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CIOS - Identity, Discourse, and Community in The Opt-Out Revolution: A Concluding Essay
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The Electronic Journal of Communication / La Revue Electronique de Communication

Volume 16 Numbers 3 & 4, 2006


Timothy Kuhn
University of Colorado at Boulder

Abstract: This essay serves to integrate the six responses to discourses of The opt-out revolution by tying these pieces together as they inform not only the opt-out revolution, but communication theorizing in general. In advancing themes across the essays, I (a) highlight common concerns related to identity construction; (b) analyze the discursive “tools” that surfaced and explores the consequences of these; and (c) suggest an agenda for theory and intervention in communication scholarship.

It is a privilege to respond to the preceding articles, for they are rather rare commodities. They are rare in that they present six very different—yet often interestingly consonant—perspectives on a common set of texts: the combination of Lisa Belkin’s (2003) article and the subsequent responses and extensions posted to the online forum. Together, the six essays offer a multi-perspectival and deep analysis; one is hard-pressed to find similar examples of this approach to texts in our journals, though it is certainly something we should see more often. Individually, each not only develops a novel perspective on the “opt-out revolution” and its myriad interpretations, but each also advances thinking on a variety of conceptual positions on human communication as they connect with important contemporary concerns about identity construction in relation to work-family tensions. Accordingly, my task in this concluding essay is not to articulate an additional perspective—I doubt I could be as insightful as the preceding authors—but to contextualize their contributions and propose routes toward future investigation. Toward that end, I (a) abstract from the essays to address the social environment in which the opt-out revolution occurs and, in so doing, highlight common concerns related to identity construction; (b) analyze the discursive “tools” surfaced in the essays and explore the consequences of these; and (c) suggest an agenda for theory and intervention in communication scholarship based on these essays’ insights.

Reflexive Modernization and the Focus on Identity

Social theorists such as Ulrich Beck and Anthony Giddens argue we are in the midst of fundamental societal changes in which traditional sources of certainty and social structure have eroded, while individual identity has become a focal concern. Consequently, considerations of people’s “choices” around work and family should be understood from within this context. Beck (1994) attributes these changes to the development of a “risk society,” in which “social, political, economic and individual risks increasingly tend to escape the institutions for monitoring and protection in industrial society” (p. 5). Individuals are forced to confront these threats qua individuals, because group-specific sources of meaning lose their purchase and because subjectivities experience fragmentation through exposure to manifold contradictory discourses. Similarly, Giddens (1990) asserts that the increasing reliance on expert systems—“systems of technical accomplishment or professional expertise that organise large areas of the material and social environments in which we live today” (p. 27)—influences social relations because actors must trust abstract sources of technical knowledge rather than the immediacies of local contexts. This, too, alters the individual’s approach to constructing a self-identity. For both Beck and Giddens, these conditions eliminate the confidence in traditional social forms and compel individuals to reflexively and actively achieve a self-identity, fashioning it from the elements of the surrounding social scene.

Authoring a (more or less) coherent and socially acceptable biographical narrative, then, becomes a central project of the self (Giddens, 1990); Grey, 1994), and construction of such narratives tend to revolve around “lifestyle” choices, which are determined by family, class, gender, ethnicity, or culture far less than ever before. Sennett (1998) strikes a similar chord in arguing that because contemporary economic arrangements and commercial firms operate on the logic that individuals construct selves in relation to organizations, careers, and consumption. This forces workers to be ever more flexible and entrepreneurial and, in time, to define these characteristics as virtues. Sennett concludes that such stances are corrosive for individuals and families, though they can result in individuals finding emotional fulfillment in one domain or the other (see also Coontz, 1992/2000). He maintains that the defining attribute of this state of affairs is a corporate (and personal) "short-termism," in which immediate results are favored over projects and relationships of longer duration. Short-termism, for Sennett, precludes meaningful engagement in both work and family: it "disorients action over the long term, loosens bonds of trust and commitment, and divorces the will from behavior" (p. 31). From this perspective, many workers have constructed selves in relation to economic structures that make improbable the sorts of organizational and social bonds necessary to successfully opt out.

Of course, such shifts are greeted with great trepidation by those interested in relationships between work and family. Beck (1999) argues the “do-it-yourself” biography can all too easily “become the breakdown biography” (p. 12) when the waning influence of group-determined ways of life through mechanisms such as familial bonds and gender roles leads directly to (relatively) new pressures on women.

Contemporary models of marriage break from tradition (or at least nostalgic versions of tradition: see Coontz [1992/2000]) and require women to build up and maintain educational and professional careers of their own as women, because otherwise they face ruin in case of divorce and remain dependent upon their husbands’ money in marriage—with all the other symbolic and real dependencies this brings for them. (Beck, 1994, p. 15)

Such models of individualized social relations may enhance agency and choice, but they also threaten personal security. Under reflexive modernization, the risks of divorce and the dangers of dependency are ever-present, such that the development of a career is motivated by a desire for stability and independence as much as it is about constructing a coherent identity. Most women featured in Belkin’s article seem to enjoy marriages secure in terms of permanence and finance, such that opting out carries little risk. Yet the posters to the online forum note that little attention is paid to those who do not fit these categories, those whose futures depend on both risky careers and risky partners.

In this environment, it is no surprise that identity becomes the central issue implicated in opting out, nor that each of the six contributors noted its influence (albeit in differing ways). The factors shaping particular constructions of self, others, relationships, and responsibilities assume center stage from the reflexive modernization perspective, and the essays, while not employing the notion of reflexive modernization directly, nicely draw attention to these forces and then draw out their consequences. For instance, McBride’s discussion of the construction of motherhood displays the forced choice between career and family (which are also social constructions), as well as the constraints on agency voiced by several posters to the forum. As these posters reflected on motherhood and women’s “natural” roles and desires, they simultaneously resisted the identity positioning implied in Belkin’s article and reinforced a popular biographical narrative around motherhood, one that “fit” with the idealized and stylized notions of the self opened up by reflexive modernization.

Halone, too, touches upon the theme of the “do-it-yourself” biography as he considers the present↔future narrative, a project of the self accomplished through personal volition led by the promise of subsequent clarity and awareness. Further, Wieland raises themes seen in the work of both Sennett and Beck as she addresses a “new social contract,” but she also extends this work in arguing that a Discourse of careerism underlies the very idea of opting out while it simultaneously enforces the requirement that actors (especially women) craft a coherent narrative of self across such choices (possibly by framing them as merely temporary divergences from a consistent path). These essays, in short, do not merely illustrate the workings of reflexive modernization and its effects on identity; they additionally show the personal, familial, and social/ideological risks associated with navigating work/family tensions.

Discursive Resources in Opting Out Discussions

Just as reflexive modernization is a key societal context in which the opt-out revolution occurs, the linguistic or discursive turn in social theory (Rorty, 1967) provides an underlying intellectual context for each of the essays. This is a perspective that, among other things, encourages an analysis of the politicized construction of personal experience and the social/historical creation of a seemingly objective world (Deetz, 2003; Weedon, 1987). Wieland’s paper most clearly connects with this notion while showing that the discourses employed by the actors in the present case—Belkin, her interviewees, and the posters to the forum—drew on a multiplicity of concepts and articulated an array of positions. In addition to the analysis of identity mentioned in the preceding section, scholars working from such an assumptive base identify and interrogate the discursive resources actors employ in framing, justifying, or passing judgment on action.

Discursive resources are concepts, expressions, or other linguistic devices that actors use in explaining or critiquing past and/or future practice; they are drawn from situated social practice and the surrounding ideological field (Bourdieu, 1990). Discursive resources are instrumental in interpreting experience and thus are central in shaping both individual and collective action. In turn, they render activity sensible and contribute to the structuration of the systems in which we operate (Fairclough, 1992; Kuhn, in press). With this concept in mind, I derived two types of discursive resources in the authors’ analyses.

The first type posits differing conceptions of the sources of a woman’s identity-based commitments, setting “natural” roles against personal choice. The “natural” version of this discursive resource was illustrated by moves reducing women to their “responsibilities” as mothers and nurturers. As Smythe notes, the use of naturalism was often based on biological “facts” and an associated “selective Darwinism” in positioning females in the home, a move which also implied an inherent male desire to engage in battle with other occupants of the corporatized world. Such discursive acts are troubling to those on the other end of this type’s spectrum, though it sometimes motivates their arguments. Those who see identity as the outcome of a series of personal choices suggest that women may resist the “inheritance” provided them by socially constructed gender roles (rather than the biological obligations assumed in the “ natual” category). Those using this version of the discursive resource indicate that women can be and do everything they desire, along the lines of liberal or third-wave feminism (addressed by Japp, as well as Simpson and Kirby); this theme is also seen in Halone’s identification of the “living one’s life” narrative. The key to the use of this discursive resource was a recognition that social and personal expectations for women and men are not fixed but are, rather, continually in flux; that the “master narratives” of womankind and the primacy accorded to corporate work, as articulated by Japp, can be discursively penetrated. For those defining identity and maternal commitments in terms of personal choices, agency emerges in response to naturalism’s determinism, but structure too easily recedes to the unexpressed background in assumptions about preferences, options, and decisions.

One problem with these ways of talking about the “sources of a woman’s identity-based commitments” is that they seem to be perceived by the actors—again, Belkin, her interviewees, and the posters to the forum—as mutually exclusive polar opposites. Framing work and motherhood in these terms makes the opt-out “choice” appear revolutionary. Yet, as Japp notes, the choice is frequently a substitution of confinement in one extreme for the other. The possibility of living between the poles is obscured, frequently by that competitive drive to be a “super-mommy” Japp and McBride discuss (see also (Douglas & Michaels, 2004)).

A second discursive resource pits individual responsibility for work-life “balance” (a term that Wieland, following Kirby, Golden, Medved, Jorgenson, & Buzzanell [2003], problematized) against a collective responsibility. As an example, Simpson and Kirby draw attention to Belkin’s assumption of individual choice in interrogating the assumptions behind her depiction of self-actualization, where desire to balance the demands of family and career (or to emphasize one over the other) is reduced to a matter of individual volition (see also Halone), personal discipline, and rejection of consumerism (Wieland’s Discourse of individualism also touches on these). In contrast, those posting to the online forum who considered the collective responsible for creating the conditions under which opting out can be a legitimate choice tended to make claims based on group membership and its effects, though many also called for an amorphous “society” to enact meaningful changes. Thinking about the influence of social groups on individuals’ sense-making about opting out, Simpson and Kirby suggest that race and class are crucial categories (occluded in Belkin’s article and many forum posts) if we are to understand the complexities and challenges of lived experience in relation to opting out, while Smythe pays similar attention to gender communities and patriarchal discourse. Both essays view these heterogeneous and sometimes nebulous groups as partially responsible for both the present work/family dilemmas and a potential source of inspiration and camaraderie in dealing with its challenges. The six essays gave little credence to the discursive resource of extreme individualism while simultaneously complicating notions on the collective end, suggesting that routine communication processes deeply affected by such social markers as race, class, and gender shape actors’ conceptions of situations, and therefore also the possibilities and promise of “balance.”

It is likely that this individual-collective distinction—a persistent concern in organization studies and social science more generally (Reed, 1996)—is simply another version of the agency-structure concern in social theory (Giddens, 1979; Popora, 1989). Understanding the issue from this perspective can show us that if we attend merely to individuals and large-scale social groups, we risk missing the role mediating or “meso-level” structures can play in altering these relations (House, Rousseau, & Thomas-Hunt, 1995). Along these lines, one important question rarely articulated in the artifacts was the role of employers (rather than a vague “corporate world”) and governments (local and national) in promoting or hindering work-family causes. Specifically, conceiving of employers as simply competitively constrained (rational) actors in a capitalist field (see Japp’s critique) and by merely gesturing to the enablements afforded in other countries (in some of the forum posts) reduces participants’ concern to the identity politics of social groups rather than with a question about the possibility of corporate and governmental reform.

Communicative Challenges

As should be clear by now, I think the six papers are tremendously insightful; my essay to this point has mainly sought to provide perspective for understanding their contributions. In this final section, I build upon the claims in the essays to suggest two avenues for future scholarship on work-life tensions: construction of uniquely communicative theory and development of insight on constructive change.

Perspectives and Potentials for Communication Theory

Those in the communication field frequently are (self-)positioned as conceptually “thin” or as lacking a unique contribution to topics of interdisciplinary concern. I am usually dubious of such depictions, and the six preceding essays convince me that communication scholars are making the sorts of contributions that cannot be accused of being either light or derivative. Although the scholarship across disciplines on work-family tensions is frequently atheoretical, these essays show that communication research is following Kirby et al.’s (2003) lead in efforts to articulate views that are both thoroughly communicative and rooted in deep understandings of social practice. As I noted above, these essays draw on a range of literatures that converge around notions of discourse and identity. And though these authors would likely reject the pursuit of a single unifying or overarching theory, their central concerns point to an agenda for subsequent work: a need to examine the influence of broader Discourses (such as those discussed by Wieland and Japp, along with the sociobiological arguments considered by Smythe), a need to complicate our understandings of socio-economic and ethnic affiliations to reflect the multiplicity of sources for identity construction and behavioral commitments (as in both Simpson and Kirby and Halone), and a need to consider the dynamic communication processes continually constituting and altering families’ and organizations while tying characteristics of these entities to actors’ decision-making (as mentioned by McBride and Halone).

In my reading of these essays, there are two additional areas on which communication theorizing could contribute to thinking about work-family tensions. First, there was relatively little mention in the essays of the impact of new information and communication technologies in either opting out or in restructuring work, which is surprising given pervasive claims about their capacities to occasion fundamental social and personal change by compressing time and space (just as they also encroach upon other times and spaces). Since many communication scholars have a penchant for understanding technologies as existing in a mutually determinative relationship with situated practices and agents’ choices (Golden, 2001; Jackson, 1996), this would seem to represent an important topic for potential contribution.

A second opening lies in interrogating the importance of perception regarding “revolution” and the prevalence of discourse surrounding the topic in the popular consciousness, as opposed to claims about the “actual” changes in women’s workforce participation. With the exposure given to “opting out” in Belkin’s article, the online forum, and other mass-media texts (e.g., Story, 2005), one could easily conclude that the choices women are making in the contemporary world of work represents a sea change. Such a change would seem to imply a return to a culture of times past marked by clear distinctions between domestic and work roles. Demographers, however, question the accuracy of such claims. Approximately 75 percent of women aged 25 to 54 are presently either working or actively seeking work, a substantial gain over the 40 percent from the 1950s (Porter, 2006). And more to the point, Boushey (2005) shows that “opting out” by educated mothers has actually fallen in the past 20 years, and any reduction in women’s participation in the labor force can be explained by a recession in the U. S. economy in the early 2000s. Clearly, however, the “media frenzy” (Boushey, p. 2) over women’s relations to both work and family touched a cultural nerve (see also Kirby introduction); communication scholars would seem poised to discuss both the relationship between discourse and demographers’ “reality” and the appropriations of these discourses in local contexts (e.g., Wieland’s paper).

Communicative Contributions to Practice

Finally, the six papers, as suggested above, present valuable perspectives on understanding the opt-out phenomenon. In so doing, however, they beg a question: what is to be done? In other words, can communication scholars build on these unique and interesting insights to suggest alternative approaches to social practice?

To be fair, such questions were outside most authors’ scope, and the importance of raising awareness about the multiple streams of discourse and ideology pervading texts on the opt-out revolution should not be understated. But communication scholars regularly call for informed engagement in specific contexts; they also regularly discuss the importance of reasoned application of our scholarship. Thus, one of the key themes I extract from the essays is the need to conceive of not only “opting out,” but also of the strategies for navigating work-family tensions more broadly. As Simpson and Kirby, along with Halone, note, “managing time” frequently becomes defined as an individual’s responsibility, the product of relatively unconstrained choices. The six essays show the individualization view to be ignorant of deeply discursive and deeply connected contemporary lives, though my preceding discussion of reflexive modernization helps explain its social influence.

A view advocating collective responsibility, as in the second discursive resource, aligns with the roots of contemporary communication study, which tends to reject a transmission conception of communication in favor of one emphasizing meaning construction and the creation of community and culture. Interventions here would not be simple and straightforward tactical moves, but might consist of creating support for a collectivist approach to childcare and altering conceptions of career trajectories (Coontz, 1992/2000)). These could be accompanied by the development of a larger social movement that would challenge corporate practices and incentives, gender roles, race relations, and images of the family, as both Hochschild (1997) and Japp (at the end of her essay) advocate. This sort of movement would require rejecting the orthodox frame of work-family tensions as a “woman’s issue”: as Miller and Miller (2005) note, “it’s hardly news that accomplished women are desperate for a new deal at work. But anyone who understands America knows that unless men want something, too, not much will change” (pp. 111-112). There is mounting evidence that men increasingly desire employment options that provide a life outside work, but this desire must be met with the sort of social support created by altered practices, roles, incentives, and the like to overcome the identity (and economic) threats to which I alluded above. The seeds of change have been planted, and the myriad contributors to these conversations—in particular, the authors of these essays—are in position to aid the cultivation of this movement.


In the end, then, these six essays should make readers optimistic. Communication scholars possess unique and important insights on work-family issues; they consider these alongside central currents in social theory, such as identity and discursive resources under reflexive modernization. Moreover, these scholars (and our students) can play crucial roles in the construction of a widespread social movement that can alter the terms of the debate and the options for action. There is not much more we can ask of a field of inquiry, and these six essays are exemplars of this sort of thought and potential.


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