Course Title: Organizational Communication
The Constitution of Collectivism in an Organization:
From A Rhetoric Perspective
In contemporary society, although the capacity and prominence of individual have been largely facilitated by modern technology, the sense of collectivism is still exist in both private and public organizations as well as some countries which hold collectivist thinking as dominant ideology. This article analyzes the constitution of collectivism applies to both classical and contemporary rhetoric theories, questioning how a sense of collectivism is built up in one organization both technically and ideologically. The main argument is, classical rhetoric’s focus on linguistic means of persuasion is widely used in constituting a sense of collectivism in an organization. Also, on a larger scale, the long-established philosophical principles of a nation can also be interpreted as a rhetorical discourse/context which shapes the nation’s dominant ideology and personality.
Key words: collectivism, rhetoric, organization
In this information era, the term “collectivism” seems somewhat out of date – with a computer connected to the Internet at hand, one can easily keep one’s life going on without stepping out of his/her house and at the same time being informed what is happening on the other side of the earth. The possibility and capacity of the individual is now stretching to an unprecedented level while, on the other hand, the dominance of central power is breaking down in every social dimension.
However, as a matter of fact, the sense of collectivism has never disappeared from the scene. In business organizations, collectivism, defined as “any of several types of social organization in which the individual is seen as being subordinate to a social collectivity such as a state, a nation, a race, or a social class” (Britannica Online Encyclopedia, 2009), has transformed into the spirit of teamwork and the sense of loyalty to the company which contribute to team culture and business success (Tarricone & Luca, 2002); not to mention military organizations and some central government agencies (e.g. the U.S. Department of Defense), where collectivism is undoubtedly the leading principle due to their special duties like managing military forces for war-fighting, collecting and analyzing intelligence, and protecting the security of the country. In fact, in some East Asian countries like China, Japan and Korea, collectivism is the dominant ideology and philosophy that fulfills these countries’ social life and political activities, making a sharp contrast with many western countries.
The constitution of collectivism in an organization is a progressively accumulative process rather than accomplished at one stroke. It is a communicational practice aims at issues of motivation, persuasion and “sales” of opinions (McMillan, 1982). The process of persuasion can be interpreted as a rhetorical manipulation which shapes the personality of a group. Such process can be explained by either classical or contemporary rhetorical theories.
Classical rhetoric originates in 5th century BC Greece and focuses on persuasiveness and the features of an effective speech (Wiseman, 2007). It is “a theory of public speaking, which develops an extensive technical vocabulary to describe features of argument, arrangement, style, and delivery” (Kennedy, 1994). When it is used in organized persuasion, as Hegstrom (1990) argues, the possible effects would be the organizational values superseding individual ones, making an emphasis on “unity of voice” in organization’s identity. In other words, the public speaking, or the “speech” emphasized by classical rhetoric, has a potential power in conveying organizational values to a group of individuals. As a result, a sense of collectivism is constituted through such rhetorical activities.
Contemporary studies on rhetoric address a more diverse range of domains than did classical rhetoric. It focuses on the analysis of discourse and the relationship between rhetoric and knowledge (Burke, 1969). Contemporary rhetorical theories see rhetoric as a mean to constitute social realities as well as a medium for creating, managing, or resisting ideological meanings (Giddens, 2005). An array of organizational phenomena that can be marked as a practice of collectivism is then produced by such process, such as the systems of influence and control writ large (P. K. Tompkins & Cheney, 1985) and the epideictic (it is one of Aristotle's major branches of rhetoric, which means speech or writing that praises or blames) advocacy of values in society (Goldzwig & Cheney, 1984). One good example on this would be the constitution and widely acceptance of the Confucian way of thinking in East Asian countries. Throughout long historical immigrations and inter-cultural communications, most Esat Asian countries (China, Japan, Korea, etc.) share very similar values and ideologies mainly based on Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism. These had shaped the mainstream discourses and dominant ideologies of East Asian countries which influence, lead and control people’s behaviour.
Definitions and Implications of Collectivism
Before examine the relationship between rhetorical theories and the constitution of collectivism, some characteristics of collectivism should be clarified. In the book Beyond Self-Interest (2002), collectivism is defined as “the theory and practice that makes some sort of group rather than the individual the fundamental unit of political, social, and economic concern (Beabout et al, 2002). In other words, group become the basic element in all social activities in collectivist’s discourse. Beabout et al go on to say, “in theory, collectivists insist that the claims of groups, associations, or the state must normally supersede the claims of individuals.”
The ignorance or denying of individual needs and merit directly lead collectivism emphasizes personal responsibility and self-sacrifice in an organization. For instance, in ancient feudal society of China, people believed in that family is the ultimate goal and standard of their everyday life, and all their activities should be consistent with the family’s interest and reputation. And on a broader scale, for every social member, the nation is a larger “family”, and everyone in the country should be a royal subject to the emperor. According to Perry (1984), this family-centered social structure is generated from the production mode of Chinese traditional farming society, in which family is the basic unit of production and individuals have to rely on the collaboration of family members in order to make a living in the “small peasant economy”. Perry also argued that the process of social production, which allows limited freedom of individual’s movement, is also a process of the strengthening of this sense of collectivism.
Ayn Rand (1944) argues that “collectivism means the subjugation of the individual to a group - whether to a race, class, or state does not matter…Collectivism holds that man must be chained to collective action and collective thought for the sake of what is called ‘the common good’.” As a matter of fact, when it is adopted by a country, the wholeness and integrity stressed by collectivism usually increase the risk of stirring up nationalism and dictatorship. For instance, looking backward the history of human society in the past century, Communism, Socialism and Fascism may all be termed collectivist systems.
In the field of mass communication studies, the Spiral of Silence Theory (Anderson, 1996) could somehow explain the generating and legitimacy of collectivism in an organization. Spiral of silence theory asserts that a person is less likely to voice an opinion on a topic if one feels that one is in the minority for fear of reprisal or isolation from the majority (Anderson, 1996). In other words, People will be unwilling to publicly express their opinion if they believe they are in the minority. They will also be more vocal if they believe they are a part of the majority. Thus the more marginalized, the less people speak, and the stronger the majority will be, this forms the spiral of silence.
The psychological motivation of this spiral is simple: fear of social rejection and isolation, and also, fear of being associated with the rejected person (Noelle-Neumann, 1984). At the same time, making oneself into a group brings the sense of safety and belonging, then collectivism generates. Noelle-Neumann (1984) also argues that the media accelerates the muting of the minority in the spiral of silence due to its big influence on shaping public opinions. According to Noelle-Newman (1984), the media not only tell us what to think about, but show us what everyone else is thinking. In my opinion, from contemporary rhetoric perspective, those agendas and discourses set by mass media can also be viewed as different rhetorical systems in which people are persuaded into certain beliefs and behaviours.
There are many other resources in literature discussing the definition of collectivism. Despite different expressions, two characteristics of collectivism could be summarized: Firstly, the superiority of the collectives over the individuals; and secondly, the similarity and simplification in identity for members in a collective. This may help understand the relationship between rhetoric and constitution of collectivism.
Classical Rhetoric in the Constitution of Collectivism
Literally, the word “rhetoric” includes four meanings: the art of speaking or writing effectively; skill in the effective use of speech; a type or mode of language or speech; and verbal communication (Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, 2009). In one word, the original meaning of rhetoric is all about techniques of effective speech and eloquent expression. As Cothran (2003) argues, classical rhetoric requires a man to be familiar with “the Good, the True, and the Beautiful” in expression. Cothran (2003) also mentions that although the study of rhetoric truly begins at a young age with practice in imitating the writing of others, it extends in later years into the specific study of persuasive expression.
There is no better place to begin the latter kind of study than with Aristotle’s Rhetoric. According to Aristotle (1954), there are three elements of communication: the speaker (the sender), the audience (the receiver), and the speech itself (the message). Actually, communication is the interaction between the three elements: the receiver understands what the sender intends to say in the exchanges of information. Aristotle also said there are three modes of rhetoric in which persuasion is accomplished – ethos, logos, and pathos. Ethos refers to the character of the speaker or source. For example, whether the speaker is trustworthy or not, or whether the source is reliable. Logos refers to the strengths and weaknesses of the arguments or messages, meaning the logical strengths of the arguments. Aristotle said, using enthymeme and example is a good way to enforce the logos. And pathos refers to the emotions of the audience or listeners. To take into account how the audience feel is crucial when one try to persuade people of something, and often the speaker may elicit emotions like pity, anger, enthusiasm or scepticism among the audience. Aristotle believes that in the practice of persuasion, these three principal dynamics usually work together to make a good persuasive effect.
Combined with Aristotle’s discourse on effective persuasion, classical rhetoric has been widely used by collectivists to build up the sense of collectivism in target groups. One representative example on this would be Hitler’s rhetorical speech which mobilized millions of Germans into fanatic Nazism. As a matter of fact, Hitler used speeches as a main tool of his Nazi propaganda. According to Harold Lasswell’s (Levyatan, 2009) analysis of Hitler’s speeches, Hitler succeeded in captivating and influencing his audiences by combining the above three modes into a highly personalized way of speaking. As Lasswell shows, Hitler used ethos by adopting a unique individual stamp in voice and non-verbal elements in his speech, making himself charismatic and trustworthy. Lasswell mentioned that Hitler’s voice “carried a stronger challenge than those of the Western leaders” (Levyatan, 2009, p.56). Hitler used logos to establish the legitimacy of his National Socialism by advocating the superiority of a racially defined “German people”; and his arguments “healed” the Germans from the sense of failure and humiliation in World War I. And using pathos, Hitler dedicatedly elicited anger and enthusiasm in the audience to control their feelings. He also had a keen perception of the listeners’ psychological need. All of these factors contributed to the sheer force of his speeches.
Besides Aristotle and his followers’ discourses on ethos, logos, and pathos about the classical arts of persuasion, some modern researchers tend to study rhetoric through psychological means. Gardner (2004) applies a cognitive psychological lens to his review of persuasion or what he terms “changing minds”. He notes that “rhetoric is a principal vehicle for changing minds” that in its best form encompasses “tight logic, draws on relevant research, and resonates with an audience” (p. 16). Gardener (2004) also stresses the importance of the ability of mind changers strategically to develop, share, and embody a message or “story” that resonates with a given audience. As he argues in the book, “the more of an individual’s intelligences you can appeal to when making an argument, the more likely you are to change a person’s mind, and the more minds you are likely to change” (p. 30). In one word, Gardner reiterates the importance of linguistic skills, credibility, resonating with the audience and reasoning as he articulates the process for changing minds or persuading ourselves and others. Nevertheless, in his discourses, we can still find some clear links with the traditional canons of rhetoric on persuasion.
Summarized from the above analysis, it is fair to conclude that the constitution of collectivism and the success of propaganda to a target group of audience can be interpreted as a practice of classical rhetoric in a given circumstances.
Contemporary Rhetoric and Collectivism
Contemporary rhetoric, as mentioned in the introduction, focuses on the discourses and the ideological meaning of rhetoric in social construction (Burke, 1969). Throughout the centuries, people have relied on different ideologies in order to explain all kinds of beliefs, although they might be political, religious or social. van Dijk (2001) argued that, ideology, as a special form of social cognition shared by social groups, may influence the ways social attitudes are expressed in discourse structures and affect the productions or interpretations of discourse directly. In other words, ideology shapes our values and worldview. For instance, the traditional ideology of gender roles in a given social group or system indicate the long-exist beliefs on what men and women “should” do in their social life. In most of both Eastern and Western culture context, traditionally, men are connected with high professional education, careers, works and achievements, and decision-makings in a family; while women are not expected to receive professional education or appear in workplace but devote themselves in things like housekeeping and child care. However, in some matriarchy societies (e.g., the Mosuo Tribe living in today’s Sichuan-Yunnan provincial border of China), the leading role is taken by women and especially by the mothers of the community, the gender roles men and women played are much different compared with those in patriarchy societies.
Ideologies may also control the knowledge acquired and shared by a group, such as the social beliefs which a group holds to be “true” or “good” according to its own evaluation or verification criteria. As Bhatia (2008) argues, social realities are often negotiated and determined by elite groups of society, including political and religious leaders, the mass media, and even professional experts, who give meaning to complex, multifaceted constructs consistent with their individual socio-political agendas. One example Bhatia mentions is the ideologies and discourses of anti-terrorism, in which the Bush-Administrations defines “what we the public and media understand by the term terrorism; who are terrorists; what constitutes terrorism; how we can fight terrorism, etc.” Bhatia goes on to say that in order to convince audiences that the version of reality that the Bush’s government is representing is the objective truth, particular themes such as the construction of religion, Weapons of Mass Destruction, orientalism, and attack vs. self-defence are utilized (Bhatia, 2008). What’s more, Bhatia argues that those particular themes are realized through the use of rhetorical resources such as category work, appeals to historicity, negative other-presentation, and metaphor, which allow a subjective conceptualization of reality to appear more convincing through the invocation of emotions and ideologies. In one word, according to Bhatia (2008), the use of language and rhetoric features achieves the themes that enable the discourse of illusions on anti-terrorism to eventually take effect.
On the other hand, the productions or representations of ideological discourse (e.g. mass media, religion, art, architecture, politics, history, culture, language, laws, ethics, etc.) may reinforce the legitimacy of ideology (van Dijk, 2001). For instance, in the above “gender roles” example, the stereotypes of men and women in social life are ceaselessly reinforced by our own social activities from generation to generation, making the ideology of gender roles becoming more legislative; then the legislation of this ideology in turn dominates our behaviors to conform to it – and the process will go on and on. From my perspective, such “produce - reinforce” process forms a circle between ideological discourses and their representations. Noticeably, contemporary studies of rhetoric investigate such interactivities (Giddens, 2005).
The research on Confucianism and East Asian philosophy gives us a vivid example on these interactions and explains why people in these countries own a high sense of collectivism in their values. Yum (2007) argues that Confucianism, which has been the dominant ideology in China and then Japan and Korea for nearly two thousand years, created the philosophical emphasis on collectivism, hierarchy and social harmony in these countries. In its doctrines, Confucianism contains two of the most important principles: jen (humanism, human dignity and collective sharedness) and li (propriety or etiquette, people should treat other people with respect and deference). Generally speaking, the Confucian discourse systems stress that “people are people through the other people” and “the very existence and identity of an individual depends on his/her relationships with others” (Yum, 2007, p. 16). Accordingly, following the rules of proper behavior and making contribution to the group one belongs to is thought to be “good” and “right” in their ideologies since East Asian people consider proper human relationships to be the basis of society.
Confucianism has left a strong impact on interpersonal relationships and communication patterns in East Asian countries. According to Yum’s earlier article (1988), the East Asian communication patterns differ from those of North America because of the Eastern emphasis on social relationships, which stems from the doctrines of Confucianism, as oppose to the North American emphasis on individualism, which stresses equality, fairness, and justice. Yum (1988) explains that, the emphasis on Confucianism in social relationship is “conducive to cooperation, warm, relaxed human relations, consideration of others, and group harmony” (p. 386). According to Yum’s (1988) arguments, Confucianism has also contributed to the East Asian Communication patterns of process orientation, differentiated linguistic codes, indirect communication emphasis, and receiver-centred communication. In contrast, North American patterns of communication represent outcome communication, less-differentiated linguistic codes, direct communication emphasis, and sender-centred communication.
As a matter of fact, some scholars believe that the impact of Confucianism on interpersonal relationships and both interpersonal and organizational communications in East Asian countries is a major cultural factor to explain the impressive economic and social progress of Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore, etc. in the past three decades (Chen & Chung, 1994). For instance, the Japanese way of management tend to create establishing long term personal relationship between employees, and employees are encouraged to stay in the organization for a long period of time; while Western organizations adopt high mobility, heterogeneity, and individualism by contrast.
In one word, it is obvious from the above cases, on ideological level, different cultural contexts and discourses can be seen as a given rhetorical system in which a certain kind of belief (collectivism), communication pattern (from top to bottom and receiver-centred) and group behaviour (collectivistic activities) are created.
In summary, the articles and examples mentioned in the preceding analysis provide a clear view, both theoretically and practically, to how a sense of collectivism is constituted in an organization by rhetorical means. With the supportive case study of Hitler’s speeches and East Asia’s Confucianism, we can easily go to the conclusion that classical rhetoric’s focus on linguistic means of persuasion is widely used in constituting a sense of collectivism in an organization. On a larger scale, the long-established philosophical principles of a nation can also be interpreted as a rhetorical discourse/context which shapes the nation’s dominant ideology and personality.
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