Strategic Ambiguities: Essays on Communication, Organization, and Identity


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Preview — Strategic Ambiguities by Eric M. Essays on Communication, Organization, and Identity is a provocative journey through the development of a new aesthetics of communication that rejects all fundamentalisms and embraces a contingent world-view. Eisenberg both collects and reflects on over two decades of his writing to provide important personal, historical, and theoretic Strategic Ambiguities: Eisenberg both collects and reflects on over two decades of his writing to provide important personal, historical, and theoretical context.

Paperback , pages. Published December 7th by Sage Publications, Inc first published Essays on Communication, Organization, and Identity.

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Patrick Holzman rated it it was amazing Oct 30, K Mack rated it it was amazing Aug 13, John rated it really liked it Feb 09, Cydney rated it it was amazing Dec 29, Tessa rated it really liked it Sep 05, Lucy marked it as to-read Sep 12, Communication, theory, and history are efforts to develop a deeper understanding of our positionality in the world, the very positionality made both possible and problematic by communication.

Theory and history are attempts through communication to heal the wounds of separation torn open by communication. Communication is both sentence and salvation. The material manifestation of reflexive consciousness, communication both creates the possibility of theory and history and harbors the seeds of something beyond them.

Theory is a conversation about how things work here and there, but it always happens here. History is a conversation about how things worked before, but it always happens now. The houses we construct with theory and history our theories and histories may be well-furnished, but they are lonely and windowless.

Sometimes we try to escape theory and history through communication. We aim toward the experience of larger being, of transcending our paltry stories and identities and feeling at one with the Earth. In these moments, we readily offer our theories, histories, and identities in exchange for a world that needs none of these things. In this concluding chapter, I pick up on clues and suggestions from throughout these readings that seek to evoke a new and different way of seeing and being in the world.

My goal is to provide as explicit a description as possible of the kind of world I envision and the forms of communication, organization, and identity that would make up such a a world. The essays in Part I of this volume make a strong argument for the organizing value of strategic ambiguity. Both are impossible to achieve, impossible to measure if they have been achieved, and often not even desirable.

Written with this in mind, Part II of this collection includes essays that examine the practical implications of embracing ambiguity. Through a diverse set of examples, multiple interpretations of reality are shown to be productive for organizing, providing a broader universe of perceptions upon which to draw. Insistence on shared meaning as a standard for effective communication works against our ability to collaborate across significant differences. Our future depends to a large degree on our capacity to navigate precisely those relationships in which shared meaning is least likely to be realized.

Of course, not all perceptions have equal standing. Although there will always be narrative asymmetries in social systems, lessening our reliance on shared meaning as a goal makes a big difference in how we approach these relationships. The importance of shared meaning has been overstated in communication studies, and these essays help shift the emphasis toward effectively coordinated action among individuals who hold widely varying [Page ] attitudes and interpretations.

Strategic ambiguity is useful in promoting these relationships. In pursuing such a conclusion, I find myself in good company; writers from various fields are calling for new ways to gauge the success of human relationships and the integrity of human identities e. Rather than treat ambiguity and shifting meanings as signs of failure, as a group these authors suggest instead that they may be the cornerstones of a new definition of human being, one better suited to the demands of a globalizing yet persistently diverse and fragmented world.

In the next few pages, I summarize a modest proposal for a new version of human identity, one with a unique relationship to language and communication. As each of us is driven to differentiate as a recognizable being, we can do so only in relationship to particular institutions, belief systems, and existing social narratives Taylor, The reason why these various contexts and the stories they inspire are important can be found in our species' lifelong hunger for meaning, a seemingly unavoidable adjunct to reflexive consciousness.


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The human animal has been characterized as social and symbolizing; our lack of strong instincts requires us to enact meaningful worlds to inhabit. Whereas other animals rely more on unambiguous signs, language leads us to construct a symbolic universe of ideas, stories, and plots, all of which we use as resources for composing our lives. From the moment of birth, we are engaged in an autopoetic process of self-development against a shifting background.

Strategic Ambiguities: Essays on Communication, Organization, and Identity

The only way we can know who we are is by orienting ourselves to one or more of the various social systems in which we are participants—our relationships, families, organizations, societies. Instead, with identification comes expectations of how our lives can be lived, and with expectations come attachments to how we—and others— should live. We see this every day as people struggle to position themselves successfully in marriages, jobs, and communities.

But the sense that is made each moment is also always in the process of coming apart. Although identification with such narratives is essential to personal development, no single story can encompass the entirety of one's life experience. The stories we tell about what we value in relationships, institutions, and society overlap and often conflict. Consequently, we are challenged to somehow make sense of those situations in which our ready explanations conflict or fall short, and in which the application of our avowed beliefs presents problems or inconsistencies.

This dilemma tends to produce two types of outcomes:. Faced with such a challenge, narrators alternate between two fundamental tendencies—either to cultivate a dialogue between diverse understandings or to lay down one coherent, correct solution to the problem. The first tendency is associated with relativistic and the second with fundamentalistic perspectives.

Although it is inevitable that individual identity develops through apprehension of and identification with select social narratives, the stance one takes in the identification process is highly variable. The challenge, then, is not interpretation as much as interpretation of our interpretations, the beliefs we have about the relative standing of our beliefs in the life of the world. To the extent that one engages a fundamentalist style of thinking, one becomes deeply attached to a single narrative as the sole, unassailable truth.

Humans are spiritual beings capable of great love, of cultivating the sacred connections that unite us all despite our apparent differences. But it is also true that, when poked with a sharp stick, we poke back, and then set out for a bigger stick, and when assaulted, we invariably become defensive.

This defensiveness leads us to the further objectification of others as disposable, inferior, and deserving to die. Black, white, gay, straight, Christian, Jew, Hutu, Tutsi, German, Israeli, Iraqi, Serb—these are all arbitrary [Page ] categories created by humans to shore up identity and distinguish ourselves from others.

But these increasingly inaccurate and imprecise linguistic characterizations are too often brandished along with real blades that tear through the human family and leave deep scars.

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Moreover, we cannot keep thinking and acting this same way and expect to see different results. The hope of establishing a complex peace rooted in unified diversity Eisenberg, is barely visible from where we sit today, at the bottom of a deep, dark, and bloody well.


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Wrapped in our present darkness, we are dimly aware of the light above, reminding us of the possibility of a single human family and the call of species, if not planetary, identity. Moving in this direction is incredibly hard; despite breathtaking advances in technology, we remain beginners at human relationships. Hate is a relationship. Adopting a relational worldview leads us to recognize that no identity ever develops in a vacuum.

This has much to do with the polarizing power of language e. Put another way, projective identification turns a vital internal struggle into a false external one between individuals and groups whose knowledge of each others' characters, cultures, and motivations is minimal. To be even more direct, I connect our species' latest flirtation with world war and annihilation squarely to our conception of human identity and the impact of this conception on human relationships.


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Drawn as we are by language to see ourselves as isolated egos perched nervously inside bags of skin Watts, , there is a sad sense of inevitability to our situation. Our efforts at self-definition and self-protection only serve to increase our anxiety and vulnerability. The more rigidly I identify with the concepts I choose to describe myself and my life—e. By contrast, the more open I am in conceiving of my self and my life, the more resilient I can be, the more readily I can adapt to new people and new situations. Fixity of belief impedes the health of the human organism just as surely as blocked arteries stop the flow of blood.

A more apt metaphor adds the fact that we are in the wrong car with the wrong map. Philosopher Hannah Arendt famously described the banality of evil; along the same lines, fundamentalism is perhaps best seen as a failure of imagination, a desperate retreat to unworkable historical scripts that no longer function in a globalizing world. The invention of new scripts and notions of individual and cultural identity are key to the development of healthy, sustainable relationships and societies.

How can we remain open to the world, to embrace others who hold different worldviews, while at the same time standing firm in our values and beliefs? How can we respond to a violent fundamentalism without becoming violent fundamentalists ourselves? The usual response to adversity of this kind is to seek a deeper or stronger level of grounding or foundation. The problem is that there isn't any, and to the extent that we act as if there were, we deepen our sense of alienation and the divisions among us. But let me be clear about what I am saying about the value of faith, spirituality, or religion.

I see all of these as historically valuable and personally powerful modes of experience, facilitating as they do the transcendence of self and material reality. The difference is that I see these as modes of experience, not knowledge. An interesting example of how one might live with a multiplicity of possible truths can be found in different perspectives toward hurricane preparedness. In choosing how to describe their predictions in forecasts, meteorologists favor reports that show only the cone of probabilities, arguing that this does [Page ] the best job of reflecting the actual level of uncertainty and does not encourage a false sense of either urgency or complacency.

The general population, of course, seems desperate for forecasters to identify a likely path. Reliable ambiguities are, in the long run, preferable to false certainties; in the world of human relations, there is much to be said for cultivating ambivalence and doubt Weick, , They are the cornerstones, for example, in creating a culture of safety in high-reliability organizations cf. Fortunately, there is some precedent for thinking this way in American culture, although one would hardly know it from today's headlines and political debates. We continue to live in the long shadows of Watergate and Vietnam and in the backlash toward liberalism that seeks to cast all attempts at authentic dialogue as invitations to moral relativism.

The alternative to this misguided sense of certainty was articulated in the s and s by such intellectuals as Reinhold Niebuhr, cofounder of Americans for Democratic Action. They should not pretend that a country that countenanced McCarthyism and segregation was morally pure. It is a virtue of people who know … that their beliefs are not absolutely true.

Contrary to fundamentalist thinking, the moral high ground rests on a foundation of ambiguity and humility. Meaning exists only in relationship; the only reason my keyboard feels hard is that the skin on my fingers is relatively soft.

SAGE Books - Strategic Ambiguities: Essays on Communication, Organization, and Identity

Beautiful sunsets [Page ] rely on species capable of certain kinds of vision. There is no meaning beyond meaning; the human experience occurs on the narrow ridge between self and other, in the navigation of the in-between Arnett, Astute readers will see a clear connection between the approach to life I favor and what has been described as a cosmopolitan form of communication Pearce, Pearce identified four forms of communication, each of which acts to bring into being a particular kind of social world.

Cosmopolitan communicators view difference in perspective as an opportunity to learn and expand one's practical repertoire for living in the world, and not as an occasion to either synthesize or choose between differing worldviews Brown, In globalization, he sees the positive side of what others call cultural contamination, and resonates with Salman Rushdie's celebration of hybridity, impurity, and intermingling as the main way that newness enters the world.

Appiah urges us to learn about people in other places, to seek understanding and get used to one another, without expecting to agree. But if not agreement, then what?

Such a life is passionate but not polarized, engaged but not fanatical, committed but capable of holding space for differences. By doing so, we are well on our way toward inventing new ways to live in a diverse, and increasingly interdependent world. Eisenberg received his doctorate in Organizational Communication from Michigan State University in Over a ten-year period at USC, Dr. Eisenberg twice received the National Communication Association award for the outstanding research publication in organizational communication, as well as the Burlington Foundation award for excellence in teaching.

In , Eisenberg joined the faculty of the University of South Florida, honoring a lifelong pledge always to live within driving distance of a Disney park. He is recipient of the Ohio University Elizabeth Andersch Award for lifetime contributions to the field of Communication. Eisenberg is the author of more than 60 articles, chapters, and books on the subjects of organizational communication, health communication, and communication theory.

His most recent work focuses on handoffs in health care and how improved communication can reduce the likelihood of medical error. Eisenberg is an internationally recognized researcher, teacher, facilitator, and consultant specializing in the strategic use of communication to promote positive organizational change.

CQ Press Your definitive resource for politics, policy and people. Back Institutional Login Please choose from an option shown below. Need help logging in? Email Please log in from an authenticated institution or log into your member profile to access the email feature. Embracing Ambiguity Chapter 1: Ambiguity as Strategy in Organizational Communication Chapter 2: Meaning and Interpretation in Organizations Chapter 3: A Root-Metaphor Analysis Chapter 4: Transcendence and Transformation Chapter 5: Transcendence Through Organizing Chapter 6: Miscommunication in Organizations Chapter 7: Dialogue as Democratic Discourse Chapter 8: From Anxiety to Possibility: Poems — Chapter Transforming Organizations Through Communication Chapter A New Communication Aesthetic Chapter The Kindness of Strangers: Hospitality in Organizational Communication Scholarship Chapter Communication and the Development of Identity Chapter

Strategic Ambiguities: Essays on Communication, Organization, and Identity Strategic Ambiguities: Essays on Communication, Organization, and Identity
Strategic Ambiguities: Essays on Communication, Organization, and Identity Strategic Ambiguities: Essays on Communication, Organization, and Identity
Strategic Ambiguities: Essays on Communication, Organization, and Identity Strategic Ambiguities: Essays on Communication, Organization, and Identity
Strategic Ambiguities: Essays on Communication, Organization, and Identity Strategic Ambiguities: Essays on Communication, Organization, and Identity
Strategic Ambiguities: Essays on Communication, Organization, and Identity Strategic Ambiguities: Essays on Communication, Organization, and Identity
Strategic Ambiguities: Essays on Communication, Organization, and Identity Strategic Ambiguities: Essays on Communication, Organization, and Identity
Strategic Ambiguities: Essays on Communication, Organization, and Identity Strategic Ambiguities: Essays on Communication, Organization, and Identity
Strategic Ambiguities: Essays on Communication, Organization, and Identity Strategic Ambiguities: Essays on Communication, Organization, and Identity

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