Communication and Social Change


Communication theory and research provides an excellent complement to post-process theory as it is known. If you have been following this series on post-process theory thus far, you understand that writing is understood by multiple theorists to be largely communicative in nature: communicative with the self, with others, and with the world. Nancy Blyer's "Research in Professional Communication: A Post-Process Perspective," is a critique of the discourse surrounding professional communication as it stands. Blyer asserts that much communication theory, as it applies to writing, is largely explanatory and descriptive in nature, that it relies on a great deal of guesswork, and that a better solution is for the discourse to align itself with critical theory.


Blyer cites Rachel Spilka who describes how workplace culture can influence what she terms as "composing-process behavior," which makes sense. The environment can be one of many factors that influence the way in which people communicate. Information like this, Blyer suggests, is often combined with similar information as a means to guarantee effective pedagogy where guarantees cannot be universally made. Spilka and other researchers who specialize in communication and communication in the workplace often assert that finding patterns in workplace writing can be effectively applied to writing instruction. This isn't to say that it can't, but that there are several variables to consider. Not every workplace, for example, will require team writing. So, to assert that a certain variable that occurs in a workplace should be applied to writing instruction isn't without merit, but it is one variable out of many that can occur. As such, the notion that applying one or even a handful of these variables can absolutely guarantee professional success is flawed looking through the lens of post-process theory.


From a post-process perspective, the act of writing cannot be systematized, isolated, and examined on its own and understanding that system isn't necessarily required for writing instruction or independently learning to write. I do agree that understanding a system, set of standards, and expectations of writing is a requirement in different environments. Most notably, this is a requirement in academia. I don't agree that this should be a prerequisite for writing, but it's not wrong to have a set of expectations through which feedback can be provided. In workplace composition as a discourse, according to Blyer, there is an attempt to codify and these attempts are being passed to students.


Blyer breaks down a professional communication process in a very succinct way. The communicator begins by developing a theory about the mindsets, the beliefs, and the method by which the communicants use language. To develop an understanding, the communicators need to constantly shift this theory until their interpretations "fit." From a post-process perspective, this communication method can be seen as constant paralogic guessing that people can have proficiency in. To call it paralogic isn't to say that it's automatically wrong, but to assert that the guesses made are never completely accurate.


Should the aim be accuracy? I don't think so. Many of the most effective informative texts have the capacity to acknowledge its limits. In science, it's essential to understand margins of error. It can be just as productive to acknowledge limits in communication. Acknowledging limits doesn't mean that understanding should stop there, but knowing where the limits exist can give researchers or communicators the means by which to negotiate with them.


Blyer advocates for a critical approach that is less concerned with explaining elements of the world, but with interpreting them and showing meaning. Critical researchers, Blyer explains, are often concerned with the nature of different power dynamics and using findings from that research to promote social change. By social change, what I mean (and the meaning I believe Blyer takes) is the method by which people associate with one another, with themselves, and with the world, but mostly with one another.


Consider the following passage:


"Fear is the original sin. Almost all of the evil in the world has its origin in the fact that someone is afraid of something. It is a cold slimy serpent coiling about you. It is horrible to live with fear; and it is of all things degrading" (Montgomery, 1926).


This is a very direct expression of a power dynamic between people and fear. I find this passage interesting as an exercise in and about interpretation because in a short space, fear has taken many forms. Fear has become something, a serpent, and [in this case] a component of mental illness that a person can live with. Fear is interpreted and subject to interpretation as a means by which the person who has it can come to terms with it. Consider the connotation of the term, "degrading." After stating that fear is horrible to live with, to then state that it is degrading can reduce it to an annoyance. Another more intense descriptor could have been used, but instead, degrading was chosen. While fear can be horrible, while fear can be a serpent, fear is abstract and can be overcome. This passage can be unpacked further and can be applied to many more timely concepts, but the purpose of this is to illustrate what the study of social change and power dynamics can look like.


Communication can be unpacked, can be interpreted, and can convey different discursive meanings. In the case of the passage above, the larger context represents the way parts of society interact with people with different types of illness, both physical and mental. Studying the way in which we interact with those with visible and invisible illnesses and the way we talk about medicine, studying different meanings and interpretations and language of domination and power can be a precursor to social change.


The way that people approach writing instruction and speak of writing instruction can also, though in a different way, cause social change as well. This is where Blyer sees the link between critical research and post-process theory. Post-process theorists argue, first, that while we can make knowledgeable guesses as to what certain forms of behavior can look like, we can then avoid the pitfall of inaccurate or possibly harmful generalizations. Second, critical researchers frame communication as the basis by which systems of meaning are constructed. At the same time, these constructions should be analyzed in terms of power dynamics. What power dynamics are created within these systems of communications and what is their nature? Why do these power dynamics exist and what are their origin points? Deconstructing these dynamics can, then, encourage social change.


Further, Blyer states that post-process theory and critical theory complement each other in that there is no Cartesian split between subject and object, mind and world, language and reality. To illustrate this point, both a critical theorist and a post-process theorist would see a subject:subject relationship. A researcher and their participants, while a researcher can be seen as an authority over their participants, are generating knowledge together. The way that critical research is performed is slightly different as it more directly involves the participants in every step of the research. Conversely, in subject:object research, the researcher seeks the information and then passes that information to the participants. I would argue that there's a place for each depending on what's being studied, but the type of logic being employed in subject:subject studies is that a person who is affected by a condition should be able to acquire as much information as possible about that condition.


In communication with post-process theory, the results of further study, the knowledge gained, is open to interpretation and subjective. In a subject:subject study, the observations made could be reduced to some degree into a set of guesses interpreted by researchers, participants, and [ideally] the audience of the study. Employing what we understand as the scientific method using this logic, however useful it can be, cannot be used to arrive at absolute truth. It can be used to arrive at a truth and a conclusion, but post-process theory and critical theory wouldn't designate that result as a constant even if it's common.


This isn't to say that we shouldn't trust science and its findings, especially as further research can help to give public understanding on how we can live as safely as possible. Our understandings of science has shifted over time in part because the way that people live has changed. This is more to state that, in Blyer's approach, critical theory and post-process theory complement one another effectively and in the disciplines that call for it, both can be useful when applied together.


As always, many thanks for all the constructive feedback, support, and engagement! Feel free to ask any questions and, to engage more directly with the Purposeful Prose community, you can become a member. With membership, you will be able to "like" and comment directly on posts and, in addition, you can make use of my forum. Let me know if there's anything you'd like me to research in the future. You can suggest topics by commenting, by making use of the forum, or by contacting me directly. You don't need to have sources in mind, but they are always helpful!


I look forward to hearing your thoughts!


Sources:


Blyler, N. (1999). Research in professional communication: A post-process perspective. Post-process theory: Beyond the writing-process paradigm, 65-79.


Montgomery, L. M. (1989). The blue castle. New York: Bantam. *


*The official year of publication for this text is 1926, but I have this copy.


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