Communicative elements of fluid collective organizing




Smith, William Rothel, III

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Organizational communication research has traditionally focused on the organizing processes of firmly structured conventional organizations, such as workplaces, schools, and nonprofits. However, a growing line of research is beginning to investigate more fluid, ad-hoc, ephemeral, spontaneous, and loosely structured social collectives. This dissertation draws upon interview, observational, photographic, and social media data collected over a four-year time frame to investigate how a community of bicycle motocross (BMX) riders in the Southern United States communicate and organize to build and maintain public bicycle dirt jumps, despite lacking many of the elements commonly associated with formal organizing. The dissertation explores three key areas: (1) how communication gives rise to forms of authority in this fluid social collective, (2) how the materiality of the natural environment intersects with the group’s organizing, and (3) how intermingling social, material, and performative practices negotiate the tensions inherent to this organizational setting. Findings of the first study reveal that specific communicative interactions in the form of repetitive stories and assertives scale up to form a paradoxical “authoritative text” (Kuhn, 2008) that upholds a group ethos of contribution, but fails to specify the nature of how to carry out that contribution. The paradoxical nature of this authoritative text perpetuates conflict within the space. Study two conceptualizes environmental materiality as pure natural or (re)natural—depending upon the degree of alteration at human hands—and explains how a combination of these forms of nature contribute to the group’s organizationality. Finally, study three develops a model showing how the tensions of organic/civic, inclusion/consensus, and contributing/loafing are negotiated through communicative practices to sustain a version of the space that is both material and vision flexible. Theoretical contributions of this dissertation include extending our understanding of how authoritative texts emerge outside of formal organizing, providing a stronger analytical focus on the material, and explicating the importance of the space of practice in the tensions inherent to fluid organizing. The final section provides suggestions for how organic community recreation sites might be supported through official organizations, without bureaucratic or institutional influence undermining the core characteristics of the community.


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