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The term critical approach embraces several distinct yet overlapping intellectual traditions. These traditions include neo-Marxists thought Gramsci, critical theory, postmodernist and feminist studies. Each of these traditions focuses on the examination of communicative practices, which produce the relations of power and resistance. Each of these traditions shares the "post-linguistic turn" assumption that language and discourse are central, constitutive elements of human meaning and reality formation.
Common to all traditions within the critical perspective is the notion that such co-constitutive processes are not arbitrary or spontaneous, but rather occur within the context of complex relations of power. From critical perspective communication is viewed as creating organizations and meaning-based; organizations are conceived as both enabling and constraining the everyday communication processes of their members. Thus, all perspectives in critical organizational communication studies view organizations as dynamic sites of power/domination and resistance, and assert that the communication processes in organizations are not neutral.
As Putnam et al. noted (1996), from its very start critical approach "purported that individuals and groups had differential control in constructing the meanings that mattered in organization" (p. 377). This differentiation produces a complex of power relations in an organization. For critical scholarship power is a pervasive characteristic of organizational life, which constitutes the identity of organization members. Thus, critical theorists emphasize the centrality of power and explore the ways, in which social and communicative relationships produce and maintain power.
Exercise of power by individuals (company owners, top managers, etc.), alongside with rites, rituals, artifacts and "communication performances" are visible and overt aspects of symbolic manifestation of power relations, and have been addressed from traditional perspectives as well. However, power may be exerted covertly and subtly. Critical research emphasizes the need to explore these unobtrusive ways, which control and shape the life of an individual within an organization. In addition, there are organizational structures, which are based on other principles, than bureaucratic hierarchy, for example, "lattice" (Pakanowsky, 1988), or concertive control (Barker, 1993), where power is fragmented or dispersed, and gets legitimized differently, and is hidden. These covert ways evoke the notion of hegemony.
Developing the idea of cultural theorists that every organizational culture has a set of attitudes and beliefs (Schein, 1986), critical researchers argue that these attitudes circulate in organizational settings as ideologies, or naturalized assumptions (through reification) about "the way things get down around here"(Deal&Kennedy, 1982). Ideologies function as universal, unquestioned and taken-for-granted, hence, they hide system contradictions and serve to maintain the existing status quo. Organizational myths, stories, metaphors and narratives have the imprints of ideologies dominant in a given organization (Pakanowsky, 1988; Deal&Kennedy, 1982, Barker, 1993; Tracy&Tracy, 1998).
Overtime through stories, narratives and other numerous practices and procedures an organization develops knowledge, which is connected to its history and constitutes the historical development of meaning. This body of an organization's knowledge integrates discursive practices and includes the stories about heroes (Pakanowsky, 1988), standards of behavior (Deal&Kennedy, 1982), regular practices of monitoring and control (Barker, 1993). The impartiality of organizational mundane practices masks the interests, priorities and human effort to construct them in every day interactions.
In the context of organizational studies "discourse, symbolic action, and meaning, became natural and legitimate in organizations and the way subordinate groups participated in their own domination" (Putnam et al., 377). This assumption translates into a view of communication and organization as co-constitutive. The classic study of French and Raven (1968) defined five types of social power (reward, coercive, referent, expert, legitimate) and showed how power could control the individual and reach desirable outcomes through persuasion, motivation and punishment. The study served as a staring point for further research in the area. For example, Rosen's (1985) work discussed the relationship between cultural and social action in a bureaucratic structure. Rosen pointed out to the asymmetry of power relations in a bureaucracy, and asserted that power in its symbolic form is "manipulated by asymmetrical groups in the articulation of basic interests"(p.77). Describing a business breakfast at Spiro's with ethnographic scrutiny, he convincingly showed how the members of the organization, both the bosses and the subordinates, participated in a symbolic performance, "social drama" (p.77), the underlying purpose of which was the reproduction of a specific power discourse of a given organization through special dress-code, distribution of gifts, and specified rhetoric. This scrupulous study resonates with the works of Deal&Kennedy (1982) on rites and rituals, and Pacanowsky&O'Donnel-Trujillo's (1983) idea of "communicative performances" in reproduction of organizational cultures, however, it goes further and accentuates the role of the intra-organizational consent in maintaining and reinforcing the power hierarchy within a single organization.
Organization knowledge and ideologies, which serve to "qualify" whether individuals match an organization's standards, often have a form of "collective will". Ironically, people, especially those from collectivist cultures, easily buy into the rhetoric and express their consent to accept the offered norms. It becomes especially vital if we consider this consent it in the context of globalization, because of the role "corporations play in shaping our communities, environments, and government" (Ganesh, 2005, p.182). Outsourcing and economic integration promulgate naturalization of corporate and neo-liberal discourse at the global level (see, for example, the case of Disney in Forman, 1998).
The consent has multiple modalities. Barker (1993) showed how even a seemingly democratic self-managing team developed overtime the principles of concertive control, which imposed on its members even tougher disciplinary requirements than a traditional bureaucratic structure. So, consent is an obscure way to reproduce and legitimize power relations and hegemony.
Another disciplinary technique embedded in the modes of power is unpredictable surveillance and control. The metaphor of "panopticon" (see D'Urso, 2006) explains, how employees internalize the unseen, but always present "gaze" of power and modify their behavior in their organization accordingly, engaging in self-control and reproducing the existing power discourse.
In organizational life the regulatory function of power discourse intrudes into private domain of human emotion. As scholarly works on emotional labor show, that organizations design emotional rules to manage human feelings (Tracy&Tracy, 1998). The researchers demonstrate how an organization can manage emotions by prescribing (organization written rules) and monitoring this aspect of organizational life through norms and practices, which become eventually institutionalized. Discussing 911 call-taking work, Tracy& Tracy (1998) argue that their communicative practices are primarily developed by the call-takers themselves and serve to decrease stress associated with their work, yet the supervisors encourage them. So, to sum up, as any other social discourse, organization discourse exhibits and produces organizational norms, theoretical (often rational) explanation of those norms and techniques of control created by organizational members themselves.
From critical perspective, power relations imply resistance, which imposes limits on power. As Ritzer (1993) showed, unlimited power can lead to complete 'McDonaldization' of society, what is equivalent to the loss of individual or collective identity. Some scholars (Ganesh et al., 2005) see the perspectives of resistance at the global scale as transformation and "deconstruction of power relations, particularly those focused on corporate discourse on a transnational scale"(p.182). The transformation should be an effect of locally based efforts by activists. However, the most common forms of resistance in organizational settings, so far, are as covert as certain power mechanisms. They can be identified as hidden transcripts (Ganesh, 2005, p.183) and refer to people's individual tactics. At the same time, even small-scale efforts have the capacity to challenge power and form new bases for collective action, though I see large-scale resistance as problematic, for discursive practices are generally working to naturalize the existing modus operandi.