Tuesday, October 05, 2004


In this discussion of artefacts and communication, a particular image has come to my mind. I imagine a group of actors sitting around a poker table and dealing out various material based boundary objects enriched with various markings. Each of the actors has their own set of biases, beliefs, and desires, and each wants to enlist the other players as allies to support their own particular set of inscriptions. This image is quite right. There are other forces acting on the communication process that just the whims and passions of our poker players. The actors, the table, and even the smoky and dimly lit room housing our card game is contained within a particular social environment. The card players aren’t just rational and maximizing examples of homo economicus, they are actors situated within a web of social relations and power structures.

Whether one agrees with Marx or not, it’s hard to argue that we don’t live in a socially structured world and that the ways in which we communicate aren’t shaped by these same social forces. A personal phone call from the CEO, for example, has considerably more meaning than a memo addressed to “all employees” even if the two messages contain exactly the same information.

Applying social relations and power structures at this stage in our journey is a bit tricky. We have a way of doing it—genres—but we’re still lacking a reason. Perhaps Foucault can give us some guidance. In his treatise on discourse (in which he identifies any number of the means of communication that we’ve already touched upon), he remarks:

“It is supposed therefore that everything that is formulated in the discourse was already articulated in the semi-silence that precedes it, which continues to run obstinately beneath it, but which it covers and silences.” (Foucault, 2002 [1972]: 25)

Our materials, inscriptions, and boundary objects are therefore a product of this semi-silence. Determining a model for knowledge artefacts that accounts for this aether requires a level of analysis that goes beyond the products of our poker game: boundary objects, standardized packages, and inscriptions. JoAnne Yates and Wanda Orlikowski formulated one possible approach. Through their historiographic work they articulated “genres” of communication.

"Genre is a literary and rhetorical concept that describes widely recognized types of discourse (e.g., the novel, the sermon). In the context of organizational communication, it may be applied to recognized types of communication (e.g., letters, memoranda, or meetings) characterized by structural, linguistic, and substantive conventions." (Yates & Orlikowski, 1992: 300)

They refine this concept for application within organizational settings:

<> "A genre of organizational communication (e.g., a recommendation letter or a proposal) is a typified communicative action invoked in response to a recurrent situation. The recurrent situation or socially defined need includes the history and nature of established practices, social relations, and communication media within organizations (e.g., a request for a recommendation letter assumes the existence of employment procedures that include the evaluation and documentation of prior performance; a request for a proposal is premised on a system for conducting and supporting research). The resulting genre is characterized by similar substance and form. Substance refers to the social motives, themes, and topics being expressed in the communication… Form refers to the observable and linguistic features of the communication [structural features, communication medium, and language or symbol system]." (Yates & Orlikowski, 1992: 301)

In this context, genres pick up some interesting characteristics beyond their application as standardized boundary objects. Genres are tools that are used for structuration, and as such both create and are created by the social environment. Genres are enacted through particular social rules that govern this arena of structuration. Therefore, the use—or disuse—of particular genres is both an act of communication and a political statement:

"In structurational terms, genres are social institutions that are produced, reproduced, or modified when human agents draw on genre rules to engage in organizational communication." (Yates & Orlikowski, 1992: 305)

An interesting characteristic of genres is evident in Yates and Orlikowski’s biography of the office memo. The transition from private letter to email was created through various technological changes. These changes produced new or variant genres. A memo, for example, isn’t completely different from a letter nor is an email completely distinct from a memo. Each of these genres, however, has slightly different affordances and is used in a slightly different social context. This social context both creates and was created by the genres. This whole process sounds quite complicated and it is quite easy to visualize at as a type of Ouroboros decaying to nothingness. By invoking a temporal dimension this image becomes rather one of a looping spirographic shape.

Inherent in genres is the notion of granularity or abstractness. Some genres may contain fine-grained detail (such as production reports) while others may have very broad messages (such as sermons). The notion of granularity is also inherent in boundary objects but Star and Geissemer failed to fully develop a framework for articulating the concept. With genres, we can see that the structuration of various social environments provides the “semi-silence” that gives meaning to the actual objects. A sermon, for example, may be meaningless to a factory worker alien to the faith and production reports for industrial widgets could be meaningless to the preacher; they are each representatives of different epistemic communities.

One interesting application of genres is the concept of genre taxonomy, which serves to codify and store the various “communicative actions” of organizational members (Yoshioka, Herman, Yates, & Orlikowski, 2001).

"The key difference between a genre and a genre system is that although each has attributes, a genre system additionally has relational attributes that indicate relationships among constituent genres, such as sequence." (Yoshioka et al., 2001: 434)

By articulating the relational attributes between various genres researchers can gain a sense of both the institutional forces of organizations and can create conceptual maps of the “knowledge artefacts” within the organization. This articulation is typically executed by addressing the “5W1H” questions (who, what, why, where, how) related to the genesis and use of the various genres. Of course, worked examples of systems based on genre taxonomies seem quite rare.

Geoffrey Bowker and Susan Leigh Star provide additional insight on genres. In their analysis of the International Classification of Disease (ICD) they note how the ICD works as a genre. They explain that there is a constant tension within the users of the ICD between those who want to standardize and those who want the document to address their local concerns. Given the differing social environments and the different “semi-silence” pervading these two communities, their attempts to communicate using this particular genre is necessarily frustrated since the cycle of structuration is constantly fragmented.


Foucault, M. (2002 [1972]). Archaeology of knowledge. New York: Routledge.

Yates, J., & Orlikowski, W. J. (1992). Genres of organizational communication - a structurational approach to studying communication and media. Academy of Management Review, 17(2), 299-326.

Yoshioka, T., Herman, G., Yates, J., & Orlikowski, W. (2001). Genre taxonomy: A knowledge repository of communicative actions. Acm Transactions on Information Systems, 19(4), 431-456.


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