Communication as Organisation: Implications for Policy Research

2 November 2012

In this post we hope to briefly introduce new ways of thinking about communication and working with it to understand human behavior, social change and policy reform. In particular, the studies on peoples’ self-destructive organisation – as expressed in mass poisoning by pesticides, destruction of soils, water and genetic resources, obesity and climate change – has left us with the conclusion that communication lies at the heart of social change. In practice, effective communication is far from just a product of information, capturing of messages and diffusion.

On the contrary, our contribution on mass poisoning by pesticides shows how communication in a modern technological society is largely “irrational” – i.e., incoherent and full of contingency and surprise. As a result, it is increasingly clear that today we must live with the fact that despite our technological advances, and in many ways precisely because of them, in modern society change cannot be pre-defined or managed. No one intended for pesticides to become a major source of ill-health, but that is exactly what technological development in our food systems has achieved. So what does this perspective mean for proposals of working with communication as a channel of public administration and policy?

A social perspective of communication

In our case study we consider that communication is more than words, language, symbols and exchange. It is fundamentally a creative, co-constituting process. Through communication people derive meanings, significance and sense of self and community. But, communication is not merely a process of inter-action. It also involves trans-action, in the sense that through processes of communication those involved can undergo fundamental cognitive, behavioral, cultural and social transformations. From a critical social perspective, communication is ultimately about organization – i.e., social re-ordering and networking to shape worldview, agenda, priorities, and purposes as means of capturing the imaginations and resources of others. Essentially, communication is a vehicle for opening up a new course of action (otherwise known as “policy”).

The “Practice Turn” in communication and the social sciences

“Practice” is a familiar term that is commonly misunderstood and under-appreciated. Commonly, practice is limited to the mundane routines of daily life. Nevertheless, the works of a body of social thinkers -Heidegger, Vygotsky, Wittgenstein, Bourdieu, Foucault, and Schatzki- help to reveal deeper philosophical meanings and implications. People’s daily practices, for example around the use of pesticides in food production, can be seen as a public display of what is possible and what is desirable -essentially, an expression of who we are as and individual as a people. Dependent on continually changing local contexts, perceptions, creativity and flair, practice represents an infinitely complex and dynamic space of activity.

Our study on how practice of pesticide poisoning inserts itself into families and communities sharply contrasts with notions of peoples’ activity as principally rational and calculated. Communicative practice, such as in farming, brings into view activities that are situated, corporeal, and shaped by habits and inspirations with little to no reflection. We argue that understanding self-poisoning by pesticide requires attention to peoples’ agency in spaces that today are simultaneously individual-collective, private-public, and socio-technical.

What does the “turn to practice” in the social sciences mean for addressing modern socio-technical concerns, such as mass pesticide poisoning? In contrast to the common understanding that the purpose of Science is to capture a clear understanding of the world and accurately represent it, research on practice must take into account performative and emergent aspects of daily communication and communicative processes in their multiple and sometimes contradictory forms.

Implications for policy research

A practice perspective of communication goes against the notion of the existence of an observer and the observed. The point of departure is that the world is not just full of observations and facts, but also agency –the intentional activity of people as social actors, taking positions and strategically pursuing their interests. For researchers , it demands an “unpacking” of the observed in its historical and social contexts, exposing new realities and questions. For those interested in promoting change, the rich diversity of communicative practices is rife with potential and opportunity.

Our study of real-time practice of family-level pesticide use involves description and analysis of how a practice emerges and takes social hold, thus revealing underlying processes of meaning-making, social ordering and regulation in communicative action. As a performative activity, practice is where knowing is not superior to acting, with all of its problematic incoherencies and contradictions. No one initially planned for the technology in question to become a major source of illness and death on the planet. Nevertheless, over time, that is exactly what communicative action and institutional politics achieved, revealing a role of scientists and policy makers as strategic agents or entrepreneurs, thus placing into question their claims to objectivity and the truth as well as being guardians of the public good.

Ultimately this means that when scientists communicate they must take into account how they are a part of communities organised around certain belief systems. Researchers cannot just provide expert advice and assume that their role as experts is accepted and provides them the legitimacy to intervene. The experience with pesticide technology brings into question the need to recognise that researchers are not external players. By communicating, they participate and perform in social networks. Hence they are sustaining certain belief systems over those of others. To be effective, researchers must view themselves as both communicators and the target of communication efforts. Otherwise, they risk becoming blind to the very realities they aim to affect. In addition, a critical social perspective on communication emphasizes the importance of strengthening people-centered democracy – the importance of citizens taking responsibility for the well-being of their families and communities.

References of potential interest

Bräuchler, B. and J. Postill (eds). 2010. Theorising Media and Practice. Oxford and New York: Berghahn.

Hajer, M. & Wagenaar, H. (2003) Deliberative Policy Analysis. Understanding Governance in the Network Society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Knorr-Cetina, K., T. Schatzki, E. Savigny (eds.). 2001. The Practice Turn in Contemporary Theory. London, Routledge.

Miettinen, R., D. Samra-Fredericks and D. Yanow. 2009. Re-Turn to Practice: An Introductory EssayOrganization Studies, 30; 1309-1327.

Schwartz-Shea, P. and D. Yanow. 2012. Interpretive Research Design: Concepts and Processes. New York: Routledge.

Simpson, B. 2009. Pragmatism, Mead and the Practice TurnOrganization Studies, 30(12): 1329-1347.