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CIOS - Organizing (Un)Healthy Dialectics of Work-Life Balance: An Organizational Communication Response to The Opt-Out Revolution
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The Electronic Journal of Communication / La Revue Electronique de Communication

Volume 16 Numbers 3 & 4, 2006


Kelby K. Halone
University of Tennessee

Abstract: This essay adopts the lens of organizational communication for responding to discourses of The opt-out revolution. In providing a response, I (a) expose 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 (b) illustrate how micro-level processes of organizing within this macro-level dialectic are tied into disciplinary organizational communication problematics of voice, rationality, organization, and the organization-society relationship.

Scholars of organizational communication have viewed their primary phenomenon of disciplinary interest as one that (a) inherently creates the communicative system of an array of organizational phenomena, and (b) pragmatically organizes the interactive structure of ubiquitous institutional forms (e.g., health, family, relationships, gender, race, age, class, media, and sport). In framing an organizational communication response to The Opt-Out Revolution (Belkin, 2003), one must become minimally cognizant of four premises. First, discursive practices of work and labor implicate how humans symbolically organize their everyday lives (Clair, 1996; Deetz, 1992). Second, interactive processes of organizing inherently reside at both macro and micro levels (Poole, Putnam, & Seibold, 1997, Taylor, 1993). Third, processes of interactive organizing should not remain restricted to the material confines of the organization proper (Fairhurst & Putnam, 2004; Taylor, Cooren, Giroux, & Robichaud, 1996), yet should be extended to those interactive instantiations that constitute and regulate the organized character of everyday life (Clair, 1998, 1999). Finally, such processes become manifest through disciplinary problematics of (a) voice, (b) rationality, (c) organization, and (d) the organization-society relationship (Mumby & Stohl, 1996). Thus, to study processes of organizing—in both its micro and macro manifestations—is to examine those taken-for-granted processes that interactively govern the communicative conduct of everyday life.

Everyday issues of work-life balance, aptly documented throughout Belkin’s (2003) article, is one topical candidate ripe for a disciplinary response from scholars of organizational communication (Kirby, Golden, Medved, Jorgenson, & Buzzanell, 2003). A cogent illustration of attempting to “accomplish personal and professional life,” the opt-out revolution begins to illustrate how “life decisions” begin to (un)intentionally implicate candidate tensions that dialectically (Baxter, 2004) organize (Taylor & Cooren, 1997) everyday dynamics of work-life balance. This response constructively seeks to uncover these tensions by problematizing The Opt-Out Revolution as a mediated artifact of everyday organizing.

The Opt-Out Revolution, Organizational Communication Inquiry, and Issues of Work-Life Balance

The Opt-Out Revolution is a symbolic artifact amenable to organizational communication inquiry. First, Belkin’s (2003) article provides a mediated outlet for topically legitimizing cultural issues of work and labor (McCombs & Reynolds, 2002; Shrum, 2002). Next, the New York Times provides an organized outlet for this issue to become consumed and (re)produced at both macro and micro levels (Ellis, 1999; Lunt & Livingston, 2001). Then, the genesis of the work implicates paradoxical tensions that characterize (a) dynamics of everyday organizational life, and (b) processes of work-life organizing (Stohl & Cheney, 2001; Trethewey & Ashcraft, 2004). Finally, the mediated text, distributed in public print, becomes an artifact that culturally codifies (Garfinkel, 1967) an articulated code (i.e., voice) that questions the normative conduct (i.e., rationality) regarding the role of work-life dynamics (i.e., organization) and its subsequent status in American[1] culture (i.e., organization-society relationship). Belkin’s (2003) article provides a unique opportunity to empirically examine those phenomenal processes that exemplify the disciplinary character of organizational communication inquiry.

Belkin’s (2003) article, furthermore, becomes a cultural artifact that serves to implicate everyday dynamics of work-life balance. First, the article documents those lived experiences of organizational exit (Jablin & Kramer, 1998; Kramer, 1994). Next, its content enables its readers to (re)consider macro-micro dynamics that regulate cultural issues of work, labor, identity, and organizations (Bergstrom & Holmes, 2004; Kirby & Krone, 2002). Then, the genesis of the work mediates a candidate position of what constitutes “living” in American culture (Goffman, 1974; Popp, 2006). Finally, the mediated text—considering its (re)productive potential—begins to concretize a cultural archetype for: (a) how an individual should articulate the meaning of one’s personal and professional life (i.e., voice); (b) the symbolic actions through which “life” should be procedurally performed (i.e., rationality); (c) the communicative origins through which such meaning and action become interactively organized (i.e., organization); and (d) how such processes pragmatically regulate the symbolic conduct of everyday life (i.e., organization-society relationship). Belkin (2003) ably documents how these sensemaking processes (Weick, 1995) (re)produce a narrative (Bochner, 2002) that consequentially organizes (Sigman, 1995) the cultural foundation(s) of human existence (Giddens, 1984). Such processes, in turn, collectively -- albeit differentially -- give rise to the symbolic enactment of everyday work-life balance. Entertaining what these cultural processes subsequently entail will be the primary focus of this response.

Analyzing The Opt-Out Revolution as a Mediated Artifact of Everyday Organizing

The corpus of data that was drawn upon to frame this analysis was the Belkin (2003) article proper. If Belkin’s (2003) claim about this pending “revolution” was accurate, the article would initially serve as the symbolic source (Downes & McMillan, 2000), and communicative impetus, for its eventual (re)production (Evans, 2002). Therefore, after reading the article as a media consumer, and initially distancing myself from the mediated text, I later situated myself ethnographically (Goodall, 1991) as a co-cultural “outsider within” (Orbe, 1999) from a multiperspectival embrace (Krone, 2000, 2005). As I oriented myself to the phenomenon (Beach, 1994), I extracted symbolic codes (Strauss & Corbin, 1990), prompting interpretive themes (Owen, 1984), which served to characterize macro-level dialectics (Baxter & Montgomery, 1998) of work-life balance. These macro-level dialectics were then classified at a micro level among those disciplinary problematics endemic to organizational communication inquiry (Mumby & Stohl, 1996). The identification of these dynamics served to dialectically illuminate those (un)healthy tensions that prospectively fuel everyday work-life experiences (Kirby et al., 2003).

Organizing (Un)Healthy Narratives of Work-Life Balance: Dialectical Tensions Underlying the Discourse of “Opting-Out”

Macro-Level Observations

Underlying the arguments of both Belkin and her interviewees was an implied cultural understanding (Garfinkel, 1967) of what constitutes the meaning of personal and professional life. If one initially assumes that its reader(s) should possess such an understanding, one may subsequently assume that its reader(s) should also be able to sufficiently apprehend those interactive processes that ultimately give rise to such meaning. The following logic elucidates this premise: Given that (a) meaning phenomenally surfaces through everyday experience, and (b) such everyday experiences arise through the advent of everyday interaction, then (c) the essence of meaning literally arises through everyday interaction. It is such everyday interaction that contingently organizes (un)healthy dialectics of work-life balance. Figure one provides a macro-level breakdown of what those dialectical tensions prospectively entail.

Figure 1: Dialectical Tensions in (Un)Healthy Narratives of Work-Life Balance

The figure seeks to document the dialectical interplay between (a) narrative discourse that characterizes past↔present experiences and (b) narrative discourse that characterizes present↔future experiences (Fisher, 1987). Analogous to Tracy and Trethewey (2005), the discourse that implicates past↔present experiences could be understood as a narrative of preservation (i.e., messages that interactively seek to regulate the status quo characterizing an individual’s current understanding of the human condition), while the discourse that implicates present↔future experiences could be understood as a narrative of preference (i.e., messages that interactively seek to cultivate a newfound prospect for the human condition).

Preserved narrative. The discourse characterizing the past↔present narrative generally appeared to view the meaning of life in terms of a symbolic possession (i.e., “having a life”) that becomes an object of contestation (i.e., “it’s a game”) that must be ultimately fought for (i.e., “it’s a battle”). By embroiling oneself in such a contested state, one’s professional identity would become realized, leading to a sense of financial stability and material security (i.e., health identity codified).[2] This narrative subsequently facilitates an understanding of life success that is viewed as a series of prerequisite tasks (i.e., “in order to, one must…”).

Preferred narrative. The discourse characterizing the present↔future narrative generally appeared to view the meaning of life in terms of a symbolic process (i.e., “living one’s live”) that becomes a subject of personal volition (i.e., “it’s a choice”) and indefinite performance (i.e., “it’s a risk”). Upon deciding to symbolically embark upon, and respectively embrace, such an experience, one’s personal identity would become realized, leading to a sense of personal clarity and individual awareness (i.e., health identity codified). This narrative subsequently facilitates an understanding of life success that is viewed in terms of an experiential process (i.e., “if one will, then one can…”).

Micro-Level Observations

Being incognizant of this macro-level dialectic (“having a life”↔“living one’s life”) that contingently fuels cultural narratives of work-life balance pragmatically affects how individuals interactively organize their everyday lives. Scholars of organizational communication might contend that these processes of organizing become sufficiently realized by addressing: (a) how an individual should allegedly articulate “the meaning of [personal and professional] life” (i.e., voice); (b) the normative actions through which this “meaning of life” is procedurally performed (i.e., rationality); (c) the interactive underpinnings through which “the meaning of life” is collectively organized (i.e., organization); and (d) how processes of organizing give rise to a contingent understanding of human existence (i.e., organization-society relationship). Table one provides a micro-level breakdown of how these dialectical tensions of work-life balance pragmatically organize cultural narratives of human existence.

Table 1: Organizing Cultural Narratives of Human Existence



(Narrative of Preservation)

(Narrative of Preference)


Collective Voice
Projected Voice
Public Voice
“Having to” do things
Saying what everyone else thinks

Individual Voice
Private Voice
Authentic Voice
“Choosing to” do things
Saying what one truly believes


Life is a Destination
Life is a Possession
Life is an Accumulation
Life is an Accomplishment
An object to be had

Living is a Journey
Living is a Process
Living is an Experience
Living is a Privilege
A subject to behold


Organizational Life
Professional Identity
Occupational Status
Scheduling Life

Relational Living
Personal Identity
Human Status
Living Leisurely

Organization-Society Relationship

Working to Live
What people do
Living in fear
What one does
Being a certain way

Living to Work
Who people are
Living with passion
Who one is
Becoming a certain person

Problematic of voice. Scholars of organizational communication would contend that the meaning of personal and professional life is (a) essentially a socially constructed experience, (b) primarily contingent upon its attendant processes of organizing, and (c) inherently predicated upon those voices that give rise to such processes (Mumby & Stohl, 1996). The voices that are dialectically drawn upon/created throughout Belkin’s article begin to illustrate this perspective. The narrative of “having a life” tends to draw upon a collective voice. It is a voice that typically becomes projected externally into the public sphere for acknowledgement, recognition, and validation. It is a voice that becomes predicated upon “having to” follow an alleged protocol, thus leading to a voice of speaking [in concert with] what everyone else thinks. The narrative of “living one’s life,” alternatively, tends to draw upon an individual voice. It is a voice that is typically private in nature and is authentic in its existence. It is a voice that becomes predicated upon “choosing to” do things because of electing to, and ends up saying [instead of censoring] what it truly believes.

Problematic of rationality. Scholars of organizational communication have recognized that what counts as “rational” inherently transpires from among those voices that are (not) recognized, legitimized, or endorsed, amidst the interactive organization of everyday experience (Mumby & Stohl, 1996). One can begin to understand the symbolic tension that subsequently arises when attempting to balance “having a life” with “living one’s life.” The narrative of “having a life” logically leads one to view life as a destination. It is something that becomes a possession of the individual, which necessitates an accumulation of an array of object[s] to be had. Upon reaching this destination, through the accumulated possession of those respective objects, one can sufficiently render it an accomplishment. The narrative of “living one’s life” logically views living, alternatively, as a journey. It becomes an authentic process that subsequently gives rise to experience which, in turn, leads one to render living as a subject to behold. By embracing this pending journey, and those respective experiences that subsequently surface throughout the process, one may conclude that the process and practice of living is ultimately a privilege.

Problematic of organization. Scholars of organizational communication have acknowledged that any organizational entity, organized state, or process of organizing, can only be apprehended in lieu of the interactive logic—and its attendant voices—that facilitate such “organization” (Mumby & Stohl, 1996). The organized logic that comparatively constitutes the dialectical narratives of “having a life” and “living one’s life” gives rise to those interactive rules, and communicative resources, that are drawn upon in order to substantiate the symbolic legitimacy of each. “Having a life” becomes “organizational” through one’s occupational status. It invokes a career-driven process of organizing that entails the scheduling [of] life in order to achieve some semblance of professional identity. “Having a life,” in essence, becomes organized primarily through one’s organizational life. “Living one’s life,” alternatively, becomes “organizational” through one’s human status. It invokes a process of organizing that becomes predicated upon purposive-living, which necessitates the process of living leisurely in order to achieve some semblance of personal identity. “Living one’s life” comparably becomes organized primarily through relational living.

Problematic of the organization-society relationship. Scholars of organizational communication have also observed that societal dynamics are inextricably linked to those processes of organizing, its interactive logic, and those contingent voices that give rise to such logic (Mumby & Stohl, 1996). It is at this respective problematic that we can begin to understand how the dialogue, embedded throughout Belkin’s (2003) article, culturally represents those fundamental tensions that interactively underlie the everyday management of this dialectic. “Having a life” prospectively instills a credo of working to live. It is what one does amidst entertaining what [other] people do in their life. A concomitant result of such an approach can cause people to end up living in fear as they become preoccupied with being a certain way in the world. “Living one’s life,” contrarily, prospectively instills a credo of living to work. It is who one is throughout this process that ultimately determines who people are. A concomitant result of such an embrace can productively invoke a sense of living with passion as they are in the throes of authentically becoming a certain person in the world.

Organizing Macro-Micro Tensions of Work-Life Balance

The discourse collectively embedded in Belkin’s (2003) article begins to culturally implicate dialectical processes of work-life organizing. These processes achieve candidate status in that these narrative counterparts are characteristic of contradiction, change, totality, and praxis (Baxter & Montgomery, 1996). The text, moreover, serves to implicate a dialectical tension that exists between preserved narratives (i.e., “having a life”), preferred narratives (i.e., “living one’s life”), and the status of its indeterminate relationship at a macro level. The disciplinary problematics of organizational communication, consequently, illustrate how this cultural dialectic fuels everyday processes of interactive organizing at a micro level. These dialectical tensions cannot be meaningfully or productively understood without the symbolic presence of the other (Baxter, 2004); yet individuals are not always institutionally aware (Heritage, 2005) of which message structures they draw upon (Taylor & Cooren, 1997) in order to organize their respective life experience(s) (Conrad, 1993; Giddens, 1984). As a result, we appropriately begin to understand why these women in Belkin’s (2003) article were symbolically struggling to interactively manage their respective story/stories (Bochner, 2002) about achieving work-life balance.

Beyond (Un)Healthy Work-Life Narratives: Organizing the Prospect for Everyday Living

I have argued that the opt-out revolution can be understood as a mediated form of everyday organizing that is ripe for organizational communication inquiry, which can provide subsequent insight into those interactive processes that become particularly germane to understanding everyday issues of work-life balance. My analyses suggest that this pending “revolution” upon us may be [nothing more than?] the recognition that Americans have yet to clearly comprehend how they interactively organize their cultural existence. Life (and living) may be seen as a unified dialectic whose attendant narratives facilitate a productive opportunity upon which to appropriately make sense of (a) who they currently are [not], (b) where they currently are [not] at, and (c) what they would eventually [not] like to become. Understanding which voices are being acknowledged, the system of logic that governs the presence of such voices, the organized foundation(s) that subsequently govern those systems of logic, and the cultural milieu that legitimizes such processes of organizing, become crucial in understanding how individuals communicatively choose to position themselves—or become interactively positioned—with respect to everyday issues of work, labor, identity, and organizations. The degree to which such processes are (not) acknowledged will essentially determine the degree to which these (un)healthy narratives will navigate the symbolic trajectory of their respective life-span.

The dialogue presented in The Opt-Out Revolution, serving as an institutional artifact for examining issues of “having a life”↔“living one’s life,” begins to intimate that individuals in American culture may not sufficiently: (a) recognize the narrative domain to which they currently or primarily reside; (b) realize that any narrative domain becomes contingently organized in relation to some dialectical counterpart; and (c) understand that it is literally those messages that individuals selectively enact (and react to, in some combination) that provide the pragmatic impetus for managing everyday processes of work-life balance. The prospect for achieving work-life balance, consequently, becomes predicated upon being able to interactively manage those communicative tensions that subsequently give rise to those preserved and/or preferred narratives that organize one’s symbolic existence. The promise for achieving work-life balance, however, requires that individuals must begin to take the risk of ultimately recognizing, appreciating, interpreting, and understanding their existence in communicative terms. Failing to acknowledge these respective processes will —not surprisingly—communicatively give rise to an unhealthy, unproductive, unsatisfying, and, most notably, incomplete life (and lived) experience. It is hoped that framing an understanding of The Opt-Out Revolution from an organizational communication lens has begun to productively initiate an organized awareness of such processes.


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[1] By “American,” I am referring to the cultural domain of the United States of America.

[2] “Health identity” is being referred to as any symbolic rule or resource that humans interactively draw upon in order to facilitate a sense of wellness (i.e., stability; security; actualization). Health identity becomes “codified” when those symbolic rules and resources are continually drawn upon, in such a manner, that become relatively tacit in nature. These distinctions, however, are only speculative, and can only become theoretically clarified through systematic empirical investigation. While there are other symbolic resources that undoubtedly exist, these are two that initially appeared—however restrictively—to serve as root metaphors for this respective life narrative.

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