The Redding Tradition of Organizational Communication Scholarship: W. Charles Redding and His Legacy

By Buzzanell, Patrice M.; Stohl, Cynthia | Communication Studies, Winter 1999 | Go to article overview

The Redding Tradition of Organizational Communication Scholarship: W. Charles Redding and His Legacy


Buzzanell, Patrice M., Stohl, Cynthia, Communication Studies


W. Charles Redding's academic legacy, viewed over the course of his life, embodies the ways technical and pragmatic knowledge have developed in organizational, as well as managerial, communication. In this article, we identify four characteristics of the scholarly aspect of The Redding Tradition: belief in human progress through empirical investigations; power of critique; message exchange as the core of organizational communication; and the need to understand the socio-historical and diverse theoretical underpinnings of our field.

The Redding Tradition of scholarship represents far more than the corpus of one man's life's work. It encapsulates the evolution of organizational communication from its earliest beginnings as industrial communication and presentational skills to the contemporary framing of organizations as empirical instantiations of interpretive processes. From the 1950s onward, W. Charles Redding conducted and directed quantitative investigations designed to inform and improve organizational and business practice, while embracing a critical-interpretive frame that interrogated the search for generalized results in organizations. Redding's legacy is found in the eclectic quality of our contemporary scholarship and its focus on the interplay between individual and collective action and formal and emergent structuring. His work is simultaneously located within the spheres of technical rationality with its concern for instrumentality, prediction, and control and of practical rationality with its grounding in the human interest in interpreting and experiencing the world as meaningful and intersubjectively constructed" (Mumby & Stohl, 1996, p. 59).

The dualities found in W. Charles Redding's writings, consulting, and teaching result in an intriguing set of tensions. For Charles, beliefs in and optimism that communication could fundamentally alter and improve workplace practices reside within a skeptical, but not cynical, nature. This skeptical human would use social scientific findings to suggest changes in communication climate or information flow and feedback policies, yet also would lay bare the dominant premises underlying his recommendations. Some might argue that the dual nature of Charles's work coincided with paradigm shifts in social sciences, including communication (e.g., Putnam & Pacanowsky, 1983). His early research and theorizing took place during a time when social scientific methods and thinking accorded greater legitimacy in some circles to the liberal arts, such as communication (Foundations for Future Development, 1991). His later work reflected critiques and epistemological shifts occurring across academic fields. However, we believe that Charles saw the conceptual and pragmatic benefits of a field that could speak to different audiences' concerns, understand fundamental communication processes through a variety of data sources and methods, and be committed to helping shape a rapidly changing organizational lifeworld. His strong rhetorical background continually influenced the way he saw organizations and reflected a continuing concern for "the use of language as a symbolic means of inducing cooperation in beings that by nature respond to symbol" (Burke, 1950/1969, p. 43, cited in Tompkins, 1987 p. 78; emphasis in original).

In this article, we track four characteristic themes of scholarship in The Redding Tradition. These characteristics alone do not define Charles's legacy as he also devoted considerable attention to teaching and mentoring students, organizational members, and communication educators (see Buzzanell, in this issue of Communication Studies). However, the four themes display the complexity of Charles's life work and reflect his arguments for embracing, rather than privileging, neither pragmatic nor technological rationalities alone. These themes represent a belief in: (a) human progress through empirical investigations; (b) the power of critique; (c) message exchange as the core of organizational communication; and (d) the need to understand the socio-historical and diverge theoretical underpinnings of our field (see Table 1). …

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