The Determinants of a Successful Constitution of Organization: The Case of J.J. Abrams’ Lost

Last summer, I put out a call for a master thesis taking upon the challenge to look into the determinants of a ‘successful’ constitution of organization. I implicitly left open the definition of success, but I was clear on the literature underlying the idea of the master thesis: the communicative constitution of organization (CCO) or, in other words, organization as communication (OaC). Besides a rigorous foundation in the literature, I wanted the master thesis to take the first season of J.J. Abrams’ highly acclaimed television series Lost, because it beautifully depicts the rise and fall of an organization. A unique opportunity for a social scientist to observe this up close and personal, if you will. Here’s my call:

The recent notion of a communicative constitution of organization (for a review, see Ashcraft et al., 2009) provides a unique theoretical backdrop for addressing organizational issues
such as scaling up from the micro level of single communication events to the macro level
of strategic decisions (Cooren and Fairhurst, 2008) or the question of stability in the face of continuous change (Kuhn, 2008). So far, however, the determinants of a successful scaling up or organizational change are largely unaddressed.

First, the master thesis develops a theoretical framework for the determinants of successful communicative constitution of organization based on the respective literature (e.g., Taylor and Van Every, 2000; Putnam and Nicotera, 2009; Clark et al., 2011). Second, it empirically questions how these determinants reflect in the structures and dynamics of organization(s) found in J.J. Abrams’ television show Lost. The show tells the tale of 48 survivors who crashland on a remote island and now must fight to survive. The first season of Lost witnesses the unique setting of an organization’s birth, follows it through infancy, and watches it decline in the end. Third, the master thesis discusses the benefits of taking the perspective of a communicative constitution of organization by putting Lost’s fictious organization(s) against examples of real-world organizations.

The research questions addressed are: (1) What are the determinants of a successful communicative constitution of organization? (2) How do these determinants reflect in the structures and dynamics of organizations? (3) What are the implications for management science and organization theory if we take the communicative constitution of organization seriously?

Ashcraft, K. L., Kuhn, T. R., & Cooren, F. (2009). Constitutional Amendments: “Materializing” Organizational Communication. Academy of Management Annals, 3(1), 1–64.
Cooren, F., Kuhn, T. R., Cornelissen, J. P., & Clark, T. (2011). Communication, Organizing and Organization: An Overview and Introduction to the Special Issue. Organization Studies, 32(9), 1–22.
Cooren, F., & Fairhurst, G. T. (2008). Dislocation and Stabilization: How to Scale up From Interactions to Organization. In L. L. Putnam & A. M. Nicotera (Eds.), Building Theories of Organization: The Constitutive Role of Communication (pp. 117–151). New York: Routledge.
Kuhn, T. R. (2008). A Communicative Theory of the Firm: Developing an Alternative Perspective on Intra-organizational Power and Stakeholder Relationships. Organization Studies, 29(8–9), 1227–1254.
Putnam, L. L., & Nicotera, A. M. (Eds.). (2008). Building Theories of Organization: The Constitutive Role of Communication. New York, NY: Routledge.
Taylor, J. R., & Van Every, E. J. (2000). The Emergent Organization: Communication as its Site and Surface. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Now, here is the abstract that my master student, Nico Koßler, came up with 60some pages later:

Building on recent research of organizational communication studies, this paper demonstrates how the approach of ‘communication as constitutive of organization’ explains the emergence of an organization from single communication events to a stabile group with collective intentions. As collective identity is fundamentally important to the stability of an organization, this paper explains three determinants that support and enhance collective identity throughout the process of an organization emerging: (1) authoritative text: an omnipresent structure, that defines norms, rules and common goals of an organization, (2) voice: a representative, human, or non-human, that holds the authority to speak for the organization and enforce its authoritative text both to inside and outside parties, and (3) boundary establishment: which allows the organization to discriminate itself from outside parties. These three determinants are accompanied and influenced by two interactive parameters: legitimation, as a social process of authentication, and metaconversation, as the communicational process of referring to former conversation and texts, and creating context and history in conversation. Evidence presented shows how these determinants and interactive parameters are interconnected, both, with and among each other. The discussion applies the theoretical framework to examples of the organization(s) that emerge in the television show Lost, as well as to real-world organizations. Defining determinants makes the abstract idea of ‘communication as constitutive of organization’ become more applicable for real-life business practices, and is, therefore, used to provide a guideline for the implementation of said determinants and their contribution for the enhancement of organizational stability.

The master thesis reads great and, indeed, adds to our knowledge of how organizations come into being. If I only had the time to refine it into a paper …

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