The Deep Structure of the Field

By Zak, Michele | The Journal of Business Communication, October 1996 | Go to article overview

The Deep Structure of the Field


Zak, Michele, The Journal of Business Communication


Critical theory examines how ideology frames and limits discourse for all organizational members and a critical theory perspective explores the meanings of symbolic aspects of communication with respect to those frames and limits. Critical theory focuses on the structure of meaning that embodies and reinforces domination and how that communication is systematically distorted so as to maintain and enhance power relations that privilege one social reality over others and that favor some interest groups at the expense of other groups. To explore the meaning of symbols in this context is to seek to discover the deep structure of the relationship of power to social reality.

Applying a critical theory perspective to the workforce's culture, language, and symbols, provides us insight into a pattern of power agendas in the deep structural meaning that determines which issues and which questions will be legitimately open for debate while other privileges are defined as the way things are, not susceptible to change, as if defined by natural law, and that makes discussion pointless. Our ability to understand, and to teach our students to understand, the distortion of communication to impose power, and to respond to its seemingly arbitrary exercise, gives us a particular responsibility to attend to the issue of diversity in the workplace.

Marlene Fine offers us a literature review of diversity in the work place for which many of us will have reason to be grateful as we pursue our work in that area. Her review is thorough, systematic, and workmanlike, and, in general, provides a useful overview of "the state of the field." Of particular value is the comprehensiveness of the references list, which includes a broad interdisciplinary selection of important representative works from an extremely crowded field across disciplines and levels of quality.

While recognizing that Professor Fine has accomplished nicely what she set out to do, and thanking her for her accomplishment, I want to press for another kind of literature from which we might draw and to which we should contribute -- a literature characterized less by inclusiveness and neutral, reportorial tone, and more by cognizance of the power of rhetoric in the shaping of workforces. A discipline like business communication, a discipline in need of focus, a discipline struggling to create a body of research that will help us to establish our identity and our place in business/management education, would benefit by a bibliographic essay on diversity in the workplace that does the following:

1. Selects and annotates those works that approach the issue of diversity in the workforce from the perspective of discourse. Language and rhetoric are our stock in trade; discourse is our currency. If we lose that perspective in pursuit of topics from the point of view of organizational development, or even organizational communication, without emphasis on the written and spoken "text" of communication, we risk loss of our discipline.

2. Selects and annotates those works that moue beyond, not just the psychology-based approaches to workforce diversification, but also those mechanistic approaches that tend to reduce communication to channel and transmission questions, and focuses instead on works that grapple with the deep structure of communication. In accordance with the centrality of discourse to our discipline, we need to concentrate on perspectives that emphasize the symbolic aspects of communication -- verbal and non-verbal.

3. Expands selection of works to include those which move beyond the prevalent, limited focus on traditional, white collar management to include the full range of workers in the various sectors of the economy. That so much academic research uses our handiest population -- college students -- cannot be allowed to hamstring us perpetually. We need to embrace field research pursued on plant floors, in factories, in white collar bull pens, and at other sites where discourse among workers differs from that of classrooms and managerial conference rooms. …

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