As part of a series of occasional interviews with leading social scientists, Linda Putnam, Chair of the Department of Communication, University of California, Santa Barbara, spoke to Social Science Space about her career and her influences in social science.
Tell me about your research in the social sciences.
I’m an organizational communication scholar, and this area of study is a major part of the field of communication. I’m interested in organizational processes and how communication shapes and is shaped by the very nature of organizations. My primary area of focus is conflict and negotiation, especially labor-management negotiations, environmental conflict, and workplace conflicts. More recently I have been examining the framing process; that is, how disputants in a conflict label a situation, privilege certain features of it as important, and include some elements in their descriptions while they leave out others. I also examine how discursive practices enable and constrain organizing; how language patterns develop over time, and how they form into oppositional tensions, such as struggles between stability and change, or being too diverse or too narrow.
Tell me about some of the key people who have influenced you.
Early in my graduate training, as was true of many organizational communication scholars, I was influenced by Karl Weick, a social psychologist and management scholar. He was instrumental in promoting the study of organizations as processes or verbs rather than nouns. Communication as coordinated interactions was treated as an evolving process, not simply a transmission of information. My adviser Ernest Bormann was also extremely influential to me. As one of the last of the renaissance scholars, he didn’t fit a specialized, narrow category and his work spanned the field of rhetoric and communication. He was open to a variety of ways of looking at phenomena and he helped me develop pluralistic approaches to examining topics. He believed that we acquire insights by engaging diametrically opposed types of knowledge in debate with each other.
Another professor who was influential in my career was Charles Redding, often regarded as the founding father of organizational communication. As a professor at Purdue University, he was especially influential when I was a young faculty member there. He influenced me through his strong commitment to the field and his way of critiquing organizations while simultaneously embracing and helping them. Another scholar who shaped my thinking was Aubrey Fisher in the Communication Department at the University of Utah. As a small group scholar, he pioneered ways to code messages and interaction patterns in groups and his systems theory of interaction analysis influenced my early studies of conflict and negotiation.
Was there a time that was particularly important or influential in your field?
A major development in organization communication was in July, 1981. The first Alta Conference was a landmark event in the intellectual history of organizational communication. Scholars came together to talk about new visions, provocative ideas, and specific ways to develop the field. It was what the field needed to develop an infusion of energy and to become a full-fledged area of research that included a greater variety of scholars. This conference questioned the functionalist approach that had dominated the field. It also questioned the issue of who scholars should serve with their research and how researchers could focus on multiple organizational stakeholders, not just managers. It laid the groundwork for redefining boundaries of what an organization is; that is, rethinking organizations in communicatively constructed ways as opposed to looking at them as products/services/people in roles and positions. For me it was the defining point of this era, and it attracted a number of scholars to organizational communication, ones who had considered shifting to other areas of the field. Of particular note, if this conference and its offshoots had not embraced a plurality of approaches, I don’t think it would have had the impact that we see today.
What current developments would you expect to have the most impact over the next 5-10 years?
One of the developments that will be critical in the next decade will be greater attention to macro views of organizations, especially interorganizational communication, societal-organizational interfaces, and collaborations across different organizational types, for example, NGOs, private-public partnerships, etc. Scholars in organizational communication have moved away from simply studying corporations. Rather they are focusing on collaborations and the way that organizations evolve over time. Network and technology studies have moved into the realm of collective action, globalization, and social justice. I expect to see additional work on social media, community engagement, and corporate social responsibility as ways of addressing the organizational-society interfaces.
Another concern that will likely grow in the next decade is attention to the role of the material elements of organizations—especially, economic features, the body, space, and objects in constituting organizations. Communication scholars have become so interested in discourse and the interpretive turn that we’ve often ignored the material and macro-economic level of organizational processes. Research on new technology in organizations is beginning to focus on the physicality of space and how material objects interface with organizational communication. I anticipate that this type of work will grow in the next decade.
The work on globalization and multiculturalism is likely to increase, especially studies that examine the rapidly changing nature of what it means to work internationally and in virtual teams. Work on teams, the team environment of organizations, and self-managed teams will continue to be an important agenda area as will studies of organizational change, identification, and knowledge-intensive organizations. Traditional topics such as leadership will continue to be pursued, but in radically different ways. Studies of leadership have already moved away from focusing on individuals to centering on discourse and communicative processes of leading. Research on gender has broadened to focus on difference and how gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, and physical handicap become issues for organizing diversity. So I anticipate that a number of developments will continue to be important in organizational communication, but that macro-level processes will exert the most impact in the next decade.