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CIOS - Crystallizing Frames for Work-Life
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The Electronic Journal of Communication / La Revue Electronique de Communication

Volume 16 Numbers 3 & 4, 2006


Angela Trethewey
Sarah J. Tracy
Jess K. Alberts
Arizona State University

Abstract: In responding to the editor’s invitation 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.),” we illustrate the ways common frames for these issues—-including balance, conflict, roles, and wellness—tend to dichotomize and marginalize. We 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 her call for papers for this special issue of the Electronic Journal of Communication, Professor Erika Kirby asked us to think critically about how scholarship on work-life issues has, however inadvertently, served to reproduce “traditional” notions of both work and family by excluding, for example, the experiences of single, LGBT, and childless workers. In this essay, we tease out the ways in which the very language we use to describe the myriad relationships among work and life may stifle our ability to think creatively about how we frame and negotiate our work/lives. In so doing, our essay responds to recent calls for communication scholars to shift their attention from “communication in organizations to communication about organization, or how a larger society portrays and debates its institutions and the very notion of work,” workers, and their varied relationships to organization (Ashcraft & Mumby, 2004, p. 19). Such studies provide insight into the ways that social texts that exist outside the organization, such as those found in both popular culture and scholarly theories, reveal and reproduce cultural understandings about the nature of work, life and identity. In the following pages, we take up current scholarly and popular representations and offer new ways of conceptualizing, and perhaps enacting and experiencing, work-life.

In the recent bestseller Don’t Think of an Elephant!, George Lakoff (2004) points out that the way concepts are framed through language has a direct effect on individuals’ actions (or lack thereof). “Framing is about getting language that fits your worldview. It is not just language. The ideas are primary—and the language carries those ideas, evokes those ideas” (p. 4). As such, frames and metaphors—which serve to compare amorphous concepts (e.g., managing multiple identities) with better understood and more concrete concepts (e.g., balance)—serve as shorthand, linking language to cognition and therefore to action (Ortony, 1975). We raise this issue here because we are concerned that the most common language used to frame “work-life” prevents us from understanding and experiencing our working lives/living work in sufficiently complex and politically nuanced ways.

Derrida (1976) reminds us the meaning of language is never fixed and stable; rather, the relational meaning of a term is hierarchically ordered such that one term is dominant or subordinate to its (often unarticulated) opposite. Thus, even the phrase “work-life” sets up a hierarchical system that privileges work over life. Moreover, the common metaphors or framing devices that scholars and popular texts have used to conceive of a host of work-life issues tend to dichotomize those issues in ways that have highlighted individuals at work (often middle-class professional women) and marginalized the role of organizational and social structures, other groups (children, men, and the working class) and various “third spaces” (Oldenburg, 1999) betwixt and between work and life (e.g., communities of faith, fitness centers, barbershops).

To wit, one of the most common terms scholars and laypeople use to describe work-life dilemmas is balance. As a metaphor, balance highlights the unique and individualized strategies working people use to manage the competing and (seemingly) oppositional tensions between work and home life. Organizations tend to regard the management of balance, like burnout and stress (Newton, 1995), as an employee problem, rather than an organizational issue demanding a structural response. Messages in the popular press also suggest that achieving balance is up to the individual worker. Former General Electric CEO, Jack Welch, claims in his book Winning (2005) that even the most accommodating bosses still believe that “work life balance is the employee’s problem to solve” (Goodman, 2005).

This is not surprising since the very term makes the organization, its policies, the employee’s supervisor, gendered norms, and a host of other contributing facets of the work-life problem relatively invisible. Moreover, the term balance implies a fixed and homeostatic resting point—a state that can be achieved once and for all. Equilibrium is a term that some scholars have used in lieu of balance in an effort to address the multiple (rather than simply two) domains that impact the individual’s ability to develop a satisfying work-life (Warren, 2004). However, that expression still relies on an oppositional framework and a static end point.

Another popular term to describe work-life dilemmas is conflict (Kirby, Wieland, & McBride, 2006). Like balance, conflict frames work and life as competitive if not antagonistic. Furthermore, popular conceptions of conflict depict it as something “bad” whose lack of “resolution” will lead to negative consequences ( Alberts, 1990), Thus, using a conflict metaphor creates an expectation that tensions among the various facets of one’s life should and can be ended rather than simply managed or responded to in more or less useful ways.

A third common framing device used to discuss work-life dilemmas is that of role conflict. Roles are often assumed to be clearly defined, unchanging, domain or sphere driven, and politically neutral rather than communicatively and politically constructed (Kirby, Golden, Medved, Jorgenson, & Buzzanell, 2003). Like balance and conflict, examination of various roles rest upon an assumption that work and life are distinct spheres, separated by more or less permeable boundaries managed through individual boundary work. Too often, the expectation is that if employees can understand how individuals manage roles, they can more effectively transition between work and life ( Ashforth, Kreiner, & Fugate, 2000). However, as Tracy (2004) notes, “a mere focus on role conflict glosses over the way [individuals] continually negotiate aspects of their job [their home, their lives] and perpetuates the assumption that a clear cut role would magically cure organizational [and home] complexities” (p. 125, italics original). Again, what is backstaged when discussing role conflict are the myriad ways roles get constructed and accomplished, and how these negotiations are embedded and constructed within interpersonal and organizational micropractices and larger social discourses of power.

Additionally, role conflict does not recognize the potential benefits of performing multiple roles simultaneously. Martin (1990, 1994) explains how the boundaries are blurred between work and life when several roles are simultaneously performed outside the allocated work and home spaces. If productive overlap is viewed solely as role conflict or a breach of boundaries, then the individual’s potential solutions are further limited.

A fourth, increasingly common, framing device is that of work-life wellness. Unlike those discussed thus far, wellness programs are often associated with an organization’s human resource benefits. As such, this metaphor begins to suggest the organization’s responsibility in enabling their members to negotiate competing demands and opportunities between work and life. Wellness programs typically focus on improving employees’ overall health, including programs that focus on smoking cessation, drug and alcohol abuse, nutrition counseling, fitness activities, and health assessments. The goal of these programs is to decrease organizational healthcare costs, reduce injuries, decrease absenteeism, and help prevent illnesses and disorders that negatively affect employees’ performance.

While wellness as a frame does bring into sharp relief the need to focus on members’ physical and emotional health, these programs are largely designed to ensure employees’ health at work, which can ultimately interfere with their ability to be healthy in other domains. Stress management programs, for example, often encourage members to mitigate stress at work by prioritizing their commitments. We suspect that for many the unstated priority is work and non-work activities are treated as less urgent. Additionally, wellness often is defined, a priori, by the organization. Members, if given the opportunity, might define wellness and the programs to develop it in very different ways (Farrell & Geist-Martin, 2005; Zoller, 2004). Moreover, wellness programs, like their employee assistance counterparts, are grounded in a recovery/substance abuse model. Such programs are traditionally cut off from day-to-day organizational activities, and as such can be considered shameful and are thus often under-utilized (Newton, 1995).

As indicated, current metaphors, including work-life balance, conflict, roles, and wellness highlight and delimit issues that we believe help explain some of the current limitations of the discussion. Communication scholars, however, are uniquely poised to challenge current metaphors and suggest new ones, such as those scholars who are moving away from language and framing devices that position the individual as the locus of work-life problems or that put the organization in the definitional driver’s seat (e.g., wellness). Kirby and Krone’s (2002) foundational essay argued a structurational approach to the study of work-life invited scholars to attend simultaneously to the individual agency of organizational members and the organizational rules and resources that structured their experience. Giddens’ (1984) dialectic of control usefully foregrounds the interaction and tensions between individuals/agency and structures/determination. Such a move invites us to approach work-life in a more nuanced “both/and” rather than “either/or” way. However, we caution that this frame still relies on a fairly binary construction of individuals vs. structures and public vs. private, and in so doing, may hide the myriad domains and third spaces that contribute to the structuration of work-life.

Recent work (Medved, 2004) and this special issue make another interesting and hopeful move by framing working/living issues around the notion of accomplishment. This term highlights the negotiated, performative everyday “doing” of work-life (West & Zimmerman, 1987). And yet, the term, like balance, still resonates with finality, as if work-life could be finally complete(d). In the close of the essay, we offer another (admittedly flawed, but) potentially transformative framework for individuals, organizations and scholars concerned about work-life.

Untangling the complex web of discourses that create and maintain employees’ feelings of fragmentation when managing multiple identities necessitates that work and life issues be addressed at different levels, in different contexts and with different types of actors as the focus of study. We believe our own work on the “crystallized self” (Tracy & Trethewey, 2005; see also Gill, 2006, direct link to article) might be a useful metaphor for framing discussions regarding the variety of contexts, responsibilities, and opportunities marking the construction of identity(s) in contemporary life. The imagery of the crystal:

combines symmetry and substance with an infinite variety of shapes, substances, transmutations, multi-dimensionalities, and angles of approach. Crystals grow, change, alter, but are not amorphous. Crystals are prisms that reflect externalities and refract within themselves, creating different colors, patterns, and arrays, casting off in different directions. What we see depends upon our angle of repose (Richardson, 2000, p. 934).


Crystals may feel solid, stable, and fixed. But just as crystals have differing forms, depending upon whether they grow rapidly or slowly, under constant or fluctuating conditions, or from highly variable or remarkably uniform fluids or gasses, crystallized selves have different shapes depending on the various discourses through which they are constructed and constrained. (Tracy & Trethewey, 2005, p. 186)

Viewing the dilemmas associated by managing multiple aspects of identity through the metaphor of a crystal serves to frame the discussion in several hopeful ways.

First, because different crystals have different shapes, a crystallized approach suggests that challenges in managing multiple identities are diverse and not all-of-a-kind. The single Chicano father will experience different dilemmas than the lesbian White couple or the grandmother who has returned to work after a long stint as “family CEO” (Medved & Kirby, 2005). Indeed, the crystal helps to highlight how work-life issues are not just of concern to working professional White women, who have been the primary focus of work-life research to date (e.g., Ashcraft, 1999), but also to men, working class employees, stay-at-home parents, non-working individuals, single folks, and children.

Indeed, such an approach highlights the importance of the intersections among and between different groups of people who impact each other’s experience of work and life. For example, women’s experiences are inextricably linked to and shaped by their interactions with men at home and at work. Similarly, understanding how middle class and professional women manage (or don’t manage) their work and lives requires that one examine the contributions of lower class and working class workers (e.g., Flanagan, 2004; Trethewey, Scott, & LeGreco, 2006)—and the impact those contributions have on professional workers’ (more privileged) abilities to manage their own work and lives. Finally, while nearly invisible in the work-life research, children, who can function both as a source of increased labor and as labor resource ( Risman & Myers, 1997), no doubt play a pivotal role in how well parents can manage responsibilities to multiple groups including their families, communities, and organizations (see Jorgenson, 2006 [direct link to article]).

Second, not only do we need to examine several facets of the work-life problematic within single contexts (e.g., taking a structurational approach to examining organizations such as Kirby & Krone, 2002), we also have to examine how ideas about managing multiple identities intersect with and are constructed through experiences and responsibilities in other contexts besides work and home. These could include third spaces (Oldenburg, 1999) such as the church, gym, school, or laundromat. Indeed, given the increasing strength of fundamental Christian beliefs on public and organizational policy ( Lakoff, 2004)—such as the idea that wives should submit to their husbands—no study of work and life balance dilemmas would be complete without examining the influence of religion on division of labor and the gendered roles of men and women.

Third, a crystallized approach suggests the need to study the management of various spheres and identities through multiple levels of communication—including micro-level negotiations (Babcock & Laschever, 2003), organizational level policies and practices (Kirby, 2000) as well as macro discourses such as entrepreneurialism ( du Gay, 1996), managerialism ( Deetz, 1992) and consumerism ( Schor, 1998) that sediment extant assumptions about the centrality of work and marginalization of non-work endeavors.

How might a crystallized approach look in practice? As one example, if researchers were interested in better teasing out why women’s professional advancement has stalled in the last 10 years (Babcock & Laschever, 2003), they should not only examine workplace practices, but a variety of levels and contexts. For instance, researchers might examine how men’s and women’s micro-level negotiations regarding the division of labor at home affect women’s professional success. In addition, meso-level issues, such as examinations of organizational parental leave policies, certainly impact the issue. Third, an investigation should also consider macro-level discourses, such as the “economy of gratitude” ( Hochschild, 2003), that help explain how women are socialized to be satisfied with husbands’ and family members’ contributions even when the division of household labor is grossly unbalanced (Thompson, 1991).

Of course, like the framing devices that have come before, a “crystallized” approach to work-life is not without its own limitations. The metaphor could easily be appropriated as a strategy for individuals to better “manage” their own working lives. However, in our personal, organizational, and scholarly use of the term, we seek to retain Richardson’s (2000) original intent. Richardson posited crystallization as an epistemological move, as a way of developing new modes of writing/knowing. It is in the spirit of developing a greater conceptual and practical repertoire that we offer this potentially transformative frame.

In closing, it is important to reflexively turn the lens of crystallization toward our selves. In critiquing previous work-life research, we note that too often it focuses on White, middle-class, heterosexual women. All three of us fit that description. Thus, we are wary of producing scholarship that is self-serving, normalizing, and exclusionary. We are also glaringly reminded that to do crystallized research, it would be helpful to have members of the research team who embody different demographic characteristics.

Yet, embracing crystallization suggests that even within our sameness, there are several facets that differentially impact the accomplishment of satisfying working/living identities. One of us is a single woman who may be seen by her colleagues as able to work more (and better) because she does not have a traditional family; one of us is in a dual-career marriage with grown step-children; another of us is the primary wage-earner in a family with a young child and a partner who works part-time. The specific challenges and opportunities that we face and that are structured for us in our interpersonal, organizational, and cultural contexts are not yet reflected in our scholarship, let alone those of historically marginalized individuals, groups, and organizations. Perhaps future crystallized scholarship will better reflect our multi-faceted, dynamic, and always politicized experiences.


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1 We are indebted to Ms. Sarah Riforgiate, a Master’s candidate in the Hugh Downs School at Arizona State University, for helping us to think through this idea, as well as her participation at a panel at the 2006 Western States Communication Association conference where an earlier version of this paper was presented.

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