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CIOS - Communication and the Accomplishment of Personal and Professional Life: An Introduction
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The Electronic Journal of Communication / La Revue Electronique de Communication

Volume 16 Numbers 3 & 4, 2006


Erika L. Kirby
Creighton University

When I made the call for this special issue on Communication and the Accomplishment of Personal and Professional Life in spring of 2005, I wanted to provide a forum for communication research broadly acknowledging that individuals have more than just a working existence—workers have some form of personal life. I invited research asking and answering questions such as, “What constitutes a personal versus a professional life? How do these realms of our experience diverge, and how do they intersect?” While this focus was intended to include the forms of work-family scholarship that have increased in recent years, it was also intended to provide a space to explore personal and professional life through broader lenses since “work-family” does not always explicitly include the single, LGBT and/or “childless” workers who still must negotiate multiple pressures on a daily basis as they accomplish their personal and working/professional existence.

A year later, this special issue—comprised of three distinct parts—is complete. Part I: Research on Communication and the Accomplishment of Personal and Professional Life is comprised of the empirical research articles that resulted from that original call for manuscripts. Part II: Reflections on Communication and the Accomplishment of Personal and Professional Life is a series of reflections on the dilemmas in conducting personal-professional communication scholarship as described by several scholars researching and/or teaching in the area. Finally, Part III: Accomplishing (Personal) Life by (Professionally) “Opting-Out” provides six different communicative analyses of the “opt-out revolution” where career-driven women are leaving the workforce to stay-at-home with children as described by Lisa Belkin (2003). I now preview the articles within each part in more detail.

Research on Communication and the Accomplishment of Personal and Professional Life

The four manuscripts within Part I are exemplars of research that begins to stretch the boundaries of work-life research to incorporate diverse voices and contexts. Within this section, manuscripts are ordered based on the most broad/general contributions to the discourse to the most focused. To begin, Sherianne Shuler argues for a reconsideration of our conception of “organizations” in her case study of one home-based organization. She utilizes work on concertive control as well as the frame of total institutions to examine how organizational members both maintain and undermine the public/private dichotomy that underpins their professional and personal lives in notions of “work” and “home” in her piece on Working at home as total institution: Maintaining and undermining the public/private dichotomy. Shuler illustrates that while participants usually resisted the pull of the total institution in home-based work by maintaining “boundaries,” they at times succumbed to the total institution and undermined the public/private dichotomy.

Annis Golden and Cheryl Geisler take as their central focus the flexible working practices that are increasingly available to workers as a desired benefit in terms of work-life accommodations. Yet, as they note, these arrangements create the need for greater self-management and time management on the part of workers who engage in them. They therefore study the practices of individuals who use personal digital assistants (PDAs) as a technological tool to manage flexible work and time, identifying ideological dilemmas presented by both flexible work itself and the material and discursive practices individuals draw upon in managing flexible work and work-life interrelationships in their piece on Flexible work, time, and technology: Ideological dilemmas of managing work-life interrelationships using personal digital assistants.

The last two research papers then take the intersection of sex/gender and occupation as their central focus in exploring personal and professional life, albeit in different ways. Dave Petroski and Paige Edley look at the intersection of masculinity↔parenting-as-occupation from the perspective of their own lived experiences (Dave as stay-at-home father, Paige as spouse of stay-at-home father) in their theoretical piece on Stay-at-home fathers: Masculinity, family, work, and gender stereotypes. Through introducing the notion of “communication space,” together they (a) theorize the intersections of power, gender, work, family, and identity from the standpoint of the stay-at-home father and (b) question how masculinity, fatherhood, family dynamics, work, and society’s resistance to nontraditional gender roles are (re)produced in everyday life.

Finally, in The work-life relationship for “people with choices:” Women entrepreneurs as crystallized selves? Rebecca Gill looks at the intersection of woman↔entrepreneur to examine the (at times unconventional) work and life experiences of people who ostensibly seem to have more freedom and flexibility to make choices as to how to shape their material work-life as well as their work-life identity. She argues the “crystallized self” (Tracy & Trethewey, 2005) is evident within some women entrepreneurs’ conceptualizations of self, but that some women entrepreneurs who over-identified with their businesses moved beyond the crystallized identity to experience a dis/integrated identity.

Reflections on Communication and the Accomplishment of Personal and Professional Life

Part II was inspired by my own challenges in conceptualizing and naming this special issue. While I obviously settled on Communication and the Accomplishment of Personal and Professional Life, I continually struggle with naming what I do in terms of a research agenda. Across six years of publishing in this arena, I have moved from “work-family” (too exclusionary) to “work-life” (is work not part of life?) to now trying “personal-professional life”, yet I certainly recognize that “professional” has its own connotations. I therefore invited several scholars researching and/or teaching in this area of work-personal life communication “to consider the inherent difficulty of communicating about our differing life-realms of experience (e.g., public-private, work-family, work-life, personal-professional, etc.).”

As in Part I, manuscripts are ordered based on the most broad/general contributions to the discourse to the most focused. To begin, Angela Trethewey, Sarah Tracy, and Jess Alberts illustrate the ways common frames for these issues—-including balance, conflict, roles, and wellness—tend to dichotomize and marginalize. They then offer the “crystallized self” (Tracy & Trethewey, 2005) as another frame for discussion in that a crystallized approach suggests that challenges in managing multiple identities are diverse and not all-of-a-kind in Crystallizing frames for work-life. In the second piece, Pondering diverse work-life issues and developments over the lifespan, Patrice Buzzanell first “plays the academic” in (a) providing an overview of some academic research and community practice on workplace negotiations and (b) laying out some of the overarching macrodiscourses that can prevent innovative thinking about work-life solutions. She concludes with some very personal reflections on her own personal work-life dilemmas.

Jane Jorgenson takes a slightly narrower lens, proposing some avenues for enlarging the themes of research on work-personal life relationships by bringing children into the foreground as subjects in Seeing work-life from children’s standpoints. She explores (a) the meaning and experience of time in children’s everyday lives as well as (b) children’s performance of unpaid labor in their households. Finally, Lynn Harter takes an even more focused look at issues of the personal and the professional in reflecting on the life of the teacher-scholar in Storied learning at the crossroads of the personal and the public. She explores three concerns of intertextuality, identity construction, and indeterminancy that emerge in teaching and learning with narrative sensibilities and concludes with cautions and questions for individuals who construct their scholarly lives in this way since “learning at the crossroads of the personal and public [can be] a risky, and even fragile, endeavor.”

Accomplishing (Personal) Life by (Professionally) “Opting-Out”

Part III was inspired by the increased discourse in the 21st century over the (perceived?) trend or “revolution” that women are opting out of the workforce altogether as their solution to communicatively accomplishing personal and professional life. The most public pronouncement of this phenomenon was Lisa Belkin’s (2003) article on The opt-out revolution in The New York Times, which examined how women who have graduate degrees from Ivy League universities such as Princeton, Harvard, and Columbia have “chosen” to “opt-out” of the workforce to stay home and raise their children while their husbands provide for the family. Through her description, mental images were evoked of well-dressed women at Starbucks sipping lattes while watching their children play and then hopping into their Range Rovers to drive home; Belkin then calls this progress in that such women are calling out/rejecting the workplace and its lack of accommodation to working mothers.

As may have been expected, the article spawned much controversy—a heated discussion quickly ensued on the NYT Forum (its online bulletin board) so intense that 1006 postings were logged in the following days and weeks; the first response was actually posted on October 24, 2003 before the printed issue even came out. Stadtman Tucker (2003) argued this was the best outcome of Belkin’s article—“that it spawned a deluge of intelligent criticism discussing the realities of motherhood, work, and barriers to women’s leadership” (Note 1), including not only reader postings but work by Douglas (2003), Lavender (2003), and Pollitt (2003—see also Japp’s article, this issue).

As just some examples of this (critical) discourse, Douglas (2003) described the article as sitting “on the dining room table exuding kryptonite” (¶ 1) and as “a slap at mothers who do work for a living because they need to, want to, or both. It is also, of course, an assault on feminism as misguided, irrelevant, out-of-date, or all the above” (¶ 3). Douglas challenges Belkin on issues of: (a) class bias and race bias; (b) the discourse of “choice;” (c) selective use of statistics; (d) arguments of biology as destiny; and (e) a buried lead since “the real story here is not about mothers ‘choosing’ not to work. It’s about the ongoing inhumanity of many workplaces whose workaholic cultures are hostile to both men and women” (¶ 8). Lavender (2003) questioned how widespread this trend or “revolution” really could be:

What about the rest of us? What about the families who choose to live on the income of one parent, when the paycheck is not sufficient? What about the women who love their jobs? What about single mothers, student mothers, poor mothers, people with disabilities? What about the people who simply do not have a choice? (¶ 3)

Even in the week that I was finalizing this introduction, Coontz (2006) published the Myth of the opt-out mom, asserting this construction did have a “kernel of truth” in that “Highly educated, high-income wives did take more breaks from employment between 1993 and 2004 than in the previous decade, an option made possible partly by their own achievements and partly by the soaring incomes of their husbands” (¶ 4). Yet the overall magnitude of this trend or “revolution” has been greatly exaggerated in Coontz’s view:

[H]ighly educated mothers are less likely than any other group of moms to become stay-at-home moms. For mothers with children under age 6, 65 percent of those with high school diplomas are in the labor force, compared with 68 percent of mothers with college degrees and 75 percent of mothers with postgraduate degrees. The real story is that the workforce participation of less-educated mothers is catching up to that of the more educated ones. Today, the likelihood that a woman will leave her job because of her children is half what it was in 1984. (¶ 5, emphasis added)

The opt-out revolution did not escape the multiple lenses of communication studies scholars, either. In 2004, the Organizational Communication Division of the National Communication Association sponsored a panel at the Chicago convention (of which I was a part) where scholars took a multiperspectival look at The opt-out revolution—reflecting on both Belkin’s (2003) article and a sampling of postings (the first 150 messages) to the online forum. At its core, I believe the “opt-out revolution” has been framed as the deeply personal “choice” between careerism and motherhood, and as a result definitely speaks to this special issue. I therefore decided to invite all of the panel participants to revisit and polish their essays for inclusion in this volume.

Specifically, in Organizing (un)healthy dialectics of work-life balance, Kelby Halone provides an organizational communication response. He offers a macro-level dialectic of “having a life”↔“living one’s life” present in the discourse “that affects how individuals interactively organize their everyday lives,” and illustrates how processes of organizing within this dialectic are tied into broader organizational communication problematics of voice, rationality, organization, and the organization-society relationship. Chad McBride then crafts a family communication response, where he illustrates A hierarchy of family. His discussion explores (a) the construction of motherhood, (b) the (re)framing of choice vs. responsibility of motherhood, (c) the limited construction of fatherhood, and (d) the hierarchy of good “family” in The opt-out revolution.

In her piece on Discourses of careerism, separatism, and individualism, Stacey Wieland creates a work/life communication response where she (a) explores “opting-out” and “balancing” as micro-level discourses as to how to successfully manage tensions between work and other parts of life and (b) reflects on the Discourses that are necessary for each to be compelling. She concludes the discourse of opting out implicitly affirms an ideology of careerism, while the discourse of balancing implicitly affirms an ideology of separatism—and that both discourses affirm an ideology of individualism. Mary Jeanette (M. J.) Smythe then offers a gendered communication response Of angst, anecdote, and anger, exploring some of the features of the article and the online postings that function as markers of gendered discourse. In addition to considering attributes that define feminine discourse communities, Smythe considers two emergent themes of (a) women’s stereotyping of each other and (b) “the biology/destiny redux.”

In the fifth take on the opt-out revolution, Phyllis Japp offers a cultural studies response to the “revolution” in Mothering in the Sudan and at Starbucks. She (a) considers five components of ideological construction and maintenance present in the article (master narratives, definitions, agencies, connections/disconnections, and silences) and then (b) analyzes the online postings for indications of counterstories. In the last of the six essays, Jennifer Simpson and I ask “Choices” for whom? in offering a White privilege/social class response. We challenge the language of personal “choice” on grounds that it masks institutional and systemic forces by (a) creating invisible identities that dismiss class and “e-race” race and (b) leaving invisible the institutions of marriage, family, and “responsibility.”

Finally, Timothy Kuhn provides an integrative essay entitled Identity, discourse, and community in the opt-out revolution: A concluding essay to tie these pieces together as they inform not only the opt-out revolution, but communication theorizing in general. In advancing themes across the essays, he (a) highlights common concerns related to identity construction; (b) analyzes the discursive “tools” that surfaced and explores the consequences of these; and (c) suggests an agenda for theory and intervention in communication scholarship. Taken together, the three parts of this special issue not only summarize but further our theorizing on Communication and the Accomplishment of Personal and Professional Life and I hope you enjoy reading them not only as they contribute to your own professional life but to your personal life as well.


This would not have been possible without the support of several individuals. To begin, I would like to thank Teri Harrison for giving me the opportunity to guest edit this special issue as well as the staff of the EJC for their assistance in formatting and publication. I would also like to thank Mary Smith (Creighton University) for her countless hours of assisting with line-editing and reference checking. I would like to thank all of the authors whose work comprises this issue for sharing your work. In addition to the authors, I would like to thank the review board for this special issue, including: Patrice Buzzanell (Purdue University), Paige Edley (Loyola Marymount University), Lynn Harter (Ohio University), Renee Houston (University of Puget Sound), Annika Hylmö, Jane Jorgenson (University of South Florida), Patricia Geist-Martin (San Diego State University), M. Chad McBride (Creighton University), Caryn Medved (Ohio University), Dennis Mumby (University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill), Donna Pawlowski (Creighton University), Sarah Tracy (Arizona State University), Angela Trethewey (Arizona State University), and Paaige Turner (St. Louis University). Thank you all for providing such excellent feedback to the authors of empirical pieces.

Finally, I would like to thank those special people who help me in the (continuous) accomplishment of my own personal and professional endeavors. In particular, on the (more) professional side, I extend thanks to my colleagues and students at Creighton University. On the personal side, I would like to acknowledge my husband, Bob, my daughters, Meredith and Samantha, and our parents, grandparents, and siblings for always providing a support network so that we could both attain our professional goals while knowing our children were in good hands.


Belkin, L. (2003, October 26). The opt-out revolution. The New York Times, pp. 42-47, 58, 85-86.

Coontz, S. (2006, March 30). Myth of the opt-out mom. Christian Science Monitor [online]. Retrieved April 1, 2006 from

Douglas, S. (2003, November 17). Mommas in the marketplace. Retrieved March 1, 2006 from

Lavender, B. (2003, November 19). Personal voices: Revolution or regression? Retrieved March 1, 2006 from

Pollitt, K. (2003, November 17). There they go again. Nation. Retrieved March 1, 2006 from

Stadtman Tucker, J. (2003, December). The least worst choice: Why mothers “opt” out of the workforce. Retrieved March 1, 2006 from least_worst_choice_notes.htm

The New York Times. (2003, October-November). Online forum devoted to The Opt-Out Revolution. Retrieved [for all contributing authors] on October 1, 2004 from: magazine/archivedmagazinediscussions/theoptoutrevolution/

Tracy, S. J. & Trethewey, A. (2005). Fracturing the real- self↔fake-self dichotomy: Moving toward “crystallized” organizational discourses and identities. Communication Theory, 15, 168-195.

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