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Communication Studies
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Organizational rhetoric and the


public sphere
a
J. Michael Sproule
a
Professor of Communication Studies , San Jose State
University , San Jose, CA, 95192‐0112
Published online: 22 May 2009.

To cite this article: J. Michael Sproule (1989) Organizational rhetoric and the public sphere,
Communication Studies, 40:4, 258-265, DOI: 10.1080/10510978909368279

To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10510978909368279

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COMMUNICATION STUDIES
Winter 1989,40/4, Pgs. 258-265

Organizational Rhetoric and the


Public Sphere
J. MICHAEL SPROULE

R ecent years have seen a move to use rhetorical theory as a lever to allow a deeper
probing of the folkways of the modern organization.1 To juxtapose Weick's
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notion of organizing to the tradition of rhetoric is to link the ostensibly private world
of organizational communication to the idealized public sphere which is the custom-
ary domain of the rhetorical theorist. It is clear that even a loose coupling of these
two realms will prove interesting. The result is to highlight a number of theoretically
fruitful tensions, paradoxes, and ambiguities.

THE PUBLIC SPHERE AND THE PRIVATE SPHERE

Both Weick's view of organizing and traditional rhetorical theory straddle the
public and private spheres. They both are oriented to what Burke would call the
rhetorical motive—i.e., the gaining of advantage—since the two deal with recruiting
support for action.2 While united, these two realms of symbolic action are Janus-
faced, pointing in opposite directions. Weick's view of organizing envisions groups of
two and three people working to create small publics within an institution that is
privately controlled. In contrast, rhetoric traditionally refers to larger-scale appeals
disseminated to a public audience where the general citizenry is presumed to have an
interest and a voice in decisions. The distinction between the public and private
spheres is a useful lens to begin a closer comparison of rhetorical action and
organizational action.
The Public Sphere
The public sphere is the traditional situs of rhetoric. Rhetoricians tell us that
the public realm is the primary crucible of historical evolution. In this view, people
have an inherent need and an ability to band together, and they do so as equals
within a community that gives them a civic commitment toward one another.3 In this
scenario, rhetoric is the medium of social recruitment through which otherwise
"mute and voiceless wisdom" becomes the basis for desirable social action.4 The
rhetorically organized public world can be seen as democratic since all citizens are
presumed to have a voice in the lively public sphere, banding together in many
varying and changing ways. The system is presented as rational since competing
positions are publicly expressed, and thereby are commonly judged.5 A further
guarantee of rationality is the presumption that leaders reveal themselves as good or

J. MICHAEL SPROULE is Professor of Communication Studies. San Jose State University, San Jose. CA
95192-0112.
258
ORGANIZATIONAL RHETORIC SPROULE 259

bad as they engage in rhetorical action, competing in the public forum under
constant scrutiny.6
Archetypes of the public sphere are ancient Athens and the early American
Republic. In Athens, citizens came together in the recognized public space of the
agora. Citizens enjoyed full rights to vote, to hear political debates, and to speak.
They even had an equal chance for office since in some cases the choice was by lot.
The early American Republic was similarly based on the concept of the town
meeting in which the participating citizens knew each other and felt direct commit-
ments to one another. On the state and federal levels, citizens elected representa-
tives, who, it was understood, would engage in a certain amount of "horse trading,"
based on private interests. But early legislatures and Congresses were seen as
deliberative bodies in which the rational and democratic principles of the public
sphere would operate.7 That is, members of the assembly would make rhetorical
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appeals open for judgment by fellow legislators. With the onset of political news
reporting, legislators were subject to direct and constant scrutiny by the general
public as well as by each other.8 While recognizing that rights to citizenship were too
limited, both in Athens and in the Early Republic, Americans still look back to these
epochs as models of public life. Athenian and Jeffersonian politics assumed that
citizens were linked by common bonds of civic responsibility and that they could join
in public spaces to satisfy an active interest in public affairs and debates.

The Private Sphere


The private sphere is the familiar domain of the organizational communication
theorist. Here the human need to protect private interests (rather than the feeling
for shared public commitments) becomes the primary force of social evolution. In
the familiar concept of the social contract, individuals are presumed to be living
alone in the state of nature. They band together according to a contract in which
they cede the least possible bit of their individuality to the polis.9 Notwithstanding
their entry into a society, these individuals remain essentially private beings, and
society's public space remains relatively narrow (and mute) when compared to
places occupied by individuals making decisions subject only to private scrutiny. In
this conception of the common weal, the wisdom and authority of the individual
expert (Socrates and Descartes as the paradigm cases) are the essential pillars of the
society. Society progresses as leaders make private decisions based on expert
knowledge in contrast to the emphasis of the public sphere on the shared wisdom of
majority rule. The system is rational since the knowledgeable leader acts for the best
and is able to coolly make expert decisions while keeping prudently distant from the
herd instincts of the crowd.10 While not strictly democratic, the system has a
benevolent utilitarian character in which the rule of the administrative expert
assures the welfare of those less fit.
Today's archetype of the private sphere is the modern business organization. In
the individualist view of economic life, a business begins when an especially bright
and energetic individual (the entrepreneur) hires other individuals to help him or her
produce goods or provide services. As the organization grows, it becomes more
segmented with specialist middle managers making their own decisions to imple-
ment the wisdom or authority of the higher-level entrepreneur, corporate board, or
stockholders. The necessary result is the classic hierarchical, utilitarian, work-
oriented organization. According to the folklore of modern capitalism, the less the
260 COMMUNICATION STUDIES WINTER 1989

public sphere intrudes into the private decisions of the organization, the more
efficiently the marketplace will work."
The communication channels of the modern organization are privatized, mean-
ing that decisions by one segment are not necessarily in the purview of other
organizational departments much less the employees as a whole. In such a system,
employees tend to interface more than interact. That is, the mutual influence of one
employee upon another is significantly directed by routines, meaning that the
employees are less likely to engage each other as whole persons.12 Scientific manage-
ment fit well this view of employees as unsophisticated cogs whose performance
could be objectively improved by expert, top-down direction.13 Such a view of the
organization as a collection of privately-controlled spaces provides no explicit role
for lively organizational public spheres in which groups of employees could come
together as equals to make decisions on the basis of debate.
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The ostensible lack of a public space within the private business sphere was
rendered problematic by later discoveries. Researchers found that small areas of
quasi-public space seemed to emerge in various ways in the organization—ways that
were not directly connected to the structures of official private control. In the
Hawthorne studies, for example, production-line employees shared norms as to how
much work was appropriate and how they should speak to each other or to upper
management. Because of a public "interplay of personalities," employees did not
behave strictly as cogs who interfaced solely according to prescribed routines.14
While such an organizational "public sphere" was usually covert and circumscribed,
these early findings did begin to suggest an important paradox in the conception of
the organization as private space. Apparently, a private organization needs some
minimal degree of mutually-negotiated public space in order to function.

ORGANIZING
Weick's theory of organizing is sensitive to this paradox of the modern
organization. The organization is private space; but to function at all it must operate
according to certain folkways of the public domain. In a number of respects, Weick's
picture of the organization seems to peer longingly at the openness of the idealized
public sphere. Weick shows that organizing does not conform to the customary
model of expert, top-down managers working in their privatized decisional boxes
and lines. Instead, Weick presents organizing as a human impulse that allows
individuals to create mini-publics within the private space of the organization.
People's behaviors are interlocked and they negotiate viewpoints in ways that
overcome managerial meddling. In this way, the organization really is more an
invention of people than a structure having a fixed nature. To Weick, the organiza-
tion is inside one's head. Organizing is a means for making alliances to counteract
the authority of official managers who may be enamored of the military metaphor.15

Organizing the Private Sphere


Weick presents organizing as a kind of narrowly-bounded rhetorical action.
Organizing is a species of rhetoric that is possible within dyads and triads that
emerge as quasi-public spaces within an otherwise formalized decision-making
milieu. Weick's innovation is to show that the organization is really less fixed than
many managers would think. An organization is always in flux, changing through
the process of enactment as people constantly modify the institutional landscape
ORGANIZATIONAL RHETORIC SPROULE 261

through their actions. Rules are therefore not the dominant reality in an organiza-
tion. In fact, a person's formal power is not the only factor in his or her ability to
enact. As a result, the formal organizational chart does not account for the
idiosyncratic ways that decisions are made. The organization is less a fixed entity
and more an evolutionary system constituted by the sum of the various interacts
going on in innumerable dyads and triads.16 "The organization consists of plans,
recipes, rules, instructions, and programs for generating, interpreting, and govern-
ing behavior that are jointly managed by two or more people."
Weick's theory of organizing responds to certain of the private-public tensions
within organizational life by emphasizing how small publics are created within the
larger privately-controlled space. However, we may pose the question of whether
Weick's solution to the private-public paradox may be limited by his strong
emphasis on assumptions derived from the private sphere. However much Weick's
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view harkens to certain flexible and holistic features of the public realm, it is clear
that he sees organizing as chiefly a private matter. We may turn to Weick's image of
how a city (the archetypal public sphere) evolves. Weick understands that a city
develops due to private decisions which, together, finally constitute the metropolis.
Residents of this city lack a necessary commitment to one another, since individuals
may remove themselves from the group if their personal cost-beneift ration begins to
look unfavorable.18 Further mitigating against a spirit of mutual civic commitment
is the fact that Weick's city is not so much a shared public thing as it is a montage of
private perceptions. Each individual necessarily has an idiosyncratic view of what
the city is. The city and its life are less a series of bonded commitments and more a
sum of the variety of private transactions and perceptions going on. In contrast, as
developed earlier, Protagoras, the rhetorician, sees a city as an organism that begins
when a group of people recognize that they need to develop civic commitments
toward one another.
Organizing and Rhetorical Criteria
Application of two criteria form rhetorical theory reveals certain lingering
ambiguities in Weick's theory of how the small bubbles of public space function
within the overall privatized organizational aquarium. Rhetorical theory asks of a
"public thing" (i.e., a res publica or republic) whether it is rational and democratic.
In Weick's view, there exists within the organization a bounded rationality depen-
dent on the people interacting.19 Actors have a limited rationality owing to their
less-than-complete private abilities to handle information and to respond to de-
mands for decisions. The minimal structure of their dyads and triads "are embodied
in the reasons and rationales that become articulated when decisions are justified."20
This is clearly more of a Socratic or scientific view of rationality than a rhetorical
one, since reason depends on actions of individuals instead of a judgment by a larger
public which decides between advocates. A rhetorician might ask why we should
limit organizational rationality to dyads loosely coupled: that is, is it not possible to
develop a "second level" of organizational enactment that might be more mutual
and holistic?
We may also apply the democracy criterion to Weick's view of organizing.
Weickean rationality means basing decisions on information shared in instrumental
relationships where the parties have no particular commitments to one another nor
do they share goals.21 Weick presents the organization person as a partial person.
Two individuals have minimal links on the basis of an impersonal reward structure
262 COMMUNICATION STUDIES WINTER 1989

in which the instrumental act of the one is necessary for the other to attain a reward.
Such a link is a private mutuality because, instead of really sharing, the two are
making a set of calculated predictions about each other. The mutually profitable
exchange, the paradigm case of organizing, serves as the motivation for undertaking
the effort to overcome the press of time, high uncertainty, and a thick layering of
routines.22 We may contrast this vision of organizing as calculated private predic-
tions to the older tradition of the small business person. In the small town, business
persons were more smoothly integrated into the whole public sphere. Since their own
success depended on a healthy community, traditional small business people saw
themselves linked to fellow citizens. Here public action was more consonant with
private gain than is typically true of today's managers, who move from community
to community and whose loyalty is more to a national professional guild or interstate
corporate structure.23
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Rhetorical Theory and a Second Level of Enactment


Part of the appeal of Weick's view of organizing owes to the success he enjoys in
helping resolve the paradox of the private organization which, in order to function,
requires some minimal level of public space. Applied to Weick's theories, the idea of
a rational-democratic public sphere raises the question of whether rhetorical and
organizational critics should explore a second level of enactment in organizing. If the
rhetorical criteria of adversarial rationality and democratic civic commitments hold
any validity for the public sphere, what might they contribute to the private? Is it
possible to improve American organizations by turning to our rhetorical heritage of
public action instead of trying to ape various (so-called) "Japanese forms" of
organizational decision-making? How might we develop larger publics within the
organization? Presumably, rhetoricians would want to go beyond the instrumental
mentality of the "quality circle" approach to ask the wider question of how
organizational charts might usefully be modified to include legitimate public space.
Such organizational publics always exist in potential, as evidenced by a recent news
story about management changes at Apple Computers.

Nonetheless, the initial reports of Gassee's imminent resignation [as a divisional president] a
month ago unleashed tensions inside Apple, already stirred by the reorganization, imminent
layoffs and rank-and-file objections to the size of top executives' compensation. Two days
after those reports were published in several newspapers, about 100 Apple employees, most of
whom worked under Gassee, held a protest rally in support of him outside an Apple facility in
Cupertino.24

The vision of employees using the tactic of a private rally (common in the public
sphere) within the organizational context almost strikes one as amusing. Yet, if
enactment is a necessary part of organizing, then why should we not give more
sanction and credence to macroscopic public enactments such as this one that
recently occurred "outside an Apple facility" (emphasis added)? Why not explore
widening the public sphere within? Where and how might the organization establish
real publics that could draw from the rational and democratic traditions of rhetori-
cal action? Presumably, stockholders would benefit from a grafting of larger-scale
deliberative space onto the institutional landscape of formal charts and informal
organizing.
ORGANIZATIONAL RHETORIC SPROULE 263

ORGANIZING THE PUBLIC SPHERE

If Weick's theories help resolve paradoxes in the private space of organizations,


what help does his analysis give us in better understanding the public space which
rhetoricians typically study? Further, how does the private sphere as described by
Weick impact the public sphere? What might be some useful insights into the
rhetoric of the public sphere derivable from Weick's view of the small-scale
organizational public?

Organizing and Public Rhetoric


On the surface, Weick's theory of organizing appears to provide little in the way
of an explicit model for rhetorical action in the public sphere. The links in Weick's
theory are seen as limited and instrumental, not embedded in civic commitments.
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Weick's view of organizing would seem a good model for rhetorical action only in
societies characterized by dead public space, notably Hitler's Germany or the
Stalinist Soviet Union. Weick's theories give a model of how the citizen in a
authoritarian regime can work around certain formally powerfully (but actually
bewildered and inefficient) official structures to get something done. Weick rein-
forces the view that his theory of organizing applies best to a deadened public sphere
when he cites the case of Albert Speer, Hitler's Minister of Armaments and
Production, who enjoyed success partly because of his ability to "debureaucratize
his ministry and to create temporary organizational structures that were loosely
coupled and that could be assembled and disassembled swiftly."25
Weick's view of how small groups form to outwit ossified formal structures
would not be useful in the lively public sphere that characterized Periclean Athens
or Jeffersonian Washington. Yet, to the extent that our own era's public sphere has
become numbed through privatization, Weick's theory may have more utility than is
at first apparent. Americans of today have to work around a political system divided
into two party structures and a communication system controlled by a few media
channels per city. This public landscape bears a striking resemblance to the formal
organizational chart that serves as the foil for Weickean organizing. Furthermore,
as first clearly articulated in Lippmann's juxtaposition of "drift and mastery," the
contemporary trend is to put less trust in the public and more faith in the private
decisions of experts.26 Less drift and more mastery means that we give more
credence to private structures of control as opposed to free-wheeling public ones.
The growth of the administrative state (public and private) continues. In this
context, Weick's theory of organizing is a formula for small scale action within the
modern public leviathan.

Organizations and the Public Sphere


Another most interesting implication of the public-private analysis of organiz-
ing in the public sphere is the question of what impact the modern corporation has
had on the realm of public action. Unfortunately, Weick's presentation of organiz-
ing has relatively little to say about the direct connection between the corporation
and the public sphere. Weick notes that the organization is sensitive to what is
happening outside, and he observes its effort to hide from outsiders any reflection or
doubt. These comments suggest that, while an organization may experience inter-
nal flux, it functions in a more monolithic fashion when dealing with the outside
public. Examples of just this situation are not difficult to find in the daily newspaper
264 COMMUNICATION STUDIES WINTER 1989

or weekly magazine as illustrated by a recent report on how developers use lawsuits


to intimidate anti-development activists.28 Since Weick's theory of organizing fo-
cuses on combatting institutional rigidity due to privatized decision-making, why
not explore whether the modern business corporation has helped to privatize the
public sphere?
As originally conceived, the corporate entity was seen as closely connected to
the public sphere. The traditional corporation was given a public concession in
return for public service. This sense of the corporation's inherent public responsibil-
ity seems increasingly lost in a time when anyone has the private right to incorpo-
rate. How well are today's corporations integrated into the public sphere? Do they
not try to evade public scrutiny and yet, at the same time, manipulate the public
domain whenever possible? Such a view of corporate propaganda and lobbying was
central to the muckraker's analysis of the early press agents.29 In this view,
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organizations try to privatize public space by privatizing public opinion; that is,
skillfully (one-sidely) turning opinion in directions favorable to the corporation. The
progressive propaganda critics observed the related danger that a public agency
might become a defacto private space, controlled by a partisan ideology, and that the
agency would then seek to impose its ideological imprint on the citizenry.30

ORGANIZING ORGANIZATIONAL/RHETORICAL RESEARCH


Organizational theorists should join rhetoricians in exploring how managerial
rhetoric may be privatizing the public world. As introduced into the public realm,
business decision-making seems to rely upon techniques of one-sided interfacing
with the public. What are the implications for a democratic and rational public
sphere when advertising, public relations, market research, and mass media are
called to corporate service? Public relations pioneer Edward L. Bernays makes a
good argument that such communications necessarily imply a two-way street.
According to Bernays, a wise business acts only after consulting the public; and one
dictum of the advertising world is that good advertising destroys a bad product. But
a single, privately-controlled persuasive campaign (even if based on looking at the
public through market research) is not necessarily the same as the public sphere's
idealized open dialogue of adversaries who simultaneously present their cases to the
public which then renders a decision. Modern rhetorical practices seem to have more
of the Platonic paternalism of the private sphere than the open-ended debating of the
agora or the American Congress of Daniel Webster's day. Institutions seem ever to
interface with the public sphere for the purpose of mastering it. If Weick's concepts
explain the persistence of lively (though small) public spheres in the organization,
then we are lead to question how the corporate world's private-public mix applies to
the wider political society.
Do corporate denizens in the private organizational world really function in
part as public men and women? Can they become more whole persons through a
fuller corporate citizenship? Does Weick's theory of organizing offer ways to combat
ossification in the public sphere? Is the private corporate world more monolithic in
the face it presents to the public world? What has been the role of the corporate
realm in the privatization of the polis? These and other questions are raised when we
loosely couple Weick's view of the organization to the rhetorician's idealized vision
of a republic.
ORGANIZATIONAL RHETORIC SPROULE 265

NOTES
1
George Cheney, "The Rhetoric of Identification and the Study of Organizational Communication," Quarterly
Journal of Speech 69 (1983): 143-158; Richard E. Crable, "The Organizational 'System' of Rhetoric," in
Rhetorical Studies Honoring James L. Golden, ed. Lawrence Hugenberg (Dubuque: Kendall/Hunt, 1986), 57-68;
J. Michael Sproule, "The New Managerial Rhetoric and the Old Criticism," Quarterly Journal of Speech, 74
(1988): 468-486.
2
Kenneth Burke, A Rhetoric of Motives (New York: Prentice-Hall, 1950), 60.
3
Plato, Protagoras, 319-328; see also Robert N. Bellah et al., Habits of the Heart (New York: Harper and
Row, 1985), 115-116, 181-190.
4
Cicero, De Intentione, I. ii. 3 and I. iv. 5.
5
Aristotle, Rhetoric, I.1.1355a.
6
Quintilian, Institutio Oratorio, XII, i. 12-14.
7
Jeffrey K. Tulis, The Rhetorical Presidency (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1987), 37-42,
123-124.
8
Thomas C. Leonard, The Power of the Press: The Birth of American Political Reporting (New York: Oxford
Downloaded by [Monash University Library] at 01:15 26 August 2015

University Press, 1986).


9
Bellah, 143-144.
l0
See I. F. Stone, The Trial of Socrates (Boston: Little, Brown, 1988), 3-129.
11
See Daniel Boorstin, The Americans: The Democratic Experience (New York: Random House, 1973), and
Alfred D. Chandler, Jr., The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business (Cambridge, MA:
Harvard University Press, 1977).
l2
Gary Gumpert, Talking Tombstones and Other Tales of the Media Age (New York: Oxford University
Press, 1987), 128-131.
13
Frederick W. Taylor, Scientific Management (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1972). (Original work published in
1911)
14
F. J. Roethlisberger and William J. Dickson. Management and the Worker (Cambridge, MA: Harvard
University Press, 1939), 166, 500-522.
l5
Karl E. Weick, The Social Psychology of Organizing, 2nd ed. (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1979), 3-8,
12, 26, 47.
16
Weick, 42, 148ft, 168, 252, 236.
17
Weick, 235.
18
Weick, 81, 96.
19
Weick, 20.
20
See article by Weick in this issue, 245.
2l
Weick, 91, 98-100, 111.
22
Weick, 96-98, 102-104, 203, 225.
23
See Bellah, 119-120, 171-177, 210.
24
San Jose Mercury News, 3 March 1990, 18A.
25
Weick, 224.
26
Walter Lippmann, Drift and Mastery (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985). (Original work
published in 1914)
27
Weick, 166, 225.
28
For example, see Newsweek, 5 March 1990, 22.
29
Ray S. Baker, "Railroads on Trial: How Railroads Make Public Opinion," McClure's Magazine 26 (1906):
535-549.
30
See J. Michael Sproule, "Social Responses to Twentieth Century Propaganda," in Propaganda: A Pluralistic
Perspective, ed. Ted J. Smith, III (New York: Praeger, 1989), 6-12.