THE COMMUNICATIVE CONSTITUTION OF ORGANIZATIONS:
A FRAMEWORK FOR EXPLANATION*
Robert D. McPhee
Arizona State University
Arizona State University
Abstract. In this paper we argue that the communicative constitution of
organizations requires not just one, but four types of messages, or more
specifically types of message flow or interaction process. Such a variety of
message flows is required because complex organizations require distinct types of
relations to four “audiences”. They must enunciate and maintain relations to their
members through membership negotiation, to themselves as formally controlled
entities through self-structuring, to their internal subgroups and processes through
activity coordination, and to their colleagues in a society of institutions through
institutional positioning. These four sorts of communication are analytically
distinct, even though a single message can address more than one constitutive
task; we need to recognize that complex organizations exist only in the
relatedness of these four types of flow.
Max Weber founded modern organization studies by offering an interpretive analysis of
bureaucracy (1922/1968). His account can be summarized as follows: members use the
ideal type conception of bureaucracy to understand the conduct of other members and to
guide their own actions; because they all act in patterns organized by the ideal type, their
actions coordinate in such a way that organizations consequentially and meaningfully
exist. Thus, from its beginning, organization studies have pursued the central question of
how large-scale, purposefully-controlled organizations are constituted. In this paper, we
will attempt to help answer this question by presenting a theoretical framework for the
communicative constitution of complex organizations. We will begin with a selective and
partial review of important theories that basically argue for a communicative approach to
understanding the nature of organizations. Then, we discuss the meaning of the phrase
“communicative constitution of organizations” by specifically defining the terms
constitution, organization, and communicative. The central focus of the paper will be the
presentation of our theoretical framework consisting of four types of constituting
communication processes or what we call “flows.” The four flows involve the processes
of membership negotiation, organizational self-structuring, activity coordination, and
institutional positioning. Through the explication of these four flows we will be able to
argue for a theoretical framework that takes both micro- and macro-level issues into
consideration in analyzing the communicative constitution of organizations.
Theoretical Underpinnings of the Analysis
Weick (1979) brought to the forefront for modern communication theorists the idea that
organizations were not mere objects or systems that existed physically. For Weick,
organization was the process of organizing, of interpreting an enacted environment in a
way that led to orderly action. His theoretical move from organization being a static
entity to a dynamic process was a dramatic turn in how organizational communication
could be studied and explained. The basic theme for his organizational model can be
found in the recipe for sensemaking: “How can I know what I think until I see what I
say?” (Weick, 1979, p. 133) This recipe is understood as a combination of three
processes: enactment, selection, and retention; patterns of sense-making action and
communication reflectively identified and retained by members add up in retrospect to a
social entity called “an organization.”
Sensemaking occurred as organizations, or at least organizational members, talked to
each other and retrospectively made sense of the talk which could then be stored as
knowledge for future use (Weick, 1979). While Weick was far from the first theorist to
take what we might call “the process turn,” his varied and equivocal formulation was
tantalizing enough to exert far-reaching influence across many camps of organizational
communication research. But Weick’s image of organizing allows it to occur even among
people, in the minimal social situation, who are unaware of each other’s existence. We
seek an account that focuses specifically on entities more like the complex formal
organizations of today’s world.
Another theorist, with motives quite different from those of Weick, was Smith (1993),
who explicated the relation between communication and organization by identifying rootmetaphors that undergirded the discourse of organizational communication. The notion of
root-metaphor, while allowing critique of theories, also offers an entry-point into the
ontology of organizations. Root-metaphors capture a fundamental, underlying worldview
and are able to undergird broad areas of meaning (Smith and Eisenberg, 1987). Smith’s
work made the organization-communication relation a central problem recognized by the
field; and furthermore, suggested that reconceptualiztion of the object/unit of analysis
could avoid the problems of reification and marginalization. She argued that
organizational communication theories were cast in terms of containment (that
organizations involve spatial limits within which communication processes occur),
production (that either communication or organization is the produced, even causal
outcome of the other process), and equivalence. Because of limitations in the
employment of the first two metaphors, she states that many writers have argued for an
equivalency position—the idea that communication is organization and organization is
communication. For Smith, the weakness in this position is that, “If organization and
communication are equivalent, to explicate Organizational Communication in terms of
organization-communication would be tautological” (Smith, 1993, p. 28). While she does
not offer an elaborated answer to the question of the communication-organization
relation, she sharpened our perception of the importance and neglect of that question and
moved the field toward potentially greater rigor. But she also, through the very generality
of her metaphors, allowed the impression to persist that the constitution problem can have
a basically simple answer.
Boden (1994) approaches the constitution issue by examining how single communication
events such as telephone calls, gossip, or planning meetings structure organizations. Her
goal was to demonstrate that interactive mechanisms could implicate organizational
properties. By applying the technique of conversation analysis to ordinary
communication events that occur in organizations, one should be able to observe the
interface between talk and social structure. For example, if a researcher studied a
planning meeting, she could not only analyze the adjacency-pairs of turn-taking, but
examine how people use “turn-making” to advance their own political position (p. 18).
However, Boden’s argument is weakened by lack of a justified list of necessary and
sufficient organizational properties—she discusses one organizational phenomenon after
another, but does not show or argue that they “add up” to organization. Furthermore,
Boden gets her list of phenomena from established organizational theories, not from
specifically communication theory. Thus, her argument shares the weakness of many
reductionist arguments, that it does not capture the emergent relations among phenomena
that are essential to organizational studies. Studying the fragments of conversation that
occur between organizational members does offer insight at the micro-level of how talk
creates structure; yet this position does not provide an explanation of how all the single
communication events synthesize to constitute an entire organization at the macro-level.
Taylor (1993) also tackled the discussion of what organizational communication theory
should entail as he states that, “The goal of organizational communication theory ought to
be to bridge the micro/macro gap, by showing how to discover the structure in the
process and delineating the processes that realize the structure.” (p. 261) The processes of
communication create a patterning that constitutes the structure of organization and the
organization itself simultaneously. To develop his conception of communication, Taylor
turns to Greimas (among, we should hasten to note, many other theoretic strands), who
contends that all communication has an underlying deep narrative structure that organizes
conversation through various speech acts. The constitution of an organization would
involve the deep narrative structuring of a great number of elementary transactions
conducted by human agents. Another main tenet is his claim that communication
involves two aspects, conversation and text, with the latter (the medium of organizational
structure) stabilizing and grounding, but also being enacted and potentially transformed
by, the former (the medium of organizationally communicative action). Since
communication creates the structure of organization, Taylor argues that it makes sense to
study organizations from the communication perspective. A key point to his position,
which seems to be comparable to Weick’s, is that organization is an effect of
communication and not its predecessor. Taylor vastly extends the range of
communication theory applied to the constitution problem, but his fascination (even as a
pronounced interpretivist) with structuralism leads him to root his answer to the
constitution problem in a grammatical rather than a systems conception.
Deetz and Mumby (1990) provide an additional view of how organizations are
constituted. First they remind us that organizations are not simply given in their current
form and persist through time, but they have to be produced and reproduced continually.
Second, these organizations also exist within a superstructure over time and space that
includes values, laws, rules, ideology, and other institutions — indeed, their development
represents a quantum leap in social abilities to concentrate and exert power. Finally,
although they agree that communication is constitutive of organizational reality, Deetz
and Mumby integrate the issue of power into the constituting process. Their position is
that “power is an inevitable and constitutive element in all social and institutional
interaction . . .. All communication necessarily involves the use of power, and the role of
a radical theory of organizational communication is to explicate the processes through
which power is manifested and thus shapes organizational reality” (p. 37). Discursive
practices that are employed every day by members of organizations aid in the constitution
of meanings in their organizational lives. Furthermore, communication is understood to
be ideological because it produces and reproduces particular power structures to the
exclusion of alternate power configurations. As organizational members engage in
communicative practices in certain ways, they are indeed shaping and constituting their
organization into a unique formation that is very different than other organizations. Deetz
and Mumby bring our attention usefully to the historical, practical, and power-relevant
sides to the constitution question, and discuss vital processes that we shall re-describe
below. However, their main concern is not to provide a general account of how
organizations are constituted, but to argue how central the question of power is to
In short, we might single out four contributions, tagged simplistically by keyword labels,
that past theory has made to the constitution question: the idea of process, the question of
equivalence, the idea of structure, and the idea of power. In the theoretic framework
presented below, we seek to draw on these ideas while introducing a fifth: the idea of
Terms, Assumptions, and Context of the Model
A definition or explication of terms is very important for a paper on this topic. There are
three important ones for us, to be discussed in the following order: constitution,
organization, and communicative.
In his magisterial Constitution of Society, Giddens (1984) mentions “the constitution of
day-to-day life,” context as drawn upon by actors in “constituting communication,” and
“the phenomenon of talk . . .as constitutively involved in encounters” (pp. xxii, 71, 73).
However, he never explicitly defines “constitution,” or places it in his index, or gives it
sustained focal discussion. Therefore, it might be useful for the sake of guidance to spend
a little time explicating the phrase “communicative constitution of organizations.”
“Constitution” is a technical term in philosophy, especially in Kantian philosophy,
Marxism, and phenomenology. It is rooted in the Kantian notion that objects and causal
relations have reality only due to the activity of the transcendental ego. “Constitution” has
a variety of philosophical meanings ranging between the epistemological (we, as
researchers, know reality by constituting concepts of it) and the ontological (we, as
members of society, constitute our reality, or social reality), between the cognitive and
the practical/active, between creation and making sense of what already exists
(Outhwaite, 1983). It also has technical meaning in speech act theory, especially in the
distinction between regulative and constitutive rules (Searle, 1969; Giddens, 1984, p. 20).
Constitutive rules are those which define an institutionalized speech practice, making it
what it is.
All of these schools seemingly influence Giddens, the last most strongly. We would
claim that he uses “constitute” so as to point to his concept of the duality of structure. As
agents behave, they constitute interaction and its meaningful units because meanings,
communicative acts, and episodes are what they are only due to the knowledgeable,
empowered, contextually positioned action that implicates them. This reflexive
dependence of action and meanings extends to institutions as well: “The fixity of
institutional forms does not exist in spite of, or outside, the encounters of everyday life
but is implicated in those very encounters” (1984, p. 69). His sense of constitution is
primarily ontological and practical, but rather than creation involves reproduction and
We use roughly Giddens’ sense of “constitution” below: a pattern or array of types of
interaction constitute organizations insofar as they make organizations what they are, and
insofar as basic features of the organization are implicated in the system of interaction.
This relevance is not necessarily outside the knowledge of members and others who are
communicating—while they may see themselves as powerless to destroy or
fundamentally change the organization, they typically do know how to make their
communication compliant to dominant organizational directives, or resistant, or irrelevant
and non-organizational. After too many resistant choices by members, the climate of the
organization may change and its legitimacy may sink, even in the face of top member
resource control. So communication even by members low in power still does forceful
work on the constitutive task.
Following McPhee, Corman, and Dooley (1999), we see much to admire in Jelinek and
Litterer’s (1994) definition of an organization as a “deliberately created and maintained
social institution within which consciously coordinated behaviors by members aim to
produce a limited set of intended outcomes” (p. 12). We do approve the emphasis in this
definition on institution-hood, though the idea that all organizations are institutions may
exaggerate their fixity and conscious coordination with purposeful intent (however, see
Giddens’ (1976, 1984) critique of these concepts). Nonetheless, we explicitly do not
assume that the institutionalized organization is an unquestionable given, that interaction
across or outside institutional boundaries is inessential, or that most behavior “inside” the
organization, even contributing to its persistence, is either conscious or coordinated.
More importantly, this definition implies a model of the organization as behaviors inside
an institutionalized container, coordinated by prior plan or cognition. So we would prefer
to transform the definition to “a social interaction system, influenced by prevailing
economic and legal institutional practices, and including coordinated action and
interaction within and across a socially constructed system boundary, manifestly directed
toward a privileged set of outcomes.”
We can go farther in framing our paper if we explicate the notion of “communicative
constitution of organizations” more specifically. We emphasize, first, that all
communication has constitutive force. At the very least, it constitutes socially recognized
agency: when we communicate, an unstated presupposition accompanying our words is
that the speaker is a conscious, capable agent; when hearers interpret our words, they use
the presumption of agency to help make sense of our words (Grice, 1987). On the other
hand, a listener who ignores our words or rejects their validity partly undermines the
establishment of agency, so the whole communication process, rather than any one act or
exchange, is the locus of constitution. A second point to note is that, although
communication relatively straightforwardly constitutes the agency of the communicating
parties and aspects of their relationship, the constitution of outside objects, especially
complex organizations, is itself more complex. Two people conversing can no more
constitute, say, General Motors or the Redheaded League than two Birchers can
conversationally constitute a Communist conspiracy. (Here it is important to be precise:
of course two conversants can constitute a conspiracy as a topic or assumption of
conversation, but generally not as the type of thing it is claimed to be in fact. Insofar as
we seek to explain organizations as complex distantiated systems, the preceding
argument holds.) It seems logical to expect that, in order to constitute a complex
organization, a complex relation among organizational communication processes is
required. Third, it is important to emphasize that not all communication is organizational.
For instance, a casual chat between friends certainly makes them into a communication
system, coordinates their perspectives to some degree, and even involves some
conversational organization. But the friends are usually not “an organization” as a result
of having communicated, in the sense relevant to the tradition of organizational
communication or the definition of organization stated above.
Fourth, we will suggest relatively broad and abstract ways in which communication,
including both single messages and interactive episodes, constitutes organizations. In
other words, we will pitch our analysis one or more levels of abstraction above that of
Boden (1994). While she showed that conversational processes can help constitute
organizations, we want to identify broad but clear types of processes being carried out in
the conversation. We doubt that proceeding inductively by identifying scripts or longer
recurrent conversational segments will work, given the variety of organizational cultures
and ways constitution can be carried out. Instead, we will proceed more deductively,
identifying types in terms of their necessity for a complex organization to exist and have
the impact it does in society.
For us emphasizing communication means emphasizing circulating systems or fields of
messages. We will follow Mintzberg (1979), and more recently Lash and Urry (1994), in
calling these “flows,” but we emphasize that these flows involve crosscurrents, and are
considered as constitutive communication, not merely information transmission. Thus
each episode of communication is interactive, involving multiple participants with only
partly shared goals and understandings; the results of communication episodes are by no
means physically “transmitted,” but become conditions mediated in later interaction
episodes involving the initial parties or others. As a result of “chains” of interaction
episodes, certain topics and ideas become manifest in successively larger domains of the
organization (Sperber and Wilson, 1986), but any resemblance of an organizational
communication process to an electrical network is the result of a definite array of social
practices strategically engaged in by agents, admittedly under institutional and other
conditions that bolster the “networkness” of the result.
The need for a larger and more general unit of analysis might be easier to convey
metaphorically. Think of an organization as a collection of member cells, with messages
as the blood, the hormones, the nerve impulses that affect and relate them. Of course,
specific chemicals and nerve-signals affect specific cells. However, once we recognize
those effects, another problem remains — how do we account for the nature and growth
of whole organs or bodies? We need to register the whole array of necessary influences
and types of influence on the organ and the pattern of their effects.
Similarly, it is vital to begin by identifying the types of flows that make an organization
what it is, and to plot their interrelations. To state the argument less metaphorically than
above, organizations are complex and have varied defining facets, so that no one
grammatical or communicative form is sufficient to constitute them. On the other hand,
they are so varied in size, origin, and ‘member’ status, and thrive so persistently through
changes of membership and structure, that a theory of constitution must be highly
general, allowing organizations to occur in a variety of ways. Although specific messages
can be decisive in the outcome of a decision-making session, for instance, no specific
message or even decision session is necessary or decisive for making the group of
members an organization. But decision-making sessions, as a type of message flow or
interaction process, might be essential.
Our analysis compares and contrasts with two threads of argument implicit in the
theoretical writings of Taylor and his colleagues. In one thread, they argue that specific
grammatical forms (for instance, ditransitive forms or more narrowly, commands, or as
another instance, narrative form (Taylor, 1993; Taylor, Cooren, Giroux, & Robichaud,
1996) are constitutive of or fundamental to organizations. Usually they argue this by
showing how important organizational processes can be represented/enacted, or can only
be represented/enacted, by using the grammatical form in question. We see this kind of
argument as valuable in pointing out how essential functions of organizing are rooted in
communication, and possibly in identifying formal communicative features to focus on in
analysis of discursive transcripts. On the other hand, the necessity Taylor and his
colleagues face in focusing on broad grammatical features is that the grammatical forms
have limited power to distinguish and explain complex social forms such as
organizations. For example, commands and narratives occur importantly in marriages and
casual chat just as in corporate communication. And in focusing on the “command” form,
they may abstract it from a type of discourse flow in which it is an important but
incomplete part, like a cell nucleus studied apart from its role within a cell.
A discussion of the ongoing constitution of an enduring systemic form such as an
organization automatically raises the issue of functionalism. Are we presuming the
existence, stability, orderliness, universal utility, and even self-sustaining powers of
organizational systems in a way which derogates the agency of human individuals or
their unequal power and treatment? No—we explicitly deny these assumptions. But we
believe that a more limited version of functionalism is unavoidable or at least useful in
discussing the topic of the persistence of organizations and societies of organizations.
Organizations are a social form created and maintained by manifestly and reflexively
reifying practices of members—the members think of, treat, and relate to organizations as
real, higher-order systems, and make provision for their survival. In addition, some
communication patterns may contribute to the existence and persistence of organizations
as an unintended consequence, and may even be necessary for their survival. Any
analysis that points this out will sound functionalistic; we do not presume that the
commonsense existence of organizations is real in any sense beyond its reality within and
conditioning of the practices of members, or that such “reality” is free from ambiguity,
aporias, or contradictions. But interpretive, postmodern, and even some critical analyses
are sometimes phrased so as to imply that organizations are unreal figments—that
“General Motors” is not a thing that could be causally relevant to lives of hundreds of
thousands of people or the existence of automobiles on roads. This implication, we think,
is silly. More scarily, the form of our theory is eerily suggestive of Parsons’ (Parsons and
Smelser, 1965) four-function scheme that dominated 1950s sociology and stimulated the
currently fashionable ire against functionalism. His model’s acronym is AGIL, which
represents the four basic functions necessary for the persistence of a social system such as
an organization. The letters of the acronym stand for Adaptation—the problem of
acquiring and using resources; Goal Attainment—the problem of setting, legitimizing,
and implementing goals relative to higher-order systems; Integration—the problem of
maintaining solidarity or coordination among subsystems; and Latency—the problem of
creating, preserving, and transmitting the system’s distinctive culture and values. (See
Rollag, n. d.) This approach was criticized for conservatism, in underplaying the role of
contradiction and change in systems, and for mechanism, in using an oversimplified
model of agency. In contrast, our analysis will expose the critical and interpretive edges
of organizational constitution.
For instance, we see this theory as having three values. First, it sketches an explanation of
the power and efficacy of organizations in the West-dominated world today. They are the
kind of thing that can have such power because they constitute themselves in the four
ways noted below. As Perrow indicates (1979), such theories have critical import.
Second, its four flows of messages are actually more or less hidden implications of
conversations and reports within and outside organizations, operating on a level that may
not be obvious or seem important to members. Explicating such implications and
presuppositions is a hermeneutic task, potentially allowing members to understand their
own communication better. Third, these flows are arenas in which organizations do vary
and can be changed in their fundamental nature. Many authors have claimed, over the
decades, that new forms of organizations have emerged, as a result of various social and
technological developments. A theory such as this one gives us a template by which to
detect, diagnose, and assess novel organizational phenomena.
Before beginning the specific description of the four constitutive communication
processes, a brief overview might be useful. We want to argue that organizations are
constituted in four different communicative flows, not just one, and that the flows are
different in their main direction and in their contribution to organizational constitution,
with each making a different and important contribution. Furthermore, we argue that
organizations and communication are varied enough so that we cannot go much further in
explaining constitution at this level of generality than by discussing types of flow. We see
our theory as building on and elaborating the theoretical underpinnings reviewed above,
summarized by the four keywords of process, equivalence, structure, and power. Our
emphasis on communicative flow takes up Weick’s idea of process; our four flows
escape tautology in showing the equivalence of communication and organization. In each
flow, a sort of social structure is generated through interaction; and by allowing for one
flow to control or condition another, the model allows for specifically organizational
power. The types of flow are analytically different—while they are often distinct, a single
message can and often does make more than one type of contribution. Also, as mentioned
above, each kind of “flow” is actually a kind of interactive communication episode,
usually amounting to multi-way conversation or text passage, typically involving
reproduction of as well as resistance to the rules and resources of the organization. The
four flows link the organization to its members (membership negotiation), to itself
reflexively (self-structuring), to the environment (institutional positioning); the fourth is
used to adapt interdependent activity to specific work situations and problems (activity
coordination). Figure 1 gives a schematic of an organizational system and the four
directions of flow.
Figure 1. Explication of the Model
Organizations always must include members and are distinct in nature from the members.
Thus, one process vital to an organization is the communication that establishes and
maintains or transforms its relationship with each of its members. We should emphasize
the obvious—”membership” in any one organization is not a natural property of people,
and is instead constituted by/in this flow of communication. But in constituting members,
the communication process importantly constitutes the organization, since one must be a
member of something.
One of the best-known examples of member constitution is member recruitment and
socialization (Jablin, 1987). Prospective members must be evaluated and categorized;
both the new member and the organization must decide to create a relationship; and the
new member must be incorporated into the routines and structures of the organization,
and vice versa. However, in the course of this socialization process, the organization is
simultaneously framed as having prior existence, a multitude of other members, and the
power to induce a relation of co-membership (as well as other relations like supervision
and mentorship) between members. This facet of the individual-organization relationship
is well recognized; although some others are less so.
One other facet is the shaping of the member relation itself. What does it mean for Al to
be a member of or related to organization O, and how is the answer to that question
worked out? A fairly good example is embedded in Delany’s new-wave science fiction
novel Dhalgren (Delany, 1974). His amnesiac hero, the Kid, occupies an anomalous
position on the outskirts of a gang in an anomic future world. The Kid is accepted by the
gang, even has some leadership status and respect, yet both he and the gang are
constantly aware that he is not a member. Similar membership issues are faced by
engineers or managers “loaned” from one organization to work in another. This facet
shades over quickly into a second relationship, involving identification and identity
(Tompkins and Cheney, 1985).
Interaction processes that might be expected given the nature of this flow include, first, a
dialectic of reputation and courtship, including all the varying strategies exhibited during
job-seeking and recruitment. It is common knowledge that both the organization and the
person typically take the most positive line possible, often tacitly offering to redefine
themselves to fit the other’s expectations more closely. A second web of processes
involves identification or positioning by individuals, and inclusion by organizations:
these terms are classically used to refer to the problem of membership construction.
Finally, we must not forget that the problem of relation between individual and
organization exists even for members very high in status; power-claiming and
spokesmanship are processes of negotiation of relations of power over organizational
resources or the whole organization. For instance, Pacanowsky (1987) notes how Bill and
then Bob Gore are clearly in charge of Gore, Inc., yet avoid many labels and rituals
common in other companies that would coalesce their power as formal position. Instead,
they try to manage an ambiguous role as equal, yet inevitably “more equal,” organization
Why is this process a vital facet of communicative constitution of organizations? One
answer is that organizations, like all social forms, exist only as a result of human agency
(Giddens, 1984). By many definitions of communication, only individual humans can
communicate, so when communication constitutes organization, the relation of the
communicators to the organization is important. We would want to go farther, though, to
emphasize that organizations ineluctably involve members, almost, as the metaphor
suggests, as parts or limbs of the organization. Organizations exist when they draw
members in, lead them to take part in and understand the interactional world unique to the
Organizations do not draw members and coordinate work automatically or as a result of
natural tendency; some individual or group typically works hard to bring the organization
into being, make decisions about such matters as member time and resource investment.
In short, organizations are the objects not merely of reflexive attention but of reflexive
control and design—of self-structuring. We would claim that this reflexive selfstructuring distinguishes organizations from groupings such as lynch mobs or mere
neighborhoods; it is essential to the explanation of the power of formal organizations in
history, especially but certainly not only Western economic history (McPhee, 1985). It is
important to emphasize that self-structuring is a communication process among
organizational role-holders and groups; it is analytically distinct from, though often part
of the same messages as, communication that helps coordinate the activities of members.
It is unique in that it does not directly concern work, but rather the internal relations,
norms, and social entities that are the skeleton for connection, flexing, and shaping of
Examples of communication like this are easy to give—if anything, they are stereotypical
of organizational communication. Official documents such as charters, organization
charts, policy and procedure manuals; decision-making and planning forums; orders,
directives, and the more casual announcements that often substitute for them; processes
of employee evaluation and feedback; budgeting, accounting, and other formalized
control processes—all these are mainly media for organizational self-structuring. Selfstructuring communication includes any process that serves to steer the organization or
part of it. It also involves processes that design the organization, the setting up of
subsystems, hierarchical relationships, and structural information-processing
arrangements (Galbraith, 1973). Johnson (1981, chap. 7) gives examples of how
recursively evolving and dialogic communication is responsible for creating and
documenting formal structure. Examination of several borderline cases reveals the impact
and uses of self-structuring communication. Larson (1992) discusses the process of
network organization construction among entrepreneurial firms. In the cases she
examined, contracts and other legal self-structuring mechanisms were not present or at
least emphasized. In their place she found an extended process of mutual exploration
based on reputation and early cooperation followed by trust building and expectation
clarification that laid the groundwork for operational and strategic integration of plans
and knowledge stocks. The self-structuring process for the network had to go beyond
mere considerations of economic advantage to achieve low uncertainty, high mutual
knowledge, and high goal alignment before full cooperation could be risked. If we decide
to call Larson’s sort of network dyad an organization, we do so partly because of this
meta-layer of self-structuring process that grounds and solidifies the collaboration.
Another seemingly borderline example is Pacanowsky’s (1987) discussion of Gore, Inc.
Gore operates while avoiding reliance on hierarchy, formal structure, and rigid controls.
However, even Pacanowsky’s account recognizes how senior organization members
engage in sustained reflection on organizational operations and stimulate extensive
communication about work decisions, to allow for widespread responsibility over work
operations rather than centralized responsibility. Self-structuring is made globally
collective rather than centralized. In addition, Pacanowsky notes in passing that this
diffused responsibility does not eliminate processes that control and monitor the division
of labor. In short, there are many forms of self-structuring, but the process itself is vital.
Why is it vital? McPhee (1985) argues that the communication of formal structure—one
form of self-structuring, though a narrower concept than ours—has two important
impacts within organizations. First, it substitutes for what we have called collaborative
communication above, by pre-fixing work arrangements and norms rather than let them
emerge during collaboration. And next, it is authoritative metacommunication that guides
but also controls the collaboration and membership-negotiation processes, that takes
organizational processes as an object so that the organization as a whole can deal with its
environment and be exploited by powerful interests. In the process of achieving these
outcomes, the organization is inevitably internally differentiated or distantiated. In
addition to these effects of formalized structuring, we would point to several others as not
merely useful (for organizational survival or profit) but constitutive. It is in the process of
self-structuring that the organization as a system takes control of and influences itself, not
merely to handle immediate problems but to set a persistent routine procedure for
response. Only through developing this analogue to a sense of self can an organization
avoid problems of over-adaptation, incoherence, and confusion. And this kind of
reflexive communication constitutes the organization for itself, a basic process in its
However, by taking self-structuring to be a communication process, we avoid the illusion
that it itself is unidirectional, internally coherent, or successful by definition. Selfstructuring communication is subject to discrepancy, dispersal, and ambiguity, with
varying consequences for the system, subsystems, individuals, and outside interests. It is
an interpretive and political process, stuck in socioeconomic traditions that, in the West,
favor corporate bureaucracy.
Nonetheless, to contribute even at a minimum to the constitution of the organization,
communicative interchanges of this sort must assume and implicate a sense of the
organization as a differentiated yet purposeful whole. In relatively complex
organizations, communication usually must tacitly recognize a governance structure with
legitimate power, and whether in implementing, serving, subverting, or resisting it, must
Organizations, by definition, have at least one manifest purpose, and the activity of
members and subgroups is partly directed toward it. To a substantial extent, these
activities are coordinated as a result of the organization’s self-structuring, which creates a
division of labor, a standard task-flow sequence, and a series of policies and plans for
work. However, such structural directions can never be complete or completely relevant,
are never completely understood, and are frequently amended in an informal patchwork
of adjustments. In addition, exceptions and problems arise frequently and require
coordinated adjustments out of the ordinary (Perrow, 1967). The process of adjusting the
work process and solving immediate practical problems requires the sort of
communication we call activity coordination.
The clearest exponent of activity coordination as a vital organization-constituting process
is probably Barnard (1938), who presents organizations as cooperative systems. All the
activities of executives are dependent, in Barnard’s view, on the cooperative work they
support and the cooperative stance taken by workers toward executive arrangements.
More recently, developers of systems of computer-assisted cooperative work have
devoted tremendous effort to the analysis of cooperative work interaction. For instance,
Filippi and Theureau (1993) studied work in a control room for the Paris metro,
uncovering a complex weave of mutual assistance and attentiveness that resolved train
system breakdowns. They found some general principles of coordination. For instance,
the Controller “who starts handling a disruption is responsible for it during its entire
course, because he knows all the surrounding circumstances and the consequences of his
own decisions.” As well, all Controllers “actively listen …to the details of the solving of
an incident…to be able to anticipate delays and amendments…on their won sector” (1993,
pp. 182, 181). Of course, the real challenge comes when circumstances force principles
like these to be violated.
Exemplary accounts of coordination are well developed by structural contingency theory
(Mintzberg, 1979). In Mintzberg’s description there are five (later seven) kinds of
coordination processes. The most obviously relevant example is mutual adjustment, with
highly skilled or mostly unorganized members working out solutions to problems on the
spot. Nevertheless his other processes also involve activity coordination, as workers, say,
determine how to substitute for one another on an assembly line and how to relieve the
pressures of line work.
In activity coordination, as in the other flows, one finds multiple processes and attitudes
toward the organization. For example, members can coordinate on how not to do work, or
coordination may be in abeyance as members seek power over one another or external
advantage for themselves from the system. Nonetheless, what seems inescapable is that
members presume that they are working not just on related tasks but within a common
social unit with an existence that goes beyond the work interdependence itself. This
presumption may be a result of self-structuring discourse.
Institutional Positioning in the Social Order of Institutions.
One other type of communication flow remains to be discussed, communication outside
the organization, to other entities, “at the macro level” in systems or functional terms.
Such entities include suppliers, customers, and competitors and collaborators, including
merger or acquisition candidates. Probably also more powerful organizations such as
potential buyers and governmental regulators could be added. Sometimes this
communication is presented as a direct product of the focal organization to which it is
responsible as a formal entity. More often the communicators are individuals on
boundary-spanning roles who negotiate terms of recognition of the organization’s
existence and place at the same time as they negotiate their own relationships. “Identity
negotiation” is an appealing label for this type of communication; we have chosen the
broader term “positioning” because the latter includes both identity establishment and
development and maintenance of a “place” in the inter-organizational or larger social
system. Since identity is inescapably comparative and relational, these two processes
For example, much of the work of the “institutional school” of organizational theory
contains examples of this sort of communication, since an “institution” is recognized as
such by and within a community of its peer and related organizations—its “organizationset” in Evan’s words (1966). Thus, Meyer and Rowan (1977) note how a formal
organization chart and similar documents are valuable in establishing the image of
legitimacy and rationality presented to fund-suppliers and other peer institutions in the
community. The whole process of relationship building involved in capital acquisition is
an example of this sort of communication flow. Another broad array of examples is
surveyed by DiMaggio and Powell’s (1983) article on the “iron cage” of institutional
isomorphism. The forces bringing about isomorphism are all direct or indirect
communication processes, and many of them have force because they create the
conditions for future communicative relations. In communication, Cheney’s analysis
(1991) of the National Council of Catholic Bishops’ pastoral letter on disarmament
illustrates the concern to address other organizations, including other branches of the
Church, the Papal See, and both Catholic and general popular audiences.
Of course, all sorts of “business” are transacted between an organization and other agents
in its environment, but in the process a number of constitutive moves are required to
establish any organization as a “presence” in the inter-systemic institutional order. Thus,
whether an organization sells a line of merchandise, attracts capital or donations, or
certifies that it has met governmental standards, several processes seem almost
unavoidable. The focal organization must actually connect with and induce return
communication with important elements of its environment, and vice versa. It must
establish or negotiate an image as a viable relational partner—customer, supplier,
neighbor, for example. This image minimally implies creating an impression that the
organization meets the acceptability conditions set up by the government and other vital
stakeholders. Classically, Apple Computers gained respect only when its managers
negotiated an image that allowed them to secure capital and marketing access; start-up
companies are often marginal because they lack such reassuring features as institutional
status (that protects their property), routine practices, and relations to suppliers and
customers. Illegal organizations like the Mafia are also marginal, though even they
depend on relations to dummy corporations and use force partly because they lack access
to some usual economic institutions. More secure organizations build relationships of
trust with important others, and even try to gain control of the uncertainty in their
environments in various ways (Pfeffer & Salancik, 1978).
This sort of communication is vital for constituting organizations because organizations
exist in human societies that already are organized, that already have institutional ways of
maintaining order, allocating material resources, regulating trade, and dividing labor—
and, of course, that already have ways of communicating about all these practices.
Without an institutional backdrop, any but the most primitive human organization is
unthinkable; certainly today’s complex organizations depend on political, cultural,
economic, social, and communicative institutions for their constitution. If each new
organization had to reinvent the concepts of property rights and contracts, membership
and management, as well as the kind of organization they are (corporation, social service
agency), there would be few organizations in existence today. Moreover, institutions like
these exist partly because they allow inter-organizational relations—they allow each
organization to draw on other organizations for the variety of resources that it needs to
accomplish its goals and maintain itself. Whether or not a completely autonomous
organization could exist, in practice, most depend on others, and so, in this dependence,
organizations must constitute themselves as practical relational partners.
However, as the proliferation of new organizational forms suggests, there is no one
configuration that an organization must use to present its identity to the institutional
community. The minimum necessary process seems to be negotiating inclusion, and the
measure of inclusion is a purely practical one.
Summary and Implications
We hope the accounts of the four flows above convey both their relatedness and their
The four flows allow four divergent descriptions of organizational processes: the first
recounts the struggle of individuals to master or influence their member roles, statuses,
and relations to the organization. The second articulates how organizational leaders
design, implement, and suffer problems with decision and control mechanisms. The third
focuses on members engaging in interdependent work or deviating from pure
collaborative engagement. The fourth describes the organization as a partner, often
anthropomorphized, in exchange and other social relations with other organizations.
We definitely do not mean to say that if the four kinds of flows exist, an organization
automatically has been constituted and exists. To illustrate the problem, we might
consider a neighborhood bar. Suppose one evening two bar patrons discuss going out
tomorrow to clean up the neighborhood; in another corner, out of earshot of the first, two
other patrons discuss the rules that ought to be followed in clean-up efforts (not too early,
etc.); and so on for other groups of patrons. Even if all four types of conversation took
place, would the neighborhood be constituted as an organization? We would say not. The
four flows would need to be more interrelated, more mutually influential.
For one thing, the four flows need to develop and share a realm of mutual topical
relevance, within which the relevance of the other flows themselves is also recognized.
This sphere of mutual relevance is what we might call organizational knowledge
(McPhee, Corman, and Dooley, 1999). One other requirement would seem to be that the
legitimate authority of self-structuring, relative to the other flows, is recognized in the
other flows. We do not have reason to believe that this set of relations is sufficient, but
we cannot think of others. At any rate, we hope it is clear that all of these flows are
required, and that a constituted organization is not just a set of flows, but a complex
relationship of them.
To go back to the four keywords we used earlier to reference past theories—process,
equivalence, structure, and power—we agree with the arguments that organization is
rooted in or ‘painted on’ the communication process (Taylor, 1993), though for us the
relation is emergence of a higher order system. In a sense this is equivalence, and in a
sense not. Organization is not simply communication, but a relationship among distinct
types of analytically separable processes, so saying that it “is communication” is
misleading, especially from the point of view of level of analysis. Among our
communication processes are some that are purposefully designed to generate, and more
likely than others do generate organizational structure. This requirement is partly due to
the inescapable need for structure in organizations, and partly due to a corporatist and
systemic ideology rampant in the world today. But perhaps a deeper sense of structure, on
a level with Taylor’s text-conversation dyad, as it specifically applies to organizations, is
the structured relation among the four flows/crosscurrents of organizational
communication that inform, enable, and constrain one another. Finally, in various ways,
these four currents, especially self-structuring, depend on and generate power imbalance
and communicative distortions. Yet they ground a unique approach to critical theory, and
are not simply reducible to general theories of ideology, distorted communication, powerknowledge relations, or self-practice relations.
We would claim that the practical and theoretical implications of our model are broad but
difficult to trace because they could be developed in many ways. For instance, Child
(1980) argues that a number of problems of decision-making and coordination, which for
us would be “activity coordination,” as well as motivation, which might be included in
“membership negotiation” in our model,” actually stem from inappropriate organizational
structure (or “self-structuring”). If problems apparent in one flow can really develop due
to patterns in another flow, we clearly must be aware of all four flows and their potential
effects when we diagnose organizational problems. On the other hand, problem-solving
efforts must also recognize that problems arising in one flow might nevertheless be
capable of solution mainly within another flow, as when problems of member resistance
to perceived exploitation are alleviated by creation of a structure wherein members can
be promoted frequently (Edwards, 1979). Of course, the same points made about
practical diagnosis and remedy must apply to theory: theories focused on one of the flows
may be blind to implications of other flows for them. For instance, consider attempts to
theorize formal organizational structure (McPhee, 1985; Smith, 1990). Students of
information technology and new organizational forms have frequently noted that in some
important ways, intra- and inter-organizational cooperation (i.e., activity coordination and
institutional positioning) based on informal relations and trust have come to supplant
formal structure as modalities of organizational control (Morton, 1991). Whether or not
these developments alter the theories of formal structure, clearly the latter must take the
former into serious account.
We have argued that organizations are constituted in four different communication flows,
not just one; that the flows are different in their main direction and in their contribution to
organizational constitution, with each making a different and important contribution.
Membership negotiation, organizational self-structuring, activity coordination, and
institutional positioning underpin the theoretical framework that was presented in this
paper. We have argued that such a variety of message flows is required because complex
organizations require distinct types of relations to four “audiences.” They must enunciate
and maintain relations to their members through membership negotiation, to themselves
as formally controlled entities through self-structuring, to their internal subgroups and
processes through activity coordination, and to their colleagues in a society of institutions
through institutional positioning. These four sorts of communication are analytically
distinct, even though a single message can address more than one constitutive task.
Finally, we hope that this theoretical framework provides a unique explanation of the
complex ways in which organizations are constituted communicatively.
This paper was presented at the Western States Communication Association convention,
where it won a Top Three award from the Organizational Communication Division. The
first author thanks the Herberger Professorship in Communication at Arizona State
University for support during the development of this paper.
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Overview. In this assignment, students will apply one of the key theoretical models of communication,
called “Four Flows” model (covered in Chapter 5) to analyze an organization of their interest. To
complete this assignment, students will need to (a) have a solid understanding of the model by reading the
chapter and a supplemental article; (b) conduct thorough research about the chosen organization and their
communication practices, and (c) analyze the organization’s communication practices with supporting
evidence by applying the four flows model and following the standards of academic writing.
Instruction. Please read and follow the step-by-step below.
• Step 1. Read Chapter 5 and a supplemental article by McPhee and Zaug (2000). We will
cover the “Four Flows” model in Chapter 5 during the weekly lecture; but the lecture can only do
so much to summarize key aspects of the model. To gain a deeper understanding of the model,
students are asked to read the chapter (page 90-94) as well as the article written by the theorists
(Melhee and Zaug) who created the four flows model. The article is posted on Canvas under
“Files” (see the reference below). You are expected to cite this article in your paper as one of the
Srequired outside sources.
o MePhee, R.D., & Zaug, P. (2000). The communicative constitution of organizations: A
framework for explanation Electronic Journal of Communication, 10(1-20).
Step 2. Choose an Organization of Your Interest and Research. Now, think about which
organization you want to analyze using the four flows model. You may choose an organization
you have been a part of other than Rutgers) for volunteer, internship, or employment Or you
may choose an organization you wish to join in the future, so that you can use this assignment as
an opportunity to learn more about the organization
o Important. While reading about the organization of your choice, think about the four
flows – is there enough information out there that can help you learn about the four
flows of the organization? If the answer is no, you may want to choose a larger, public,
and/or global organization that has more publicly available information online. If you
choose a small
local organization, you may draw on your personal experience and
interviews with the employees, but you are still required to conduct outside research
using business articles and reports to support your main points. So, if you cannot find
research materials about your organization, consider choosing a different organization.
Step 3. Analyze Your Organization by Using the Four Flows Model. After choosing your
organization and learning about it through a variety of sources, you will apply the four flows
model to analyze the organization’s communication practices. Below, I summarized each of the
four flows in a table (but there are much more than these summaries, so be sure to read the
chapter and the supplemental reading). For each flow, you will need to pay attention to different
sources demonstrating the organization’s practices, whether it is the official company website,
policy documents, or business articles/reports, etc. Before you start to outline and write your
paper, I recommend that you conduct a preliminary analysis first, because you may decide to
change your organization during your research.
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