The critical approach can enable you to navigate the complexities of organizational life. iStock.com/porcorex In Chapter 1 we addressed the question “What is organizational communication?” In this chapter we will discuss the perspective that informs the answer we gave to that question—the critical approach. By the end of this chapter, you will have the analytic tools that will enable you to understand and critique the various theories, research traditions, and organizational processes we will be examining in the remaining chapters of this book. In developing these analytic tools, our goal is to help you become organizationally literate and thus better understand the expanding role of organizations in creating the world in which we live. Being organizationally literate enables us to become better organizational citizen-scholars, attending more critically to the important organizational processes and practices that shape both our working and leisure activities. In this chapter, then, we develop in detail the perspective that provides the guiding assumptions for this book. You may have noticed that the subtitle of this book is “A Critical Introduction.” In this context, the term critical refers not to the everyday, negative sense of that term but rather to a perspective on organizations that has emerged in the past three or four decades. From this perspective, organizations are viewed as political systems where different interest groups compete for organizational resources (Morgan, 2006). The critical approach highlights the goal of making organizations more participatory and democratic structures that are more responsive to the needs of their multiple stakeholders (Deetz, 1995). As we examine different organizational and management theories through the course of this book, we will assess them with this critical approach as our guidepost. The first goal of this chapter, then, is to provide you with a sense of what it means to take a critical approach to the study of organizations; what does theory look like from a critical perspective? As such, we will examine the various influences and schools of thought that have helped establish a body of critical research in the field of organizational communication. A second goal of this chapter is to explain in some detail the principal elements of the critical approach. What are its assumptions? How does it view organizational communication and organizing practices? What are its goals and purposes? A third and final goal of this chapter is to show how the critical approach can be used as a way to examine and critique other ways of understanding organizations. As we move forward in the book, each perspective we address will be examined critically. First, let’s turn to an examination of why theory—despite its frequent complexity—is an important tool for understanding organizations and their place in the world around us. UNDERSTANDING THEORY IN THE CRITICAL ANALYSIS OF ORGANIZATIONAL COMMUNICATION For many of you the term theory is likely to send you running for cover. Theories typically seem abstract and largely inapplicable to everyday life (as reflected in the phrase “That’s all well and good in theory, but . . .”). However, theories are actually indispensable to everyday life, and we would be unable to get along without them. As the psychologist Kurt Lewin (1951) once said, “There’s nothing so practical as good theory” (p. 169). At an everyday level, we operate with implicit or commonsense theories that enable us to navigate the world. We do not typically subject these theories to careful reflection, except in instances where they fail us in some way. For example, many people operate with the implicit theory that success is an individual thing; achievement is due to individual abilities and hard work. This theory may be partly true, but it overlooks the fact that everyone is positioned in societies and social structures that both enable and constrain their opportunities and shape their worldviews. For example, women are more likely to attribute their success to external factors such as mentors, supportive friends, and plain luck; men, on the other hand, are more likely to attribute their success to their own abilities. Does this difference tell us more about men’s and women’s psychological makeup, or more about the broader social structures that shape men’s and women’s life chances (and which may indeed shape psychological makeup)? The point is that while our implicit theories enable us to negotiate the world around us, they are often not very good at getting us to rethink our relationship to the world or, indeed, getting us to question how the world itself is structured. Thus, implicit theories tend to maintain taken for granted, commonsense understandings of the world. However, we suggest that theory can also be understood as the systematic development of a particular mode of inquiry that enables the examination and critique of the commonsense understandings of the world that become taken for granted. Cultural studies scholars Stuart Hall and Alan O’Shea (2013) define common sense in the following way: A form of “everyday thinking” which offers frameworks of meaning with which to make sense of the world. It is a form of popular, easily-available knowledge which contains no complicated ideas, requires no sophisticated argument and does not depend on deep thought or wide reading. It works intuitively, without forethought or reflection. It is pragmatic and empirical, giving the illusion of arising directly from experience, reflecting only the realities of daily life and answering the needs of the “common people” for practical guidance and advice. (p. 1) Commonsense thinking is often uncritical, reflecting tradition and reproducing the status quo. Part of the challenge of good theory, then, is to help people develop their critical communication capacities so that they can question commonsense thinking and interrogate our “direct” experience of the world. We never really have direct access to the world around us because it is shaped by communication processes that are both the medium and expression of different institutional structures, including class, education, mass and social media, organizations, religion, family, and so forth. In this sense, all of our experience is mediated in some fashion. Systematically developed theory, then, enables us to explore how our world is communicationally mediated and constructed and helps us understand the consequences of that construction process for ourselves and others. Let’s begin the case for this view of theory by making a “commonsense” argument that largely reflected “reality” 100 or more years ago: Women are influenced by their emotions rather than by their intellect and, as such, should not be allowed to do important things such as vote, hold high office, or have jobs with lots of responsibility (other than those that involve looking after children). Ideally, they should stay away from public life and focus on what they were born to do—looking after their husbands, caring for households, and raising children. From our “enlightened” 21st century perspective, it’s hard to imagine that anyone in their right senses would still hold such a view of women and their abilities. But the reality is that well into the 20th century (and even for some people today) this opinion was the prevailing commonsense view of women’s place in the world. At the turn of the 20th century, women could not vote, were barred from most colleges (there were—and still are—special women-only colleges), and had little access to occupations other than the most menial (domestic work, factory work, etc.). This so-called Cult of Domesticity, or Cult of True Womanhood—rooted in the four womanly ideals of purity, piety, submissiveness, and domesticity—did not emerge naturally but was part of a systematic effort during the 19th century by cultural and political elites to maintain an ideology of separate spheres, in which men ruled the public sphere, and women were confined to the domestic sphere. Women who challenged this “natural” division (e.g., 19th century feminist reformists such as Susan B. Anthony and Lucretia Mott) were described as “only semi-women, mental hermaphrodites” (Welter, 1966, p. 173). It’s really only with the benefit of 20/20 historical hindsight that we can see the absurdity of an economic and political system that effectively disenfranchised 50% of the population. But imagine being part of that reality. If you were a 19th century man, this view of the world would be reproduced all around you. For example, if you were a lawyer, your colleagues, including your personal secretary, would be all male (secretarial work had a high status in the early 19th century and wasn’t feminized until the 1930s), and you would likely work with an exclusively male clientele. At your club (lots of men—working, middle, and upper class—belonged to male-only private social clubs at this time), you would hear opinions expressed about those crazy and militant suffragettes who were holding marches and handcuffing themselves to railings outside government buildings as a way to agitate for the vote. You might even have some sympathy for those women, but it would be extremely hard to express such sympathy in the male-dominated world in which you moved; indeed, your professional success might depend heavily on your ability to present yourself as an upstanding, reliable fellow who held no “radical” political beliefs. Even if you were a woman during this period, you might actually have agreed that a woman’s place is in the home and be completely opposed to women’s suffrage (a good example of how dominant ideologies and views of the world are often accepted and espoused by those who have the most to lose from that ideology). As absurd as this ideology of separate spheres seems to us today, it is worth noting that we are still living with the legacy of it, given the degree to which women are still underrepresented in many professions. The way things are, then, is both socially constructed and difficult to change; it’s created by humans, but it also endures for a long time as it becomes sedimented in institutions and organizations. It’s therefore easy to hold intuitive, commonsense views of the world, in part because it takes less effort than challenging institutional forms and social structures that many people accept as natural. Change does occur, however, but typically only with the emergence of social movements (the labor movement, feminism, civil rights, gay rights, etc.) rooted in an alternate critical theory about how the world might work that over time produce a critical mass of people who internalize this theory in a way that enables them to envision a different reality. Thus, it took 72 years between the launching of the first wave of the feminist movement at the Seneca Falls, NY, conference in 1848 and the granting of the vote for women in 1920 (at least in the United States; see “Women’s Suffrage,” n.d., a Wikipedia link that tells you when women received the vote in other nations). By and large, then, commonsense assumptions about the world tend to reflect the existing structures of power and privilege in society. What we think of as direct experience is heavily rooted in and mediated by those structures and institutions of power, which are difficult to transform. One of the ways that these transformations can occur is by the systematic questioning of commonsense assumptions about the world through the development of critical communication capacities in each of us. Such capacities can be nurtured by the careful development of systematic forms of inquiry in questioning common sense. The more we understand how theory and systematic inquiry work, the better sense we have of the multiple ways the world around us gets constructed. For example, in this book we will examine a number of different organization and management theories, many of which have had a profound effect on the nature of work in organizational life. As such, it is important that we have the tools that will enable us to understand and critique the implications of these theories for how work is carried out, as well as for how each theory constructs us as human beings in relationship to work. We want you to think of this entire book, then, as an effort to challenge your commonsense understandings of the world of work and organizations through the development of a critical approach to organizational communication. By the end of the book, our hope is that you will possess a set of critical communication capacities—what we might call a “communication imagination” (Kuhn, 2017)—that will enable you to interrogate your relationship to work and organizational life. In the rest of this chapter, we will unpack the principles and concepts that make up the critical approach. UNPACKING THE CRITICAL APPROACH While there are a number of different historical influences on the critical approach, one common thread tends to run through all these influences—the work of Karl Marx (Marx, 1961, 1967; Marx & Engels, 1947). In the past 100 years or so, Marx’s large body of writings has profoundly influenced modern social thought. Indeed, along with sociologists Emile Durkheim and Max Weber, Marx is considered to be a foundational thinker in our understanding of how society functions culturally, politically, and economically. However, the complexity of Marx’s work has led over the decades to a number of different interpretations of his ideas. These different interpretations have, in turn, resulted in the establishment of different research traditions and schools of thought that expand on Marx’s original ideas and attempt to make them relevant to contemporary society. In this section we will first discuss some of the basic elements of Marx’s theory of society. Then we will take a look at two schools of thought that are strongly influenced by Marx but that, at the same time, critique some of the limitations of his work and attempt to provide alternative views of society. These two schools of thought are (1) The Institute for Social Research (commonly known as the Frankfurt School) and (2) cultural studies. Karl Marx During his life (1818–1883), Marx was witness to major economic and political upheaval in Europe, as capitalism became the dominant economic and political system. Unlike earlier theorists such as Adam Smith (author of The Wealth of Nations, whom we will talk about more in Chapter 3), Marx did not celebrate the emergence of capitalism but rather criticized the ways in which it exploited working people. As Marx (1967) showed in his most famous work, Capital, despite the 19th century’s unprecedented growth in production and hence in wealth, most of this wealth was concentrated in the hands of a very small minority of people he called capitalists. Even more significantly, Marx showed that this wealth was not directly produced by capitalists but was generated through the exploitation of the laborers who worked for the capitalists in their factories. How does Marx arrive at this analysis of capitalism as an exploitative system? Let’s identify some basic issues. Marx’s Key Issues First, Marx provides a detailed analysis of the historical development of different economic systems, or forms of ownership. He describes these as tribal, ancient, feudal, and capitalist. Each of these periods represents increasing levels of societal complexity in terms of how goods are produced, the forms of property ownership that exist, and the system of class relations—or social hierarchy—in place. For example, tribal societies featured a hunter–gatherer system of production, little division of labor, and no class system insofar as tribal property was communal. Ancient societies, such as Greece and Rome, were city-states organized around agriculture, with a developed civil and political system. In addition, the class structure consisted of male citizens, noncitizen women, and slaves, with slaves doing all the direct labor. In the feudal system, production was concentrated in agriculture, ownership was in the hands of an aristocratic class that had stewardship over the land, and the class system consisted of serfs who performed labor and the aristocrats who had rights over the serfs. It was in capitalism, however, that the economic system took on its most complex—and most exploitative—form. Here, production shifted from the countryside to the town, and due to the passing of a series of “enclosure” laws that privatized common land (which everyone could use) for the exclusive use of the aristocracy, commoners were coercively removed from this land (where they kept livestock, hunted game, and grew produce) and forced to migrate to the developing cities, thus creating a large pool of wage labor for the new factories. An anonymous 18th-century poem helps to capture the massive impact of these enclosure laws on the lives of ordinary people: The law locks up the man or woman Who steals the goose from off the common But leaves the greater villain loose Who steals the common from the goose The law demands that we atone When we take things we do not own But leaves the lords and ladies fine Who take things that are yours and mine (as cited in Boyle, 2003, p. 33) Marx is famous for developing a theory called historical materialism—an approach that analyzes history according to different modes of production, each involving shifting forms of property ownership and class relations. Marx identifies these different forms as common ownership (tribal society), citizen–slave (ancient society), aristocrat–serf (feudal society), and capitalist–wage laborer (capitalist society). In the last three cases, Marx shows that each system consists of an exploiting and an exploited class, with the former living off and dependent on the labor of the latter. But what does Marx identify as being particularly exploitative about capitalism? Certainly, in the context of early 21st-century society, capitalism is usually associated with democracy and freedom, and it has certainly been a driving force behind huge increases in our standard of living over the past 100 years or more. What was it, then, that Marx critiqued about this economic and political system? In his analysis of capitalism, Marx identifies four elements peculiar to this particular economic system. Under capitalism, workers are no longer able to produce for themselves what they need to live. In Marx’s terms, they do not possess their own means of production (land, tools, animals, machinery, etc.). Because the advent of capitalism in Europe saw the forcible removal of large populations from common land, these dislocated people were forced to sell at the going market rate the only thing that remained to them—their labor power. In this sense, the nonowners of the means of production (workers) are forced to satisfy their own economic needs by selling their labor power to the dominant group (the capitalists). Thus, workers actually perform the economic maintenance of the capitalist class and are reduced to commodities in the process.Marx identifies capitalism as the only system of economic production in which the very foundation of the system is not to make goods in order to produce even more goods but rather to turn money into even more money. In this sense, the product a particular company makes is largely irrelevant, as long as that company continues to make a strong return on its capital investment. Thus, the actual use value (the benefit you enjoy from consuming a good or service) of the product is much less important than its exchange value (the commodities, such as money, you could get for the product if you sold or traded it). This shift is even truer today than it was in Marx’s time. For example, companies such as Virgin (originally just a record store) include the following businesses: mobile phones, airlines, rail service, books, insurance, casinos, fitness gyms, and many others. The only connection among these various enterprises is the Virgin brand (a topic we will get to in Chapter 10). Moreover, financial service companies (Citigroup, for example) do not even make tangible products as such but manage money itself in order to make more money. As Marx shows, this means that under capitalism, everything—including workers—can become a commodity, a good with exchange value, to be bought and sold.The exploitative nature of capitalism is hidden. That is, when workers sell their labor power to capitalists they are not selling a specific amount of labor but rather, a certain capacity to labor for a particular period of time. For example, a worker may be hired to work 10 hours a day at a particular hourly rate (say, $10). The capitalist’s goal is to extract as much labor as possible from the worker during that 10-hour period (e.g., by constant supervision, speeding up the work process, etc.). Thus as Marx points out, the labor of the worker produces more value than that at which it is purchased (indeed, the value of the labor is infinitely expandable, limited only by technology, machine efficiency, and the worker’s physical capacity). Marx refers to this difference between the value of the labor power, as purchased by the capitalist, and the actual value produced by the laborer as surplus value. This surplus value is the source of profit for the capitalist. Surplus value is hidden because the worker appears to be paid for a full day’s work. However, as Marx shows, the worker is paid for only that portion of the working day that is necessary to maintain the worker; that is, feed and clothe him or her—what Marx calls necessary labor. The rest of the working day is surplus labor and is actually unpaid.Related, Marx pointed out that because capitalists were not purchasing a fixed amount of labor but a capacity to labor through the purchase of labor time, the actual amount that workers worked during that time (e.g., an 8-hour day) was largely indeterminate. As such, the capitalist labor process always involves an ongoing process of struggle (still part of work today) between capitalists who try to intensify the labor process as much as possible and workers who try to maintain at least some sense of autonomy and control over how much and how fast they work. Thus, the forms of control that we discussed in Chapter 1 (direct, technological, etc.) are very much about managerial efforts to turn the indeterminacy of labor power into a determinate amount of productivity, often in the face of resistance on the part of workers. Perhaps Marx’s most important point is that because workers under capitalism must sell their labor power and work for someone else, they experience alienation from both themselves and their own labor. As Marx states: In his work . . . [the worker] does not affirm himself but denies himself, does not feel content but unhappy, does not develop freely his physical and mental energy but mortifies his body and ruins his mind. The worker therefore only feels himself outside his work, and in his work feels outside himself. (Marx, 1961, p. 37) As we saw in Chapter 1 and will see in subsequent chapters, the whole question of worker alienation is a key issue in how organizations manage work and employees. For Marx, good, fulfilling work is free from alienation, but work under capitalism work is inherently alienating because it deprives workers of the ability to experience work as an embodiment of their own creativity and skills; they are forced to work for someone else and largely become appendages to the machines at which they work. While Marx was obviously addressing the conditions that existed in 19th-century factories, the same principles—and in some cases working conditions—still exist today (indeed, one of the reasons many companies move production overseas is that labor laws regarding minimum wage, length of working day, workplace safety, and so on, are less strict or even nonexistent, thus creating more surplus value). As we reported in Chapter 1, a 2013 Gallup survey of workers worldwide reported that only 13% of workers feel engaged at work—a statistic that suggests that alienation is still a significant problem over a century after Marx’s death. In her participant-observation study of Subaru-Isuzu Automotive, for example, sociologist Laurie Graham (1993) shows how contemporary capitalist organizations attempt to increase the amount of surplus value that workers produce. Graham discusses how workers are grouped into teams (in an effort to improve worker engagement) and required to perform a long list of tasks on a moving production line. When the plant first opened, the workers struggled to complete the tasks (22 in all) in the designated 5-minute time period. However, through increased efficiency and line speed up, the same tasks were soon performed in 3 minutes and 40 seconds. As Graham indicates, “Everyone was expected to continually make his or her job more efficient, striving to work to maximum capacity” (p. 160). In Marx’s terms, we can say that the workers produced an increasing amount of surplus value, while the value they accrued to themselves in the form of wages remained the same. This example is interesting because the workers were apparently happy to work ever harder while receiving no reward for this extra work (except perhaps a pat on the back, although there is a long history of companies firing employees as they become more efficient—hence, paradoxically, it is not always in employees’ best interests to work hard!). This apparent willingness to put up with a system of exploitation brings us to the next crucial aspect of Marx’s critique of capitalism—his theory of ideology. Marx uses the notion of ideology to show how the economic structure of society directly impacts the system of ideas that prevails at particular points in history. True to his materialist and economic orientation, Marx saw ideas as the outcome of economic activity. Marx argues that not only does our social existence shape how we see the world, but also how we see reality depends on the ideas of those who control the means of production. In capitalism, of course, those in control are the ruling capitalist class. In one of his most famous passages, Marx says the following: The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas: i.e., the class, which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it. (Marx & Engels, 1947, p. 39) Ideology, then, is the system of attitudes, beliefs, ideas, perceptions, and values that shape the reality of people in society. However, ideology does not simply reflect reality as it exists—it is not merely an outcome of economic activity—but shapes reality to favor the interests of the dominant class (while standing in a relationship of opposition, or contradiction, to the working class). What does this mean? In the case of capitalism, it means that, for example, framing the labor process as “a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay” ideologically legitimates the accumulation of surplus value by capitalists. As we have seen, however, capitalism obscures the exploitative features of the labor process. Other examples of ideologies that operate in society include (1) continuous attempts through the 19th and 20th centuries to construct a perception of women (The “Cult of Domesticity/True Womanhood,” as mentioned above) as unable to do “men’s work” (except during times of war, of course), and (2) the development of a myth of individualism in which success is seen as purely the product of hard work and intelligence (the Horatio Alger myth) and failure becomes the responsibility of the individual. There are many more such examples, but all function to structure reality in a way that serves the interests of the dominant class. Thus, while Marx shows that economic interests structure ideologies, he also shows that such ideologies take on a life of their own, inverting reality in a way that marginalizes some groups and privileges other, dominant groups. In sum, Marx’s writings have had a profound impact on our understanding of the relationships among economics, social reality, and the class structure of society. Taken together, his ideas of historical materialism, worker exploitation, and ideology demonstrated the importance of looking beneath mere appearances to examine the underlying social relations in capitalist society. In this sense, he provided an incisive critique of how capitalism turned everything into commodities (including workers themselves) and alienated people from natural productive activity. Critiquing Marx While Marx’s work is central to an understanding of the critical approach, his work also has significant limitations that have led scholars to revise his ideas over the past 100 years. The first criticism is his belief in the evolutionary nature of the economic model of history. Marx believed that he had developed a set of universal principles that, much like Darwin’s theory of the evolution of species, explained the inevitable development of political and economic systems around the world. Thus, for Marx and his followers, just as feudalism had naturally evolved into capitalism, so capitalism would evolve into socialism. The belief in the inevitability of this process was rooted partly in Marx’s contention that capitalism was so exploitative and so beset with problems and paradoxes that it was bound to fail. Like slavery and feudalism before it, an economic system that kept the vast majority of people in poverty for the benefit of a few surely could not continue to survive. Marx argued that the basic contradictions of capitalism (e.g., that while the working class produced wealth directly through their labor, the capitalist class accumulated the vast majority of that wealth for itself) would eventually become so apparent that people would revolt. Indeed, in the middle of the 19th century, conditions in English factories had become so appallingly oppressive and poverty was so widespread that strong revolutionary movements (e.g., the Chartists) gained considerable support amongst the general population. Similarly, in the United States, the late 19th and early 20th centuries saw massive wealth, poverty, and social unrest existing side by side. Trade unionism had strongly increased its membership, and the women’s movement was actively demanding social and political reform. However, as we all know, capitalism did not collapse (at least not in Western Europe and in the United States). In fact, the one major revolution of the early 20th century took place in a country—Russia—that was relatively underdeveloped industrially (thus violating Marx’s principle that revolution would occur only in advanced capitalist countries). Despite a number of crises, including the Depression of the 1930s, capitalism continued to be the dominant economic system. So, from a historical point of view, Marx’s “evolutionary” position has proven problematic. A second—and related—criticism of Marx is his almost exclusive focus on the economic features of capitalism. While his development of an economic, materialist view of society is important, he tends to overemphasize the extent to which the economic structure of a society determines its cultural, political, and ideological features. As later scholars showed, there is no easy one-to-one correspondence between economics and social reality. One cannot say, for example, that all members of the working class will develop a similar ideological point of view. As we know, there are many working-class people who share a conservative ideology and many upper-class people who have radical ideologies (the billionaire businessman George Soros would be a good current example). In this sense, while Marx’s model suggests that economics determines class, which in turn determines ideology, later scholars have shown this position to be extremely suspect. Finally, because he was writing in the middle of the 19th century, Marx was unable to foresee the significant changes that capitalism would go through in the next 100 years or so. As we have said, capitalism did not collapse as Marx predicted, and later scholars would have to account for how capitalism was able to adapt to changing economic and political circumstances. While subsequent generations of Marxist scholars would not abandon principles of social change, they nevertheless needed to develop theories that would explain why capitalism continued to reign supreme despite the continued existence of poverty and exploitation. In the next two sections, we will discuss two neo-Marxist schools of thought that have strongly influenced both social theory generally and critical organizational communication studies more specifically. Both schools have critiqued Marx’s original writings and attempted to adapt his work to the analysis of modern capitalism. The Institute for Social Research (the Frankfurt School) The Institute for Social Research, founded in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1923, has had a major impact on European and U.S. theory and research over the past several decades (Jeffries, 2016). In the past 30 years, it has grown in importance for scholars in the field of communication, particularly those studying mass media, rhetoric, and organizational communication. Established by a group of radical German Jewish intellectuals, most of whom came from well-to-do backgrounds, the work of this school was an attempt to reinterpret Marxist thought in the light of 20th-century changes in capitalism. In particular, Frankfurt School members were interested in understanding capitalism not only as an economic system (which as we have seen was Marx’s main focus) but also as a cultural and ideological system that had a significant impact on the way people thought about and experienced the world. Important Frankfurt School members included Max Horkheimer (who was the school’s most influential director), Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse (who became a significant figure in the 1960s student movement), and Walter Benjamin. These researchers were concerned that in the 40 years since Marx’s death, Marxist theory had become overly dogmatic. Indeed, the basic tenets of Marxist thought had become akin to a system of religious principles seen as universally and indisputably true. For Frankfurt School members, “the true object of Marxism . . . was not the uncovering of immutable truths, but the fostering of social change” (Jay, 1973, p. 46). In broad terms, then, the work of the Frankfurt School was an attempt to make Marxist theory relevant to the changing nature of capitalism in the 20th century (Kellner, 1989). In responding to Marxism’s apparent failure to predict the demise of capitalism, the scholars of the Frankfurt School embarked on a research agenda that attempted both to retain the spirit of Marxism and to move beyond its rather simplistic model of inevitable economic evolution. In short, the Frankfurt School wanted to continue the examination and critique of capitalism that Marx had begun, but it decided to take this project in a different direction than that pursued by Marx and his followers. What was this new direction? While the scholars of the Frankfurt School pursued many diverse research agendas, there are two themes around which much of their work tended to coalesce. First, the Frankfurt School researchers believed that orthodox Marxism was in error in focusing principally on the economic aspects of capitalism. While the economic foundations of a society strongly influence the structure and processes of that society, Frankfurt Schoolers believed it was just one element in a more complex model of society. As such, they rejected the model of economic determinism (which argued that the nature of society was causally determined by its economic foundation) of orthodox Marxism. In its place, Frankfurt Schoolers developed a dialectical theory through which they viewed society as the product of the interrelationships among its cultural, ideological, and economic aspects. This theory became known as critical theory—a term still used today to describe a great deal of neo-Marxist theory and research. Second, Frankfurt School members were interested more broadly in the nature of knowledge itself and in examining the course that modernist, Enlightenment thought was taking in the 20th century. While they believed in the Enlightenment-inspired ideals of human emancipation and happiness, many were concerned that the 20th century had witnessed the perversion of these ideals. As we will see below, many Frankfurt School researchers developed a profound skepticism about the possibilities for fulfilling the goals of the Enlightenment project. Both of these themes are discussed next. Critical Theory and the Critique of Capitalism Given the failure of classical Marxism to predict the demise of capitalism, the Frankfurt School turned its attention to studying the processes by which capitalism was able to legitimate and sustain itself despite the existence of paradoxes and contradictions that Marx argued would lead to its overthrow. This shift in focus involved turning away from the traditional Marxist base-superstructure model of society (in which the economic base, the capitalist–laborer relations of production, is portrayed as determining the ideological and political superstructure). In its place, the Frankfurt School developed a dialectical model, arguing for an interdependent relationship between the cultural and ideological elements of society on the one hand and the economic foundations of society on the other. In their examination of the cultural and ideological aspects of society, Frankfurt School researchers were particularly interested in the then recent emergence of various forms of mass media such as radio, television, film, and popular music. Frankfurt School scholars made the claim that these media functioned as control mechanisms through which general consent to capitalism was maintained. Horkheimer and Adorno (Horkheimer & Adorno, 1988) coined the term culture industry to describe the coming together of popular forms of mass culture, the media, and advertising to create a “totally administered society” that left individuals little room for critical thought. According to Horkheimer and Adorno (1988), the development of the culture industry was one of the principal means by which capitalism could simultaneously perpetuate itself through the continuous creation of new needs and produce a mass consciousness that buys into the ideological beliefs of capitalist consumer society. As Jacques (1996, p. 153) states, “The same industrial processes which have resulted in the mass production of goods and services have been applied to the mass production of needs themselves.” Thus, the term culture industry suggests three ideas: (1) popular culture is mass- produced just like cars, laundry detergent, and candy; (2) it is administered from above and imposed on people rather than generated by them spontaneously; and (3) it creates needs in people that would not otherwise exist but are nevertheless essential for the continued survival and expansion of capitalism and maintenance of the status quo. These ideas will be taken up in much more detail in Chapter 10 on branding. Critical Theory and the Critique of Enlightenment Thought In addition to developing a critical theory of society and capitalism, Frankfurt School members sought to analyze the relationship between Enlightenment thought and 20th-century forms of science and rationality. Although they saw themselves very much working in the tradition of Enlightenment rationality, they considered that the confluence of capitalism, science, and instrumental forms of thinking had led to the perversion of the Enlightenment project. In one of their most famous statements on the 20th century’s “fall from grace,” Horkheimer and Adorno (1988) comment, “In the most general sense of progressive thought, the Enlightenment has always aimed at liberating men from fear and establishing their sovereignty. Yet the fully enlightened earth radiates disaster triumphant” (p. 3). Critical theory thus involves an examination of why—particularly in the 20th century— humankind, “instead of entering into a truly human condition, is sinking into a new kind of barbarism” (Horkheimer & Adorno, 1988, p. xi). For Frankfurt School researchers, the main answer to this question lies with the emergence of science and technology and the dominance of instrumental reasoning. While Adorno and Horkheimer do not argue that science and technology are bad per se, they suggest that society’s focus on objectification and quantification has led to an extremely narrow conception of knowledge that is unreflective. In this sense, Horkheimer and Adorno claim that Enlightenment thought has become totalitarian, serving the interests of domination and supplanting more radical forms of thought (Kellner, 1989, p. 89). Indeed, where the Enlightenment supposedly stands for progress and greater freedom, Horkheimer and Adorno see a logical progression from factories to prisons to the concentration camps of Nazi Germany (keep in mind that they are writing as Jewish intellectuals in the immediate aftermath of World War II). In summary, we can say that the critical theory of the Frankfurt School is both a critique of the existing conditions of capitalist society and an instrument of social transformation aimed at increasing human freedom, happiness, and well-being (Kellner, 1989, p. 32). However, like the classical Marxism it critiques, the Frankfurt School version of critical theory also possesses some limitations. We will briefly address these limitations next. Critiquing the Frankfurt School The most problematic element in Frankfurt School research is its narrow conception of the role of mass culture in society. It is probably fair to say that Adorno and many of his colleagues had a rather elitist notion of what counted as culture, developing a rather rigid distinction between high and mass culture. For Adorno, only high culture was authentic, being able to produce the kind of insight and critical reflection that would result in social transformation. On the other hand, he saw the mass-produced culture of the culture industry as completely without redeeming value and as simply reproducing the status quo in capitalist society. But this rigid separation of high and mass culture ironically ran counter to Adorno’s (1973) espousal of a dialectical approach to the study of society. Through this polar opposition, Adorno and his colleagues overlooked the possibility that mass, popular culture could function as other than an instrument of social control. Missing from the Frankfurt School’s approach to popular culture was the idea that perhaps the consumers of the culture industry were more than simply unwitting dupes who accepted at face value everything the mass media produced. As later scholars show, there is no single culture industry, nor is there only one way in which people interpret the products of that industry. Indeed, one could argue that popular culture is a contested terrain in which conservative and radical meanings and interpretations compete for dominance. This complexity is even more true in today’s social media environment, where anyone with a smartphone and an Internet connection can participate in the creation of media products; people are no longer simply passive consumers of carefully marketed media messages. Thus, Frankfurt School researchers both overestimated the power of the culture industry to create a totally administered society in support of capitalism and underestimated the ability of the average person to develop interpretations that contest administered meanings. However, there is little doubt that the culture industry represents an extremely powerful and dominant force in modern society. In Chapter 10, for example, we will examine the emergence of corporate branding over the last 30 years and explore how strategically companies use branding as a way to shape people’s experience of themselves and the world. In this sense, while the Frankfurt School certainly overestimated the power of the culture industry, we should not underestimate its ability to influence social reality and shape meaning in society. In sum, the Frankfurt School represents an important contribution to our understanding of the relationships among capitalism, culture, and power. It is central to our attempts to understand how people’s experiences of the world are shaped at an everyday level. As we will see in later chapters, modern organizations have become extremely adept at shaping our perceptions, feelings, and identities, both as organization members and as consumers of corporate products. The reality is that we live and work in a corporate world, and very little of who we are is not affected in some fashion by corporate structures, processes, and systems of communication. Cultural Studies The research tradition known as cultural studies has had a major impact on scholars in a wide variety of fields, including English, media studies, and communication. In this section, we will examine some of the principal elements of this work and discuss its implications for a critical approach to organizational communication. As we saw earlier, Frankfurt School scholars used the term culture industry to describe the emergence and negative effects of popular culture in society, but scholars associated with cultural studies—an interdisciplinary academic movement that traces its birth to a group of scholars associated with the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom, beginning in the mid-1960s—use the term culture in a different way. They critique the distinction between high and low culture (R. Williams, 1983), arguing that such an opposition was not only elitist but also limited the ways in which everyday culture could be conceptualized. Thus, over the past several decades researchers in the cultural studies tradition have taken everyday culture as a serious object of study, examining the complex ways in which it structures experience. Indeed, Stuart Hall, one of the founders of cultural studies, defines culture simply as “experience lived, experience interpreted, experience defined” (Hall, 2016, p. 33). Researchers have studied the everyday sense-making experiences of people as they engage with various cultural phenomena including soap operas (Gledhill, 1997), teenage girls’ magazines (McRobbie, 2000), shopping malls (Fiske, 1989), and many others as ways to try to understand how people live, interpret, and define their experience. In studying everyday experience, then, cultural studies researchers explore the systems of shared meanings that connect members of a particular group or community. Such shared meanings are developed through “systems of representation” (Hall, 1997a, 1997b) that enable communities to make sense of the world in particular ways. Systems of representation involve not only language (spoken and written) but also clothing, music, nonverbal behaviors, space (architects construct buildings to convey particular meanings), and so forth. Because of their tendency to focus on often marginalized subcultures, many cultural studies researchers have focused on how such subcultures make sense of their conditions of marginality through resistant and oppositional representational practices. For example, Dick Hebdige’s (1979) well-known study of 1960s and 1970s U.K. youth subcultures (groups he called mods, rockers, skinheads, and punks) focused on the importance of dress as a system of representation that distinguished these groups, from both each other and from the mainstream culture. Another cultural studies researcher, Paul Willis (1977) studied a subculture of working class kids at a U.K. high school who developed their own jargon and ways of behaving (fighting, stealing, pulling pranks) as a way of resisting the middle-class culture of the school. More recently, Angela McRobbie (2016) has studied the way workers in the “new culture industries” (jobs in media design, advertising, PR, etc.) use the idea of creativity as a way of making sense of and coming to terms with the insecurity and marginality of the employment environment that confronts them. Defining themselves as creative enables the workers to make sense of their continuous gig work (short-term, temporary jobs—see Chapter 6) as a necessary sacrifice in developing their personal brands. In each of these studies, culture is examined as both an ongoing, routine everyday practice and as consisting of various systems of representation that enable people to collectively make meaning. People appropriate signs and symbols in ways that enable them to construct a sense of identity that provides security in contexts that are not always secure: Hebdige’s and Willis’s subcultures exist on the margins of society, and McRobbie’s workers try to construct stable work identities in an economy where the work environment is insecure. In each case (and in the cultural studies tradition generally), the focus is typically on how people make sense of and negotiate life—both individually and collectively—in the context of systems of power and resistance. From a cultural studies perspective, this involves a focus on ideology and processes of ideological struggle. While Marx argued, “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas,” cultural studies researchers focus more on how such “ruling ideas” play out in everyday life, as people conform to, accommodate, resist, and challenge them. The notion that the “ruling class” (whatever that might mean) simply imposes its ideology on an unwitting, oppressed population is thus rejected by cultural studies researchers as they try to unpack how social groups make meaning in the face of dominant ideologies. For example, Hebdige’s and Willis’s groups clearly reject the dominant 1970s ideology (of middle-class jobs and conspicuous consumption) and create their identities in explicit opposition to it, while McRobbie’s workers try to make sense of and accommodate the dominant 21st-century ideology of neoliberalism and enterprise selves (which we will discuss in Chapter 6). Thus, while the Frankfurt School paid little attention to the possibilities for culture as a site of struggle, cultural studies takes up this possibility in a systematic way. Critiquing Cultural Studies In many respects, the cultural studies tradition is quite compatible with the critical approach to organizational communication that we adopt in this book. Its focus on everyday processes of sense making and identity management in the context of relations of power and resistance fits well with how we think about work and organizational communication. Work and organizations are sites of meaning and identity production (Deetz, 1992); people spend much of their lives thinking about, engaging in, and constructing personal identities in relation to work. In this sense, organizations are important contexts in which social actors engage with and make sense of the world. Ironically, however, the cultural studies tradition has tended to ignore work and organizations as important sites of “experience lived, experience interpreted, experience defined” (Hall, 2016, p. 33). Like the Frankfurt School, their research has tended to study people and their experiences when they are not at work, analyzing popular culture and mass media, and with some exceptions (e.g., McRobbie, 2016), they have overlooked work as a significant site for the communicative construction of meaning, identity, and ideological struggle. This oversight is somewhat ironic, of course, given the extent to which the cultural studies tradition is rooted in Marx’s writings, and much of Marx’s work (particularly Capital) focused on the centrality of work and the labor process in capitalist relations of production. Thus, while strictly speaking we would not define ourselves as cultural studies researchers, we have great affinity with that work and want to bring much of its insights to the study of work and organizational communication. In the final section of this chapter, then, we lay out what it means to understand organizations from a critical perspective. Below, we provide a handy table that summarizes the differences and similarities among Marx, the Frankfurt School, and Cultural Studies. UNDERSTANDING ORGANIZATIONAL COMMUNICATION FROM A CRITICAL PERSPECTIVE The critical approach adopts a number of assumptions about organizations as communicative phenomena. In this section we will examine those assumptions in detail. Organizations Are Socially Constructed Through Communication Processes In the past 30 years or so, there has been wide acceptance of the idea that organizations are not objective structures but rather, exist as a result of the collective and coordinated communication processes of its members. Communication is not something that happens in organizations; rather, organizations come into being through communication processes (Ashcraft, Kuhn, & Cooren, 2009; Kuhn, Ashcraft, & Cooren, 2017; Putnam, 1983). Such a position is often referred to as a social constructionist approach because of its belief that language and communication do not simply reflect reality but actually create the realities in which we live. From this perspective, scholars study various forms of symbolic practice such as storytelling, metaphors, and humor in an attempt to understand the role they play in creating the reality that organization members experience (e.g., Brown, 2006; Browning, 1992; Lynch, 2002; Mumby, 2009). Like the cultural studies tradition, this work is concerned with the ways in which people collectively create systems of meaning. Thus, an underlying premise of this research is that social actors are active participants in the communicative construction of reality. As we mentioned in Chapter 1, in recent years, a group of organizational communication scholars have developed what is called the CCO approach—the communicative construction of organization—that looks at how routine organizational conversations and texts (reports, mission statement, etc.) shape organizational reality (Ashcraft et al., 2009; Cooren, 2015). From this perspective, documents are understood not as simple providers of information, but as themselves having the power to shape people’s behaviors in significant ways (Brummans, 2007; Brummans, Cooren, Robichaud, & Taylor, 2014). So when we say that social actors are active participants constructing social reality, we’re pointing not merely to people but to the range of elements making up systems of meaning. Organizations Are Political Sites of Power Not only are organizations communicatively constructed, but such construction processes are influenced by processes of power and control. In other words, organizational meanings do not simply arise spontaneously but are shaped by the various actors and stakeholder interests. In this context, the critical approach to organizations explores the relationship between the social construction process discussed above and the exercise of power. There are many ways to conceive of organizational power (e.g., Bachrach & Baratz, 1962; Clegg, 1989; Courpasson, 2006; Lukes, 1974), and we will examine some of these in more detail in Chapter 7. However, the critical approach views power as the dynamic process by which various stakeholders struggle to secure and maintain their interests in particular contexts. Thus, the critical approach’s view of power is consistent with Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci’s (1971) concept of hegemony. For Gramsci, the notion of hegemony referred to the struggle over the establishment of certain meanings and ideas in society. He suggested that the process by which reality was shaped was always a contested process and that the hegemony of a particular group depended on its ability to articulate ideas that are actively taken up and pursued by members of other groups. In his own words, Gramsci defines hegemony as the “spontaneous” consent given by the great masses of the population to the general direction imposed on social life by the dominant fundamental group; this consent is “historically” caused by the prestige (and consequent confidence) which the dominant group enjoys because of its position and function in the world of production. (p. 12) As we saw in discussing control in Chapter 1, organizations for the most part do not exercise power coercively but rather through developing consensus about various work issues. According to organizational communication scholars Phil Tompkins and George Cheney, organizations engage in “unobtrusive control” in which members come to accept the value premises on which their organization operates and actively adopt those premises in their organizational behavior (Cheney, 1991; Cheney & Tompkins, 1987). Another way to think of this process is that organizational power is exercised when members experience strong identification with that organization (Barker, 1993, 1999). However, the critical approach does not argue that processes such as unobtrusive control and identification are by definition problematic. Clearly, collective action and members’ identification with an organization are necessary for that organization to thrive. Rather, the concern is with the extent to which the assumptions upon which identification are based is both open to examination and freely arrived at. Whose interests do these assumptions serve? Are organization members identifying with and taking on value systems that, when closely examined, work against their own best interests? As communication scholar Stan Deetz has shown, organizations consist of multiple stakeholders (managers, workers, shareholders, community members, customers, etc.), but rarely do these multiple and competing interests enter organizational decision making processes (Deetz, 1995; Deetz & Brown, 2004). For example, while a corporation may reap huge profits from moving its operations to a country where labor is cheap, such a move can be devastating (economically, culturally, and psychologically) for the community left behind. Who gets to define the premises on which such a decision is made? What right do host communities have to expect responsible behavior from resident corporations? Who gets to define responsible behavior, and how does that notion shape decision making? Thus, the conception of power with which the critical approach operates is one that emphasizes the “deep structure” of organizational life (Giddens, 1979). That is, the critical approach is interested in identifying the underlying interests, values, and assumptions that make some forms of organizational reality and member choices possible and foreclose the possibility of other choices and realities. The critical approach thus asks “How are the underlying interests, values, and assumptions shaped through the communication practices of the organization?” Therefore, when we say organizations are political sites, we mean that they consist of different underlying vested interests, each of which has different consequences for organizational stakeholders. The dominant interests are those that are consistently best able to utilize political, cultural, and communicative resources to shape organizational reality in a way that supports those interests. These dominant interests often engage in forms of “discursive closure” (Deetz, 1992) that limit the ways in which people can think, feel, experience, speak, and act in their organizations. This leads us to the third critical assumption about organizations. Organizations Are Key Sites of Human Identity Formation in Modern Society Following a number of scholars in management and organization studies, we can argue that organizations are not just places where people work but, more fundamentally, they function as important sites for the creation of personal identity (Beech, 2011; Deetz, 1992; Kenny, Whittle, & Willmott, 2011; Kuhn, 2006; Wieland, 2010; Wrzesniewski, LoBuglio, Dutton, & Berg, 2013). Deetz, for example, argues that the modern corporation has become the primary institution for the development of our identities, surpassing the family, church, government, and education system in this role. In this sense, we are all subject to processes of corporate colonization—a concept that reflects the extent to which corporate ideologies and discourses pervade our lives. Several researchers have examined how the boundaries between work and other aspects of our lives are becoming increasingly blurry and thus, harder to manage. The emergence of “no-collar” work (usually creative “knowledge work” that occurs in decentralized organizations with flexible but highly demanding work schedules) in the past 15 to 20 years has put even more pressure on a coherent, stable sense of identity because it breaks down the boundaries between work and other spheres of life almost completely. As Andrew Ross (2003) has shown, while such no-collar work often occurs in humane, participative organizational environments, the hidden costs to our sense of self (in terms of losing any sense of identity independent from work) can be high. We will look more closely at this issue in Chapters 6 and 14. Organizations Are Important Sites of Collective Decision Making and Democracy The above three defining features of the modern organization situate it as a central institution of contemporary society. As such, we can argue that the workplace not only is an important context in which people’s identities are constructed but also represents one of the principal—if not the principal—social and political realms within which decisions that affect our daily lives get made. There are two ways in which the critical approach examines issues of decision making and organizational democracy. First, several researchers in organizational communication and related fields question traditional, hierarchical organizational structures, arguing that the quality of organizational life is enhanced with the development of more participatory structures (Cheney, 1999; Rothschild-Whitt, 1979; Stohl & Cheney, 2001). Joyce Rothschild-Whitt (1979), for example, compares the traditional, bureaucratic organization with what she calls the “collectivist” organization—a structure that emphasizes shared power and widely dispersed decision-making responsibilities. And George Cheney (1999) has conducted field research on the Mondragón system of worker-owned cooperatives in the Basque region of Spain, examining the democratic decision processes by which they operate. Most of this research emphasizes both the need to develop more humane and democratic workplace practices and also argues that greater democracy can be more effective for the organization in its utilization of human resources. Second, the critical approach moves beyond the immediate workplace and examines how organizations shape the meaning systems with which we make sense of the world. In this sense, the critical study of organizations is not only about the cultures of organizations but also about the organization of culture (Carlone & Taylor, 1998). Similar to Deetz’s notion of corporate colonization, this work examines how the modern corporation has shaped people’s values, interests, and beliefs well beyond the corporation’s boundaries. Understanding the organization of culture leads us to ask questions such as How do organizations structure our experience of the world? How do they structure our needs and wants? What are the consequences of these structuring processes for our identities as human beings? Communication scholar Alex Lyon (2011), for example, has studied the pharmaceutical industry (specifically, Merck) and shown how its communication practices have led to a massive increase in the number of opioids that doctors prescribe to patients. As we know, such communication practices have contributed to an opioid epidemic in the United States, with prescribed drugs perceived as the default way to deal with many problems. CONCLUSION The purpose of this chapter has been to provide you with an overview of the major characteristics of the critical approach to organizational communication—an approach that is the foundation for the rest of the book. As such, we discussed some of the major theorists and traditions associated with the critical approach. First, we examined the writings of the most famous exponent of the critical approach, Karl Marx, focusing mainly on his critique of 19th-century capitalism. Second, we explored the limitations of Marx’s ideas and suggested the need to modernize his perspective to account for 20th-century changes in the capitalist system. Third, we saw how such changes are reflected in the writings of two later critical traditions—the Institute for Social Research (better known as the Frankfurt School) and the cultural studies tradition. Both of these schools of thought shift their attention to the cultural and ideological features of capitalism, examining the relationships between capitalism and popular culture. While the Frankfurt School adopted a rather elitist perspective, clearly distinguishing between high and mass culture (the culture industry), the cultural studies school focused more on the radical potential of popular culture and its possibilities for resisting the dominant values of commodity capitalism. We also brought our discussion back to focus more directly on organizational issues, examining the features of organizational communication as viewed from a critical perspective. We are now in a position to examine the various theories and bodies of research that make up the field of organizational communication. Armed with the analytic tools we have discussed in these first two chapters, we can begin to get to grips with the history of organizational communication as a field of study and to understand the historical, cultural, and political forces that have shaped the role of organizations in our society.
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