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Chapter 3 Classical Theories of Organizational Communication

PLEASE NOTE: This book is currently in draft form; material is not final.

What is Theory?

PLEASE NOTE: This book is currently in draft form; material is not final.

In this chapter, we are going to explore classical theories in organizational communication. Classical theories focus on organizational structure, analyzing aspects such as optimal organizational performance plans, organizational power relationships, and compartmentalizing different organizational units.Fisher, D. (2000). Communication in organizations (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Jaico. As organizational communication scholars these theories help us better appreciate, recognize, and comprehend interactions and behaviors. We will discuss how these theories work and apply to effectiveness of organizational communication.

What is theory? The word “theory” originally derives its name from the Greek word theoria, θεωρία, which roughly translated means contemplation or speculation. Modern understandings of the word “theory” are slightly different from the ancient Greeks, but the basic idea of contemplating an idea or speculating about why something happens is still very much in-line with the modern definition. A theory is a “group of related propositions designed to explain why events take place in a certain way.”Infante, D., Rancer, A., & Womack, D. (2003). Building communication theory (4th ed.). Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press, pg. 356. Let’s break this definition down into its basic parts. First, a theory is a “group of related propositions,” which is a series of statements designed to be tested and discussed. Ultimately, these statements propose an explanation for why events take place and why the occur in specific fashions. For example, Sir Isaac Newton (of the claimed apple falling on his head) created the modern theory of gravity to explain why the different planets and stars didn’t go crashing into each other (very simplistic summation of his theory). While Newton’s theory of gravity was pretty good, it couldn’t account for everything so ultimately Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity came on the stage to further our understanding of how gravity actually works. In both cases, we have two well-respected researchers attempt to understand a basic phenomenon of our physical world, gravity. Just like physicists have been trying to understand why the planets rotate and don’t crash into each other, organizational scholars have attempted to create theories for how and why organizations structure themselves the way they do; why people behave the way they do in organizations; why leaders and followers interactions lead to specific outcomes, etc…

Eric Eisenberg and Lloyd Goodall wrote that “the way we talk about a problem directly influence the solutions we can articulate to address the problem. Theories of organization and communication should enhance our ability to articulate alternative ways of approaching and acting on practical issues (pg. 53).” They further noted that theories have two basic qualities: metaphoricalThe notion that theories provide a linguistic means of comparing and describing organizational communication and function. and historicalThe notion that we perceive theories in terms of the period in which they were created and were popular..Einsenberg, E. M., & Goodall, H. L., Jr. (1993). Organizational communication: Balancing creativity and constraint. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press. When we say that theories are metaphorical, we mean that theories provide a linguistic means of comparing and describing organizational communication and function. As you know from English, a metaphor is a figure of speech where a word or phrase is applied to an object or action, but the word does not literally apply to the object or action. In this chapter and Chapter 4 "Modern Theories of Organizational Communication" we’ll see theories comparing organizational phenomena to machines and biological organisms. On the other hand, when we say that theories are historical, we perceive theories in terms of the period in which they were created and were popular. Theories are historical because they are often a product of what was important and prevalent during that time. In this chapter, we’re going to examine three different theoretical periods commonly referred to as the classical perspective, human relations, and human resources. Each of these three groupings exist primarily as an opportunity of retrospective analysis. In other words, when we look back over the history of theoretical development in organizational communication, these three periods jump out as being uniquely different, so we ultimately group different ideas and important thought leaders together because of similarities in their theoretical approaches to organizing.