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date: 27 May 2017

Race, Gender, Class, and Sexuality

Summary and Keywords

Difference in human experience can be parsed in a variety of ways and it is this parsing that provides the entry point to our discussion of “race,” “gender,” “class,” and “sexuality” as foci of study in the field of organizational communication. Social sorting of difference has material consequences, such as whether individuals, groups, organizations, communities, and nations have equal and equitable access to civil/participative liberties, food, clean water, health, housing, education, and meaningful work. Communication perspectives enable researchers to examine how difference is produced, sustained, and transformed through symbolic means. That is, communication organizes difference. In the field of organizational communication the communicative organizing of race, gender, class, and sexuality is examined in everyday social arrangements, such as corporate and not-for-profit organizations, communities, and other institutional contexts locally and globally. Topics of central concern in organizational communication difference studies are those related to work and the political economy of work, such as labor, conflicts between public and private domains, empowerment, and agency.

Research on race, gender, class, and sexuality as communicatively structured difference has progressed in the field of organizational communication from early top-down functionalist approaches, to bottom-up and emergent interpretive/critical/materialist methods, to poststructuralist approaches that deconstruct the very notion of “categories” of difference. More complex intersectional approaches, including queer theory and postcolonial/decolonial theory, are currently gaining traction in the field of organizational communication. These advances signal that difference studies have matured over the last decades as the field moved toward questioning and deconstructing past approaches to knowledge production while finding commensurability across diverse theoretical and research perspectives. These moves open up more possibilities to respond to societal imperatives for understanding difference.

Keywords: difference, intersectionality, organizational communication, race, gender, class, sexuality, queer theory, postcolonial, decolonizing

The Communicative Organizing of Difference as “Race,” “Gender,” “Class,” and “Sexuality”

The terms, “race,” “gender,” “class,” and “sexuality” are commonly used in everyday contexts as markers of human difference. In the discipline of communication, difference—and any other aspect of human life—is understood via symbolic means. Communication perspectives, particularly those influenced by George Herbert Mead, Kenneth Burke, and John Searle, enable researchers to examine important questions about how differences are produced, sustained, and transformed through symbolic processes. For example, how is language enacted in social interactions, texts, or as visual image to (re)create categories of difference in the first place? What is at stake when categories such as race, gender, class, and sexuality are established, disrupted, or rendered invisible? As differences are negotiated, what is considered (un)nameable, (un)seeable, (un)doable, (un)speakable, (un)writable, and how do these knowledge practices come to be established or disrupted in everyday thought and practice?

These types of questions are variously taken up in the field of organizational communication to explore everyday social arrangements and processes, especially as they are related to work and the political economy of work life. Organizational communication studies start with the premise that communication organizes difference. The communicative organizing of race, gender, class, and sexuality illuminates understandings of differences in, for example, work experiences, occupational identities, and organizing processes.

Theoretical Framing of Difference Research in Organizational Communication

Post/positivist, critical social theory, social constructionism, and poststructuralism are four commonly used theoretical perspectives in the study of difference (Parker, 2014). Research from a post/positivist perspective is often referred to as the variable-analytic approach, and treats race, gender, class, and sexuality as fixed categories that are innate properties of an individual or a whole group of individuals. Researchers who ask a person to check a box on a survey to indicate their sex as “male,” and “female,” expect the person being surveyed to fit within one of these choices and may also use participants’ responses as a source of objective, value-free knowledge with which to produce more empirically verifiable knowledge. Social constructionists, on the other hand, see race, gender, class, and sexuality as temporally stable, but open to reinterpretation and consensus depending on a person’s experience with the category as an identity construct. Researching race, gender, class, and sexuality from post/positivist and social constructionist perspectives can sometimes obscure the possibilities for seeing power relations that create, sustain, and destroy these categories of human experience. Critical theorists challenge the notion that research is value-free and look for ways that categories of difference are produced and reproduced through power relations (such as the researcher and the researched). Critical feminisms—such as socialist and radical feminisms, standpoint theories, transnational/postcolonial feminisms, and intersectional analyses—are four frameworks that adhere to the traditions of critical social theory. Critical frameworks challenge the ways in which science produces subordinated categories of people along the boundaries of race, gender, class, and sexuality and strive to create routes to empowerment for subordinate groups. Poststructuralism assumes a view that race, gender, class, and sexuality are articulated categories in a constant state of becoming as they are linked to political and economic experiences. For example, transnational/postcolonial feminisms incorporate both critical (socialist) and poststructuralist frames to explore the matrix of gendered, racialized, sexualized, and international relations of power in the context of a new global capitalism (see Holvino, 2010).

These frameworks have been variously taken up as the field has advanced, though somewhat arduously, from its early origins toward more complex intersectional approaches to difference.

Tracing the Origins of Difference Studies in Organizational Communication

In the field of organizational communication, difference has been studied in some form throughout its nearly 100-year history. Generally speaking, the foundations for the contemporary study of race, gender, class, and sexuality in organizational communication can be traced to the influences on the field’s formation during the first decades of the 20th century (Barnard, 1938; Heron, 1942; Parker, 2014). As early as 1924, the management theorist and philosopher Mary Parker Follet called attention to analytical frameworks attending to the creative experience of human interplay as “a normal process by which socially valuable differences register themselves for the enrichment of all concerned” (p. 301). A decade later, the economist Chester Barnard grounded his analysis of the “functions of the executive” in an understanding of systems of interacting individuals who through communication are actively involved in the process of creating and re-creating their unique social order (see Tompkins, 1984; Tompkins & Wanca-Thibault, 2001, p. xxi). While they were not focused on specific categories of difference, these early influences signaled the importance of both the formal and informal constitution of organizations and the centrality of communication in organizing processes (Jablin, 1979; Redding, 1972; Tompkins, 1967, 1984), which laid the foundation for the study of difference in organizations via communication.

Managerial Control of Difference via Erasure and Managing Diversity

Notably, the earliest conceptions of difference were focused primarily on managerial control of difference. For instance, the recognition of the influence of informal networks on employee productivity was an early focus of management studies. A typical study in the 1940s and 1950s might have been framed as an investigation of how differently motivated employees might be incentivized through appropriate downward and upward “superior-subordinate” communication (Jablin, 1979).

Attention to social categories of difference, predominantly race and gender, did not emerge in the field until the 1960s and 1970s, coinciding with the influences of social and political movements in the United States and elsewhere in the world. Organizational “diversity” emerged as an important focus with the increasing presence of White women in management and people of color gaining access to jobs, including in management, though at a slower rate than White women (Collins, 1997). Not surprisingly, the focus was on “managing” diversity by erasing some differences while legitimating others (Allen, 1995). A number of studies focused on differentiating the communication behaviors of male and female superiors, exploring questions such as whether subordinates endorse sex-role stereotypes of the communication behaviors appropriate for superiors of each sex (Fairhurst, 1986). Typical conclusions related to subordinates' satisfaction with the communication style of male versus female superiors. Many studies implied that female managers should better master male-defined leadership skills to succeed in organizations, suggesting that women’s failures lie in themselves (Martin, Harrison, & Dinitto, 1983). Similar studies flowing from a managerial control perspective took up social psychological approaches to the study of intergroup relations (Alderfer, 1983). These kinds of studies attended to questions of gender, race, ethnicity, and group identity with the primary (if sometimes unstated) purpose of erasing or moderating difference. For example, perspectives such as the contact hypothesis—the idea that contact between members of different identity groups would attenuate differences—supported the prevailing assimilationist view of difference and organizing (see Nkomo, 1992). As discussed later, these views are challenged via critical/interpretive frameworks that call into question the presumption of universality for patriarchal Western-Eurocentric social systems.

Reification of Difference Through the Logics of Positivism and Variable Analytics

In addition to the concern with managerial control of difference in the early years of the field’s formation, the predominant way to conduct communication research on difference was to focus on communicative aspects of already-assumed-to-be-produced categories as easily inserted variables. What difference does (race, gender, class, sexuality) make in (whatever communicative/relational context) with regard to (whatever communication outcome)? For example, a typical research study from the 1960s might ask, what difference does the race of a leader make in mixed-race working groups with regard to the perceived credibility of the leader? Treating categories of difference as fixed variables presumes an objective reality grounded in the logics of positivism and the presumption of stable demographic features that can be observed and measured. Especially in the case of race, gender, and sexuality, fixed differences are often treated as biological differences. This tight linking of difference to biology leads to imprecise and ambiguous conflation of biological, sociocultural, and psychological aspects of identity categories.

Contemporary research across disciplines rejects the notions of biological (or other a priori) determinations of socially constructed categories and instead recognizes the need to take into account how social categories are produced through the discursive constitution of those categories. For example, the notion of “race” did not exist as a social category prior to the 18th century when White Europeans began colonizing people of color elsewhere in the world (Omi & Winant, 1994). The logics of positivism and the economic imperative for cheap labor provided the ideological context for arbitrarily linking notions of race not only with biological characteristics, such as skin color and hair texture, but also with psychological and moral attributes (Omi & Winant, 1994). Similarly, notions of gender and sexuality become visible, not through any stable or biologically rooted categories of male or female, but through performatively monitored and coercively imposed structures of heteronormative desire (Butler, 1990). In sum, power and context matter in the study of difference. Researchers using the variable-analytic approach to study difference—without a complex analysis of contextualized power—risk reproducing reductionist understandings of difference that erase or flatten the dynamic, situated, and lived experiences of race, gender, class, and sexuality (Parker, 2003).

It should be noted that variable analytic studies of difference persist in contemporary organizational studies, fueled by current demands for social science research based on demographic and other sources of 'verifiable' evidence (Lincoln, 2005). For example, a spate of studies in the early 2000s revealed race to be a persistent factor in recruitment and hiring decisions because of structural bias that persists in society. In one study, researchers randomly assigned traditionally White- or Black-sounding names to identical resumes, and found that having a White-sounding name added an advantage equivalent to eight years of experience (Bertrand & Mullainathan, 2004). Another study revealed that race accounted for differences in employment opportunities for applicants with criminal records. White applicants with a criminal record were more likely to be hired than Black applicants with no criminal record (Pager, 2003). A popular Harvard Business School case involving two identical cases, but with different protagonists—Heidi Roizen (female, and the real person from which the case originated) or Howard Roizen (male)—revealed the effects of gender bias in perceptions of leader effectiveness (McGinn & Tempest, 2010). What was celebrated as entrepreneurship, self-confidence, and vision for Howard was perceived as undesirable arrogance and self-promotion for Heidi. Meanings for the so-called agency penalty for White women are just beginning to be explored for racial minority women (see Bohnet, 2016; Livingston, Rosette, & Washington, 2012).

In sum, in its infancy and early adolescence, the field of organizational communication produced knowledge about difference in a way that reproduced managerial control of difference and was unquestioning about the nomenclature and assumptions of positivism (Tompkins & Wanca-Thibault, 2001). Consistent with a variable-analytic approach, the focus was almost always reliant upon “an objective means of measuring the operation and consequences of an organizational communication system” (Tompkins, 1967, pp. 17–18), and some aspects of this approach to difference persist in contemporary studies. What is advanced in the early era of the field is an understanding of difference as an enduring feature of organizational life, but with an emphasis on managerial control and reification of the status quo. The primary concerns were with worker productivity, motivation, and processes that contributed to the smooth flow of workplace operations and the erasure of difference that might impede those operations. Noticeably missing is an analysis of how power circulates via communicative processes to produce, sustain, and transform difference.

Contemporary Difference Studies in Organizational Communication

An explicit focus on the communicative de/construction of difference emerged in the field of organizational communication in the late 1970s/early 1980s, with the turn toward more postmodern, naturalistic, and critical approaches and the increasingly dominant constitutive view of organizing (Putnam, Fairhurst, & Banghart, 2016). Moving beyond the predominant variable-analytic focus of the field’s beginnings to the more robust view of the communicative constitution of organizing opened the possibilities for bottom-up and emergent understandings of how difference is formed symbolically in the very process of organizing. It also signaled a concern with critical frameworks that challenge structures of power circulating via institutions, ideologies, interests, and identities that are assessed to be dominant, harmful, and largely unchallenged (Deetz, 1986). Topics of study began to emerge that showed aspects of organizational life in more complexity, including the conflict between public and private domains, empowerment, agency, and resistance.

Despite the recognition of the importance of complexity in understanding difference, the field of organizational communication has only recently begun conceptualizing difference as a relationally complex phenomenon and engaging with the intersections among race, gender, class, and sexuality (Mumby, 2010; Parker, 2014). From the 1980s through the early 2000s, approaches to difference in organizational communication and in the wider field of organization studies progressed in a piecemeal fashion, from an initial focus on power and a critique of participation (e.g., managerialism, suppression of voices, performing social identity, and deconstructing organizational rituals) to a sustained focus on gender/feminist perspectives and studies on masculinity; and, to a much lesser extent, other categories of difference, such as race, class, and sexuality. To get a fuller picture of the field’s trajectory toward more intersectional work, it is important to first understand the kinds of theoretical framings and questions taken up as the field turned toward researching the communicative de/construction of race, gender, class, and sexuality, and a concern for critical frameworks for researching difference (also, see Parker, 2014). While it is outside the purview of this entry to survey this literature in its entirety, a cursory review reveals the field’s journey toward a more relationally complex view of difference.

Situating Race, Gender, Class, and Sexuality as Communicatively Constituted Difference in Organizing: Interpretive and Critical Approaches

Tompkins’s (1984) review of the field of organizational communication provided (in retrospect) one signal that the field was turning toward constitutive views of communication and away from the still prevailing rational model. Arguing that most scholarship was positivistic, and that most research questions emanated from a managerial bias, Tompkins critiqued the fallacy of reification, the idea that organizations are entities where communication is situated, and asserted that “communication constitutes organization” (p. 660, emphasis in the original). Several landmark essays at the time helped establish the current focus on the communicative constitution of organizations (see Putnam, 1983). Putnam and Pacanowsky’s (1983) Communication and Organizations: An Interpretive Approach is considered the landmark volume. Subsequently, a body of work emerged critiquing organizational power and challenging managerial bias in research, heralding the field’s turn to critical frameworks (see Deetz, 1992; Mumby, 1988). Allen’s (1995) work on organizational diversity as lived experience and Parker’s (1996) research on the intersections of race, gender, and leadership signaled the field’s entry into discussions of multicultural feminisms that were already robustly taken up in the larger field of organizational studies. Each of these streams laid the groundwork for intersectional studies of difference now gaining wider traction in organizational communication.

Social constructionist/interpretive approaches to difference

Constitutive communication views of race, gender, class, and sexuality treat difference as socially and/or discursively constructed categories that emerge through symbolic means at different times throughout human history to create particular social orders that have real effects. The view of organizing commonly referred to as “CCO,” the communicative constitution of organizations, focuses on the constitutive role of communication in the production and reproduction of organizations (Putnam et al., 2016). It understands language, discourse, and social interactions as forming rather than reflecting reality (Rorty, 1967). Three theoretical strands provide lenses for understanding CCO (Brummans, Cooren, Robichaud, & Taylor, 2014): (a) McPhee’s deductive structurationist approach; (b) the Montreal School’s inductive bottom-up approach; and (c) Luhmannian systems approach. McPhee’s four-flow model was less widely used in empirical studies; the systems approach to CCO has only emerged in the 2010s.

Critical/poststructuralist approaches to difference

Critical frameworks taking up the constitutive view of organizing are distinct from CCO research using constructionist and interpretivist analyses because they are intended to not only interpret organizing processes, but also to critique, challenge, and disrupt harmful ones. Mumby’s (1988) and Deetz’s (1992) respective volumes on critical/postmodern critiques of organizational power signaled the field’s turn to critical frameworks. These early studies and others situated more broadly in the burgeoning area of critical management studies (CMS) provided an important foundation for researching and understanding difference as challenging the organizing status quo (Alvesson, Bridgman, & Willmott, 2009). Alvesson and colleagues (2009) argue that the different strands of CMS—critical theory, critical realism, poststructuralism, and labor process theory—are each oriented, though in different ways, to illuminate and challenge naturalizing organizing processes that reify the status quo and engage with the aspirations of global social movements (p. 15). For example, poststructuralist feminist frameworks focus on discourse and text and searching for ways to denaturalize what seems natural, interrupting binaries, and conceptualizing power, agency and difference as contingent webs of meaning (historically, socially, culturally, and materially). These important theoretical advancements signal a call for relational matrices to accommodate the complex theoretical terrain of difference and organizing. Decades of research on gender, race, class, and sexuality as categories of difference helped lay the foundation for answering that call.

Gender as Difference

There has been far more research attention to gender than other categories of difference (e.g., Acker, 1990; Alvesson & Billing, 1997; Ashcraft & Mumby, 2003). Alvesson and Billing’s text, Understanding Gender and Organizations, published in 1997, signaled an important milestone in recognizing the growing corpus of literature on gender and organizations. Their volume provided a much-needed framework for theoretical and conceptual development in the then-burgeoning field of gender and work. One of the primary theoretical contributions of this volume was the call for broadening of the agenda “from women to gender relations” and a framework for reconstructing gender and organizations studies to include the “social construction and deconstruction of gender” (p. vi).

Ten years later, focusing on empirical studies rather than theoretical concerns, Ely and Padavic (2007) critiqued organizational management scholarship that investigates whether gender differences exist across workplace functions and behaviors rather than why those differences exist. Along those same lines, Ashcraft (2009) surveyed extant gender studies that align with critical management studies to tease out claims about how gender makes a difference in six customary “organizational” activities: “Interacting; feeling and desiring; organizing and institutionalizing; dividing and doing; labor; and depicting work” (p. 306, emphasis added). Notably, for each claim, Ashcraft called for theory and research challenging the trend in organizational communication to treat single identity categories like gender in isolation. More recently, as a sign of the breadth and depth of feminist scholarship, Ashcraft (2014) surveyed five feminisms that characterize gender studies in organizational communication: liberal feminism, cultural feminism (e.g. gendered communication expertise, gendered organizational culture), standpoint feminism, radical poststructuralist feminism, and postmodern feminism.

These frameworks signal the movement in the field toward the intersectional understanding of difference that Ashcraft and others have called for in organizational analyses (see Buzzanell, 2000; Parker, 2003). For example, an emerging area of research examining difference through the “glass slipper” metaphor theorizes the communicative organizing of occupational segregation along the lines of race and gender (Ashcraft, 2011). Particularly promising are studies that take into account multicultural feminisms, including transnational feminisms that complicate the differences situating women in a global context (Dempsey, Parker, & Krone, 2011).

Race as Difference

Clayton Alderfer and his colleagues (cf. Alderfer, Alderfer, Tucker, & Tucker, 1980) were pioneers in the study of race in the larger area of organization studies, questioning assimilationist views of race that persisted in the field of organizational communication through the early 1990s. Alderfer’s work went beyond the typical variable-analytic perspective focused solely on attitudes and instead questioned the structural foundations for how different racial attitudes influence racial identity formation and other behavioral outcomes of racial relations in groups, organizations, and society. This research trajectory continued through studies such as Thomas’s (1993) exploration of racial taboos in mentoring, which was grounded in a historical analysis of how race influences the development and quality of cross-cultural mentoring relationships. Similarly, Bell and Nkomo (2003) analyzed how race and gender socially construct bicultural life experiences of Black women managers, creating different career pathways from that of their White counterparts. An important influence of Bell and Nkomo’s work was the emergence of standpoint feminisms as a lens for researching the social construction of race in organizing processes while also expanding the category “woman” to include women of color as well as White women. White women often were not identified in studies as belonging to a racial group. This early work in organizational studies laid the groundwork for the more recent work in organizational communication advancing social constructionist and critical/interpretive studies of how race is experienced in everyday work life. For example, Allen (2000) employed standpoint theory to criticize dominant knowledge claims that are based upon men’s lives and for using women’s everyday lives as a foundation for constructing knowledge—in her case, knowledge about organizational socialization or “learning the ropes.” Similar race- and gender-based standpoint studies followed, focusing on organizational leadership, for example (Parker, 2001, 2005). Questions in these studies centered on understanding/interpreting the meaningful experiences for different racialized groups. The predominant focus was on Black employees’ experiences across ranks, although a few studies explored Asian, indigenous, and Latina/o workers.

Nkomo’s (1992) landmark essay “The emperor has no clothes: Rewriting race in organizations” was, arguably, the first critical race intervention in organizational studies. She posed two important questions: “Why do we as organizational scholars continue to conceptualize organizations as race neutral?” and “Why has race been silenced in the study of organizations?” (p. 490). In offering frameworks to explain these questions, Nkomo critiqued the predominant ethnicity paradigm, based on the presumed universality of White men’s experiences. Her analysis revealed how these assumptions are embedded in the theoretical and ideological foundations of research on race, and recommended alternative theories of race and ethnic relations, including power-conflict theories to “focus attention on understanding how organizations have become racially constructed, the power relations that sustain racial divisions and racial domination, and the important role of capitalist modes of production in maintaining these divisions” (p. 502). Critical and poststructuralist studies in organizational communication began to emerge in the mid-2000s with a focus on whiteness, critical race theory, and postcolonial approaches. Parker and Grimes (2009) advanced critical whiteness, critical race, and decolonizing concepts and frameworks as important lenses for researching race in organizational communication studies. Postcolonial studies is another fruitful area of research that is gaining traction in the field and, at the same time, providing more complex frameworks for conceptualizing race, nation, communication, and organizing (see Broadfoot & Munshi, 2007).

Class as Difference

In her review of social class research, Roberts (1993) describes the dominant approach as being concerned with “where you are” versus “how you got there.” Whereas (post)positivist perspectives emphasize the former, social constructionist perspectives generally emphasize the latter. Mirroring the functionalist and variable analytic approaches of early studies in the field of organizational communication, some research on social class is generally concerned with identifying behavioral differences along class lines, typically assuming that class is observable, deterministic, and relatively stable. For example, in their study of CEOs and risk-taking behavior, Campbell and Kish-Gephart (2015) claimed that people develop “a social class imprint that is highly resistant to decay over time” (p. 1615) and that this imprint guides organizational behavior (i.e., strategic risk-taking). Other studies follow a social constructionist paradigm to understand meanings of class in work contexts, but with a post-positivist concern with observable differences that exist along class lines. A representative study in this vein is Gibson and Papa’s (2000) exploration of how class identity is acquired, controlled, communicated, and disciplined in blue-collar workgroups. They point to “organizational osmosis,” the processes of organizational identification and assimilation, and suggest that this process may operate differently for blue-collar workers (Gibson & Papa, 2000). Drawing on interviews with workers and ethnographic observation of a blue-collar organization, the authors demonstrate how “body-punishing labor” (p. 85) is not simply a working class value, but also a regulatory, disciplinary mechanism that is normatively communicated among workers, even organizational newcomers. This work shows how processes of organizational “assimilation” and “identification” may also represent (or help mask) “mechanisms of discipline and concertive control” (Gibson & Papa, 2000, p. 85).

One central concern for social constructionists is how communication (via language and social relations) facilitates, constrains, or otherwise shapes employees’ identities (Trethewey, 2000). Along these lines, Skeggs (2004) conceptualizes social class as a phenomenon that is “made,” “thought,” and “resourced.” For Skeggs, class formations go beyond personal identity and social identity, and instead are inscribed and practiced via the body. Some of these questions are also taken up as poststructuralist analyses of subjectivity and in labor process theory with an eye toward reimagining typical Marxist notions in terms of worker subjectivities, class conflict, and voice (see O’Doherty & Willmott, 2000).

Expanding upon these paradigms, critical-interpretivist approaches assume an additional objective: to illuminate (and eradicate) power differentials, especially as related to material disparities. Such an approach is characteristic of scholarship by Kristen Lucas, whose research examines constructions of identity and dignity from the lens of the organizational subaltern, including low-income workers, their partners, and children. In one of these studies, based on interviews with blue-collar workers and their families, Lucas (2011) discusses values prevalent in the workers’ discourse: strong work ethic, provider orientation, dignity of all work and workers, and humility; together, Lucas describes these discourses as “The Working Class Promise.” Notably, the Working Class Promise is paradoxical with and antithetical to discourses associated with the American Dream: to fulfill one requires disavowal of the other. In her discussion, Lucas considers the consequences of each discourse for (a) understanding class mobility (or lack thereof) and (b) the material (de)valuing of different forms of work.

Sexuality as Difference

Compared to the prolific research on gender, sustained attention to sexuality in organizational communication scholarship and organizational studies at large has been fairly recent. Historically, organizational researchers paid little attention to the issue of sexuality as they regarded sexuality a private issue and irrelevant to professional workplaces (Williams & Giuffre, 2011). From the 1980s, scholars started to challenge the negligence of sexuality in organizational studies, contending that sexuality is constitutive of organizations (Brewis, Tyler, & Mills, 2014). Burrell (1984) revealed that the desexualization of labor was achieved by myriad organizational forms, which could date back to the medieval Catholic Church and was later expanded to many total institutions, such as the prison, the factory, the workhouse, and the hospital. Several factors contributed to the suppression of sexuality in organizations in its inception and development: the perceived negative relationship between sexuality and civilization, the religious rejection of human sexuality as animal instincts, Puritan calculative rationality linking sexuality to irrationality and inefficiency, and capitalist commodification of time and the human body. Organizational practitioners sought to remove sexual relations in the workplace by segregating sex and implementing anti-fraternization policies, which are still in effect in many contemporary organizations.

Implied in these managerial efforts is the essentialist view of sexuality as “a driving instinctual force derived from the biological features of the human animal and is therefore ever-present, ever-potent” (Burrell, 1984, p. 98). The managerial control of sexuality also met organizational members’ resistance who engaged with sexualized interaction despite facing mild or even capital punishment. Burrell’s interrogation of sexuality in the organization suggests that desexualization of organizations is a historical phenomenon, a conscious effort, and an ongoing process. As the opposite of suppressing sexuality, the appropriation of workers’ sexuality and sexual pleasure by organizations has also captured researchers’ attention along the development of capitalism, especially the emerging service economy. For example, restaurant waitresses may be required to wear tight and revealing clothing when catering to customers (Williams, Giuffre, & Dillinger, 1999). Sexuality in this scenario is deployed as a resource for profits rather than being regarded as a diversion from work in factories and other organizational forms. Scholarly attention has also been paid to the adult entertainment industry and sex workers, of which sexuality is constitutive. A prominent issue in the study of sexuality is the sexual harassment of women in the workplace. Aligning with gender studies, scholars contend that objectification of women as sexual objects in the form of sexualized talks, sexual harassment, and rape is part of patriarchal control and subordination of women.

Even though the above studies rendered sexuality visible by critiquing patriarchy and masculinity, they were constrained within the scope of heterosexuality. More recently, a group of critical organizational communication scholars have formed a subfield of sexuality studies to address heteronormativity in the workplace and the issues that affect the lives of people in gay, lesbian, and bisexual communities. Heteronormativity refers to the “taken-for-granted assumption that heterosexuality is natural, normal, and superior to all other forms of sexual expression” (Williams & Giuffre, 2011, p. 552). Sexuality studies have followed a critical-interpretive trajectory, evolving from critiques of heteronormativity and revealing the lived experiences of sexual minorities in heteronormative workplaces, to interpretive studies of gay-friendly organizations, and finally to the more recent focus on queer organizations (Ward, 2008; Williams & Giuffre, 2011). These three foci reveal important insights for understanding the communicative underpinnings of sexuality and organizing.

Critiques of heteronormativity point to the communicative structuring of organizations examining, for example, how sexual identities and behaviors are created, maintained, and prohibited in organizations. Heteronormativity may be evident in both formal and informal organizational settings, such as the denial of domestic benefits to partners, the wearing of wedding rings, the display of family pictures in the office, the expected presence of a heterosexual partner in workplace social events, and the division of labor. Sexual minorities may often encounter discursive violence in the workplace, such as heterosexist jokes and comments (whether or not they are the immediate targets) and pressure to remain “in the closet” to avoid jeopardizing their career. In male-dominated workplaces, both lesbians and gay men may be presented as the sexual other and as inferior to forge male solidarity. Sexual minorities report needing to constantly “manage” their sexuality by choosing from a variety of strategies to “pass” as heterosexual in the workplace: distancing, dissociating, dodging, distracting, denying, and deceiving (Spradin, 1998). The price of passing can be high: cognitive dissonance for not maintaining a coherent identity, inhibition of relational development with romantic partners and coworkers, and emotional burnout. Even though disclosing or not disclosing one’s sexual identity is an individual’s choice, the organizational context is influential in shaping these choices.

Interpretive studies of “gay-friendly” organizations highlight practices that affirm the lived experiences of sexual minorities, but they also reveal an important challenge to the logics of organizational transformation based on basic critiques of existing power structures. Efforts made by activists, policy makers, and scholars to raise awareness of heteronormativity led some organizations to implement equality measures to eradicate heterosexism and become regarded as “gay-friendly” organizations. However, scholars have warned against assuming that “gay-friendly” organizations are immune from heteronormativity, such as by constraining LGBT groups’ preferred accepted expression and performance of sexualities could be normalized and constrained (Rumens & Broomfield, 2014).

Drawing on poststructuralism, queer theorists contend that sexuality is fluid and performed and reject the hetero/homo binary that persists in critical/interpretivists studies of sexuality. Williams and Giuffre (2011) pointed out the organizations led by queer activists are a rich area for future scholarship.

Studies of sexuality are often tangled with gender, but are less often connected to race and class. Williams et al. (1999) pointed out that people have differential preferences of sexualized interaction and that their definitions of sexual harassment are fluid so that behaviors of people from marginalized groups might be more likely to be associated with sexual harassment. However, research on sexuality does not often explicitly take up the intersections of gender/sexuality with race and class. Recent advancements in intersectional analysis provide heuristics for generating new difference studies and reconceptualizing earlier research findings on race, gender, class, and sexuality in intersectional terms.

Emerging Difference Studies in Organizational Communication: Intersectionality and the Communicative Constitution of Difference

More recent difference scholarship is beginning to take up intersectionality as a productive framework to guide difference studies in organizational theory and practice. Intersectionality is a critical perspective concerned with the interlocking, simultaneous, and mutually constitutive nature of experiencing multiple social identities (Crenshaw, 1989). It considers how power and oppression are associated with various social identities, and how these various interlocking identities create structures and experiences of privilege and marginality. Crenshaw (1989) introduced the concept of intersectionality to demonstrate the lack of legal protections faced by people with multiply disadvantaged identities (e.g., Black women). While the perspective has gained traction in fields beyond critical race theory and legal theory, including literary studies, philosophy, and women’s studies, this is less so in social science disciplines such as psychology and communication studies (Rabelo & Cortina, 2016). More recently, however, social scientists have attempted to offer guidelines for the ways in which intersectionality can inform various stages of the research process, including theoretical grounding, study design and epistemology, and the interpretation of results (McCall, 2005; Rabelo & Cortina, 2016). Intersectional frameworks increasingly are being taken up in the field of organizational communication and this is providing a pathway for transcending the single-category approaches that have characterized the field. It also reveals a level of maturity in the study of difference in the field by providing a way to critique past approaches while also advancing commensurability across theories and approaches.

Intersectional Frameworks Guiding Organizational Communication

Two recent interventions—one theoretical and one methodological—provide heuristics for generating new difference studies at the intersections of race, gender, class, and sexuality in organizational communication and also critiquing and reconceptualizing earlier research findings in intersectional terms. Holvino’s (2010) intersectional theory framework suggests a reconceptualization of gender, class, and race, as simultaneous processes of identity, institutional, and social practices. McCall (2005) introduces a framework highlighting three methodological approaches for studying identity-based complexity: intercategorical, intracategorical, and anticategorical. Each of these two frameworks shows promise for the development of a robust difference literature in organizational communication.

(Re)Conceptualizing intersectional difference in organizational communication

Evangelina Holvino uses the experiences and erasure of women of color from the liberal feminist agenda as a mechanism to conceptualize intersectional difference. She refers to the gendered division of labor and ideologies to describe “women’s work” as a narrowly defined framework that is perpetuated through the normalizing and ignoring of the domestic labor of women of color. Holvino (2010) calls for “relational dovetailing” to bring together theoretically distinct modes of knowledge production in politically conscious ways. Fruitful areas of foci are the simultaneity of race, gender, and class in organization processes of identity, institutional, and social practices. For example, the relationships of women of color to men of color and to White women and men create unique processes of identity practice that inform how individuals define themselves and relate to one another (Holvino, 2010). Further, institutional practices normalize the stratification of race, gender, and class identities across occupations and within organizational structures and processes, concealing or silencing the experiences of women and men of color (Holvino, 2010). Finally, social practices derive knowledge of difference from societal beliefs, which may reinforce inequalities in organizations rather than attending to matters of difference.

Holvino advances intersectional analyses to enable research starting from the lens of interlocking power structures to allow us to reimagine popularly studied topics as difference such as socialization, work-life balance, upward mobility, private/public domains, and other problems in organizing, in a way that strategically engages multiple frameworks to produce knowledge about these challenges (Holvino, 2010, pp. 161–162). For instance, in examining women’s “gender-class” work, Wasserman and Frenkel (2015) find that the conceptual and physical organizational space differently affects the performance of gender, class, and nationalism among Israeli women within a foreign affairs office. Top-level women embraced Western norms and ideals as evidenced through their masculine appearance and beliefs. Junior-level women also perceived femininity as defying norms of professionalism leading to their hiding of feminine products, including makeup. At the lowest level of the organization, women administrative staff acknowledged their multiple roles as wife and mother through decorating their office with toys and photos, and continued to adorn traditional clothing as opposed to Westernized professional suits (Wasserman & Frenkel, 2015). Thorough examination of these women’s intersecting identities presents the confluence of gender and class on socialization practices.

Researching intersectional difference in organizational communication

Sociologist Leslie McCall (2005) described intersectionality as a “major paradigm” (p. 1771) in many disciplines, yet lacking clear methodological guidelines, especially for engaging with intersectionality in the social sciences. To address this gap, McCall introduced a framework highlighting three methodological approaches for studying identity-based complexity: intercategorical, intracategorical, and anticategorical. Each of these approaches is associated with different epistemological positionalities; therefore, each approach would generate unique sets of knowledge, and would be best suited for different types of research questions.

First, intercategorical complexity (also called the categorical approach) “provisionally” accepts the existence of identity categories in order to demonstrate group differences (McCall, 2005, p. 1773). Intercategorical complexity is often comparative, examining “relationships among multiple social groups within and across analytical categories” (p. 1786). Societal-level discourse regarding social identities could obscure the realities of workplace experiences and intercategorical complexity (see Ashcraft, 2011). For instance, conceptualizations of Affirmative Action policies shape myths that ethnic minority women experience unearned advantages in the workplace. The presumed “two fer” myth—that is, diversifying one’s workplace by addressing gender and race simultaneously—alleges that women of color (especially Black and Latina women) would have a disproportionate advantage in the hiring process due to their doubly marginalized identity (Sanchez-Hucles, 1997). However, there is no research to support this myth; Black and Latina women earn disproportionately less than White women, Black and Latino men, and White men; have limited upward mobility in organizations; and are overrepresented in low-wage, service occupations (see Parker, 2003).

Other categorical manifestations of race and gender can undermine the unique discrimination that individuals experience at the margins of subordinate identities. Psychological theories suggest that individuals who are not an immediate “threat” to the status hierarchy are presumably invisible or not targeted with identity-specific mistreatment due to their intersecting, non-prototypical identities (Purdie-Vaughns & Eibach, 2008). This perspective obscures how women of color’s workplace experiences uniquely marginalize them as organizational outsiders (Collins, 1991). A majority of intersectional invisibility research focuses on the Black woman as the organizational “stranger” who is allowed to create her own norms separate from stereotypes of White women and Black men. However, this work has yet to consider the ways that Black women may instead be “othered,” tokenized, or marginalized at work (Collins, 1991; Kanter, 1977; Nkomo, 1988; Sanchez-Hucles, 1997).

The second approach, intracategorical complexity, involves efforts to examine particular cross-sections of various identity groups, especially those that have been absent or excluded from mainstream inquiry (e.g., queer Latina mothers). Often the goal is to demonstrate “the range of diversity and difference within the group” (McCall, 2005, p. 1782; emphasis in original). Intracategorical investigations in organizational communication studies often take the form of narratives and case studies that examine a single identity within each axis of difference to reveal qualitatively different experiences in work life. For example, Bowleg, Brooks, and Ritz (2008) complicated performativity of sexuality, gender, and race/ethnicity through exploring Black lesbian women’s experiences of workplace stress. Rather than assuming that these women would have compounded stressful interactions, their study identified the unique stress associated at the margins of their various identities. As Black women, the participants were subject to multiple discourses regarding their race/ethnicity and gender, in addition to heteronormative dialogue that pervaded workplace cultures. For instance, one woman said that she “envied” her gay male coworker who introduced his partner to their colleagues at a company party where she—as someone who lacked access power or status in the company unlike her gay coworker—felt constrained introducing her partner as her lover (Bowleg et al., 2008). Most of the women reported stress from their sexual orientation whether “covering” or “coming out” to their colleagues. Further, not all of the women reported the same amount or content of identity-related stress, which emphasizes the need for exploring the unique experiences of individuals within identity categories.

An intracategorical study focused on class is exemplified in Slutskaya and colleagues’ (2016) critical ethnography of White male street cleaners. This study demonstrates intersecting masculinity, race/ethnicity/nationality, and class to “offset” the stigma associated with performing dirty work (Hughes, 1958) and experiencing class subordination. The cleaners relied on hegemonic gender roles (e.g., physical strength and hard-working nature) as well as social comparison (e.g., describing migrant workers as undercutting and opportunistic) to counter the identity threats that stemmed from their enactment of devalued, precarious labor. Many of the cleaners discussed physical strength as a form of resistance to their otherwise devalued occupational identity and class position, yet their enactment of devalued, physically demanding labor also in part upholds their class subordination. Taken together, to “successfully” perform street cleaning involves specific practices embedded in larger structures of gender, race/ethnicity, nation, and ability, often through use of contradictory discursive and relational practices that sustain difference. By using intracategorical approaches and critical methods, the researchers further show how power relations uphold (and are upheld by) these structures. In this way, people do not experience their work solely as a function of their material rewards; rather, social class is experienced vis-à-vis other intersecting identities, including race/ethnicity, sexuality, and ability (Allen, 2011).

Finally, scholars engaging with anticategorical complexity question the very reality and stability of identity categories, seeking to deconstruct and destabilize categories that create difference. Emerging from poststructuralism and antiracist theory, anticategorical complexity rejects homogenizing and essentializing characterizations of identity groups (e.g., women), instead questioning and deconstructing these very groups, showing how they change across space, culture, and time. In this way, identity groups “have no foundation in reality … [rather,] language … creates categorical reality rather than the other way around” (p. 1777). Organizational communication scholars who advocate a deconstructionist approach to intersectional analysis often incorporate a queer theory framework.

Queer theory and postcolonial theory are two conceptual frames that excellently capture the anticategorical complexity frame for researching difference. Queer theory diverts attention from identity to normativity/normalcy and from categories to complexities and contingencies (McCall, 2005; McDonald, 2015). However, queer theory may not fully advocate the deconstruction of identity, but rather a questioning of identity categories as static entities. Butler (2007) argues that categorical thinking of social identities presents arbitrary categorical schemes that broadly defines heterogeneous groups, and naturalizes identities despite evidence that identities are performed and constantly renegotiated through everyday discourse. Queer theory embraces the non-normative performance of identity and sexuality as disrupting heteronormative assumptions about gender, sex, and sexuality (McDonald, 2015). Thus, queer theorists report that using queer theory will demonstrate how performing—or resisting—organizational “norms” incurs privilege and disadvantage to organizational actors. Courtney (2014) complicated queer theory by suggesting that sexual minorities with essentialist identities may still produce queer outcomes through performance of non-normative sexual embodiment. Through interviews with five self-identified lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) school leaders, Courtney found that they disrupt gender norms, the notion of “leader” and “fellowship,” heteronormativity and other processes of normalization, even though their identity claims are contradictory to the anticategorical stance advocated by queer theorists. Taken together, the central question lying at the heart of anticategorical complexity is not how to categorize identities and groups, but rather whether to (McCall, 2005).

Postcolonial theory is another way organizational communication scholars are advancing anticategorical intersectional approaches. Decolonizing postcolonial perspectives are intended to expose neocolonial assumptions that, when left unchallenged, reproduce the Western colonial relations of power that annihilated indigenous cultures around the world through political, economic, and cultural control (Hall, 2011; Prasad, 2003). In organizational communication studies, postcolonial frameworks can be productive in identifying strategies of management that serve as “a covert, and often overt, tool of neocolonialism” (Munshi, 2005, p. 50). In their 2007 essay, “Diverse voices and alternative rationalities: Imagining forms of postcolonial organizational communication,” Broadfoot and Munshi call for a reimagined vision of the field that is achieved through a disruption of scholars’ tendency to unthinkingly adopt the discourse and knowledge of mainstream Euro-American organizational communication scholarship. They observed that the complex intersections between multiple subjectivities of issues of race, gender, class, ethnicity, and language, though underresearched in much of organizational communication scholarship, are precisely the foci needed for the field to become sensitive to a postcolonial vision of our disciplinary future.

Doing Intersectional Difference Research: Critiques and Future Directions

McCall was one of the first scholars to provide clear methodological guidelines for translating and applying intersectionality within social science. The three approaches defined above—intercategorical, intracategorical, and anticategorical—are useful for providing methodological blueprints for organizational communication scholars seeking to critically understand difference. That said, there are a few shortcomings of this framework. First, given that intersectionality originated in scholarship created by and for women of color, some scholars suggest that race must be present in order to conduct intersectional scholarship. For example, some research claims to use an intersectional approach when examining more than one category of difference (e.g., gender and sexuality), but without meaningfully engaging with race as an axis of difference. Second, usage of the anticategorical approach may ignore the everyday material realities of some lived experiences, especially those of vulnerable communities such as low-income people of color. Third, McCall favors the intercategorical approach. However, when relying on quantitative data, an intercategorical approach runs the risk of relying on simple interaction effects (e.g., a 2x2 ANOVA with race and gender as independent variables). According to Cole (2009), such a comparative, reductionist approach is not intersectional, especially since such an approach is concerned with identifying evidence of difference (without theorizing why such difference is created to begin with). Finally, McCall’s framework implies that the three approaches are mutually exclusive; however, it may be possible to conduct intersectional scholarship that engages with more than one type of complexity (Rodó & Jorba, 2012). In spite of these limitations, McCall’s tripartite framework of intersectional methodologies is still useful for transcending the single-axis approaches to difference that have been heretofore predominated in organizational communication scholarship.

Looking Forward: Difference Studies in Organizational Communication in the Future

The study of difference in the field of organizational communication has progressed from early top-down functionalist approaches to difference, to bottom up and emergent critical/interpretive approaches, to more complex intersectional approaches currently gaining traction emerging in organizational studies. By tracing the development of the study of difference in organizational studies, we can observe the various ways knowledge about race, gender, class, and sexuality is produced, which in turn influences what is taken up as important in the study of difference. We can also see how difference studies in the field of organizational communication have matured over the last decades as it advances toward (a) questioning and deconstructing past approaches to knowledge production; (b) finding commensurability across diverse theoretical and research perspectives; and (c) opening up more possibilities for responding to societal imperatives for understanding difference.

We may also expect changes in organizational approaches to difference as evidenced by their praxis. Catalyst, Inc. exemplifies this evolution as they implemented changes to further support the advancement and inclusion of women in organizations. In the beginning, Catalyst sought to advance opportunities for women in traditional feminist professions by focusing on balancing motherhood responsibilities with work, but did not explicitly acknowledge the unique experiences for women across racial differences. Nearly 50 years later, Catalyst burgeoned as a global entity, partnering with government, business leaders, and policymakers to advocate for women’s progression around the world. One of the authors (McCluney) recently worked as a research fellow at Catalyst to recognize the unique experiences of indigenous, Asian, Latina, Black, and multiracial women in the United States and Canada; and offer solutions to organizations on organizing that addresses the simultaneous experiences across identities (see Catalyst, 2016; Travis, Thorpe-Moscon, & McCluney, 2016). As more difference scholarship takes up intersectionality as a productive framework, future difference studies will continue on a trajectory of seeing the communicative construction of difference in terms of its rich and contingent complexity.

Further Reading

Alderfer, C. P. (1991). Changing race relations in organizations: A critique of the contact hypothesis. Canadian Journal of Administrative Sciences/Revue Canadienne des Sciences de l’Administration, 8(2), 80–88.Find this resource:

Alderfer, C. P., & Thomas, D. A. (1988). The significance of race and ethnicity for understanding organizational behavior. In C. L. Cooper& I. T. Robertson (Eds.), International review of industrial and organizational psychology (Vol. 3, pp. 1–41). London: Wiley.Find this resource:

Ashcraft, K. L. (2011). Knowing work through the communication of difference: A revised agenda for difference studies. In D. K. Mumby (Ed.), Reframing difference in organizational communication studies: Research, pedagogy, and practice (pp. 3–30). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.Find this resource:

Ashcraft, K. L., Kuhn, T. R., & Cooren, F. (2009). Constitutional amendments: “Materializing” organizational communication. The Academy of Management Annals, 3(1), 1–64.Find this resource:

Bohnet, I. (2016). What works: Gender equality by design. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Find this resource:

Butler, J. (1990). Gender trouble: Feminism and the subversion of identity. London: Routledge.Find this resource:

Catalyst (2016). Engaging in conversations about gender, race, and ethnicity in the workplace. New York.Find this resource:

Eliason, M. J., Dibble, S. L., & Robertson, P. A. (2011). "Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) physicians’ experiences in the workplace." Journal of Homosexuality, 58(10), 1355–1371.Find this resource:

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Yep, G. A. (2003). The violence of heteronormativity in communication studies: Notes on injury, healing, and queer world-making. Journal of Homosexuality, 45(2), 11–59.Find this resource:

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