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4.4 Chapter Exercises

Real World Case Study

The Walt Disney Company and its theme parks have drawn the interest of organization and management scholars for decades. Books and articles praising Disney management began appearing in the 1960s. The runaway 1982 bestseller, In Search of Excellence by Thomas Peters and Robert Waterman, remains in print and lauds the Disney organization as a “best example” of customer service and employee relations.Peters, T. J., & Waterman, R. H., Jr. (1982). In search of excellence: Lessons from America’s best companies. New York: Harper & Row. The high profile of the Disney theme parks in U.S. and global culture have prompted studies not only by industrial psychologists and management scientists, but by scholars who take interpretive, critical, and postmodern approaches to organizational communication.For example, see Boje, D. M. (1995). Stories of the story-telling organization: A postmodern analysis of Disney as “Tamara-land.” Academy of Management Review, 38, 997–1035; Van Maanen, J. (1991). The smile factory: Work at Disneyland. In P. J. Frost, L. F. Moore, M. R. Lewis, C. C. Lundberg & J. Martin (Eds.), Reframing organizational culture (pp. 58–76). Newbury Park, CA: Sage; Van Maanen, J. (1992). Displacing Disney: Some notes on the flow of organizational culture. Qualitative Sociology, 15, 5–25; Van Maanen, J., & Kunda, G. (1989). Real feelings: Emotional expression and organizational culture. Research in Organizational Behavior, 11, 43–103.

One innovative study, though conducted some 30 years ago, reads like today’s news. The Disneyland theme park in California was dealing with the economic effects of a recent recession. Since the park was founded in 1955, management had succeeded in building up an unusually close-knit organizational culture. So a 1984 strike by park employees, protesting a management proposal to freeze wages and reduce benefits, made national headlines. Two organizational communication researchers, Ruth Smith and Eric Eisenberg, decided to investigate these labor troubles by taking an interpretive approach to the Disney organizational culture.Smith, R. C., & Eisenberg, E. M. (1987). Conflict at Disneyland: A root-metaphor analysis. Communication Monographs, 54, 367-380. They interviewed managers from several departments, reviewed company documents, and found that management carefully cultivated the metaphor of Disneyland as a “drama” or “show.” Customers were “guests” and employees, as the “cast,” were expected to play their “roles” by talking in approved phrases that followed the “script.” Dress codes and grooming requirements were called “costuming.” The park’s “on-stage” and “back-stage” areas were clearly delineated.

Then Smith and Eisenberg interviewed striking workers and were surprised by what they discovered. The company founder, Walt Disney, had died in 1966. His successors worked diligently to carry on his legacy so that the show might go on. In fact, according to Smith and Eisenberg, management was so successful in cultivating this idea that the park employees also took satisfaction in being caretakers of the Disney legacy. And with Disneyland’s emphasis on family entertainment, park employees began to see their workplace as a “family.” When management was compelled by the recession to emphasize the bottom line, employees believed the company was forsaking the Disney legacy and violating the spirit of the “Disney family.” Management responded by suggesting that families go through hard times, but to no avail. The strike lasted 22 days, the union went public with its concerns, management implemented a separate wage scale for new employees, and the organizational culture was profoundly changed.

  1. Smith and Eisenberg took an interpretive approach for their research on the organizational culture of Disneyland by analyzing company documents and interviewing managers and employees. If you were a postpositive researcher, how might you have conducted surveys of Disneyland employees to supplement the interviews? Would such knowledge of aggregate responses, alone, have helped you understand the Disneyland culture? Or would you have needed to interpret the mindsets of individual managers and employees? In other words, could nomothetic research by itself have sufficed or was ideographic research essential?
  2. If you had worked with Smith and Eisenberg, how might you have extended their study through ethnographic fieldwork? What Disneyland management and employee activities and rituals might you have observed and participated in? Smith and Eisenberg analyzed the metaphors that managers and employees used in their interviews; managers emphasized a “drama” metaphor, while employees also added a “family” metaphor. How might ethnographic fieldwork—as you participated in and directly experienced Disneyland culture for yourself—have extended the findings?
  3. What might a critical organizational communication scholar have said about the culture that Smith and Eisenberg found at Disneyland? Many organization and management scholars have praised the Disney company. But a critical scholar might ask: Did management use its “show” discourse to reify and universalize its interests? Was this discourse a kind of technical reasoning to gain a desired managerial goal and make practical reasoning toward mutual consent seem irrational? Did the discourse distort employees’ consciousness to favor management? Did it distort communication so that all communicative action took place on managerial terms? And as a postmodern scholar might have asked, did the discourse “manufacture consent” so that workers willingly disciplined themselves? What do you think?
  4. Re-read the description in the case of the “show” discourse that governed the organizational culture at Disneyland. Then re-read the discussion in this chapter about the seven traditions in communication theory: cybernetic, phenomenological, sociopsychological, sociocultural, semiotic, critical, and rhetorical. Now try to explain the “show” discourse according to each tradition.
  5. Karl Weick’s system theory holds that people collectively “make sense” of their workplace by enacting responses to its complexities, selecting the best responses, and retaining those responses to guide future enactments and selections. Try to interpret the Disneyland “show” culture that Eisenberg and Smith discovered through this framework.
  6. Anthony Giddens’s structuration theory holds that even as people create a structure, they simultaneously perpetuate or reproduce the structure by acting within what the structure enables and what it constrains. Try to explain our case study through this framework. Robert McPhee’s application of structuration theory to organizations holds that structuration occurs differently at the executive, middle management, and employee levels. Does this help explain why Disneyland employees went on strike?
  7. What might a feminist organizational communication scholar have said about the culture that Smith and Eisenberg discovered at Disneyland? Does their description suggest that the organization was gendered? Do you see any evidence of binary thinking in the Disneyland culture that Smith and Eisenberg’s describe?

End-of-Chapter Assessment Head

  1. In Chapter 4 "Modern Theories of Organizational Communication" we learned that theorists must make decisions about ontology, epistemology, and axiology. Select the answer below that gives the definitions of these three terms in the order of ontology, epistemology, and axiology.

    1. how things are known; what is worth knowing; how things exist
    2. what is worth knowing; how things exist; how things are known
    3. how things exist; what is worth knowing; how things are known
    4. how things exist; how things are known; what is worth knowing
    5. what is worth knowing; how things are known; how things exist
  2. The belief that a social phenomenon (such as an organization) has a subjective existence, and that it naturally tends toward order, are characteristic of which approach to organizations?

    1. Postpositive
    2. Interpretive
    3. Critical
    4. Postmodern
    5. Feminist
  3. The belief that a social phenomenon (such as an organization) is known by applying prior theoretical knowledge to the phenomenon, and that it naturally tends toward conflict, is characteristic of which approach to organizations?

    1. Postpositive
    2. Interpretive
    3. Critical
    4. Postmodern
    5. Functionalist
  4. The belief that a social phenomenon (such as an organization) exists independent of human perception, and that its structures are created through human agency, is characteristic of which approach to organizations?

    1. Postpositive
    2. Interpretive
    3. Critical
    4. Postmodern
    5. Social constructionist
  5. Which model depicts communication as a process by which communicators send messages/feedback simultaneously to one another?

    1. Sociopsychological
    2. Socicultural
    3. Linear
    4. Interactional
    5. Transactional

Answer Key

  1. D
  2. B
  3. C
  4. A
  5. E