The Emergent Organization: Communication As Its Site and Surface by James R. Taylor and Elizabeth J. Van Every

The Emergent Organization: Communication As Its Site and Surface.

Taylor, James R. and Van Every, Elizabeth J. (2000) Routledge/Lawrence Erlbaum Associates (2009 e-book edition)
By Emily Ball Cicchini

Like Giddens and Bruner, Taylor and Van Every cover a lot of intellectual territory. The book—firmly embedded within the sensemaking, enacting traditions—unfolds methodically with such confidence that it’s hard not to be utterly convinced by its authority. While they do not foreground narratology, they are clearly on the side of this practice: “Science, in other words, has been muscling other interpretations of the world to the sidelines, on the grounds that its descriptions have a special status not shared by any other. (p 25)”

This book (cited by 521 in Google Scholar, 10-15-2012) frames organizational communication as collectively arguing that there may be other ways of knowing other than logical or computational reasoning. That being said, this is a very logical and linear book. Its order provides comfort in dealing with its sweeping overviews and very subtle redefinitions of theory, and a terrific perspective and context for understanding the organization of the field of Org Comm.

Part One is called “Theory of Communication” and Part Two “Theory of Organization,” and these two stories that have been developing since the late 19th century come together in this text with much clarity.

In terms of communication, Taylor and Van Every rely heavily on Bruner and Gremias to “see the narrative form as a basic trait of all forms of cognitive processing” (p 41). They speak of the hermeneutic circle, a iterative process that links sentences to whole passages of meaning in a dependent manner; and even later use the word “fractal” to describe this relationship of parts of texts to the whole. However, they make a large distinction themselves between conversation and text; showing that both have different roles in creating a “distributed intelligence.” While common understandings of conversation and text might be useful in practice, they express their thesis abstractly as “Conversation is the site of organizational emergence, text, its surface.” That metaphor gets to the dichotomy of the fluid, interactional nature of conversation, and the more descriptive, directive nature of most text. It’s a useful model, but perhaps a little complicated by modern notions of text and conversation made possible by the Internet; much later, they talk of “analog being subsymbolic and digital being symbolic” (p 226); and that “a translation has occurred (from analog to digital) where the conversation has been successively turned into a text.” With our perspective on the Internet, 10 years later, I think we could advance that line of thought a bit more, in a way that might reiterate back to their original arguments about text vs. conversation. Also, they spend a fair amount of time with Noam Chomsky and linguistic theory in the section on communication, which, they thankfully allow the reader to gloss over if it is of less interest to them (which I admit it is to me). However, the notion of “frame knowledge” and “grammatical construction” are described in useful detail.

Once in the realm of organizational theory, their understanding and recounting of Weick, Giddens, and LaTour both support and take issue with their views. They claim that in effect, organizational theory has been bound down in an Edwin Abbott Abbott’s Flatland world, where each prevailing theory is missing some part of the whole to make it fully dimensional. To start, they posit that this missing dimension of “rights and obligations,” that they say that Labov and Fanshel might flesh out. (This is the kind of guidepost that makes their work seem so rational, by saying a thesis and then taking entire chapters to prove it). They go on to recount Weick’s sensemaking and loosely coupled systems, taking issue with the singularity of agency within the human actor (p.148), and with his seeming lack of attention to power and hierarchy. Giddens, on the other hand, confirms sensemaking but does not embrace loosely coupled systems; for him “interaction will always be local, but the relationships of power will not. (p. 152)” That is, loosely coupled systems do not have agency over time and space, in the way large organizations do. For Taylor and Van Every, Giddens has lost touch with the “surface” of the organization; the conversations. Giddens not only has only a human actor, but a too top-down one, and thus has difficulty explaining conflict and change. (On the other hand, Weick is nothing but change, with no consistency, which also rubs them the wrong way). Then, they introduce LaTour, and explain the introduction of material things as agents, with the “speed bump” on the road analogy; they acknowledge the great contribution to organizational communication theory to include technology as part of its study; and LaTour’s thesis that there is “subject-object symmetry,” and that we are both controlling and controlled by our tools; thus; no one is in “control of either” (p 162). The problem that they have with LaTour is his reluctance to deal with communication (p. 165).

As in Part One, where they turn to linguistics to shore up their conviction to narrative sensemaking through sentence as well as structural action; in Part Two, they turn to another science, this time computational theory, as a stasis point for which to introduce change. “The last 30 years of cognitive science can be seen as attempts to remake the person in the image of the computer.” (p. 204) They go on to reason how both computer science and organizational theory is beginning to see that computers and organizations are really more images of the human. Conversational analysis and “connectionism” provide the means to understand the branching, fractal, sometimes chaotic relationships of human and actor-networks. One lingering question I have about Taylor and Van Every, and the many others in their discussion, is their a priori assumption of hierarchy in organizations (if subject/object is symmetrical, then why must/does hierarchy emerge?); but that topic, along with their interest in moral actions, will have to be addressed another day.

They end the book with a detailed case study of a fictionalized account of the institutional review of a department of communication by two external evaluators, and a response from the chair to her administration about the evaluation. While this narrative did seem very realistic, and served to illustrate many of the points made in the book, it seemed a little too like navel gazing. But, it certainly can be taken as honest. There was much more detail, and many more great thinkers, included in this book than this report can allow, all clearly useful in positioning any investigation into organizational communication, worth many repeated readings.