Doheny-Farina: "Writing in an Emerging Organization: An Ethnographic Study"

Doheny-Farina, S. (1986). Writing in An Emerging Organization: An Ethnographic Study. Written Communication, 3(2), 158-85.



Points to gap in lack of research on nonacademic writing. Argues important because "they provide insight into writing as a social process" and "knowledge about writing in non-academic contexts can inform the teaching of writing--especially technical, business, and professional writing" (159). Source of info at this point (1986) has been surveys-- but they don''t give info as to social context of writing. Interest in writing and organizational contexts.


Social and Organizational Contexts Influence Writing


"writers'' rhetorical choices result from their conceptions of their rhetorical situations" (160). Situations influenced by perception of social/organizational contexts. Doheny-Farina presents research questions:


  • in a give nonacademic setting, how are writers'' conceptions of rhetorical situation formulated over time?
  • How do writers'' perceptions of their social and organizational contexts influence the formulation of these conceptions of rhetorical situations? (160)


In order to better understand how context influences writing process in nonacademic org, researched to answer second set of research questions:


  • what are the social elements of writers'' composing processes?
  • How do writers'' perceptions of their organizational contexts influence these processes? (161)


Writing Influences Social and Organizational Contexts


"Writing serves an organizing function" (161). Looking to establish how writing in a nonacademic org shapes the organization. Final research question:


  • how do writing processes shape the organizational structure of an emergine organization?


Researched newly formed company where writing important part of workers'' jobs


Theoretical Assumptions


  • rhetorical discourse situated in time and place
  • rhetor conceives of situational factors through interactions with persons, events, objects extermal to rhetor
  • researcher attempts to explore human interaction as it is evident in social and cultural settings. ethnographers look at individuals and their symbolic actions in terms of groups or communities
  • microscopic investigations of parts of culture can bring out understanding of the culture
  • individuals act on the basis of the meanings that they attribute to persons/events/objects of their worlds
  • any act can have multiple meanings; therefore researchers must seek diverse interpretations of the acts under study (differing POV, triangulation)
  • researcher is primary research instrument; thus must play dual role. Must be empathetic and distanced. (162-163)




Setting: Microware Inc.


Data Collection: visited 3-4 days/week approx 1-8 hours for approx. 8 mos.  Mostly during formal/informal staff meetings in offices, hallways, and open areas in two different microware buildings. Key informations were the 5 top execs, 2 middle mgrs, and 2 outside consultants


four collection methods: field notes; tape-recorded meetings (TRM); open-ended interviews (OEI); discourse-based interviews (DBI) (164).


Data Analysis: Constant Comparison Method. Reviewed data chronologically, establishing analytical categories and their properties.


Results: Writing A Business Plan


Introduction: company was on brink of bankruptcy. Writing business plan to get outside investors. Company met for two hours; two choices took up to 30 minutes of meeting-- concerning brief but controversial passage of plan (165) dealing with purchase of comp grafx program-- changed to something much more Dilbert-esque, though according to DF changed statement to be stages. 


The Writing Process: A Chronology: whoever wrote the plan had a lot of control over company''s future. Was to be written by company prez; would only have collaborated only if he needed tech info; vp''s wanted this to be team project. When Bill left town for week-long business trip, VP''s began working on plan similar to way they were running co''s new production system (each to area of expertise). During invention process two important things happened: VPs made major decisions without pres''s approval; VPs came to believe not simply because of unorganized production system, but also b/c pres had mismanaged


The act of writing influenced substance of what was written but also influenced the organization (167).


Reciprocal influence on writing process: board imposed new structure of authority. Officially made Business Plan writing collaborative process. Hoped it would foster team approach to decision making. Led to bitter arguments/ resistance from Bill. After several weeks, Exec Comm decided Pres would draft plan, committee would meet to revised. Bill felt it was back to status quo. Bill''s POV is that he had significant power in company; thought EC only interested in stylistic choices. Found it was not so; instead they confronted for control of company.


Organizational Context: Themes: Promotion vs. Production & Entrepreneurial Control vs. Committee Management. Pres= Promotional POV-- primary strategy to excite audience by describing long-term prosperous effects. Never considered role/capabilities of production staff. Used same strategy used for promoting to outsiders. Authority made him powerful. Production view held that could only show something could happen by pointing to past.


Rhetorical Context: Themes: argues different conceptions of rhetorical situations. Both agreed that primary audiences 30 venture capitalists and company''s employees. Different sense of exigence (pres--financial crisis; vp''s financial mismanagement).  Different conceptions of ethos. Argues goal argued over was not primary obstacle to collaboration, but how goal articulated.


And of course, writing makes this happen.


Typicality of Results: influenced collaborator''s thinking on other aspects of the company''s operation. Decisions/choices influenced of two general types: 21 content-related and 30 stylistic (175).




Social and Organizational Contexts Influence Rhetorical Contexts: (176) Goes through chronological analysis of rhetorical changes in company as power/authority changed.


Rhetorical Activity Influences the Company''s Organizational Structure: Collaborative writing played significant role in shifting (reapportionment) of authority. Allowed a means of resolution.


Implications for Theory Building: complex social process. "stored problem representations" that are stored plans writers may draw upon in writing (178). Writer''s conception of social context impinges on writer''s rhetorial choices; expand  definition of writing activity to include social interaction, activities through time; uncover how "stored problem representations" arise (179).


Implications for Teaching: reciprocal relationship between writing and development of organization. Parallels to classroom. Teachers need to make process of organization building one of primary topics of project (180). Students need to integrate different POV for common goal. Collaborators should seek sense of "shared understanding" (181). Students need to develop interpersonal skills. "Teachers need to be concerned not only with the products of collaborative writing projects, but also with the social processes that  the students must undertake to achieve successfully those products" (182).


Implications for Further Resarch: Should have followed use of completed document. Would have further described/explained influence of writing on the organization.




recognizes that his finding are provisional; only one group. However, points to need for more research.