2 Chapter 2: The Critical Approach

The critical approach to studying and understanding organizational communication are nested in the idea that power is not equally distributed.  This imbalance of power creates a hierarchy that can be seen in both society as a whole and in the workplace.  The overarching goal of the critical approach is to uncover the reasons for the imbalanced power and bring those causes to the attention of the oppressed so that they can push for power equalization in their organization.

As someone who will be entering the job market in the near future, it is important to understand the critical approach to organizational communication.  The traditional power hierarchy is still very common in the workplace.  If you are capable of critically analyzing the communication in your workplace you may be able to improve the overall effectiveness of the organization’s communication.  Before you are ready to employ the critical approach, you must first have a grasp of the concepts that it consists of.

There are five key concepts to take into consideration when utilizing the critical approach.  They consist of: power, ideology, hegemony, emancipation, and resistance.  By breaking them down and understanding each of them, you can have a much better idea of how to employ the critical approach to organizational communication.  It is important to understand all five of the concepts and how they work together because they often form somewhat of a step by step process and build off of one another.

The Pervasiveness of Power

Power is arguably the most important of the concepts as it is what drives the critical approach.  Whoever is in the position of power can drive and control the organization.  Corporate structure and relationships play a large role in creating positions of power.  This is easily seen in the classic corporate hierarchy where everyone reports to someone else all the way up to the CEO who is in control of the organization.  With these hierarchies the CEO is the person behind all of the decisions and he or she has the final say on everything in the organization.  The end goal is to be the person with the power which can lead to cutthroat promotion hunting and great stress in the workplace.


Ideology are the things that we take for granted on a daily basis and give very little though to, even though they shape who we are and how we act.  Ideology are what we use to determine good from bad, right from wrong, normal from strange and so on.  There is common ideology that hierarchy is not only normal, but necessary for an organization to function.  This gives rise to the supervisor-subordinate relationship that can be found in almost every organization.  These relationships where someone has power over the other are accepted because it is been instilled in them as an ideology.  The eventual goal would be to eliminate that ideology to disperse the power in the organization more evenly.


Hegemony is the idea that a group can instill an idea as the norm into a subordinate group.  This is seen in the workplace when a group that supervises another group plants the idea that it is normal for the subordinate group to answer to the supervising group.  The end result being the people in the subordinate group believe that they are supposed to be controlled by the group above them and they don’t resist the idea because it feels normal.


Emancipation is the overarching goal of the critical approach.  Emancipation occurs when the subordinate group is freed from unnecessary power relationships, oppressing ideologies, or false hegemony.  If the emancipation is successful, the subordinate group will be able to communicate more freely about the power struggles and oppression that they may feel in the workplace.  It does not mean that they are no longer in a subordinate position, just that their voices are heard and they carry some weight in decision making.


Resistance is the way in which the subordinate group counteracts power relationships.  On the large scale resistance consists of strikes and boycotts, but it happens more frequently on a small scale with things like sarcastic communication behind the scenes or witty office decorations that promote resistant concepts.


A short lecture on the role of the Frankfurt School in 20th century thought.



An introduction to the basic concepts and influential theorists in the work of British Cultural Studies in the 1970s and 1980s.



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Organizational Communication by Julie Zink, Ph.D is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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