist perspectives. but the past decade has seen a distinct upsurge in feminist-oriented theory and research (Allen, 1996, 1998; Ashcraft, 1998, zooo. Bullis, 1993; BuzzaneII, 1994; Clair, 1998; Gregg, 1993; HoI mer-Nadesan , 1996; Marshall, 1993; Mumby. 1996; Sotirin & Gottfried, 1999; Spradlin, 1998; Trethewey, 1997. 1999a. I 999b). Similarly. in the 1990s management studies began to develop an identifiable body of feminist-influenced research (e.g., Acker. 1990, 1992; Alvesson & Billing. 1992; CaMs, 1992; Calas & Smircich, 1991, I 992a, I 992b; Ferguson. 1984; Gherardi. 1994. 1995; Mills. 1995; Mills & Tancred, 1992; Mumby & Putnam, 1992). However, the general neglect of a systematic gendered approach to organizations has led Rothschild and Davies (1994) to claim that "the assumption of gender neutrality may be one of the great blind spots, and errors, of twentieth-century organizational theory" (p, 583).

Feminist perspectives on organizational power examine and critique the ways in which binary thinking (male/female, culture/nature, rational/emotional, etc.) lies at the root of all attempts to make sense of and to construct institutional forms, social practices. and actors'

610 • Process

identities and experiences. In this context, gender is a "site of difference" that constructs relations of domination. marginalization. and resistance (Barrett. 1995), defined within a system of hegemonic masculinity (Connell, 1985, (987). Even though there are multiple feminist perspectives that analyze these issues (Tong. 1989). the focus here centers on three areas of theory and research that directly address the intersection of communication, gender, and power: (I) feminist rereading/rewriting of organizational theory and research, (2) organizations as gendered sites of domination and resistance, and (3) feminist alternatives to patriarchal forms of organizing. Each of these areas is briefly discussed below (see Mumby, 1996, for a more detailed discussion).

Feminist Rereading/Rewriting of Organizational Theory and Research

Research from this perspective draws on postmodern theory to deconstruct the assumptions that underlie mainstream organizational communication studies. Such work demonstrates how theory and knowledge are built on patriarchal models of scholarship and rationality that systematically exclude alternative ways of theorizing organizational structures and practices (Acker & Van Houten, 1974; CaMs & Smircich, 1991, 1992a; Ferguson, 1994; Holvino, 1997; Jacques, 1992; Mumby & Putnam, 1992; Nkomo, 1992; Putnam & Mumby, 1993). As in postmodern studies, feminist studies problematize the notion of "representation" and show how it embodies and obscures numerous political, epistemological, and gender issues.

Feminists appropriate postmodern theory to address the gendered relationship between the representational practices of the scholarly enterprise and those of the corporate enterprise. and the ways in which this relationship reproduces power. For example, the work of CaIas and Smircich (1991, 1992a. 1992b ) explores "how the idea of 'gender' can be a strategy through which we can question what has been represented as organization theory"

(1992a, emphasis in original). Their analyses are deconstructive, exploring the ways in which gender is "normally" written into organizational theorizing. Their strategy is to problematize gender, demonstrating the various ways in which it is represented, suppressed, marginalized, and made absent in the process of theory and research. In their (I991) deconstruction of organizational leadership texts, they juxtapose against "leadership" the notion of "seduction" (drawing on Braudrillard, 1990). By providing "seductive" readings of leadership texts (through the use of a split page) they "analyze the dependency of supposedly opposite concepts on one another and [show] how rhetoric and cultural conditions work together to conceal this dependency" (p, 569). (See Schwartz, 1993, and Callis & Smircich, 1993, for the aftermath of this article.)

The body of deconstructive work that is developing within postmodem feminist thought exemplifies what Gergen (1992) refers to as the "replacement of the real by the representational" (p. 213). That is, once we undermine the idea that language and communication are merely tools for representing the real, then the positivist modernist attempt to determine organizational reality through various forms of empirical investigation becomes increasingly suspect. As beginning points for feminist theories of organization, these studies break the silence implied by the idea that objective truth is the only possibility, and they show how various truths are communicatively constructed. By interrogating the intersection of discourse, power, knowledge, gender, and organizational practice, this work opens spaces for rethink-ing organizational analysis. However, one of the limitations of such work is its privileging of formal-usually scholarly-texts and its general neglect of the mundane. quotidian, and communication dimensions of gendered forms of power and domination. Although there is clearly a connection between theorizing about organizing and organizational processes themselves, there is clearly a need to examine gendered organizational practices empirically and in situ.

OrganiZJZtions as Gendered Sites of Dominanon and Resistance

This second position focuses on the systematic "engendering" of organizational practices that constitute men's and women's identities and access to power in differential ways. This research is theoretically eclectic, drawing on both neo-Marxist theory and the poststructuralist focus on discourse. Analyses examine the relationships among capitalism. patriarchy. organization. and gendered communicative practices (Clair, 1993b, 1994. 1998; Cockburn. 1984; Collinson, 1992; Ferguson, 1984; Kondo. 1990; 1. Martin. 1990; Pringle, 1989). A characteristic of this literature is a dual focus on (I) power-as-domination, and (2) (em)power(ment)-as-resistance.

In the former category are studies that examine the communicative and material processes through which patriarchy is produced and reproduced. Such work ranges from the discursive construction of hegemonic gender identities (e.g .• Angus, 1993; Collinson, 1988, 1992; Connell, 1985, 1987; 1. Martin, 1990, 1994; Pringle, 1989) to the symbolic and material dimensions of sexual harassment in the workplace (Clair, 1993a, 1993b; MacKinnon, 1979; Strine. 1992; Taylor & Conrad. 1992; Townsley & Geist, in press; Wood, 1992). For example. J. Martin (1990) provides a deconstruction of an organizational story (told to demonstrate the company's pro-employee maternity policy) to show how it reaffirms dominant understandings of sexuality and gender in the workplace. Through textual strategies such as dismantling dichotomies, examining silences in the story. and attending to disruptions and contradictions, Martin shows how a story that-at least ostensibly-affirms the importance of women to an organization can be read as maintaining and reproducing patriarchal modes of reasoning, showing how both women and men are structured by. and are the effects of, institutionalized discursive practices that reproduce gendered power relations.

Power and Politics • 61 I

Similar themes are taken up in Pringle's (1989) study of secretaries, Ferguson's (1984) critique of bureaucracy, and recent work that examines the discursive construction of masculinity (Angus, 1993; Collinson, 1988. 1992; Hearn. 1992. 1994). In each. the central issue is the communicative processes through which certain forms of gendered identity are articulated and constructed, thus reproducing dominant relations of power. Hearn's (1994) development of a "violence" perspective on gender and organizations forcefully brings home the extreme consequences of hegemonic masculinity.

On the other hand, feminist studies also examine the possibilities for gendered forms of resistance to organizational power relations. Again, this work is eclectic in its theoretical orientation. Feminist neo-Marxist research focuses on the possibilities for collective resistance and change and examines the ways in which community and egalitarianism can emerge within hierarchical and patriarchal structures (Benson. 1992; Boyce, 1995; Gottfried, 1994: Gottfried & Weiss. 1994; Lamphere, 1985; Zavella, 1985). Gottfried and Weiss (1994). for example. develop the notion of feminist "compound organizations" to demonstrate how women faculty at a major research university created their own collective. nonhierarchical, compound decision-making system that operated within, yet transcended the usual constraints of bureaucratic university life. The authors propose "compound" as a metaphor that incorporates multiplicity, allowing women with different agendas and perspectives to come together as a community within a large, potentially hostile. community. Similarly, Boyce (1995) and Spradlin (1998) adopt critical feminist perspectives to show the links among gender. sexuality, and power, simultaneously critiquing the pervasive homophobia of organizations and pointing to a diverse and inclusive model of organizing.

Other feminist studies have adopted a postmodern orientation toward issues of gender. organizing. and resistance (Bell &

IiinrJOSI!UO,n to state agencies and in solidarity each other. However, Martin also notes lack of consensus on the defining qualities . of a feminist organization. For example, liberal feminists do not see hierarchy and bu'reaucracy as intrinsically patriarchal (Iannello, 1992), and many feminist organizations . are for-profit rather than nonprofit, large/national rather than small/local, and dependent rather than autonomous. The National Organization for Women is the most visible example of an organization with a large membership (250,000) and extensive bureaucratic structure that works to improve the political and economic status of women.

In sum, feminist theory and research clearly provide important ways of understanding, critiquing, and transforming contemporary organizations. Feminist studies of organizational communication are critical to an

appreciation of power as a central, constitutive feature of organizational life. To neglect feminism as a mode of analysis is to overlook the gendered character of organizational power and its relationship to "doing gender" (Gherardi, 1994; West & Zimmerman, 1987). However, the picture I have painted in this section contains its own elisions and aporia. For example, I have not addressed systematically the issue of race and its relationship to organizing processes. While black feminist theory has emerged as an important form of social critique (hooks, 1984, 1992; Wallace, 1992), little work of significance has emerged in organization communication studies that moves beyond the "race as variable" approach (see Allen, 1995, for an exception). Work by Callis (1992), Grimes (1994), and Nkomo (1992) begins to explore the representational practices through which race is constructed as a category in the organizational literature, but it is difficult to identify a distinct body of critical work in this area (although see Essed, 1991; van Dijk, 1993). One promising area of research involves "interrogating whiteness" (Frankenberg, 1993; hooks, 1992; Nakayama & Krizek, 1995). This work shows how "whiteness" as a racial and gendered category

Power and Politics • 6 13

is not neutral, but rather is socially constructed through various discursive practices.

Feminist studies thus examine organizational power in ways that are not easily reducible to other perspectives by virtue of their focus on gender as a constitutive feature of the power ~ communication B organization relationship. Its focus on praxis and the material implications of gender domination provides an important means of contextualizing critical and postmodem thought. At the same time, feminist studies must remain open to possibilities for transformation by previously marginalized voices. Feminism, by definition, avoids reification and the setting up of binary oppositions. Through the articulation of a multiplicity of voices, possibilities for critique and the development of inclusive communities are realized.


Throughout this chapter, I have focused on the relationships among communication, power, and organization. Early models of organizational power focused largely on the cognitive. decision-making, and structural issues associated with the exercise of power. The most sophisticated of these perspectives elucidates a resource dependence approach in which power accrues to those groups that are able to position themselves as indispensable to the organization by virtue of resources held. In such models, communication plays a "handmaiden" role, functioning as the mechanism by which groups represent their power. This perspective, I have argued, neglects the extent to which power exists only as a product of the intersubjective systems of meaning that organization members create through their communication practices. The interpretive, critical, postmodem, and feminist perspectives on power represent varying attempts to explicate communication in its constitutive relationship to identity,

614 • Process

power, and organizing. What, then, are the consequences of this work for the way we study organizational power?

First, it generates a much greater level of reflexivity in conceptualizing and researching organizational power. The metatheoretical issues addressed in this chapter make clear that we-as scholars of power-are never exempt from the processes that we analyze, but are always enmeshed in disciplinary practices that both enable and constrain our sensemaking attempts. We write about power, but we also are the "subject effects" of powerlknowledge regimes. There is perhaps no clearer example of this process than Blair, Brown, and Baxter's (1994) stunning deconstruction of the blind review process in refereed journal publication. Their analysis exposes the fallacy of knowledge as somehow neutral, nonpolitical, and existing outside of the exercise of power. As scholars, we need to be aware of the extent to which we either produce or resist dominant discourses.

A second and related consequence of this view of power is that, in a basic sense, people are produced by power. Power is not something that can be taken up and used or discarded at will. This narrowly political sense of power overlooks the ways in which a subject's position exists through the intersection of discourses that "fix" meanings in certain ways. Power relations revolve around the production, maintenance, and transformation of those meanings. From a communication perspective, the study of organizational power requires theory and research that examine how communication practices construct identities, experiences, and ways of knowing that serve some interests over others. Part of our future agenda, then, is to engage in empirical analyses that explicate the ongoing, everyday character of this process. While Foucault, for example, has shown how this form of discipline has worked historically, we need to generate insight into its mundane (and perhaps most insidious) features.

Third, the shift to a focus on the relationships among communication, power, and organizing allows for a genuine move beyond

the reification of organization-as-structure. If organizations are reconceptualized as discursive sites of identity formation and meaning creation, then the possibilities for what traditionally counts as "an organization" are greatly expanded. In such a move, organizations are viewed as communication communities in which the purpose of research is to understand how certain discourses get articulated to create systems of meaning and power. Organizations are reframed as constellations of intersubjective meaning and experience, that is, as "the sites where individuals 'inhabit' numerous discursive positions simultaneously, and those places in which established everyday discourses . . . give meaning to [inter]subjective experience by suggesting appropriate positions from which to make sense of one's life" (Gregg, 1993, p. 5).

Finally, we need to bring more theory, more voices, and more politics to the study of organization than most research addresses (Ferguson, 1994). This does not mean simply adding different voices and stirring, but rather developing alternative viewpoints and constructs as a way of fundamentally transforming our understanding of organizations and power. Opening the study of organizations to more voices is at one level concerned with addressing issues of race, class, gender, and sexuality as constitutive sites of organizational power, meaning, and identity formation. However, at another, related level, "other voices" highlight the study of noncorporate, nonbureaucratic organizational forms. For the most part, organizational research takes as its object of interest the business setting and industrial workplace. Given the connection of organizational scholars with managerial interests, this is hardly surprising. However, this chapter examines scholarship that questions extant organization theory and practice because it produces and reproduces systems of oppression that distort identity and meaning formation. In this context, future research needs to examine the ways in which social actors engage in identity formation through collective behavior that embodies alternative notions of community and that provides

members with voices that make a difference in the ongoing life of the organization (Cheney, 1995,1999; Rothschild-Whitt, 1979).

Given the amount of theory generated over the past few years in organizational communication studies, Ferguson's (1994) call for additional theory may seem strange. However, if we view theorizing not as a purely ideational, abstract process, but as ways of "thinking otherwise" and moving beyond common sense views of the world, then the ongoing theorizing of organizational life is indispensable. With the development of multiple perspectives on organizational power, it is important that we continue to explore their limitations and possibilities.


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