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SCTs

assumption of
convergence
during the
formation of
consciousness can
be relaxed by
complementing it
with ideas on

MANAGEMENT
10.1177/0893318905280326
FEBRUARY
Olufowote
/ SYMBOLIC
2006COMMUNICATION
CONVERGENCE
QUARTERLY
THEORY /

ROUSING AND
REDIRECTING
A SLEEPING GIANT
Symbolic Convergence Theory and
Complexities in the Communicative
Constitution of Collective Action

symbolic power
and politics
ideas such as:

JAMES O. OLUFOWOTE
Boston College, Chestnut Hill, MA

anti-social
symbolizing,
speaker selfbenefit and
control, obscured
ideology
dominance in
visions, and
member
challenges to
visions.

AUTHORS NOTE: Parts of this article were developed


through several courses and consultations with faculty members at Purdue University. The author thanks Patrice
Buzzanell, Dennis Mumby, and Steve Wilson. The author
also thanks Editor Charles Conrad and the three anonymous
reviewers for their insightful and constructive comments. An
earlier version of this article was presented at the 2002
National Communication Association conference in New
Orleans, Louisiana. Please address all correspondence to
James O. Olufowote, Communication Department, Boston
College, 140 Commonwealth Ave., 21 Campanella Way 547,
Chestnut Hill, MA 02467-3859; e-mail: olufowot@bc.edu

Management Communication Quarterly, Vol. 19, No. 3, February 2006 451-492


DOI: 10.1177/0893318905280326
2006 Sage Publications
451

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452 MANAGEMENT COMMUNICATION QUARTERLY / FEBRUARY 2006

Symbolic Convergence Theory (SCT)an explanation of the process and consequences of human symbolizinghas enjoyed popularity in communication studies but, in organizational communication, its appeal has declined, perhaps because of perceptions of its irrelevance to complex and contemporary concerns. To
develop SCTs appeal as well as its possible resurgence, this article rouses and
redirects it. In rousing SCT, the article reviews its central statements, remembers
its uses, and lays bare some weaknesses (i.e., explaining why humans narrate
reality and share dramas, restrictive convergence assumptions, and restrictive
assumptions about membership in rhetorical communities). In redirecting SCT,
the article relaxes and complements its assumptions with ideas from organizational communication theories (i.e., sensemaking, power and politics, bona fide
groups, and multiple identifications) and points a reinvigorated SCT toward
exploring coalition action in response to leader behaviors at Harvard Business
Review and the University of Colorado.
Keywords: symbolic convergence theory; organizational coalitions; power and
politics

n the early 1970s, Ernest Bormann and his colleagues at the


University of Minnesota introduced Symbolic Convergence
Theory (SCT) as a framework for discovering, describing, and explaining the dynamic process by which humans come to share symbolic reality. Since its beginnings, and for the better part of two and
a half decades, SCT has had a significant impact on communication
scholarship, appealing to those examining communication in areas
as diverse as intercultural communication, mass communication,
organizational communication, and rhetoric. Its popularity can be
explained by the following: (a) its claimed stature as a metatheory
that is both idiographic and transhistorical or transcultural
(Bormann, 1985a); (b) its central focus on human discourse (i.e.,
narrativity); and (c) its recognition of communication as creatively
constructing, and being constrained by, reality. SCTs popularity is
also seen in its appeal to those trained in either rhetorical or social
scientific methods (Cragan & Shields, 1981), and its relevance to
phenomena at the level of the individual, the collective, and the
sociohistorical (see Bormann, 1985b, 1988; Bormann, Knutson, &
Musolf, 1997).
Despite some evidence of a SCT resurgence (see dramatisticbased research by Clark & Salaman, 1998; Grint & Case, 1998;
Jackson, 1999), SCTs influence in recent organizational communication scholarship has been largely negligible, perhaps because
of earlier criticisms (e.g., Mohrmann, 1982) or perceptions of its
irrelevance to contemporary and more complex organizational

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concerns. SCTs tenuous resurgence as well as its appeal and usefulness to organizational communication scholars can be developed if its theoretical concepts are remembered (e.g., discursive
process by which collective consciousness emerges, rhetorical
visions imbuing collectives, etc.), if restrictions in its explanations
and assumptions are exposed, and if those restrictions are relaxed
with ideas from relevant organizational communication theories
ideas that, for example, recognize the roles of social or organizational power and members multiple identity commitments and
conflicts.
This article advocates for SCTs usefulness to organizational
communication scholars in analyzing complexities in the communicative constitution of collective action. Specificallyas the title
indicatesthe article rouses and redirects SCT. Each aim has two
objectives. In rousing SCT, the article (a) reviews SCTs core statements as well as their prior uses and (b) interrogates SCT and lays
bare weaknesses, such as its restrictive assumptions. In redirecting
SCT, the article (a) bolsters SCT with organizational communication theories, such as symbolic power and politics, and (b) points
a reformulated SCT toward exploring a phenomenon exemplifying complexities in the communicative constitution of collective
actioncoalitions in organizations.

ROUSING (REMEMBERING AND REVIVING)


THE SLEEPING GIANT
The following section is devoted to awakening SCT. To accomplish this, SCTs general aims are discussed, followed by a review
of the central theoretical statements it introduced into communication scholarship. SCT emerged in the 1970s from research on small
groups attempting to explain the appearance of shared group consciousness and its constitutive emotions, motives, and meanings
(Bales, 1970; Bormann, 1983b; 1985a; Cragan & Shields, 1999).
Bormann (1983b) writes, symbolic convergence creates, maintains, and allows people to achieve empathic communion as well as
meeting of the minds (p. 102). SCT explored the narrating process

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454 MANAGEMENT COMMUNICATION QUARTERLY / FEBRUARY 2006

by which unique entities come to share reality (e.g., structure, plot,


heroes, villains, and scene).
SCT draws from the ontological perspectives of humanisticrhetorical approaches and scientific approaches to communication.
SCT achieves such symbiosis in two ways. First, it is a framework
that is both context bound and context free; later sections of the article address and amend the weaknesses of a context-free perspective
(e.g., ignoring social and organizational power relationships). Second, SCT recognizes communication as embodying both fantasy
and logic. As a context bound framework, SCT takes into consideration the specific norms, cultures, and communicative practice of
groups embedded in time and space. That isgroup consciousness
is bound by the interpretations, meanings, and values of participants situated in time and space, making SCT research amenable to
a grounded and interpretive approach to knowledge generation.
(Bormann, 1985a; Bormann, Cragan, & Shields, 1994). As a
context-free framework (or what Bormann calls a general theory),
SCT is an evolutionary theory (based on the passing of historical
time) concerned with tracking the spread of consciousness outside
of its originating context (e.g., in social movements, mass media
consumers), thus allowing SCT researchers to make claims that are
transhistorical and transcultural (see Bormann, 1985a). SCT lays
added claim to being a context free general theory because of its
technical terms (e.g., fantasy themes, fantasy types, rhetorical
visions) whose uses are free of researchersinvestigative foci or site
idiosyncrasies. SCT further achieves symbiosis between diverse
ontological approaches because it conceives of communication as
embodying both fantasy and discursive logic. Fantasy refers to the
creative construction of reality, whereas discursive logic refers to
conceptions of communication as constrained by a preexisting
reality (see Bormann, 1982, 1983b, 1985a, 1985b; Bormann et al.,
1994). SCTs core statements and uses in communication scholarship are next remembered.

THE DRAMATIZING OF REALITY


One of SCTs theoretical statements concerns the dramatizing of
realityits initiation, spread, and effect. The sharing of social real-

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ity begins with a few individuals dramatizing occurrences set in the


past (Bales, 1970). Bormann (1983b) writes, dramatizing . . . consists of any comment or statement that tells a narrative about real
or fictitious people, imaginary characters, or personifications . . .
(p. 72). The past event is extracted from the ongoing stream of
experience because of certain inherent qualities that lend themselves to dramatization. The event(s) captured by dramatizing messages are organized in the form of a drama complete with scene,
plot, heroes, and villains. Dramatizing accounts of past occurrences artistically organize what are usually more complex, ambiguous, and chaotic occurrences. Although dramatizing may occur
frequently between individuals, some messages resonate so
strongly with listeners that a symbolic explosion spreads from the
originating context (Bormann et al., 1994). This sharing of emotions, meanings, and motive begins with an increase in the excitement, laughter, and communion of members. Bormann has argued
that resonance with a dramatizing message can evoke a strong
psychodramatic response, resulting in chaining outward of the
original setting into publicly shared consciousness (e.g., in social
movements, mass media, etc.). This shared consciousness forms
the basis for mobilizing participants toward action (Bormann,
1985a). Later, the article unveils a deficit in SCTs account of
human dramatizing and bolsters it with a sensemaking explanation.
An example of dramatizing within an originating context that
chains outward is found in Kroll (1983). This study details the
chaining of fantasy in a womans movement within a midwestern
metropolis. Her analysis revealed how the original dramatic orientations toward the heroine (i.e., woman as known sufferer and victim), villain (i.e., violent males and misogynists), and plot (i.e., collective action, salvation, and change) within the initiating small
group context evolved and chained into the public consciousness of
the metropolis. Bormanns (1973) study is another example of dramatizing that chains outward of an originating context. The study
traced the chaining of a presidential candidates fitness for office
on discovery of his electric shock treatmentfrom the network
news room (small group setting), to the media, and to public consciousness. In another study, Shields (1981) finds a reciprocal relationship between the dramatizing of a group of firefighters about
their personal and public image and the representations in the fire-

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fighting literature. Firefighters described themselves as courageous and competent but thought the public viewed them as lazy and
reckless.
Fantasy themes and types. SCT offers a set of technical terms (or
tools) for capturing and describing, in varying levels of abstraction,
the recurring dramas that chain between participants. Fantasy
themes and types are simultaneously tools for researchers as well as
varying abstractions of dramas used by those sharing them. As
tools, they allow the researcher to track and hierarchically organize
dramatic content. Such content can be found in a rhetorical communitys dramatic and narrative materials (i.e., conversations,
magazines, interviews, artifacts, etc.). As dramas chaining between
individuals, themes and types embody recurring ideas with similar
orientations toward dramatic situations, plotlines, heroes, and so
forth. Fantasy themes are more detailed than fantasy types and are
used when shared meaning is nascent. Fantasy types are greater
abstractions incorporating several concrete fantasy themes and
exist when shared meaning is taken for granted (Bormann, 1982).
Fantasy theme analysis allows researchers to study specific communication contexts (e.g., interpersonal situations, speaker and
audience) for the origination, chaining (spread), or mere presence
of fantasy. In later sections of the article, assumptions governing
the spread of fantasy (e.g., prosocial, egalitarian, etc.) are challenged and expanded.
An example of fantasy themes is found in Heisey and Trebings
(1983) study of the 1978 to 1979 Iranian revolution, which discovered the Shahs White Revolution to be composed of themes suggesting the sacrifice of hard work, identification with the elites, and
the rational authority of governmental power. On the other hand,
the Ayatollah Khomeinis Islamic revolution was composed of
themes suggesting the sacrifice of martyrdom, Western vilification,
identification with the poor, and the rational authority of the religious and cultural. In another example, the New England Puritans
fantasy themesas propagated by ministersdealt with dramas
associated with salvation and damnation, the pilgrims holy war
struggles as rife with trials and tribulations, and the Christian as
soldier overcoming trials to do Gods will. The study by Bormann,
Pratt, and Putnam (1978) of a zero-history organization discovered

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a rhetorical visionbattle of the sexescomposed of chaining


fantasy themes such as the black widow spider and the Godfather.
The black widow drama is of a male spider fertilizing a female
spider and then being killed shortly after walking away. The Godfather drama is of dictatorial rule by males. In another example,
Bormann (1988) uses SCT to interpret Pacanowskys (1988) findings of Gore & Associatesorganizational culture. Bormann argues
that Pacanowsky uncovers fantasy themes in findings such as recurring stories about the leader asking employees if they had fun
and made money and in members reference to their lattice organization, which represents overlapping lines of authority and
communication.
Rhetorical visions. Another of SCTs theoretical statements is
the rhetorical visions that result from the chaining of drama, converting and encapsulating a community (the larger collective or
society). Bormann (1983b) defines rhetorical visions as a unified
symbolic system which portrays a broad and consistent view of . . .
reality (p. 75); visions can materialize in slogans, labels, or keywords. Rhetorical visions are not analogous to fantasy types
(Semlak, 1973); rather, they exist at greater levels of abstraction,
have greater time-space extension, and are appropriated in a wider
variety of communicative contexts (e.g., interactions, newspapers,
archives, speeches). Cragan and Shields (1981) identify three rhetorical visions (or master analogues), which they refer to as warring
dramas grounded in the consciousness of communities: a pragmatic rhetorical vision, a social rhetorical vision, and a righteous
rhetorical vision (see also Bormann et al., 1997). The pragmatic
rhetorical vision is shared by those who seek practical and utilitarian goals. They seek effectiveness, are often of a scientific bent, and
are realistic in problem solving. The social rhetorical vision shares
consciousness grounded in relationships and communities. They
seek unity and peace and are usually utopian and humanistic. The
righteous rhetorical vision is grounded in high morals and opposed
to evil (Bormann et al., 1997). Furthermore, rhetorical visions have
been described as existing in a life cycle of consciousness creating,
raising, sustaining, decline, and end (Bormann, 1983b; Endres,
1994). Consciousness creating occurs during the initial exchange
of dramas in small groups, whereas consciousness raising and sus-

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taining occur when visions are mature and resistant to alternatives.


Furthermore, when individuals accept the consciousness in a
vision, they are expected to demonstrate commitment by taking
public action that is consonant with that vision (Bormann, 1983b).
Later in the article, I throw into relief the assumed conflict-free
identity (or ideology) of a rhetorical vision.
The SCT literature has several examples of rhetorical visions. In
one example, Heisey and Trebing (1983), operating at the nationstate level, discuss two opposing rhetorical visions in the 1978 to
1979 Islamic revolution in Iran. The social rhetorical vision of the
Shahs White Revolutionaries (the ruling political faction) consisted of a peaceful global interdependence with the West accompanied by technological advancement and social growth. The righteous rhetorical vision of the Ayatollahs Islamic revolutionaries
(the challenging political faction) was grounded in opposition to
the West, strict adherence to the Quran, and the development of
Islamic power purged of westoxicity (p. 164). These warring
master analogues (Cragan & Shields, 1981) culminated in a political confrontation that forever transformed the consciousness of the
Iranian society. In another example, Bormann (1985b) reconstructs
the Puritan rhetorical vision of early New England ministers and
their congregations, which saw the movement to the new world as
an exodus of Gods chosen people, akin to the travels of the Jews
from Egypt to Canaan (Cragan & Shields, 1981). The Puritans saw
themselves as new world revolutionaries gaining new land and converts for God. In another example, Bormann et al.s (1978) study of
a zero-history organization discovered a rhetorical vision regarding the battle of the sexes. Elsewhere, Bormann (1983a) discovers
the rhetorical visions of a community college as X community
college is a high school with ash trays, and the vision of a large
company as one big family (p. 114).
Rhetorical communities. Rhetorical communities come into being when members are indoctrinated into a vision. Members are
bound by a collective consciousness and common understanding of
reality. Membership can be strictly ideological (i.e., unobservable)
or formalized through documentation, member ceremonies, or the
paying of dues (Bormann, 1983b). Assumptions about the character of membership in communities are later exposed and comple-

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mented with ideas on members multiple identity commitments


and conflicts. Prior research has examined communities such as
management (Bormann, 1983a), social movements (e.g.,
Chesebro, Cragan, & McCullough, 1973; Kroll, 1983), and nations
(e.g., Bormann, Cragan, & Shields, 1996).
SCT was developed to study the process by which social reality
is narrated and shared. The theory synthesizes both rhetoricalhumanistic assumptions and social-scientific assumptions. Based
on small group research, SCT holds that a few interacting members
dramatize the past. Such dramatizing can potentially set the stage
for publicly shared consciousness and action when listeners
actively take up a drama and begin to share it with others. Chaining
occurs through individuals use of fantasy themes and types. Fantasy themes and types are recurring dramas, told at different levels
of abstraction, implying varying levels of shared meaning. Rhetorical visionswhich ideologically unite participants as well as
imbue collective actionemerge when dramas have greater levels
of shared meaning, generality, time-space depth, and societal
permeation.

ROUSING (RUFFLING) THE SLEEPING GIANT


SCT has had a significant impact on different areas in communication scholarship, appealing to researchers with diverse theoretical and methodological orientations. Despite its early popularity,
SCTs use in organizational communication has declined. To aid a
potential resurgence (e.g., Jackson, 1999) and develop SCTs usefulness to organizational communication scholars (e.g., analyzing
complex communication processes), its weaknesses must be revealed and addressed. These weaknesses represent explanatory
deficits and restrictive assumptions. Three areas of weaknesses are
(a) explanations for why humans dramatize and share fantasy, (b) a
convergence ideology, and (c) characterization of membership in
rhetorical communities.
Why do humans dramatize and share fantasies? Or stated differently, why do individuals dramatize the past, and why do groups,
collectives, and publics coalesce around unique dramas? An exam-

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460 MANAGEMENT COMMUNICATION QUARTERLY / FEBRUARY 2006

ination of several SCT-based works reveals two implicit axioms


that respond to this question. The first axiom posits that humans
have an innate predisposition to dramatize and share fantasies. The
second posits that humans share or do not share fantasies based on
several factors (e.g., individual preferences, qualities of the drama,
functions of the drama). Exploration of the second axiom has been
the primary preoccupation of SCT researchers (see Bales, 1970;
Bormann, 1985a; Bormann et al., 1997). Bales (1970) suggested
that groups share dramas when individuals share psychodynamic
concerns or when fantasizing (of past events) relieves the tensions
of group problems in the here and now. Bormann (1985a) suggested that the rhetorical skill of the speaker explains why others
choose to participate in a fantasy. Bormann et al. (1997), in an
exploration of individual preferences, discovered five different
typesbased on a Q-factor analysis of partipants preferences of
narrativesvarying in realism, mood, temporal orientation, moral
orientation, and so forth. Although these efforts are laudable and
have added to knowledge of factors that contribute to the sharing of
fantasy, researchers have not sufficiently explored the first axiom.
That isSCT does not sufficiently explain why humans are predisposed to dramatizing reality and sharing fantasy in the first
place. Elements of a sensemaking perspective can bolster SCTs
explanations.
The second area of theoretical weakness is a convergence
ideologyexplicit and implicit in Symbolic Convergence Theory
which limits SCTs potential and creates blind spots that obscure
other communication processes. This ideology and its blind spots
are caused by three related problems: an implicit prosocial bias,
egalitarian assumptions, and an overly unified and conflict-free
characterization of a rhetorical vision. SCTs statements and uses
demonstrate a prosocial bias; that is, individuals sharing of consciousness and meanings is seen as a warranted occurrence. For
example, phrases used to characterize convergence such as empathic communion, meeting of the minds, increased laughter and
excitement, empathy, and sympathy reveal this prosocial bias
(Bormann, 1983b, 1985a). Such a bias deserves exposure, especially when SCT investigators examine rhetorical communities
that are cults or those espousing the superiority of a particular race
(e.g., Hensley, 1975) or gender (e.g., Bormann et al., 1978).

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Furthermore, SCT and its uses are limited by an egalitarian


assumption. The sharing of a drama or consciousness by members
of a group or collective is assumed to be mutually and equally beneficial. Although Bormann hypothesizes that the rhetorical skill
of a speaker contributes to the successful chaining of a drama
(Bormann, 1985a), he and others have not addressed or examined
the possibility that such a speaker (or others) may benefit more
from a drama than others who are caught up by it. For example, one
can argue that cult membership largely benefits the ambitions and
needs of its leaders. Because successful chaining is implicitly celebrated by SCT, it prevents researcher criticism of the consciousness
that chains and prevents analysis of whether or not participation in
a drama benefits all converts equally. In addition, SCT and its uses
are constrained by characterizations of rhetorical visions that are
free of conflict and overly unified. Although the theory acknowledges that converging individuals may have different narrative
slants on a vision (Bormann, 1985a), the core of each vision is generally presented as free of conflict and unified (i.e., cohering as
either pragmatic, righteous, or social). Endres (1994) begins to
challenge this assumption when he discovers different visions
coexisting within the same rhetorical community. Although Endres
(1994) uncovers conflicting visions at the surface level of a rhetorical community, this type of conflict can occur at a more fundamental level within a rhetorical vision. In other words, visions which
appear conflict free and unified at the surface may obscure more
fundamental ideological conflicts, privileging a certain ideology
over others. Incorporating notions of power, politics, and conflict
can loosen SCTs convergence ideology.
The third area of weakness is researchers characterization of
membership in rhetorical communities. SCT researchers have only
recognized or solely emphasized the identities of members that are
most consonant with a rhetorical vision. In doing so, researchers
de-emphasize the diversity of identities in a rhetorical community,
thus failing to characterize complexities in the nature of membership. In other words, at both communal and individual levels,
homogeneity is emphasized at the expense of heterogeneity. For
example, Hensley (1975) solely emphasizes the religious orientation of those participating in the rhetorical vision of a social movement, whereas Chesebro et al.s (1973) study of a consciousness

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raising group mainly emphasizes members sexual orientation. Although such emphasis is intuitive given the groups vision, it downplays members other identities (e.g., professional, race, age, etc.)
and, by implication, the larger social context from which members
draw their identities. De-emphasizing the communitys heterogeneity ignores factors that make common ground a complex and tenuous achievement as well as the conflicts (identity, relational)
members may experience. SCT can borrow insights from bona fide
groups (e.g., Putnam & Stohl, 1990b) and research examining individuals identifications with multiple groups or targets (e.g., Kuhn
& Nelson, 2002; Larson & Pepper, 2003; Scott et al., 1999).
SCT was developed to study the process by which meaning and
consciousness is shared. It posits that the exchange of dramas can,
at times, result in publicly shared consciousness and action. Specifically, a drama can be powerful enough to chainthrough individuals sharing of fantasy themes and typesoutward of its originating context, attaining converts along the way, encapsulating a
community, and imbuing it with a rhetorical vision (see Table 1). To
develop SCTs potential resurgence (e.g., Jackson, 1999) and its
value to organizational communication scholars, its shortcomings
must be exposed. SCTs shortcomingsexplaining why humans
dramatize and share fantasy, a restrictive convergence ideology,
and restrictive characterizations of membership in rhetorical communitiescan be redressed with ideas from relevant theories and
by applying a reinvigorated SCT to complex communication phenomena such as coalition action in organizations.

REDIRECTING (REVISING AND


REFORMULATING) THE SLEEPING GIANT
To develop SCT, its explanatory deficits must be addressed and
its restrictive assumptions relaxed. I am not advocating a rejection
of SCTs original explanations or assumptions; rather, to develop
SCTs potential, its explanations can be bolstered and its assumptions can be relaxed. SCTs explanation of human predisposition to
share fantasy can be strengthened with ideas from Karl Weicks
model of sensemaking. Furthermore, the restrictive assumptions of

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463

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Rhetorical community

Rhetorical visions (pragmatic, righteous,


social)
Homogeneous rhetorical communities
members shared identity and vision

Convergence ideology
prosocial bias
egalitarian benefits
conflict-free rhetorical visions

Fantasy theme

Fantasy type

Why humans dramatize and share fantasy

Theoretical Weaknesses
(Explanatory Weakness, Restrictive Assumptions)

Dramatizing messages
dramatis personae (hero, villain)
plot lines
scene

Theoretical Elements

Bona fide groups and multiple identities


members diverse commitments
identity and relational conflicts

Power and politics (symbolic)


antisocial symbolizing
speaker self-benefit and control
obscured ideological conflicts and
ideological dominance in visions
member challenges to visions

Weicks sensemaking
sensemaking as a narrated activity
reaching a collective understanding of
experiences (past, future)

Theoretical Responses
(Explanatory Bolstering, Complementary Assumptions)

TABLE 1: Symbolic Convergence Theory (SCT): Theoretical Elements, Weaknesses, and Responses

464 MANAGEMENT COMMUNICATION QUARTERLY / FEBRUARY 2006

a convergence ideology (i.e., prosocial, egalitarian benefits, overly


unified) can be relaxed by complementing them with ideas on symbolic power and politics, and restrictive assumptions on the nature
of membership in rhetorical communities can be relaxed by complementing them with tenets from bona fide groups and organizational identification research (see Table 1).

WEICKS MODEL OF SENSEMAKING


SCT posits that public consciousness begins with the exchange
of dramas between interacting individuals and spreads when a
drama resonates strongly enough with listeners. Although researchers have explained and explored why some dramas are
shared and others are not, SCT has not sufficiently explained why
humans dramatize reality in the first place (see Bormann, 1985a).
This deficit can be addressed with Weicks model of sensemaking
(Weick, 1969, 1979, 1995). Weicks model, intrinsic to the process
of organizing, is concerned with the ways actors create reality and
structure the unknown. Weick (1995) writes, the process of
sensemaking includes the construction and bracketing of cues that
are interpreted, as well as the revision of those interpretations based
on action and its consequences (p. 8). Sensemaking occurs when
shock or novelty jolts actors into stepping out of the continuous
flow of lived experience (Schutz, 1967). Actors then bracket cues
from a past or passing experience and construct meanings of them.
Sensemaking influences. According to Weick, sensemaking is
shaped both by circumstances in the present as well as the psychological and emotional state of the sensemaker. Specifically, actors
sensemaking of the past is a reflexive practice, shaped more by circumstances in the present than a Truth residing in the past. Simply stated, human ability to interpret the past is more of an exercise
in construction than one of making a correspondence to an immutable reality. According to Weick, human constructions are shaped
by the actors context, ego, attitude, mood, and interests in the here
and now (Weick, 1995). He writes, since a backward act of attention emanates from a here and now, the attitude [emphasis mine]
that exists in that here and now will determine the kind of attention,

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which in turn determines what is singled out and given attention


(Weick, 1969, p. 67). This backward act of attention is driven by
desires to manage equivocality and uncertainty.
Managing equivocality and uncertainty. Sensemaking is essential to actorsunderstanding of lived experience, which intersects at
the nexus of the past, the passing, and the future. An understanding
of lived experience is achieved when actors confront an equivocal
past and uncertain future. Equivocality, a characteristic of past or
passing experience, refers not to a void of meaning but a surplus of
meaning, which need delimiting (Weick, 1969). Furthermore,
actors also maintain an understanding of lived experience by anticipating the future; they seek to know the consequences of their
present actions or seek to apprehend an unfolding future (Weick,
1995). Uncertainty triggers sensemaking when actors are faced
with an unpredictable, unanticipated, or unwanted future (Weick,
1995). Actors sensemaking anticipates the future much in the
same way it constructs the past. Specifically, actorsconstruction of
the future is framed as if it has been achieved and is being understood retrospectively (Weick, 1969). As with equivocality, the way
actors manage uncertainty (i.e., estimating consequences of action,
apprehending an unfolding future) is shaped by the here and now.
The sensemaking functions of dramatizing and sharing fantasy.
Weicks model of sensemaking and SCT share a common interest
in the forms and functions of actors constructions of reality. Specifically, both frameworks examine the relationship between the
present and actors constructions of past or anticipated experience. Yet Weicks model can enhance SCTs explanation for why
humans dramatize as well as make complementary contributions to
SCT explanations for why listeners choose to participate in a
drama. Specifically, one can posit that humans dramatize reality as
a way of verbalizing or artistically articulating their sensemaking
activities. Actorsdramatizing is essentially a sensemaking activity
for understanding and artistically organizing experience (equivocal past, uncertain future). Actors share narratives and proselytize
fantasy to reach a collective understanding and organization of
lived experience.

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The here and now has an important influence on sensemaking


processes; it influences the ways actors frame the past and the
future as well as the degree to which others participate in a drama.
The ways actors narrate experience (e.g., select dramatis personae,
frame plots, and assign the roles of heroes, villains, etc.) will be
influenced by their situations and temperaments in the present
(Weick, 1995). By extension, one can argue that others participation in a speakers narrations will also depend on whether they
share the speakers situation and temperament. This explanation
for why others share in a drama is consonant with both Bormanns
(1985a) hypothesis (in which the speaker reflects or shapes others
attitudes, temperaments, and interests) and Baless (1970) emphasis on shared group psychodynamic concerns and the relieving of
here and now group tensions. We turn now to examine how power
and politics can relax SCTs assumptions.

POWER, POLITICS, AND THE ACHIEVEMENT


OF COLLECTIVE CONSCIOUSNESS
SCTs assumptions are restricted by a convergence ideology,
preventing applicability to more complex processes. This ideology
is seen in its prosocial bias in which convergence or empathic communion is regarded as a positive, warranted occurrence. The ideology is also reflected in the assumption that those converging on
meanings will benefit equally from acquiring them. Furthermore,
the convergence ideology paints a picture of rhetorical visions that
are free of conflict and overly unified. I relax and complement these
assumptions with a symbolically centered treatment of power and
politics.
Power and politics: The community power debate. A debate in
political science theory, coined the community power debate
involved different stancespluralist, elitist, and radicalon how
power operates (see Conrad & McIntush, 2003; Hardy, 1994;
Mumby, 2001). The pluralist stance pioneered by Dahl (1957)
regards power as an individuals ability to affect decision making
by getting others to do what they would not ordinarily do. Pluralists
assume power is available to individuals and is widely dispersed in

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society. The elitist stance, originating from Bachrach and Baratzs


(1962) criticism of Dahl, argues that power is in the hands of the
elite and is exercised when they mobilize structural bias in determining which issues are available for decision making. In so doing,
the elite ensure that issues available for decision making do not
threaten existing power relations or the status quo. The radical
stance, explicated in Lukess (1974) critique of the other stances,
regards power as the social arrangements that shape peoples understandings, desires, and interests in such a way that the status quo
is perceived as natural and reinforced, privileging certain groups,
ideas, and interests. Whereas pluralists and elitists are concerned
with forums, individuals vying over decisions, and decision issues,
Lukes is concerned with power operating through social arrangements that transcend active decision making forums.
Power and politics: Control, conflict, and contest in symbolic
processes. Lukess (1974) position in the community power debate
suggests that the formation of meaning may reproduce power relations by reinforcing a status quo that privileges certain groups,
ideas, or interests (see Mumby, 1988, 2001). Such privileging is not
necessarily incidental to meaning formation processes but may
involve active control of the thoughts, desires, and meanings of
some actors by others. Given this orientation, SCT could benefit
from three recommendations. First, research should throw into
relief the assumption that convergence on dramas, which implies
certain meanings or consciousness is a positive occurrence. In
accomplishing this, one must analytically separate the content on
which individuals converge from the process by which convergence occurs with neither the former nor latter necessitating prosocial assumptions. To pursue the line of thinking on the content of
convergence a little further, take, for example, the inside joke phenomenon. SCT research has celebrated the inside joke as evidence
of symbolic convergence having occurred (see Bormann, 1983a);
members share meanings that are evoked by a few key words and
accompanied by laughter or amusement. But the inside joke leaves
unanswered questions about its content: who is the joke on? is it
on the excluded outsiders?
Second, the process (chaining) and outcomes (rhetorical visions)
of convergence also need interrogating. Specifically, the chaining

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process should be queried for whether some actors are benefiting more than others. Although prior research has celebrated the
rhetorical skills of speakers who are successful in getting others to
participate in a drama (Bormann, 1985a), such speakers can be
appropriately recast as self-interested agents of control and manipulation. For example, Porters (1976) group fantasy analysis of
transcripts of Nixons White House advisors uncovered a theme of
Nixon media image control. Porter found that Nixons advisors
controlled (or chained) his media image through the use of dirty
tricks (p. 274) and information manipulation (e.g., embellishing,
withholding, leaking). Furthermore, the outcome of symbolic convergence, or rhetorical visions, should be queried for whether they
reinforce a status quo (or deeply held assumptions) that privileges
certain groups, ideas, or interests. In other words, rhetorical visions
that appear free of conflict and unified at the surface may obscure
fundamental ideological conflicts when certain deeply held
assumptions are elevated above others. The process and outcomes
of convergence deserve special scrutiny when their contents are
antisocial.
Third, SCT research could benefit from accounting for member
contestations to a rhetorical vision. To date, SCT has assumed unity
in characterizing the composite ideological commitments of those
participating in a rhetorical vision. But given the possible antisocial
nature of dramas and the processes of domination involved in convergence, research should also unveil and examine contestations
to visions. By this, I refer not only to the contestations of those
who never participated in the vision and who perhaps opposed it
but also to the contestations of those within the rhetorical community. This notion is compatible with both Weicks sensemaking
model and processes involving power and politics. Weicks (1969,
1995) model emphasizes the ongoing and revisionary nature of
sensemaking; hence, suggesting that participation in a drama is
subject to continual challenge and renewed constructions. Lukess
(1974) stance implies ideological dominance during meaning formation; hence, dramas may, at any time, be penetrated for their
ideological bias(es) and become subject to challenge. SCT research has pursued this sort of thinking when fantasies are chaining
between individuals but not when rhetorical visions have emerged.
For example, Bormann et al.s (1978) study of a zero-history orga-

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nization found a fantasy theme which contested another; specifically, their study found that an initial fantasyin which males were
seen as stimulators of tasks, only to have females lead, organize,
and complete those taskswas later resisted by a fantasy celebrating dictatorial and violent rule by males.
SCTs assumption of convergence during the formation of consciousness can be relaxed by complementing it with ideas on symbolic power and politicsideas such as antisocial symbolizing,
speaker self-benefit and control, obscured ideology dominance in
visions, and member challenges to visions (Table 1). We now examine how SCTs assumptions on membership in rhetorical communities can be relaxed.

BONA FIDE GROUPS:


SOCIAL EMBEDDEDNESS AND
MEMBER HETEROGENEITY
SCTs characterizations of membership in rhetorical communities have assumed homogeneityindexed by the common rhetorical vision of the communityat the expense of members heterogeneity. This assumption neglects the embedded nature of
communities (and the societal context from which members draw
diverse identities), simplifies the nature and achievement of common ground, and ignores possible identity and relational conflicts.
I relax and expand SCTs homogeneous assumptions with perspectives from bona fide groups (Putnam & Stohl, 1990a, 1990b) and
organizational identification (e.g., Scott et al., 1999).
Putnam and Stohl (1990a, 1990b), in their explication of the
bona fide group perspective, encourage and celebrate the movement from studying laboratory or zero-history groups to naturally
emergent groups but challenge the traditional conceptualization
accompanying the study of groups. Specifically, they challenge the
assumption of rigid group boundaries and consider the neglected
impact of a groups environment. They argue that group boundaries
have been treated as given, fixed, and immutable structures; as
such, the groups larger social context has been treated as a background construct that is epiphenomenal to group interaction. A
bona fide group, they suggest, should be regarded as having perme-

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able and fluid boundaries as well as existing in interdependence


with its social context. Stated differently, group interaction shapes
and is shaped by its larger social context. In further developing this
perspective, they articulate several tenets (e.g., externally representative roles, intergroup communication); one particularly relevant
tenet is expressed as multiple group membership and conflicting
role identities (Putnam & Stohl, 1990a, p. 150).
Multiple memberships and member conflicts. Individuals have
commitments to multiple groups or identity targets and may experience conflict among these commitments (see Kuhn & Nelson,
2002; Larson & Pepper, 2003). Being a member in several groups
refers to the identity and ideological commitments members draw
from their social context. For example, one may have several commitments to groups or identity targets such as race, gender, organization, and profession. Such multiple commitments can create conflictwithin and between members of a rhetorical community.
Putnam and Stohl (1990a) write, divided loyalties may . . . create . . . conflicts when individuals must choose between the demands of one group versus the needs of another or when the values
and beliefs of two groups are contradictory (p. 150). They critique
SCT when they write, Bormann . . . treats group identity as stemming from shared fantasies and stories . . . although identity is
related to cohesion and solidarity, members do not have allegiance
to only one group (p. 152).
This perspective on group membership is a needed complement
to SCTs characterization of rhetorical communities. Specifically,
it unveils the diversity that members bring to a rhetorical community and the conflicts that may ensue. Acknowledging such diversity celebrates the multifarious nature of community membership,
allowing for a more dynamic notion of common ground. Specifically, common ground becomes understood as an ongoing achievement, facilitated and constrained by members diverse commitments. To relax SCTs homogeneous assumptions, research should
incorporate members identity and relational conflicts.
SCT has had a rich history in the field of communication. To
develop SCTs resurgence and usefulness to organizational communication scholars, its tenets are reviewed, its areas of weaknesses are exposed, and its weaknesses are addressed (see Table 1).

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Specifically, SCTs insufficient explanation for why humans dramatize and share fantasy was redressed with Karl Weicks model of
sensemaking. Furthermore, SCTs convergence ideology (i.e.,
prosocial, egalitarian benefits, free of conflict) is relaxed by complementing it with symbolic power and politics (i.e., antisocial
symbolizing, speaker self-benefit and control, ideological dominance within visions, and member challenges to visions). Furthermore, SCTs homogeneous characterizations are complemented
with a perspective from bona fide groups and organizational identification (see Table 1).

REDIRECTING THE SLEEPING GIANT:


EXPLORING COALITION ACTION
IN ORGANIZATIONS
Although applications of a reformulated SCT to communication
processes are potentially numerous, I demonstrate its relevance and
viability by directing it toward a phenomenon that exemplifies
complexities in the communicative constitution of collective
actioncoalition processes. In pursuing an inquiry into coalitions,
(a) a generic definition is offered, (b) its dominant research traditions are sketched, (c) the limitations in these traditions are unveiled, and (d) a revised SCT is used to develop and explore a communication perspective.

THE DISCIPLINARY ROOTS AND DOMINANT


PERSPECTIVES ON COALITION RESEARCH
A rudimentary definition of coalitions as informally engineered agreements and alliances (Bucher, 1970, cited in Pearce,
Stevenson, & Porter, 1986) will suffice as a starting platform from
which to examine its communicative constitution. Coalitions have
numerous theoretical and practical implications, including the role
of resources, power, and negotiation (coordinationconflict) in
organizations. Accordingly, the study of coalitions began in the

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fields of economics, social psychology, and political science


(Murnighan, 1978). These fields informed early conceptualizations by organizational scholars (e.g., Bacharach & Lawler, 1980).
In the 1940s, in economics, the driving interest was in which individualsamong a group of three or more laboratory participants
would form the highest valued coalition and how its members
would divide the coalitions resources. Here, a game theory
modelspecifying an a priori value, or varying payoffs, for each
possible coalitionis used to predict which coalitions would form
and how members would distribute its resources. Social psychologists, also pursuing the same questions, conducted laboratory studies in which players (totaling three) received unevenly distributed
resources (e.g., votes, points) and were then asked to form a winning coalition in which pooled resources formed a majority. Political science models (representing political parties rather than individuals) extended those of game theorists and social psychologists
by considering the coalitions ability to implement policy after formation. Political science models incorporated nonmaterial resources, such as attitude similarity, which facilitated formation
(Miller & Komorita, 1986; Murnighan, 1978).
In the 1960s, scholars began considering the role of coalitions in
organizations (Stevenson, Pearce, & Porter, 1985). Cyert and
March (1963), among the first to do this, aimed to challenge dominant assumptions by conceiving of organizations as composed of
multiple, and at times, conflicting goals (e.g., budget and resource
allocations). They theorized that stakeholders formed coalitions
around goals and attempted to either set or achieve goals by working through the organizations formal decision making mechanisms. Later, in the 1970s and 1980s, scholars deliberated
through hypothesis generationon the applicability of coalition
theories and models from social psychology and political science
to organizations (Bacharach & Lawler, 1980; Pfeffer, 1981). This
period also ushered in empirical work on coalitions in organizations, heavily emphasizing controlled laboratory tests. For example, researchers considered the following: factors causing coalitions, such as supervisory threats and leadership succession (e.g.,
Cobb, 1991; Freedman, 1981); the tangible and intangible
resourcessuch as power and equitythat members vied for (e.g.,
Lawler, 1975; Mannix, 1993); and the effects of individual-level

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variables (e.g., personal and psychological needs) on coalition formation (e.g., Cobb, 1982).
Limitations of coalition models in laboratories. Laboratory
models of coalitions are governed by several assumptions that limit
an understanding of their behavior in field settings and the nature of
their communicative constitution. These models are limited by
conceptions of the actor, consideration of the resources sought and
who they are sought for, consideration of the coalitions context,
and assumptions about the nature of communication. First, actors
are considered to be rational and economically driven individuals
who have optimal knowledge and information in their goal pursuits. The notion of actors as creative, motivated by emotional
impulses (e.g., mood), or confronted with uncertainty is ignored.
Second, actors are assumed to primarily seek material or economic
resources, form partnerships based on the acquisition of such resources, and internally distribute acquired resources. Here, the collaborative pursuit of resources for others or pursuit of noneconomic or nonmaterial resources (e.g., justice) is not emphasized.
Third, coalitions are modeled without consideration of their context. As such, members social identities, interaction history, and
the organizations structure and culture are not considered (Pearce
et al., 1986). Fourth, communication is given a limited role in coalition models; communication is regarded solely as the simple transmission and exchange of information (outcomes, payments, votes;
see Pool, 1976). As such, notions of communication as grounded in
humanly constructed symbols and meanings, and as constitutive of
collective action are virtually nonexistent.1 (see Cobb, 1986; Miller
& Komorita, 1986; Pearce et al., 1986, for further critiques of laboratory models).

THE COMMUNICATIVE CONSTITUTION


OF COALITIONS IN ORGANIZATIONS
A reformulated SCT is used to explore the communicative constitution of coalitions in natural settings. Specifically, I use a
revised SCT to build on Stevenson et al.s (1985) treatise on coali-

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474 MANAGEMENT COMMUNICATION QUARTERLY / FEBRUARY 2006

tions. In doing so, examples of coalition incidents at Harvard Business Review, Texas Tech University, and University of Colorado
are discussed. Stevenson et al. (1985) and Pearce et al. (1986)
lament the disparate and undifferentiated uses of the term coalition
in the organizational literature (e.g., the whole organization, interorganizational formations, formal committees, etc.). In reaction,
they challenge prior uses of the term, critique the assumptions in
laboratory models, and develop a definition guided by a focus on
intraorganizational processes and field settings. Stevenson et al.
define coalitions as the following:
An interacting group of individuals, deliberately constructed, independent of the formal structure, lacking its own internal formal
structure, consisting of mutually perceived membership, issue oriented, focused on a goal or goals external to the coalition, and
requiring concerted member action. (p. 261)

This definition has eight important criteria. In the following sections, each criterion is elaborated on in a manner consistent with
Stevenson et al.s treatise. Then, to elevate and explore the communicative constitution of coalitions, each criterion is modified and
extended with the aid of a revised SCT.

AN INTERACTING GROUP OF INDIVIDUALS


For this criterion, Stevenson et al. (1985) write, coalitions are
considered to consist of members who communicate with one another about coalition issues and potential coalition action (p. 261).
This criterion is consonant with Bormanns ideas on the initial
exchanges of fantasy. It can also be wed with Emersons (1962)
perspective, which suggests that coalitions emerge to reduce their
members relational dependence on others by harnessing their collective influence to attain relational equilibrium. Take for example,
the interacting group of individuals who led the 2002 staff mutiny
at Harvard Business Review (HBR), the crown jewel of the Harvard
Business School Publishing Corporation, responsible for publications such as case studies, books, and newsletters (Bandler, 2002a).
HBR is a nonprofit company owned by Harvard University; it has

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long been considered the bible of management theory (Bandler,


2002a). The coalition was composed of four senior editors and
executive editors who sought the resignation of their boss, senior
editor and Harvard Business School graduate Suzy Wetlaufer.
They accused her of a breach of ethical conduct when her affair
with her interview participantJack Welch, former CEO of General Electricbecame public. Another example is found in Allen
and Tompkinss (1997) treatment of events that took place at the
University of Colorado. Here, the group included a vice chancellor,
deans, and representatives from Colorados satellites. Citing
several leadership failures, they sought the resignation of Judith
Albino, president of the University.
Furthermore, implicit in this criterion is the notion that members
coalesce around a shared understanding of a past event(s) and
vision for the future. This notion is central to a sensemaking perspective that acknowledges members struggle with an equivocal
past and uncertain future. Specifically, a reformulated SCT suggests that coalitions emerge from the sensemaking activities of a
member or few members. The initial members in-the-present attitude and interests shapes his or her sensemaking of an equivocal
past and constructs a vision of an uncertain future (wants, expectations, fears, etc.). This sensemaking is narrated in dramatic form
(scene, plot, heroes, villains, etc.) and recited to listeners. At HBR,
Wetlaufer is cast as a villain within the plot of an unethical romance
with her interview participanta well known, rich, and married
man. In the Colorado case, Albino is also cast as a female villain
who had been ineffective in leading the University, specifically, in
serving as a liaison between faculty and administration and the
University and its publics (e.g., legislators). Speakers who share in
the listeners situation or who are able to mirror their attitude will
succeed in getting them to participate in a dramaachieving what
Bormann refers to as a symbolic explosion.

DELIBERATELY CONSTRUCTED
According to Stevenson et al. (1985), coalitions differ from
other informal groups because of their purposeful construction and
self-conscious formation and design (p. 261). They differ

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476 MANAGEMENT COMMUNICATION QUARTERLY / FEBRUARY 2006

because they are self-formed (i.e., formed by members) and imbued with a particular consciousness. To elaboratein a manner
consistent with a revised SCTcoalitions are formed through
members purposeful construction and spread of consciousness.
The communicative construction of consciousness occurs when
members narratives are actively proselytized (or chained) to attain
converts (Bormann, 1983b). Allen and Tompkins (1997) rendition
of the Colorado events demonstrates the deliberate self-conscious
formation and design of the coalition. During a press conference,
coalition members explained that a petition against the Universitys
president had been circulating for several weeks. Allen and
Tompkins also write that the situation, and perhaps the formation of
the coalition itself, had been three years in the making (p. 55).

INDEPENDENT OF THE FORMAL


ORGANIZATIONS STRUCTURE
In addition to their self-conscious formation and design,
Stevenson et al. (1985) suggest that coalitions are independent of
more formal organizational groups (e.g., committees, departments,
etc.). Their use of the term independent may be too simple and misleading. Rather, coalitions are better conceived as transcending the
organizations structure (i.e., formal groups and divisions), and, at
times, existing in conflict with it. The coalitions transcendence
or what Putnam and Stohl (1990b) refer to as permeability
highlights its rhetorical character, as it may permeate formal
divisions. A revised SCT posits that members of a rhetorical community draw on a diversity of identities from their larger social
context; as such, members may experience conflict between the
rhetorical commitments of the coalition and those of the organization or society. These conflicts can shape the form and degree of
members commitment to a rhetorical vision (Kuhn & Nelson,
2002). For example, the HBR coalition was composed of subordinates who worked closely with Wetlaufer and whose duties
involved the support of her objectives. It is possible that some
members experienced conflict between this formal role and the
push for her resignation. Similarly, female members of the Colo-

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rado coalition may have experienced divided loyalty when seeking


to oust Colorados first female president.

LACKING FORMAL INTERNAL STRUCTURE


Stevenson et al. (1985) suggest that coalitions are transient and
unstable. Although these characteristics of coalitions are accurate,
coalitions can be better understood as operating within a life cycle.
Bormann (1983b) theorizes that consciousness-driven communities exist within a life cycle of consciousness creating, raising,
sustaining, decline, and end. Bormanns life cycle model can complement Cobbs (1986) assertion that coalitions recur. That is
coalitions can decline or end, become dormant (though not disband), and then reemerge in light of recurring issues (Cobb, 1986).
Take for example, the 2001 coalition of faculty members that
formed to lobby top-level administrators at Texas Tech University
in opposition to the hiring of Bob Knightformer head basketball
coach at Indiana University (CNN Sports Illustrated, 2001). The
coalition declined on Knights appointment. His future behavior
will determine whether or not the coalition recursthat is, if it has
not already (see New York Times article by Thamel, 2004 for a
recent incident involving Knight and his 2004 interview with the
faculty member who initiated the 2001 coalition against Knights
hiring).

MUTUAL PERCEPTION OF MEMBERSHIP


Stevenson et al. (1985) write that coalition members will have
general knowledge about who is and who is not a part of the coalition. Yet they acknowledge that such knowledge may be rife with
ambiguity. Specifically, they suggest the coalition will have a core
set of members, whereas the membership of those on the periphery
may be in doubt. Similarly, Bormanns (1983b, 1985a) exposition
on rhetorical communities indicates that participation in a vision
can range from ideological (or hidden) to formal (or observable).
Members may be ideologically committed to the coalition when

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478 MANAGEMENT COMMUNICATION QUARTERLY / FEBRUARY 2006

they merely support its motivations. The nature of membersparticipation moves beyond the ideological when they engage in publicly
observable rituals and ceremonies, such as baptism and the payment of dues (Bormann, 1983b).
For example, only four HBR members were publicly acknowledged as seeking Wetlaufers resignation. This public acknowledgment came in part because of the letters written to the editorial
director of Harvard Business School (HBRs parent). Yet the writers indicated that Wetlaufer had lost the confidence of the majority
of the magazines top editors (Bandler, 2002a). As such, those
demonstrating observable commitment to the coalition gave voice
to those merely ideologically committed to it. The subsequent resignation of a senior editor who was not one of the letter writers indicates some veracity to the writers claims (Bandler, 2002b). Similarly, although a small delegation at Colorado (deans and a vice
chancellor) pushed for Albinos resignation, they had a letter
signed by 78 individuals (Allen & Tompkins, 1997). There are several reasons some members are more overt than others, with one
being a system of representation in which a few are selected to represent others. This notion is usually accompanied by the assumption that participants, whether central or peripheral, benefit equally
(in interests, goals, resources, etc.). I have previously argued that
this assumption (which underlies SCT) deserves scrutiny, as it
undermines the possibility that overt members simply have more to
gain than other members. For example, it would not be outrageous
to suggest that Wetlaufers job as senior editor and her $300,000
annual salary may have been coveted by some subordinates
(Bandler, 2002a). Neither would it be conspiratorial to suggest that
some of the Colorado deansfrom whose rank Albino was chosen
for presidencyperhaps felt overlooked or slighted in the
selection process.

ISSUE (OR VISION) ORIENTED


Stevenson et al. (1985) suggest that coalitions coalesce around
central issues or common objectives. The authors acknowledge
that although members may have different motives for participating in the coalition, such differences are reconciled sufficiently in

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order to take action as a coalition (p. 262). SCT captures the thrust
of this criterion through the notion of rhetorical visions. Bormann
(1983b) defines rhetorical visions as a unified symbolic system
which portrays a broad and consistent view of . . . reality (p. 75).
Cragan and Shields (1981) identified three types of rhetorical
visions: pragmatic, social, and righteous. A simple application of
SCT would suggest that coalitions coalesce around visions that are
pragmatic, social, or righteous. In reformulating SCT, I challenged
such thinking by arguing that rhetorical visions suffer from a
prosocial bias and characterizations that are free of conflict and
overly unified. Instead I argued for incorporating symbolic power
and politics, recognizing members antisocial symbolizing and
obscured ideological conflicts and dominance in visions.
The Wetlaufer affair. To demonstrate these processes with the
use of examples, I develop the issues surrounding the Wetlaufer
and Albino cases. The coalition seeking Wetlaufers resignation
emerged amidst a series of related incidents. According to several
articles in the Wall Street Journal, in late December 2001,
Wetlaufer, a 42-year-old and single mother of four placed a call to
her superior, Walter Kiechel, editorial director of Harvard Business
School Publishing. During the phone call, she recommended that
Kiechel destroy an article which was in its last editorial stages. The
article was an interview on management philosophy she had conducted with Jack Welch, 66 years old, married, and former luminary CEO of General Electric. Wetlaufer is reported to have told
her superior that during the course of the interview, she had become
too close to Welch for the article to pass as journalistically objective. After the phone call, sometime in January 2002, Kiechel sent
an e-mail to the HBR staff reassigning the article to two of
Wetlaufers subordinates and explaining Wetlaufers concerns
about compromising journalistic objectivity. Welch was reinterviewed, the article was rewritten and titled Jack on Jack, and published in February 2002. Several weeks before this replacement,
stories circulated within HBR about Wetlaufers romantic relationship with Welch (Bandler, 2002a). For example, stories circulated
about a bracelet Wetlaufer received from Welch (Bandler, 2002b)
and the lunch they had following a photography session (Bandler,
2002a). It is unclear whether Wetlaufer disclosed the extent of her

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relationship with Welch during her call to Keichel. To complicate


matters even more, it is unclear whether Kiechel was aware of what
motivated Wetlaufer to call his office in late December. Wetlaufer
later released statements admitting that she came forward to
Kiechel because of a phone call she received from Jane, Welchs
wife. According to Wetlaufer, Jane questioned Wetlaufers objectivity given her relationship with her husband (Bandler, 2002a).
Shortly after the Welch interview was reassigned, four HBR editors, including the two who reinterviewed Welch, sent Keichel letters demanding Wetlaufers resignation. All the letter writers were
Wetlaufer subordinates. One of them, regarded as one of her top
lieutenants, asked to be relieved of duty until Wetlaufers departure
(Bandler, 2002a). Although these letters have not been made public, reports suggest that they indicated Wetlaufer had lost the confidence of the majority of top editors because of her ethical breaches,
conflicts of interest, and inappropriate mixing of her personal and
professional life (Bandler, 2002a, 2002b). Staff anger at Wetlaufer
was even more incited when HBR did not relieve her of duty.
Reports indicate that Wetlaufer and Welch teamed up with one of
GEs former lawyers and struck a deal with the embattled magazine
(Bandler, 2002b). Although Wetlaufer was relieved of managerial
responsibilities, she kept her office and was slated to continue as
editor-at-large after a leave of absence. In protest, two senior editors resigned, one of whom was part of the group who wrote to
Kiechel. Allegations began circulating about another relationship
Wetlaufer had with a twenty-something-year-old junior staffer.
Reports suggest that the twenty-something year old helped
Wetlaufer with child care and lived in her home for some time.
Wetlaufers spokeswoman acknowledged that Wetlaufer had a
close relationship with the junior staffer. Other allegations, denied
by Wetlaufer, suggest she had inappropriately pushed for a raise for
the junior staffer (Bandler, 2002c). Vanity Fair reports more allegations about Wetlaufers romantic relationships with other business
mogul interview participants such as Fords CEO Jacques Nasser.
He has denied this affair (Andrews, 2002).
Amidst the accusations and allegations, sometime in mid April
2002, Wetlaufer resigned, citing the distractions caused by her relationship with Welch (Bandler, 2002c). In the wake of this affair,
HBR has witnessed public attacks on its reputationspecifically

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its editorial process (Pastin, 2002), at least four high-level resignations (not including Wetlaufers) both at HBR and Harvard Business School Publishing (see Armstrong & Bandler, 2002; Bandler,
2002b; Trachtenberg & Bandler, 2002), and a systematic review of
its ethics policies (Hymowitz, 2002). In late march 2002, Jane
Welch filed for divorce; Jack Welchs attorneys are reported to have
made a settlement offer worth around $130 million during the
course of Janes life (Murray, Silverman, & Hymowitz, 2002). Two
years later, according to The Boston Herald, in April 2004, a seemingly happy Wetlaufer and Welch exchanged wedding vows (Fee,
Raposa, & Westmoreland, 2004).
Analysis. The convergence of consciousness and stories at HBR
demonstrates the constitutive character of communication in an
organization. Specifically, news coverage of the incidents at HBR
demonstrates the coalitions rhetorical vision of Wetlaufer-asunethical-editor inappropriately mixing her personal and professional life. Yet in analyzing the case, one must suspend the
prosocial assumptions accompanying the achievement of communicative convergence (of which SCT is guilty) and interrogate the
content on which staffers converged. In the HBR incident, it is
ambiguous, at best, whether staffers were showing concern for conformity to ethical guidelines at HBR or engaging in character
assassination, one that became even more vicious and public when
HBR officials could not force Wetlaufers resignation. At one
point, amidst the allegations, Wetlaufer released a statement indicating HBR had a long history of office turmoil (Bandler, 2002a,
p. B1). It seems plausible that, as a way to force Wetlaufers resignation, coalition members may have engaged in antisocial symbolizing, exaggerated stories about her office romances, and perhaps
used outright deception.
The formation of meaningvia the sharing of consciousness
and dramasreproduces power relations when certain groups,
ideas, or interests are privileged over others (Lukes, 1974; Mumby,
2001). Stated differentlya status quo privileging or subordinating ideas or interests along the lines of race, gender, or class instantiates social power. For example, one can argue that the coalitions vision was imbued by a social arrangement (Lukes, 1974),
which reinforced a gendered status quo regarding leadership style.

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482 MANAGEMENT COMMUNICATION QUARTERLY / FEBRUARY 2006

It does not seem likely that the reaction to Wetlaufers affair


which ended up in marriagewould have been as strong had it
been a male who engaged in similar behavior. It also seems unlikely
that the character assassination attempts would have occurred, to
the degree they did, had it been a male leader who fought back as
aggressively. It is quite possible that the aggressiveness Wetlaufer
displayed incited an even more negative reaction because of expectations about how a female should behave. One can also argue that a
strict separation between personal and professional lifewhat the
coalition perceived as the principle that Wetlaufer violatedis primarily a masculine orientation. Furthermore, because the coalition
consists of males and females, both are complicit in reinforcing a
social arrangement (or status quo) with a gendered ideology regarding leader behaviors.
The Albino presidency. Allen and Tompkins (1997), who were
both faculty members at the University of Colorado, used ethnographic methods and newspaper reports to recount the incidents
surrounding Albinos presidency. I summarize their account and
then apply tenets of a reformulated SCTantisocial symbolizing
and power in the development of a coalitions rhetorical visionto
the case. According to Allen and Tompkins, in the early 1990s,
public education in Colorado suffered from a decrease in confidence and state funding. During the malaise of this era, in 1990,
Judith Albino was hired as vice president of academic affairs and
Dean of the graduate school. A year later, the president of the UniversityGordon Geewho was responsible for hiring Albino,
left to assume the presidency of another university. Following his
departure, Colorados regents (board members) initiated a job
search, which turned out to be unsuccessful. Then, in a move described as controversial and impromptu (p. 55), the regents
named Albino as Gees replacement; she had not been an applicant
for the vacancy and her appointment proceeded without faculty
input or ratification.
In assuming her new role, Albino faced several professional and
personal criticisms, some caused by the general state of public education in Colorado at that time, and others, perhaps by the circumstances surrounding the decision (or lack thereof) to hire her. Criticisms of her professional conduct included her plan to place her

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husband on the universitys payroll, her defense of a costly but


time-honored sabbatical system, her inability to effectively serve as
liaison between the university and its stakeholders (e.g., public,
legislature, etc.), and her sanctioning of several hundred thousand
dollars in bonuses to high-ranking school officials. She also faced
personal criticisms for being low key, aloof, arrogant, poor in
her public relations skills, and construing constructive criticisms
as personal attacks (Allen & Tompkins, 1997, p. 56). In 1994,
Albino scheduled a private meeting with a group that had made
her aware of their signed letter asking for her resignation. The
group was composed of the vice chancellorAlbinos second-incommandand several deans. On entering the meeting room, they
faced a situation later called Black Friday Ambush (Allen &
Tompkins, 1997, p. 53). Eagerly waiting were reporters, television
crews, staff members, and some of the regents. The shocked deans
gave Albino the lettersigned by 78 faculty members and deans
demanding her resignation. Albino indicated she would not resign
and later gave a speech in defense of her leadership. Then, each
regent expressed support for Albino and chastised the deans and
denounced them for insubordination (p. 54). The deans were not
allowed to speak before Albino left the room, but at a later press
conference, they pointed to the ambush as demonstrating problems
with Albinos leadership. They vowed to keep fighting.
The following day, a local paper printed two letters, one written
by four faculty members and the other by Albino. The faculty letter
described their concern for the quality of higher education at Colorado as motivating them to seek Albinos resignation. It stated that
Albino had failed in building the universitys relationship to the
public and it reiterated Albinos mistake in orchestrating the Friday
Ambush. Conversely, Albinos letter decried the divisions and turmoil at Colorado. She urged that personalities and motives be set
aside in order that service to the university and its constituents be
carried out. The following Thursday, the regents met for 14 hr to
discuss a faculty petition for Albinos resignation. There were
more than one hundred people in attendance, with several faculty
members sitting cross-legged on the floor. The regents heard
from Albino supportersAfrican Americans who recognized her
responsiveness to minority concernsas well as her opponents.
They voted five to four to reject the petition. In the wake of these

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484 MANAGEMENT COMMUNICATION QUARTERLY / FEBRUARY 2006

incidents, the regents later voted for a 6-month evaluation of her


presidency, Albino appointed an interim chancellor to restore
morale, and Albino claimed she learned to spend more time with
constituents (Allen & Tompkins, 1997).
Analysis. The coalition seeking Albinos resignation coalesced
around a rhetorical vision of Albino as an incompetent president,
unable to manage the universitys relationship with important
publics, possessing several character flaws, and making poor decisions. Allen and Tompkins (1997) analysis of their experiences
and newspaper reports largely support the convergence on this
vision by the vice chancellor, deans, and faculty members. But to
not be drawn into the prosocial assumptions accompanying convergence, one must interrogate the content or stories on which the
coalition converged. This is important because members who were
central to the coalitions activities, the deans, were the cohort from
whom Albino was selected, had probably served longer at the university than Albino did, may have had presidential ambitions of
their own, and perhaps felt overlooked in the selection process.
Through critical interrogation, one may, at the very least, question
the validity of any prosocial assumptions. In support of this assertion, Allen and Tompkins point out that criticisms of Albino were at
times excessive and unfair (p. 56)in other words, antisocial.
Many of the criticisms she faced were of system policies and practices that she had inherited, not implemented. For example, she was
criticized for planning to put her husband on the universitys payroll but her predecessors wife was on payroll for two different
positions. She was also criticized of a not convincing (p. 56)
defense of a time-honored (i.e., 100 years old), though costly, sabbatical tradition.
Besides the antisocial contents of symbolizing, rhetorical
visions should also be interrogated for how they instantiate power
or reinforce a status quo that marginalizes certain groups or interests. Stated differentlyvisions should be interrogated for
whether they obscure ideological conflicts by espousing the dominance of a particular ideology. Similar to the Wetlaufer affair, the
Albino case demonstrates a gendered social arrangement (Lukes,
1974) regarding leadership style. Allen and Tompkins (1997) note
that Albino was Colorados first female president; as such, expecta-

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tions about her leadership style disappointed observers. They write


that she rarely exhibited stereotypical female behaviors (p. 65)
such as supportiveness and deference. Rather, she waslike
Wetlaufer autonomous and, at times, aggressive (e.g., Black Friday Ambush, refusal to resign). Such behaviors, according to Allen
and Tompkins, may have alienated her from those with socialized
expectations about how a woman should behave (p. 65); instead,
her behaviors incited criticisms about her character flaws. Allen
and Tompkins also note comments from female coalition members
indicating that Albinos problems were not gender related. This
ideologythough espoused by femalesmay have obscured conflict (at the surface) while reinforcing a status quo or deep structure
with gendered expectations of leader behaviors.

EXTERNAL FOCUS AND


CONCERTED MEMBER ACTION
In addition to the issue (or vision) oriented criterion for defining
coalitions, Stevenson et al. (1985) also offer the criteria of external
focus and concerted member action. For the former, they reason
that coalitions seek to influence some external agent (p. 262), in a
way that one individual working alone could not. Their reasoning is
consonant with Emerson (1962) who suggests that coalition formation is a way for members who exist in a power-dependent relationship with some external target to reduce their dependence,
attaining relational equilibrium. Furthermore, as Bormann (1983b)
suggests, rhetorical communities, or coalitions, influence external
agents by actively working to transform the consciousness of those
in its social context. For example, the HBR coalition sought to
influence Wetlaufers resignation by transforming the consciousness of Wetlaufers superiors, HBR staffers, and the public
(through interviews with, and the release of statements to, the
media). The University of Colorados coalition sought to pressure
Albino into resigning by transforming the consciousness of
regents, deans, faculty, and the public. Stevenson et al. (1985) also
write that a defining feature of coalitions, which distinguishes them
from other groups, is that they must act as a group (p. 262) or take
concerted action. Similarly, Bormann (1983b) indicates that when

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486 MANAGEMENT COMMUNICATION QUARTERLY / FEBRUARY 2006

one accepts the consciousness of a rhetorical community, the convert is expected to demonstrate commitment by taking public
action. Coalition members at HBR took concerted action by writing letters to Keichel, Wetlaufers superior. They also took action
by chaining Wetlaufer stories through the media. At Colorado,
coalition members took concerted action by signing a petition letter, meeting with Albino (Black Friday Ambush), meeting with the
regents where several faculty members sat crossed-legged on the
floor, and writing a joint letter in the local newspaper.
Aided by Stephenson et al.s (1985) definition, I use several
tenets of a revised SCT (e.g., antisocial symbolizing, power, etc.)
to analyze the communicative constitution of coalitions in field
settings.

SUMMARY AND IMPLICATIONS


The following offers a summary as well as implications for
future research and practice. SCTs appeal in organizational communication scholarship has declined. In reaction, this article rouses
and redirects SCT so to aid a potential resurgence (e.g., Jackson,
1999) and develop its use by organizational communication scholars in their analyses of complex communication processes. In rousing SCT, the article reviewed its core statements, celebrated its
uses, and exposed some limitations (i.e., explanations for why humans narrate reality and exchange dramas, and restrictive assumptions about convergence and community membership). In redirecting SCT, the article bolstered it with ideas from relevant theories
(sensemaking, power and politics, bona fide groups, and identity
conflicts) and then directed a reinvigorated SCT toward exploring
coalitions.
A revised SCTs analysis of coalitions suggests several future
inquiries. First, member discourses (i.e., conversations) that chain
fantasy can be used as primary data for analysis. Given the ephemeral and, at times, discreet nature of coalitions, obtaining such data
may prove difficult. As such, future research may analyze such discourses as they chain and are preserved in electronic media (e.g.,
listservs). Second, a revised SCT aims to temper a convergence ide-

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ology by suggesting that participants do not gain equally. Future


research may delineate clear instances in which some members had
more to gain from coalition action than others. Another way of tempering a convergence ideology is to examine how members penetrate and challenge visions (both surface and deep-structure ideology); future research may examine how, why, and with what effect
such challenges occur. Third, a revised SCT is sensitive to social
and organizational power relations. Although a possible gendered
ideology was considered as a result of what was available in the
cases examined, future research can examine the role of other
forms of power (e.g., race, class, etc.) in the development of rhetorical visions. Fourth, a revised SCT characterizes common ground as
an ongoing achievement that is tenuous, rife with identity and relational conflicts. Future research may examine members multiple
identifications in rhetorical communities.
Coalition processes have important implications for practice.
The HBR and Colorado cases suggest that coalitions draw attention
to systemic issues and can cause organizational change. At HBR,
the coalition voiced dissatisfaction with the routine and inappropriate mixing of their leaders personal and professional life. At Colorado, the coalition voiced concern over administrative decision
making practices and leadership style. Coalitions can also cause
change. HBR witnessed several high-level resignations and a
review of its ethics policies; Colorado witnessed changes in management style as well as a new administrative post. As such, organizations can successfully manage coalitions by being sensitive to
initial calls for change, involving coalitions in administrative decision making, and continually responding to members needs.

NOTE
1. In an exception, Cooren (2001) uses Greimass semionarrative theory to (a)
examine equivalences between narrating and organizing and (b) explore coalition
formation. Specifically, narrating and organizing (in a Weickian sense) are discussed as both involving actors prospective and retrospective constructions as
well as having the same structure (e.g., initial breach, mission to repair, mobilizing
help, overcoming opponents, etc.). He further discusses narratives of alliance
building as involving translations in which either party (human or nonhuman) can

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488 MANAGEMENT COMMUNICATION QUARTERLY / FEBRUARY 2006

speak on the others behalf, inserting the other into their narrative. In so doing, an
articulation (or oneness) is created between both parties even if they do not share
meanings or objectives. Cooren uses these concepts of narrative translation and
articulation to examine an environmental controversy in which government entities, organizations, individuals, and nonhuman actors formed two opposing alliances (or coalitions).

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James O. Olufowote (Ph.D., Purdue University, 2005) is an assistant professor in the Communication Department at Boston College. His research
focuses on behavioral and interpretive approaches to power, politics, and
decision making in workplace and health care settings. He has previously
published in the Western Journal of Communication and Management
Communication Quarterly.

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