Affiliation: College of Arts and Sciences, Department of Communication
Organizational communication studies long have suggested that professional identities develop discursively, cohering through multiple narratives of organizational life. This dissertation pulls human-nature relations into everyday work practices, investigating the role of nature as an active participant in identity formation and challenging an ongoing symbolic/material dualism that persists in organization studies. Bridging the areas of organizational identity, socio-materiality, and environmental communication, I develop an eco-sensible approach to identity work. Eco-sensibility, based in Jane Bennett’s theories of vital materialism, reveals how nature provokes, disrupts and substantiates worker identities. The study is situated in the work and labor of shale drilling, also known as fracking, in the United States. Interviews with blue- and white-collar workers, participant observations, analyses of cultural artifacts, and the ethnographic tour, cultivate methodological spaces that envision nature as critical to organization studies of identity. Individuals working with oil and gas companies navigate stigmas attached to fossil fuel production, a major contributor to pollution, contamination, and climate change. My findings show that nature, in the form of shale, water, oil, gas, and chemicals, shapes professional identities in fracking industries. Work mediates the sensibility of nature’s agentic qualities, creating tensions for organizational members that go unnoticed in studies of identity. Interview participants who conceptualize nature as more than a resource reported internal conflicts for working in extraction. Workers whose identities bind closely to industry distantiate from nature through strict, instrumental language. A key contribution includes detailing how fracking activities function as hidden organizations that conceal their practices discursively and materially through mechanisms such as confidentiality agreements and access to drill sites. Worker and public health, community rights, and environmental well-being consequently suffer. Methods used to study work and organizing also affect researchers’ sensibility of nature’s capacity to act. An ethnographic tour conducted for this study revealed how professional and community identities are inseparable from local, extractive landscapes. By studying organizational life as merely social and discursive, communication researchers marginalize the material and thereby risk losing how materialities, such as nature, organize work and identities. My project illuminates the interplay between work, self, and nature in the negotiation of professional identity making.