Relational Work in Synchronous Text-Based CMC of Virtual Teams

Relational Work in Synchronous Text-Based CMC of Virtual Teams

Erika Darics (University of Loughborough, UK)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-61520-773-2.ch053
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Based on close examinations of instant message (IM) interactions, this chapter argues that an interactional sociolinguistic approach to computer-mediated language use could provide explanations for phenomena that previously could not be accounted for in computer-mediated discourse analysis (CMDA). Drawing on the theoretical framework of relational work (Locher, 2006), the analysis focuses on non-task oriented talk and its function in forming and establishing communication norms in the team, as well as micro-level phenomena, such as hesitation, backchannel signals and emoticons. The conclusions of this preliminary research suggest that the linguistic strategies used for substituting audio-visual signals are strategically used in discursive functions and have an important role in relational work.
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Virtual teams enable participants from geographically distant locations to work together. The increasing popularity of this type of work lies in the fact that the widely available and cost effective new communication technologies enable continuous and intense communication, and provide tools for speedy and efficient cooperation (for example, knowledge repositories, searchable forums, many-to-many communication, and so forth).

This chapter focuses on text-based CMC, specifically on synchronous instant messaging (IM). IM is widely used for virtual work because it allows for prompt, as well as simultaneous, multiple interactions. Moreover, compared to other audio modes, environmental interference is not considerable. IM is a communicative mode that is fundamentally different from those previously known (Crystal, 2004), as it combines the features of written and spoken discourse (see, for example, Herring, 1999; Zitzen & Stein, 2004). Thus it is essential that the team members adapt to this communicative mode and use it effectively to achieve mutual understanding and consequently efficient cooperation. Failure to do so might result in the miscommunication of content or even in interpersonal misunderstanding; both of which are unacceptable in a work environment. Therefore, an exploration of naturally occurring IM interactions will shed light on how, at a basic level, computer-mediated communication happens, and will identify the factors that affect its success.

Working in a virtual environment and communicating via computer-mediated channels is thought to enhance participation, and thus facilitate the efficacy of the group. Those who argue that virtual work enhances cooperation (for example, Adkins & Brashers, 1995) base their observation on the fact that due to the lack of physical and auditory presence, CMC provides an opportunity for group members to participate equally in the conversation. However, recent findings in several areas of linguistics reveal that identity (Benwell & Stokoe, 2006) and power relations (Holmes & Stubbe, 2003) are discursively constructed during the course of the interaction itself. This suggests that computer-mediated communication in itself does not facilitate equal participation, as described above, because participants actively negotiate their identities and relationships through interaction. Besides this function interaction in a virtual team has several other intertwining functions: it is the means of completing the work through discussions, negotiations, orders, enquiries, and so forth; the means of establishing social relations, as well as the means of forming and negotiating member and team identity. To understand how these functions are completed if the communication takes place in a computer mediated setting, we have to examine how communication happens, and observe the language and discursive practices used in the interactions.

The study of computer-mediated discourse and the study of organisational discourse are both complex and interdisciplinary pursuits in their own rights. As indicated in the above comments, the analysis of the computer-mediated discourse of virtual teams will provide answers about the new medium’s effect on language use, cooperation, team and identity formation for both disciplines. The need for empirical studies, where the discourse and language use of the team members are closely examined, is evident from the literature of both disciplines (Boczkowski & Orlikowski, 2004; Herring, 2007). The main aim of this chapter, therefore, is to introduce an interactional approach to synchronous CMC data. By taking a bottom-up approach, and closely observing interactions of an online discourse community, it will provide adequate explanations of both computer-mediated and organisational discourse analysis regarding language use in virtual teams.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Contextualisation: is a concept developed by John Gumperz (1982). It means that speakers signal and listeners interpret how semantic content is to be understood and how each sentence relates to what precedes or follows by the means of social and contextual information in the interaction. According to Gumperz’s hypothesis, any utterance can be understood in numerous ways and people make decisions about how to interpret a given utterance based on their definition of what is happening at the time of interaction. Contextualisation cues represent surface features of linguistic form that contributes to the signalling of contextual presuppositions as well as to interactive cooperation. These cues include, for example, prosodic phenomena, dialect, style, code, lexical and syntactic options, formulaic expressions, conversational openings, closings, and sequencing strategies (Gumperz, 1982).

Computer-mediated communicative competence: or “electronic communicative competence” (Simpson, 2005). The knowledge of the linguistic system, the knowledge of discourse patterns, the knowledge of technology and finally the knowledge of socio-cultural rules of the online communicative environment.

Relational work: a concept developed by Locher and Watts (2005; 2008; Locher, 2006; Watts, 2003). In their understanding, relational work refers to the interpersonal level of communication (Locher, 2006), and describes the ‘work’ that individuals invest in negotiating relationships with others (Locher & Watts, 2008, p. 78). They note that relational work “comprises the entire continuum of verbal behaviour from direct, impolite, rude or aggressive interaction through to polite interaction” (Locher & Watts, 2005, p. 11).

Computer-mediated discourse –: is a sub-field within computer-mediated communication, focusing on online language and language use (see Herring, 2001).

Interactional sociolinguistics (IS): has its roots in anthropology, sociology and linguistics and shares the concerns of all these fields with culture, society and language (Schiffrin, 1994). It focuses explicitly on the social and linguistic meanings created during interaction, recognising the wider socio-cultural context of interaction.

Community of practice –: (CofP) is a concept developed by Lave and Wenger (1991) and it refers to an aggregate of people who, united by a common enterprise, develop and share ways of doing things, ways of talking, beliefs, and values. The notion of shared (linguistic) practices is particularly interesting in the study of the language use of a group.

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