Thursday, August 23, 2007

Reading :: Communicative Practices in Workplaces and the Professions

Communicative Practices in Workplaces and the Professions: Cultural Perspectives on the Regulation of Discourse and Organizations
by Mark Zachry (Editor), Charlotte Thralls (Editor)

I received this book in the mail a couple of days ago, and was really glad to see it. I was fortunate enough to be invited to publish a chapter in it (Ch.3, a really fun chapter to write), but more importantly, the other chapters are written by really smart people and held together by the notion of the regulation of discourse -- an elastic and broadly applicable topic. The book's editors are also top-flight, which I suspected would translate into a more even collection than is typical.

I was right. The collection is much more even and coherent than most tend to be, particularly in professional communication. Authors have very different perspectives and draw on different theoretical frameworks, but they are working toward what is identifiably the same phenomenon and (mostly) doing a good job of it. The spread of authors is good, including many in writing studies, rhetoric, and professional communication, but also psychology, sociology, managment, and information studies. And the unifying concept of regulation works, even as it is articulated in very different ways across chapters.

As Zachry explains in the introduction, regulation in this collection refers to the ordering of "communicative practices in which people in workplaces and professions engage," and it is in turn "always constituted and sustained by communicative practices" ( Here, regulation is defined in terms of relationality and contingency (p.vii). And as we study regulation, Zachry argues, three issues become important: relationality, situatedness, and agency (p.ix). These three issues, not coincidentally, are foci of the subsequent chapters.

I won't review every chapter, but let's look at a few standouts.

Dorothy Winsor's chapter, "Using Texts to Manage Continuity and Change in an Activity System," continues the longitudinal study of four men who Winsor first met as freshmen at an engineering college. Drawing on activity theory, Winsor asks: How does a heterogeneous assembly of people agree on a common object and act in concert? And her short answer is that texts create common objects and coordinate activities over time, especially generic documents or "charter" documents (p.4). Such documents (her examples are requests for quotes (RFQs) and labor contracts) function as central stable texts that lend the appearance of stability but impart flexibility to the activity by accommodating subsidiary reinterpretations. In doing so, they merge contingency and change (p.6). Through her interview and artifact work, Winsor concludes that an activity system may have multiple objects; texts help these objects to cohere, but flexibility of interpretation is what makes the enterprise work (p.18).

Catherine Schryer, Lorelei Lingard, and Marlee Spafford continue their careful work with genres in their chapter, in which they use genre theory to examine case presentations by health care students. They emphasize that genre includes not only replicable structures, but also "regularized improvisations" (p.26). "Genres are constellations of regulated and regularized improvisational strategies triggered by the interaction between individual socialization, or habitus, and an organization or field" (p.31).

Dave Clark similarly leverages genre theory and activity theory in his empirically based examination of empowerment narratives in the new economy. After reviewing some of the most common narratives of empowerment, he describes how they were leveraged in an internet startup in which he was a participant-observer. "Using a cultural approach," he concludes, "we can build understandings of organizational power that do not view empowerment as a simple hierarchy but that seek instead to understand the broad array of discourses, technologies, professions, traditions, and capital that regulate the ways that workers receive financial rewards and build or lose the authority and value attached to their work" (p.176).

But for me, perhaps the most interesting chapter was David Boje's discussion of "antenarrative" -- which is a precursor to narrative, "a bet that a proper narrative can be constituted" (p.219). Drawing heavily on Deleuze and Guattari's notion of rhizomes, Boje identifies several destabilized antenarratives in the rise and fall of Enron. My one nit is that even as Boje draws the obvious implication ("analyses that refer to a unitary universal narrative ... should be seen as reductionist taglines," p.235), he mobilizes a unitary universal narrative to make sense of his identified antenarratives ("Capitalism will once again put on its magic mask and use the strange hypnotic power of spectacle to delude the 'spectator'," p.234).

Overall, this is an impressive and thoughtful collection, and I anticipate using and citing these chapters. Again, I'm impressed by the level of conceptual coherence compared to so many other collections. And it's also gratifying to see rhetoric and professional communication represented so ably in this interdisciplinary mix.


Alan Rudy said...

Clay, it seems to me that Dorothy Winsor is treating texts as phenomena very very similar to Star and Griesemer's boundary objects... is this another example of our different encounters with relational epistemologies playing themselves out again?

Clay Spinuzzi said...

Somewhat. Dorothy is aware of the scholarship on boundary objects, but in this piece she's leveraging a genre/activity framework, which gets her to pretty much the same place. After a while you see a bit of bleedthrough in the ways the different analytical concepts are applied.

I actually have a chapter in my upcoming book in which I juxtapose Latourean inscriptions, genres, and boundary objects in order to ground an analysis of text use at a telecommunications company. The three have some real differences, but enough common ground that they can "talk" to each other.