Reworking Gender: A Feminist Communicology of Organization

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Karen Lee Ashcraft & Dennis K. Mumby

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    Preface

    Like most scholarly projects, this book evolved through a number of unforeseen turns. Although it is the result of our collaboration (and our names appear on the book in alphabetical order in recognition of our coauthorship), we did not begin this book together. Originally, Dennis conceived of the book as a way to productively explore the burgeoning scholarship on postmodern feminism and to assess its potential contribution to radical organization studies in light of the“discursive turn.” In this sense, the book began as a largely metatheoretical project—an effort to position feminist scholarship within a larger set of disciplinary discourses that had arisen in organization studies around questions of epistemology, ontology, methodology, and axiology. It asked what femini—and, in particular, postmodern feminism—could contribute to these discussions. As the project took shape, however, it became clear that such a metatheoretical focus inadequately captured the myriad ways in which feminist scholarship was beginning to influence the project of radical organization studies. Dennis's concerns about the inadequacy of this frame led to his inviting Karen to collaborate with him in “reworking”the project. Her research on feminist alternatives to conventional organizational forms explores the relationship between theory and practice and, in addition, suggests directions for an explicitly communication-based conception of feminist organizing.

    Once Karen signed on, a joint vision for the book began to develop. Several shifts in emphasis emerged from the meeting of our respective orientations to, and frustrations with, the scholarship we read and practice. We decided to integrate the original agenda for the book with these concerns, expanding the book's focus to include matters of disciplinary identity (that of organizational communication and feminist organization studies), as well as empirical and pragmatic considerations, particularly those related to feminist politics and praxis. After much conversation, the following themes came to focus our thinking.

    A first point of interest involved tensions in the relationship between feminism and critical organization studies. For the most part, feminism has existed as an “outsider within” radical organization theory and research. Even today, it is still often framed as derivative from, or as a corrective to, critical scholarship and its neglect of gender. Our own field of organizational communication was particularly slow to engage feminist approaches to organizing, with published research appearing only in the early 1990s. Despite that sluggish start, we have seen the virtual explosion of gender and organizational communication research over the past decade. We hoped to build on this momentum by positioning feminism as more central to the critical project than it is typically assumed to be, both in terms of what it has already contributed and as a guide for the future. We also wanted to articulate a distinctively communicative feminist approach to the study of organization, which led us to a second theme—the place of communication in organization studies.

    It is our sense that, in the face of the discursive turn that has defined much critical organization scholarship in the last 20 years or so, our own field of organizational communication continues to hover at the margins of this body of work, despite our focus on the communicative constitution of organizing. To be clear, we are referring here to the (in)visibility of our disciplinary community, not that of individual scholars. This book thus represents an effort to not only develop a communicative feminist perspective on organizing but also to articulate organizational communication as a recognizable and relevant voice in the scholarly conversation about organization, discourse, and power.

    Of course, calling for such a shift requires reasons for doing so, and it was in spirited discussions of such reasons that we began to truly redefine the project. We started by spinning the matter less defensively and, we thought, more productively. Rather than presume that communication studies ought to be central because so many organization scholars now care about discourse, we asked ourselves a different question: What are communication's distinctive contributions, given that so many organization scholars already address discourse? Exploring this question took us down several paths. For one, it pushed us to be more precise about the term discourse. In particular, we wanted to elucidate varied meanings and applications of discourse across the gender and organization literature—thus Chapter 1 is an adaptation of Karen's chapter in the Handbook of Organizational Discourse(in press, Sage). The question also led us to specify and delimit our conception of communication and to clarify the relationships we envision among discourse, communication practice(s), materiality, temporality, and so forth—groundwork that shaped the way we present and refine our communicative feminist “model” in Chapters 5 and 7. Finally, discussing our field's distinctiveness led us to characterize our model as one template for communicology. With this term, we mean to parallel other disciplinary approaches (for example, the sociology of gendered organization). While the term may strike some as an unnecessary neologism, we see it as a useful way to capture the contributions of a communication approach in a language at once familiar and curious to broader audiences.

    Third, we wanted to explore gender as one important discourse of difference that necessarily intersects with others. Given recent turns in both of our research agendas, we initially expected to focus the book on masculinity and organizing. And yet, as Karen began to sift through some data from her airline pilot project in preparation for the analysis in Chapter 6, it became apparent that masculinity alone provided an insufficient explanatory frame—that, in fact, masculinity became a much more visible and sensible force when she simultaneously considered the role of femininity. Put simply, certain forms of masculinity played against certain forms of femininity to engender particular outcomes. And the “certain forms” clause here is crucial, for all constructions of gender summoned other discourses of difference—in particular, race, sexuality, and class—and relied on these discursive affiliations to accomplish multiple forms of privilege and exclusion at once. Consequently, we tried to do more than merely issue another call for further attention to gender relations and intersectionality—we aimed to illuminate how gender becomes central and how it never works alone.

    Finally, we wanted to stay mindful of the relationship between metatheoretical issues and mundane practice—to show that philosophical debates carry significant implications for organizational life. This point seemed imperative, in part, because of an abiding feminist commitment to praxis and ambivalence about “high theory.” Relatedly, one of our goals gradually became to disabuse readers of an idea often aligned with a social constructionist bent—namely, the notion that to focus on how discourse constitutes organization is to abandon “the real world.” In this book, we are at pains to theorize and demonstrate the connections between discursive processes and their material consequences for human beings.

    The development of what we call a feminist communicology of organization represents our efforts to address these themes. In doing so, we hope to “rework gender” in several ways—among them, (a) to situate organizational communication as central to the discursive turn and, specifically, to understanding gendered organization; (b) to show how feminism can model scholarly practices (such as balancing multiple discourses of difference or embracing ambiguity and mediating irony instead of claiming incommensurability) that are vital to the critical project in organization studies; and (c) to connect theoretical conversations to empirical and practical projects.

    As with any scholarly endeavor, we have been helped along the way by numerous people, and we wish to recognize a few of them here. Many thanks to Patrice Buzzanell, George Cheney, Charley Conrad, and Cynthia Stohl for their invaluable feedback and support at various stages of the project. We would also like to thank the Department of Communication Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a few agencies at the University of Utah— the Department of Communication, the University Research Committee, and the Tanner Humanities Center—for providing us with research leaves that enabled the completion of this project. We are additionally grateful to the 99s Museum of Women Pilots in Oklahoma City for granting Karen access to the archival materials that ground the analysis in Chapter 6; we owe particular gratitude to Saundra Lapsley, the museum manager who gave generously of her insight, time, and energy as Karen gathered this material. We also want to thank the airline pilots whose reflections are featured in Chapter 6. Karen is most grateful to Ken Davis not only for his unqualified support of the book project, but also for his priceless stints as “research assistant” on the ongoing airline pilot study. We both wish to thank Todd Armstrong at Sage for his enthusiasm, editorial expertise, and willingness to take on this project at a relatively late stage in its development. As we honed the final draft, Jamie Robinson's copyediting skills were invaluable. We are indebted to Lisa Flores, Marouf Hasian, Helga Shugart, Stephanie Wahab, and Greg Holles for their inventive book title suggestions, all of which we clearly and stubbornly ignored. Finally, we owe a considerable debt to Thoney (a.k.a. Catherine Ashcraft), who kept us sane throughout the project.

    Introduction: Situating Gender in Critical Organization Studies

    The history of gender studies in organization scholarship is, at best, patchy and discontinuous. Twenty years ago, Jeff Hearn and Wendy Parkin provided “a selective review and critique of a neglected area” (Hearn & Parkin, 1983). Five years later, Albert Mills (1988) confirmed that “gender is a crucial, yet neglected, aspect of organizational analysis” and characterized that neglect as “inexcusable in the face of a growing concern with the experiential aspects of organizations” (p. 351). In 1990, Joan Acker observed (in a special issue of Gender & Society devoted to organizations), “Writers on organizations and organization theory now include some consideration of women and gender, but their treatment is usually cursory, and male domination is, on the whole, not analyzed and not explained” (p. 140). Six years later—and a full thirteen years after Hearn and Parkin's landmark article—Fiona Wilson (1996) inveighed against a state of affairs in which “organizational theory is tenaciously blind and deaf to gender” (p. 825). Most recently, Patricia Martin and David Collinson (2002) bemoaned the fragmentation of gender and organization research across the United States and Europe, inviting gender scholars to “strike out” on their own to establish a field of “gendered organization” studies.

    Has the neglect of gender as a cohesive domain of organization studies really been as sweeping and systematic as these authors claim? Sylvia Gherardi (1995) wonders if they protest too much: “It is extremely difficult to take seriously the contention that ‘gender and organization’ is truly a neglected area, given that so many articles have been written to make precisely this point” (p. 25). So where does the truth lie? Not surprisingly, both positions can stake claims to validity.

    The Status of Gendered Organization Studies

    Over the past 30 years of organization scholarship, gender has been visible and invisible, subject to intense focus yet ignored. On the one hand, scholars have vigorously investigated gender as an important independent variable affecting such factors as leadership or conflict style (e.g., Eagly & Johannesen-Schmidt, 2001; Eagly & Johnson, 1990; Monroe, DiSalvo, Lewis, & Borzi, 1990; Todd-Mancillas & Rossi, 1985). Yet in most of these studies, gender remains marginalized—a binary factor pertinent to specific interpersonal practices, not a basic pillar of organizing. Other researchers have examined gender as a key aspect of work and family matters; predictably, much of this scholarship is addressed to the concerns or consequences of working mothers (Belsky & Eggebeen, 1991; Greenhaus & Parasuraman, 1999; Milkie & Pelotal, 1999; Scarr, Phillips, & McCartney, 1989; Vogel, 1993). To date, the most prolific work on gender and organization has stressed the plight of women in management, exploring barriers that range from sexual harassment to discriminatory policy to exclusionary interaction patterns (Burke & McKeen, 1992; Fagenson, 1993; Reardon, 1997; Staley, 1988). Notably, the work-and-family and women-in-management literatures expand the variable-analytic view by calling attention to gender as a political and systemic matter. Across these studies, however, gender becomes relevant to organizations only when (white) women enter them. Put simply, women appear as visibly gendered “others,” while men are erased as the genderless norm.

    Challenging the view that gender is a special concern limited to women, scholars have begun to consider gender as a deep-seated organizing principle:

    To say that an organization … is gendered means that advantage and disadvantage, exploitation and coercion, action and emotion, meaning and identity, are patterned through and in terms of a distinction between male and female, masculine and feminine. Gender is not an addition to ongoing processes, conceived as gender neutral. Rather, it is an integral part of those processes, which cannot be properly understood without an analysis of gender. (Acker, 1990, p. 146)

    The claim that organization is fundamentally gendered suggests several radical premises, which together form a foundation for this book. First, gender is constitutive of organizing; it is an omnipresent, defining feature of collective human activity, regardless of whether such activity appears to be about gender. Second, the gendering of organization involves a struggle over meaning, identity, and difference; this ongoing, discursive struggle occurs amid, and acts upon, gendered institutional structures. Third, such struggle (re)produces social realities that privilege certain interests. It follows that gender is inextricably linked with power; it is medium and outcome of the vested interests of organizational life. This implies, finally, that the struggle for gendered meaning is a deeply material matter, for it produces not only preferred truths, selves, and courses of action but also tangible systems of “advantage and disadvantage, exploitation and coercion.”

    The notion of “gendered organization” has been taken up by numerous scholars in organization studies. In particular, feminist authors have investigated the politics of organizing to illuminate “the ways in which gendered subjectivity is constituted within relations of dominance” (Hegde, 1998, p. 277). Over the past decade or so, sustained programs of feminist research have examined the intersection of gender, organizing, identity, and power. In our own field of organizational communication, for example, a “critical mass” of feminist scholarship has emerged (e.g., B. J. Allen, 1996; Ashcraft, 2000; Buzzanell, 1994; Clair, 1998; Gregg, 1993; Holmer Nadesan, 1996; Jorgenson, 2002; Mumby, 1996; A. G. Murphy, 1998; Trethewey, 1997). This trend is particularly striking, for it was not so long ago that Judi Marshall (1993) strained to hear any feminist voices in the field. The management and organization studies literatures have seen a similar, and slightly earlier, emergence of feminist perspectives. Scholars have deconstructed the gendered foundations of organization theory (Calás & Smircich, 1992a; Holvino, 1997; Mumby & Putnam, 1992), developed alternative forms of theorizing (Acker, 1992; K. Ferguson, 1994; Gherardi, 1995; Jacques, 1992), and commenced empirical study of gendered organizing processes (J. K. Fletcher, 1998; Gherardi, 1995; Gottfried & Hayashi-Kato, 1998; Kondo, 1990; J. Martin, Knopoff, & Beckman, 1998; Pringle, 1989). A growing strand of work on masculinity and organizing further challenges the view that gender is a matter made for women. Recently, an interdisciplinary cluster of scholars has converged in an attempt to “make the one the other” (Hearn, 1996) and interrogate the social construction of masculinities at work (e.g., Cheng, 1996; Collinson, 1992; Collinson & Hearn, 1996a, 1996b; Hearn, 1994; Knights & McCabe, 2001). Their efforts expand the terrain of gendered organization studies well beyond “the woman question.” In this book, we seek to do the same, giving life to our theoretical model with an empirical emphasis on the organization of masculinity.

    Masculinity theory and research has generated pivotal insights that inform our project. For one, masculinity is not a stable or unified phenomenon; its meanings shift over time and in relation to culture, context, person, age, and so forth (Spitzack, 1998a). Multiple narratives of manhood circulate concurrently, offering versions of self and social relations that, when practiced, yield differential, consequential access to power and resistance (Corey, 2000; Mechling & Mechling, 1994; Nakayama, 2000). In particular, feminist theories of intersectionality push us to recognize that masculinities, like all gender identities, are inevitably raced and classed (C. Crenshaw, 1997; K. Crenshaw, 1991; Dace, 1998; Orbe, 1998). In other words, talk of “men” and “the masculine”—however generalized—always refers to a specific form of masculinity (Dines, 1998; Eng, 2001; Wiegman, 1993). Scholars emphasizing gender are increasingly accountable to these insights, for to study gender in isolation is to risk furthering the normalization of partial (e.g., white, middle-class, heterosexual) identities, relations, and interests. Accordingly, our theoretical model of gendered organization and empirical analysis of professional masculinity share a guiding interest in the historically, culturally and politically specific nature of gender discourse.

    In addition, most masculinity scholars coalesce around a concern shared with feminists: the need to mark masculinity and men as gendered subjects. Scholars especially challenge the invisibility of dominant masculinities, since all forms of manhood do not enjoy similar privilege. Perhaps ironically, however, studies of dominant masculinity run the risk of recentering the white, heterosexual, middle-class, male subjects they seek to deconstruct (e.g., Penley & Willis, 1993; Robinson, 2000).1 Not oblivious to such danger, many masculinity scholars assume the risk to shatter illusions of homogenous, indelibly privileged male selves (e.g., Eng, 2001; Spitzack, 1998b) and to unearth the institutionalization of particular masculine forms (e.g., Mumby, 1998). This book shoulders a similar risk, for to illustrate the theoretical model we build, we examine the social construction of “airline pilot” as an elite, romanticized professional identity. Potentially, our focus could be read as reinscribing this figure in the popular imagination. To minimize this risk and to develop the lens of masculinity studies, we attend to the coevolution, or dialectical interplay, of specific masculinities and femininities. In other words, our analysis demonstrates how the formation of airline pilot identity entailed weaving an intricate and precarious web of gender, race, and class symbolism—with immense contemporary consequences.

    In sum, our efforts in this book are informed by a vast and growing literature that explores the meeting of gender and organization. Particularly, three recent themes in that literature begin to focus our interests: (a) organization as fundamentally gendered, (b) the social construction of masculinity and work, and (c) the inevitably partial character of any gender identity. We argue that, while gender and feminist research can hardly be described as part of “mainstream” organization studies, there has been a noticeable shift in scholarly sensibilities about the gendered character of organizing. Attesting to this trend are recently developed journals like Gender, Work and Organization and several anthologies of feminist viewpoints on organizing (e.g., Buzzanell, 2000; Cheng, 1996; Mills & Tancred, 1992; Savage & Witz, 1992). Given this shift, we think it time to move beyond general debates of legitimacy and toward examining the implications of specific feminist perspectives for enhancing understanding. For us, the central question then becomes, “Out of the many possibilities that feminism offers, which approaches best enable us to map the complexities of gendered organization?”

    Nonetheless, authors continue to ponder, “Can one legitimately study gender in organizational life?” or “Why isn't feminist scholarship published more frequently in organization studies?” We see these persistent anxieties over credibility as an outgrowth of current relations between feminist and critical organization studies; namely, that feminist perspectives are typically viewed as a recent offshoot of a larger, more sophisticated body of radical organization scholarship.

    Feminism and Critical Organization Studies: Rereading the Relationship

    By radical or critical organization studies, we refer broadly to a tradition of theory and research that analyzes the social construction of organizations and, specifically, the ways in which institutional(ized) meanings mold power relations and identity (Alvesson, 1985; Clegg, 1989; Deetz, 1992a; Huspek & Kendall, 1991). Critical approaches to organization emerged in the wake of the so-called linguistic turn in philosophy and social theory (Rorty, 1967), which situated language as the basic ontological condition of being and experience. Applied to the study of organization, this paradigmatic shift took human communication not simply as one element of organizational life, but as the essential process—that which calls organization into being, crafting actuality from possibility. Communication produces, not merely expresses, the realities of organization (Grant, Keenoy & Oswick, 1998; Pacanowsky & O'Donnell-Trujillo, 1982; Putnam & Pacanowsky, 1983). In this sense, the linguistic (or discursive) turn transformed the way we can see organizations as objects of study.

    The discursive turn generated a wave of research concerned with organizational language and symbolism, and the critical approach represents a particular intervention in such studies. Drawing on 19th and 20th century developments in hermeneutics (Gadamer, 1989; R. Palmer, 1969), phenomenology (Heidegger, 1977; Merleau-Ponty, 1960), and humanist Marxism (Gramsci, 1971; Horkheimer & Adorno, 1988; Lukács, 1971), critical scholars articulate a “discourse of suspicion” (Mumby, 1997a; Ricoeur, 1970). Thus, where interpretive or cultural scholars look to understand the ways in which organizational actors create shared, collective meaning through interaction (M. H. Brown, 1990; Pacanowsky & O'Donnell-Trujillo, 1982; Putnam, 1983), critical scholars explore the “underbelly” of organizational life, arguing that apparent harmony and consensus hides underlying structures of domination, resistance, and interest-driven discourse strategies (Deetz, 1992a; Hardy & Phillips, 1999; Mumby, 1987). In other words, organizational reality is not constructed spontaneously or consensually; negotiating meaning is a political process that is both constrained by and constitutive of power structures. From a critical perspective, then, organizations are sites where various organizational actors and groups strive to fix meaning in ways that will serve particular interests (Deetz, 1982; Mumby & Clair, 1997).

    Central to understanding the politics of organizing through a critical lens are the concepts of ideology and hegemony, which we briefly introduce here. In radical organization scholarship, the term discourse is invoked liberally yet with various meanings, which range from mundane communication to language or text to abstract societal narrative. One common premise that cuts across this variation is that discourse—in all its forms—does ideological work that shapes our relationships to the world in ways that are not always apparent to us. Here, ideology is more than ideational; it entails systems of representation that construct identity, securing and obscuring structural inequalities and contradictions. Furthermore, these systems of representation do not float above social practice; they are materially grounded in the practices of everyday life. As Althusser (1971) states, “Disappeared: the term ideas. Survive: the terms subject, consciousness, beliefs, actions. Appear: the terms practices, rituals, ideological apparatus” (p. 169). While ideology predisposes people toward certain ways of making sense, it by no means exhausts the interpretive possibilities at their disposal. Consequently, attempts to ideologically fix meaning are always contested processes. As Hall (1985) states, ideology “sets limits to the degree to which a society-in-dominance can easily, smoothly, and functionally reproduce itself” (p. 113). Criticisms notwithstanding, this formulation of ideology has significantly influenced the agenda of critical organization scholars—namely, their guiding interest in explicating discursive processes of ideological struggle (Collinson, 1992; Graham, 1993; Huspek & Kendall, 1991; Markham, 1996).

    Gramsci's notion of hegemony has also become integral to critical accounts of ideological struggle. Although hegemony has been widely read to capture ideological domination of one class by another, it is more appropriately interpreted to theorize power as a noncoercive, dialectical struggle between competing groups in the realm of civil society (Mumby 1997b). In short, hegemony explains “the ability of one class to articulate the interests of other social groups to its own” (Mouffe, 1979, p. 183). Gramsci's work is particularly vital insofar as it marks a shift from viewing power as simply coercive, or as the imposition of some fixed ideology on subordinate groups, to a dynamic conception of lived social relations, wherein various tensions constantly unfold among groups. For Gramsci, political struggle is less a “war of maneuver” (i.e., the direct confrontation of state power) and more a “war of position” (i.e., the struggle of classes to diffuse their worldview via the institutions of civil society). Hence, hegemony involves the cultivation of a “collective will” through “intellectual and moral reform” (Gramsci, 1971, pp. 60–61). Guided by such claims, critical scholars conceive of organization as a primary domain for the enactment of hegemonic struggle in contemporary civil society (e.g., Deetz, 1992a; Mumby, 1988).

    Traditionally, critical organization scholarship rests on at least some modernist principles. Most pertinent to our project are (a) the emancipatory interest that guides critique of power relations, (b) an associated view of power as a dialectic of control and resistance, and (c) confidence (however qualified) in the rational subject from whose consciousness emancipatory possibilities can spring. Postmodern organization theory, based initially on the work of Cooper and Burrell (Burrell, 1988; R. Cooper, 1989; Cooper & Burrell, 1988), has begun to pose serious questions about these premises. A first challenge concerns the moral imperative of emancipation (Deetz, 1992a). Although critical scholars reject narrow, technical visions of enlightenment and progress through scientific knowledge (such as those embedded in positivism and empiricism), social transformation remains the primary impetus for analyzing organizational forms and articulating alternatives (M. Parker, 1995). Simply put, critical theorists tend to criticize the dominant path to, not the very notion of, emancipation. Postmodernists are much less sanguine about the emancipatory potential that critical scholars argue is latent in contemporary institutions. Indeed, some argue that “emancipation” is one more modernist, totalizing discourse that disciplines people, reproducing institutional mechanisms that create docile subjects (e.g., Foucault, 1979, 1980a). Speaking generally, postmodern authors refuse any kind of normative base from which to critique social processes, maintaining that such bases lead to imposed consensus and, thus, to more forms of terror (Lyotard, 1984). Hence, they urge multiple, local ways of explaining dominance and representing resistance, with particular attention to the possibilities of play, parody, and pastiche for deconstructing relations of power.

    Second, the dispute over the desirability and possibility of emancipation reflects contrastive accounts of power. Critical modernists often define power as domination and harbor utopian possibilities of coercion-free contexts for social interaction and knowledge production. For example, even Gramsci's conception of hegemony, while it illuminates the dialectical processes of consent and domination, ultimately holds that a ruling bloc retains power by controlling such repressive apparatuses as law enforcement and the military. Postmodernists, however, tend to view power and truth as inevitable partners, with power as an inescapable, defining element of human identity (Foucault, 1979, 1980a). The distinction is perhaps best exemplified in the debate between Jürgen Habermas and Michel Foucault. Habermas (1971, 1979) articulates a theory of truth that excludes the exercise of power. Indeed, his ideal speech situation is predicated on the possibility of a communication context, free from domination and its inevitable distortions, in which validity claims can be tested. In contrast, Foucault depicts power as endemic to everyday life and argues for an intrinsic and dialectical (although not isomorphic) relationship between knowledge and power (1979, pp. 27–28). From this view, power does not forbid; it enables. The question becomes how it enables, and what and whom it makes possible. In several projects, Foucault (1979, 1980a, 1986) traces the ways in which specific power-knowledge formations facilitate and normalize certain ways of being. Such works reflect the premise that power-knowledge relations articulate systems of possibility—resources from which social actors fashion coherent senses of identity. Characterizing the matter broadly, then, critical modernists tend to promote a “sovereign,” top-down, negative account of power, whereas postmodernists put forth a disciplinary, productive, positive conception.

    A third challenge posed by postmodernism concerns the reasoning subject to which modernity clings as a fount of knowledge and emancipatory potential. Postmodernists (in particular, Derrida) are perhaps most (in)famous for “decentering” a humanist conception of identity, which they fault for reifying metaphysical notions of “the mind.” Certainly, many critical theorists also attempt to undermine metaphysical accounts of reason. Habermas, for example, replaces a transcendental notion of consciousness with a linguistic one. Yet there remains a tendency among critical scholars to hypostatize critical self-reflection as the primary means through which relations of domination are interrogated and overcome. Despite their unyielding rejection of subject-centered models of knowledge, postmodernists by no means reject the construct of subjectivity entirely. Instead, they treat the subject as an effect (rather than as the origin or author) of numerous discourses and disciplinary practices. In short, the subject is decentered, not discarded. As hinted above, postmodern scholars often “recenter” the subject, asking “who” is called into being by various discourses of truth and power.

    It is worth noting that, while both critical modernists and postmodernists conceive of discourse as constitutive of social reality, critical modernists are much more prepared to recognize the material world as impinging on that reality. For postmodernists, Derrida's (1976) claim that “there is nothing outside of the text” (p. 157) is a rallying point for articulating an isomorphic relationship between discourse/text and reality. Indeed, many of the deconstructive analyses in management studies make little or no reference to “the world” in which particular discourses are situated (Calás, 1992; Calás & Smircich, 1991; Kilduff, 1993). A critical perspective, on the other hand, explores discourse as a communicative accomplishment that exists dialectically with the political economy of the workplace (Burawoy, 1979). It might make sense, therefore, to consider what we have called “critical modernist” and “postmodernist” positions as part of an emerging and potentially useful dialogue about tensions in critical organization studies.

    For roughly 30 years, then, radical organization scholarship has centered attention on the complex relationships among power, ideology, identity, and discourse. The linguistic turn facilitated the study of organizations as pivotal sites of political struggle to secure meaning and identity. More recently, and within the context provided by the linguistic turn, postmodern insights have begun to challenge—we think, productively—conventional critical models of organized discourse, power, and subjectivity.

    Against this conceptual backdrop, feminist scholars of organization appear like latecomers, borrowing critical insights to assess one specialized dimension of organizational discourse, power, and identity: gender. The following rationale for the absence of feminism from an anthology on critical management studies encapsulates the prevalent view: “Most if not all phenomena involve a gender aspect, but it would be reductionist to capture most aspects of management, production and consumption basically in feminist terms, although we recognize that critical feminism provides an invaluable complement to, as well as critique of, Critical Theory” (Alvesson & Willmott, 1992b, p. 9). Such justifications may appear tortured, if not patronizing, particularly in light of the above feminist claim that organizations are fundamentally gendered. Simultaneously, the notion that feminist research is a specialized area of critical organization inquiry is not without merit. As we explain in subsequent chapters, much feminist organization scholarship overtly appropriates critical concepts—such as hegemony, ideology, and so on—to explain the gender relations of organizational life (e.g., Clair, 1993b).

    Yet, although there is a sense in which feminist studies is a subsidiary arm of radical organization scholarship, other possible readings spin the relation differently and, we argue, constructively. One such reading acknowledges that feminist scholars of organization draw on more than critical perspectives. In fact, they bring to the table their own long-standing, independent tradition of conceptualizing societal relations of power: feminist theory. Given this foundation, one might muse with Fine (1993) that

    researchers who espouse the utility of a feminist perspective in communication are frequently asked how their ideas differ from those of critical theorists. (Both feminists and critical theorists should be interested in exploring why the reverse question is never asked). (p. 143)

    Moreover, although fairly new to the scene, feminist organization theories have already demonstrated the centrality of gender to radical accounts of organizing. Specifically, feminists have compellingly argued that critical and mainstream organization studies can prove unwitting allies in the tacit assumption of men as universal working subjects. From this vantage point, critical scholars who wish to deny the relevance of gender to analyses of organizing power and identity ignore a primary way in which difference and subjectivity are configured and thus obscure the gendered subtext of such analyses. Long before rendering such critique, however, feminists pursued an organizational agenda distinct from, and more pragmatically radical than, that of many critical theorists. This contribution comes into view only if we cast our eyes beyond the exclusive domain of academic activity.

    The interpretation of feminist approaches as derivative of critical perspectives remains viable—albeit tenuously—only when we spotlight the scholarly exercise and overlook other arenas of social practice. For example, if we include political activism as part of our discussion, we are compelled to recognize that feminists were busy experimenting with alternative organizational forms just as critical scholars were beginning to envision them. Guided by the assertion that bureaucracy serves as a structural arm of male domination, many feminist movement groups (variously focused on consciousness raising, domestic violence, rape crisis, reproductive health, and so forth) developed functional communities that strove to minimize hierarchy and maximize egalitarian relations, to enact group authority via consensual decision making, and to value emotions and other “private” matters as relevant political and organizational concerns (Ahrens, 1980; Iannello, 1992; Maguire & Mohtar, 1994; Morgen, 1994; Reinelt, 1994; Ristock, 1990; Rodriguez, 1988; V. Taylor, 1995). Certainly, many other activist groups also implemented democratic, collectivist, and other participatory alternatives to bureaucracy (Kanter & Zurcher, 1973; Mansbridge, 1973; Newman, 1980; Rothschild-Whitt, 1976, 1979). Arguably, at least in the United States, feminist organizations have negotiated considerable institutional staying power, and they remain one of the longest-standing social movement forms designed around counter-bureaucratic empowerment ideals (Ferree & Martin, 1995; Maguire & Mohtar, 1994; P. Y. Martin, 1990; Reinelt, 1994). With this claim, we do not mean to paint idyllic images of triumphant social transformation. Rather, the struggles, failures, ironies, and innovations of feminist communities have produced (and continue to generate) a wealth of empirical insight about the pitfalls and potential of alternative organizational practices; we consider such matters in more detail as we survey relevant literature in Chapter 1

    For now, the point we are making is that these “grassroots” endeavors reflect an entrenched feminist commitment to do more than talk within the walls of an ivory tower; they embody the desire to create tangible forms of social change that enhance equality and justice in the lives of real people. Whereas critical organization scholars prioritized emancipation through ideology critique, feminists literally grounded their emancipatory interest in the trenches of practice. This observation prompts two claims. First, the contrast suggests that feminist approaches to organization exemplify a different sort of maturity—one that Fine (1993) calls “revolutionary pragmatism”—which critical organization scholarship has yet to develop and from which it could learn a great deal. Second, that feminist experiments with practice largely preceded feminist theories of organization (while the reverse typifies critical organization studies) signifies an abiding ambivalence among many feminists about philosophical debate and, specifically, about the simultaneous importance and impotence of such reflection. Indeed, the larger history of feminist studies is rich with ambivalence— struggles between epistemological and political imperatives, between symbolic and material realities, between deconstructive and reconstructive impulses, between conceptions of power as imposed and self-policed, between stable and fragmented accounts of “woman,” and so forth. Importantly—and, of course, not coincidentally—this second claim implies that feminist approaches to organization have long embodied tensions akin to those between critical modernism and postmodernism. With its experience in juggling such tensions, feminism can serve as a model for or means of productively mediating them.

    To clarify, we acknowledge the partial validity of both readings offered here: “feminism as offshoot” of and “feminism as central” to radical organization scholarship. Undeniably, however, the “feminism as central” position gets much less play in the reigning narrative of (critical) organization studies. By assuming that position throughout this book, we hope to underscore the pivotal place of feminist approaches in organizational theory and praxis.

    Communication as the Organizing Process

    In this book, we seek to develop a feminist communicology of organization, which centers human communication as the basic, constitutive activity of organizing. In other words, it is as people engage in communicative action that identity, action, and structure—individual and collective—become possible and meaningful. Given our roots in organizational communication theory and research, our interest in a communication-centered account of power, identity, and organization is not surprising. Yet we take this stance for more than disciplinary reasons; we believe it has much to contribute at this moment in feminist and radical organization studies.

    To begin with, the above sketch of the discursive and postmodern turns in organization scholarship suggests the need to foreground communication while revising dominant conceptions of it. Specifically, many radical organization theorists take seriously the notion that communication lies at the nexus of what counts as truth—that communication is the fundamental ontology of human existence. This notion requires a radical shift from the traditional view of communication as self-expression, or as an intentional act in which the speaker verbalizes an already formed subjectivity. This “commonsense” lens sees communication as a medium or conduit for the transmission of ideas fully realized in the speaker's mind (Axley, 1984). Shepherd (1993) captures well the consequences of this Cartesian model for the study of interaction:

    Disciplines forward unique ontological views; they tell us what matters about Being and they represent essentialist ideas. From modernity's point of view, then, how can there be a discipline of communication? Nullius in Verba [Words are nothing]. How can one be a disciple of nothing? As a mere vehicle, communication has no existential status in modernity. In a sense, communication may carry Being, but in and of itself, communication is Being-less. What unique view of Being can a Being-less idea forward? Modernity said of communication what Gertrude Stein said of Oakland: There is no there there. (p. 87)

    As this excerpt suggests, the conventional model of communication tends to reify the subject as a fixed entity who engages in cognition, then encodes these cognitions through the interaction process. This stance precludes precisely that which interests scholars shaped by the linguistic turn and the subsequent insights of critical modernist and postmodernist perspectives—namely, the ways in which realities and selves are produced, not merely expressed, through communication.

    Deetz (1992a) argues against the commonsense view when he declares that “communication is not for self-expression but for self-destruction” (p. 341). This counterintuitive claim articulates a nonessentialist relationship between the self and communication. From a postmodern perspective, as noted above, we are the effect of various and often-competing discourses. In Hall's (1985) terms, “There is no essential, unitary ‘I’—only the fragmentary, contradictory subject I become” (p. 109). In opposition to the traditional, representational view, communication as self-de(con)structive stresses the productive character of interaction. Deetz (1992a) continues, “The point of communication as a social act is to overcome one's fixed subjectivity, one's conceptions, one's strategies, to be opened to the indeterminacy of people and the external environment” (p. 341). This claim recognizes that our sense of identity is “subject” to the pull of other discursive possibilities that challenge who we are.

    Crucially, a revised perspective on communication does not mean that we are always constituted anew in every interaction. We are all, to a greater or lesser degree, products of sedimented, institutionalized meaning systems that provide a frame for our ongoing, everyday experience. However, it is this very sedimentation of experience that predisposes us to adopt an unreflective stance toward self, world, and other. It is because we are at least partially sutured to certain dominant, institutionalized senses of ourselves and others that it becomes possible— even easy—to conceive of communication as simply the expression of what is in our heads. It therefore takes a fundamental shift in perspective to see communication as a self-de(con)structive phenomenon that, in its ideal form, challenges comfortable, preconceived conceptions of self as the Archimedian point of origin of meaning and experience. Such a shift allows and directs us to examine the communicative processes through which identities and organizations are (re)produced. In sum, centering communication means that reason and rationality, community and identity, must be placed within an intersubjective context, where organization entails the linguistic construction of shared assumptive grounds about what is real and meaningful. The matter of how such interactively constructed worlds measure up to the court of reality then becomes moot, for reality itself is destabilized, residing in the ongoing process of communication.

    This is not to say that there is nothing real outside of discourse. A significant aim of this book is to step beyond such text positivism and to capture the ways in which communication is at once constrained by and generative of material conditions. We mean that in at least three senses. First, communication arises in response to (perceived) political and material exigencies. Second, communication takes the material world as its material. Thus discursive formations are inscribed on the body and performed in concrete practices; as such, discourse and communication generate ways of being, seeing, feeling, and acting in the world. Third, communication can produce material circumstances beyond lived subjectivities. By this, we mean to say more than that communication lends meaning to an existing material world. Taking a step further, we suggest that discourse and communication can literally create lasting institutional and economic arrangements.

    On its face, the claim to communication's centrality may seem like a truism, but the extent to which it is neglected in organization studies (and in many other fields that profess to study human behavior) is astounding. Scholars study power, leadership, network structures, information processing, routines, and so forth, while paying little attention to the “real time” practices that give life to these phenomena. Often, even some who identify as interpretivists (or critical-interpretivists) do not draw the link between meaning and actual communication processes. We seek to illuminate that link and, specifically, to elaborate the connection between “micro” communication practices and “macro” systems of symbolic and material power. Our preceding claims about the materiality of communication begin to speak to the micro-macro connection. More broadly, we intend to engage the hotly contested “agency-structure” relationship, guided by an interest in unpacking the mechanisms by which mundane moments of interaction affiliate with enduring structures and institutions.

    In these ways, we hope to expand extant notions (within and beyond our home discipline) of what counts as organizational communication, as well as why organizational communication counts. The feminist approach we develop investigates how communication across often-severed domains of symbolic activity—public and private, mediated and interpersonal, and so forth—organizes gender and genders organization toward tangible effects. Beyond the aims of our own project, we believe that such a perspective can enrich radical organization studies by strengthening the connection between criticism and the “real” world, where the privilege of certain interests means the experience of palpable consequences.

    Toward a Feminist Communicology of Organization

    Principally, then, we seek to articulate a communicological approach that can enrich conceptual, empirical, and practical understanding of the processes that organize gendered selves and institutions. Chapter 1 commences this effort by providing a fresh review of feminist organization studies. The aim of this chapter is, first, to ground our later theoretical discussion by establishing key themes that characterize empirical studies of gender and organization and, second, to situate that research in terms of the discursive turn. We argue that the literature reflects four tacit ways of framing the relationship among organization, discourse, power, and gender; and we link these perspectives to the critical modernist and postmodernist debates outlined above, demonstrating how empirical projects reflect metatheoretical tensions that generate partial insights and constraints.

    The next three chapters explore these metatheoretical tensions in greater depth. Chapter 2 considers feminism in relation to modernist logics, Chapter 3 explores the emergence of postmodern thought in organization studies, and Chapter 4 delves into the relationship between feminist and postmodern analytics and its possibilities for radical organization studies. Reviewing the varied ways in which feminist theorists have engaged and struggled with modernism and postmodernism, we characterize feminist perspectives as critical of and sympathetic to both. Ultimately, our purpose is to demonstrate how this ambivalent posture positions feminism to mediate or navigate crucial dilemmas in contemporary critical organization scholarship. It is in these chapters that we develop more extensively the argument that feminism is not an offshoot or afterthought—and gender not a peripheral or specialized concern—of radical organization studies. Rather, feminism represents a useful place from which to negotiate conceptual fissures and to simultaneously pursue deconstructive and activist agendas.

    Emerging from this theoretical context, Chapter 5 articulates a feminist communicology of organization. Among other implications, centering communication means that gender is neither merely an individual trait, nor a structural feature of organizational life; rather, it is an ongoing interactive accomplishment that creates possibilities for and limitations to the process of organizing. Feminism at the intersection of modernism and postmodernism facilitates a communicative perspective by destabilizing self and organization and directing attention to the mundane interactions wherein we consume, echo, and (re)invent institutional discourse. All the while, such a perspective retains a guiding interest in both deconstructing and reconstructing organization toward productive social change. Thus, a feminist communicology hinges on several premises, such as the communicative constitution of subjectivity; dialectical relationships between power and resistance, discourse and the material world, and masculinities and femininities; the historical specificity of gendered organizational formations; and normative, ethical commitment to the exploration of lived consequences and possibilities for praxis.

    Chapter 6 demonstrates the empirical potential of this feminist approach. We apply the communicology model to data drawn from Karen's ongoing study of gender, race, and class relations among U.S. commercial airline pilots. The data include historical and contemporary discourse, which spans occupational, organizational, and popular culture, as well as individual experience. We chronicle how commercial aviator identity became symbolically and materially attached to the male body, yielding unprecedented professional standing in the process. Our analysis tracks the strategic institutional formation of two discourses—that of the “lady-flier” and the “pilot-as-professional”— and contends that their interplay engendered the requisite masculinity of airline pilots, which anchored the class status of the occupation. As explained above, gender identities are never generic or universal, though they may masquerade as such. Likewise, communication of and about airline pilots invoked a particular form of white, heterosexual masculinity, laced with class contradictions. We consider how contemporary pilots navigate such tensions and, specifically, how many cling to the emotional and material pleasures of white masculinity, even as they embrace efforts to increase diversity in the race and gender profile of their occupation. In these ways, Chapter 6 foregrounds the diachronic, dialectical, and material character of the communication processes that organize gendered labor. In Chapter 7, we conclude our efforts by stepping back from the empirical study to consider its implications for our project, as well as for the larger projects of feminist and critical organization studies.

  • Notes

    1. This concern is shared among many scholars of whiteness, for whom the parallel fear of reinscribing white dominance exists in tension with the desire to render it visible (e.g., Flores & Moon, 2002; Projansky & Ono, 1999).

    2. In this usage, “the erotic” is loosened from strictly sexual connotations and redefined broadly as joy, playfulness, sensuality, and embodied feeling and pleasure.

    3. Such neglect is especially evident in feminist critiques of traditional organizational forms. The research on feminist organization, for example, offers notable exceptions (e.g., Morgen, 1988; Scott, 1998; West, 1990).

    4. While the term post-positivism is sometimes used to describe a social constructionist perspective, we use it here to designate the efforts of mainstream social science to move beyond correspondence theories of truth and to recognize the contingent, perspectival character of all research.

    5. See Ashcraft and Mumby (in press) for an earlier version of this analysis.

    6. Arguably, this organization initiated the discursive basis for the formation of the Women's Air (Force) Service Pilots (WASPs), Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS), and similar efforts of WWII.

    7. Pancho Barnes, a popular woman flier around this time, represents an important exception to this ideal. Yet even she ended up honoring heterosexual obligations, albeit in an unconventional way, by operating a brothel for male pilots.

    8. We do not mean to imply that women of the time did not experience or express doubt; our point is simply that the attribution serves a useful rhetorical function.

    9. A parallel pattern occurred again with the WASP fliers and other “Rosie-the-Riveter” figures of WWII. Calás & Smircich (1993) argue that the feminization of clerical work and the recent fervor for “feminine” managers reflect a similar pattern—namely, the temporary promotion of women in nontraditional work roles, based on fleeting, instrumental logics.

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    Author Index

    About the Authors

    Karen Lee Ashcraft (Ph.D., University of Colorado at Boulder) is an Assistant Professor of Organizational Communication in the Department of Communication at the University of Utah. Her research examines gender, power, professional identity, and alternative organizational forms and has appeared in such forums as Communication Monographs, Administrative Science Quarterly, and the Academy of Management Journal.

    Dennis K. Mumby (Ph.D., Southern Illinois University-Carbondale) is a Professor in the Department of Communication Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His research focuses on the relationships among discourse, power, gender, and organization. He has published in journals such as Academy Management Review, Communication Monographs, and Management Communication Quarterly.


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