Harrison: “Frameworks for the Study of Writing in Organizational Contexts”

Harrison, Teresa M. “Frameworks for the Study of Writing in Organizational Contexts.” Central works in technical communication. Ed. Johndan Johnson-Eilola & Stuart A. Selber. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. 255-267. Print.



Originally Published as: Harrison, T. M. “Frameworks for the Study of Writing in Organizational Contexts.” Written Communication 4.1 (1987): 3-23. Web.





Notes high percentage of people who write as part of their daily jobs. Argues value in "studying the process of writing as it occurs in organizational life" (256)-- might determine relationships between organizations and composing process, might help broader social context theory of writing, may lead to changes in instructional methods.


"The purpose of this article is to introduce some approaches to organizational theory that bear upon the study and practice of writing in organizations" (257).




argues for role of context in production and comprehension of discourse


elaborates on two approaches to organizational theory to understand how organizations may function in rhetorical contexts


analysis argues strongly for 1) systematic consideration of organizational processes in the study of business, technical, and professional writing; 2) introduction of an "organizational analysis" into the practice of writing in organizations (257).


The Nature of Context


Argues a "central problem" in composition theory and research becomes "explaining the interrelationships between composing and the social world in which it takes place" (257). "Context is a somehwat problematic concept because its referent may change easily given the perspectives and assumptions of its various users" (257).


Context as Situation


Bitzer''s (1968) theory: rhetorical context = situation that calls for rhetoric. Three elements: audience, exigence, and constraints. Definition precludes organizations.


Context as Community


"New Rhetoric"-- some forms of knowledge are created in rhetorical activity. "...rhetorical activity creates ''social'' knowledge in the juxtaposition of publicly accepted standards with publicly evaluated objects" (258). Or knowledge of reality socially constructed, etc. Commonality: "some of what is designated as ''knowledge'' is produced through the interaction between the environment and a knower" (258). Social constructivism.


Organization as Rhetorical Contexts


Harrison notes that "organizational theorists do not generally think in terms of organizations as rhetorical context" (260). Recognition of value of treating organization as social phenomenon.


Organization as Systems of Knowledge


emphasis that culture is system of cognitions/system of knowledge and cognitions. Two complementary perspectives on knowledge construction: the evolutionary model  (stressing the organizational-level processes by which knowledge is constructed) and the social information processing model (emphasizes the social processes by which knowledge is established and shared).


Fundamental assumption: thinking linked to action.


Unsure, though, how "organization''s unique representation of reality is translated into action at the level of the individual actor" (261).


Organizations as Patterns of Symbolic Discourse


Alternative/not necessarily incompatible view. Focuses on signal making and use within organization. "In this approach, organizations are concieved as patterns of symbolic discourse that can be interpreted to identifiy ''thematic systems of meaning underlying activity''" (qtng. Smircich 1983, 350; Harrison 261). Symbol making and use bridge the gap between meaning and action. Symbols may include specialized terminology, images and metaphors, slogans, stories, etc. Organizations are "culture-like" phenomena (her quotes 262).


Implications for Research


"research on writing in organizations should take seriously into account the cognitive systems constituting the culture of the organization in which the writing occurrs" (262).


"research analyzing symbols in organizations can proceed in a direction similar to that of the cognitive approach by interpreting themes revealed in patterns of symbols and exploring their relationship to rhetorical choice making in written organizational discourse" (263).


Implications for Writing in Organizations


"Writing in organizations differs from that done in classrooms in that, as initially experienced by the writer, the organizational context is unknown....the foregoing analysis suggests that it may be desirable to incorporate an ''organizational analysis'' into the writer''s repertoire of analytic strategies" (263). Examine the organization as if it were a text.




If what she said has merit, do the research and you''ll reap the benefit, whether tech writer or any writer within organization.


Author's Abstract:


This essay constructs frameworks for understanding how organizations may function as rhetorical contexts. Initially, traditional and modern approaches to rhetorical context are compared and conclusions are drawn about where organizations, as a form of context, may fit within each. Then two approaches to organizational theory that have implications for the study and practice of writing are elaborated.