Using a meta-modernist and ecological lens to underpin professionalism: Establishing communications as a reflective and sustainable practice

Bowman, Sarah and Yaxley, Heather (2021) Using a meta-modernist and ecological lens to underpin professionalism: Establishing communications as a reflective and sustainable practice. In: A post-conference of the 2021 Annual Meeting of the International Communication Association: Opening Up the Meanings of 'The Professional', Professional Organisations, and Professionalism in Communication Studies, 1-2 Jun 2021, Virtual. (Unpublished)

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Introduction and Purpose: This abstract relates to a work in progress project that points to the lens of meta modernism as a way to re-orientate thinking around what constitutes the knowledge, skills and attributes (KSA) required in ‘becoming professional’ (Scanlon, 2011). We argue that communication practitioners are well placed to thrive as society shifts further towards instability and uncertainty in line with what Bauman (2000) calls liquid modernity. In this organic environment, which some call a ‘post communication world’ (Macnamara, 2018), contemporary communication practitioners need to become comfortable operating betwixt and between multiple social roles and fluid work identities. Consequently, this project asks a key question: how can professionalism ensure sustainability of communications practice?

Literature Review: Digital disruption and globalisation are transforming the nature of work (Lo Presti, 2009) as organisations respond to environmental turbulence and change (Malhotra, 2002). ‘Collective agility’ helps to negotiate the resulting tensions and ‘improvisation paradoxes’ (Zheng et al., 2010) that include a need to ‘thrive within the plurality’ and learn to ‘explore the natural ebb and flow of tensions’ (Lewis, 2000). In addition, a requirement for ‘greater flexibility and adaptability’ supports the predicted trend that ‘future professional-type occupations will have their boundaries less clearly defined than in the past’ (Cheetham and Chivers, 2005). Already this is evident in the communications field, where the contours between organisations and stakeholders, functions and disciplines, and real and digital worlds blur and entwine. At the same time, organisations are struggling to tackle increased demands for social justice, transparency and trust, and ensure their actions live up to the ‘hard and demanding’ task of ethical principles (O’Neill, 2001). Against this backdrop professional fields are now more varied (Noordegraff, 2016), networked and interlocking (Barnett, 2011). Revell and Bryan (2018) talk of liquid professionalism with the need to constantly re-invigorate capabilities in fluid and changing times. Others talk of an ecological approach (Barnett, 2011) allowing for greater professional interdependencies grounded in responsibility and sustainability not only to practice but society. Additionally, those that write about knowledge point to the value of its ‘continuously modified’ nature and contribution to ‘Higher-Order Dynamic Capabilities which enable instantaneous responsiveness to altered conditions’ (Kaur, 2019). Trends in the literature, therefore, suggest a need for fresh ways to explore the role of professionalism in ensuring the sustainability of communications practice.

Design/Methodology/Approach: The philosophical lens of meta modernism (Velmeulen and van den Akker, 2010) shapes this project as it manifests a digitalised, post-industrial, global age. Meta modernism tries to harmonise the conflicts between modernism and postmodernism to better understand the complexity evidenced in contemporary life and work (Bacui et al., 2016). The focus is not on critique and problematisation, but in finding solutions and promoting anticipatory, reflective and proactive thinking. Gardner (2016) suggests in this it helps individuals manage their position at the boundaries of diverse social systems that may be at odds with each other, whilst allowing individuals themselves to hold simultaneous positions in multiple worlds. We argue this has direct parallels to communication work which operates at the interface of organisational boundaries and by its nature is multidisciplinary. The detailed methodology is rhizomatic (Guerin, 2013) drawing on a range of disciplinary fields to ‘assemble’ new knowledge (Deleuze and Guattari, 1980/1988) in the spirit of the bricoleur (Denzin and Lincoln, 1999; Rogers, 2012). It is deliberately eclectic in embracing plurality and blurred boundaries to provide a rich, emergent research approach that draws in interdisciplinary scholarship, reflective practice and action learning.Both researchers are engaged in reviewing the concept of knowledge and continuous professional development (CPD) for the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) in the UK. We are involved in delivering professional qualifications to practitioners and have backgrounds in communication practice. As McNiff and colleagues (2002) argues action research is about conversation rather than specific techniques and it is conversations that have driven what Coghlan and Brannick (2005) term research in action.

Findings: Early indications are the modernist presentation of communication professionals as individuals possessing stable identities, linear career histories, precise role jurisdiction and a list-like body of knowledge, skills and abilities, does not reflect reality. This presents a paradox as findings also suggest the postmodern perspective that contends all is chaos, knowledge and expertise are depreciated and professional institutions are de-valued, is equally flawed. Instead, communication professionals are challenged by a need to oscillate between the KSA that contribute to organisational goals (a modernist orientation grounded in evidence-informed thinking) and those that enable engagement with rapidly changing socio-cultural conditions and activist tendencies (a post-modern orientation grounded in critical thinking). To do this successfully requires developing a sustainable ability for deep reflection and agility. This recognises that professionals are never fully made but continue to ‘become’ throughout their careers, necessitating pro/cre-active and ironical thinking, heightened ‘ecological’ awareness and ethical decision making. It is this meta-modernist orientation we suggest that now defines what it means to be professional. Limitations: This is a work-in-progress project due for completion in the summer of 2021, so the findings are indicative of what has emerged so far. It is also inductive, qualitative and rhizomatic and findings will need to be further debated and explored with professional bodies and practitioners in the UK and beyond.
Originality/Value: The study when complete intends to have practical and theoretical value. It extends thinking around meta modernist approaches to better understand the communication professions, what constitutes being a professional and opens up new lines of theoretical enquiry in the field of communications and for the professions more generally. Its practical value to date is supporting development of a knowledge taxonomy to underpin sustainable professional development in an increasingly kaleidoscopic and rhizomatic career landscape.


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Barnett, R. (2011). Towards an ecological professionalism. In: Sugrue, D. and Solbrekke, T. D. (eds) Professional Responsibility: New Horizons of Praxis. London and New York, Routledge, pp29-4

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Revell, L. and Bryan, H. (2018). Fundamental British Values in Education: Radicalisation, National Identity and Britishness. Bingley, UK: Emerald Publishing Ltd

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Zheng, Y., Venters, W., and Cornford, T. (2010). Collective agility, paradox and organizational improvisation: the development of a particle physics grid. Information Systems Journal. 21, 4:303-333

Item Type: Conference or Workshop Item (Other)
Uncontrolled Keywords: Professions, Meta modernism, Public Relations
Subjects: P900 Others in Mass Communications and Documentation
W100 Fine Art
Department: Faculties > Arts, Design and Social Sciences > Arts
Related URLs:
Depositing User: John Coen
Date Deposited: 02 Jun 2021 10:13
Last Modified: 31 Jul 2021 11:17

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