About Marya Doerfel, Ph.D.: Marya L. Doerfel is Professor and Chair of Communication in the Department of Communication at Rutgers University. An influential organizational communication scholar whose work applies social network analysis to study organizational relationships and resilience in times of crisis and disaster, Dr. Doerfel has published more than 50 articles, which have appeared in journals such as Journal of Communication, Communication Monographs, and International Journal of Humanities and Social Science.

Dr. Doerfel recently published the collected volume Organizing Inclusion: Moving Diversity from Demographics to Communication, co-edited with Jennifer Gibbs. Among other accolades, Dr. Doerfel’s research has received top paper awards from the Organizational Communication Divisions of the National Communication Association and the International Communication Association. Dr. Doerfel formerly served as Chair of the Organizational Communication Division at NCA as well.

Dr. Doerfel’s research on organizational communication following disasters has been funded by grants from sources like the National Science Foundation and the Department of Homeland Security. She received her B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. from the State University of New York at Buffalo (University at Buffalo).

Interview Questions

[MastersinCommunications.com] May we have an overview of your academic and professional background? How did you become interested in studying organizational communication and, more specifically, the role that organizations play in responding to natural disasters and other crises?

[Dr. Marya Doerfel] I was fortunate to attend a big university, where I was introduced to research by professors who told me that I was a good writer and was asking interesting questions in my work. This surprised me, but I said, “Alright, I’ll give it a try,” and I started a master’s program. I am a little bit nosy by nature, and I got the bug.

After my undergraduate degree, I worked for a few years in event planning and coordination and was running events at major convention centers. It was very corporate-sided. I started realizing that there are interorganizational strategic alliances, but all of those alliances are built on reputation, building relationships, and communicating across boundaries. That boundary-spanning function of communication for organizations is so vital in a variety of ways. I returned to that focus in graduate school.

In graduate school, I started learning more about how, through cross-sector partnerships, businesses, organizations, nonprofits, and government agencies work together to foment change — to get stuff done and solve wicked problems. My dissertation was not exactly the best dissertation, but it was a done dissertation. In it, I was interested in studying why businesses that compete with each other cooperate with each other too. I got all of the real estate transactions between realtors in an entire region. It was about a year’s worth of real estate transactions. I interviewed brokers and was just trying to understand cooperative, competitive relationships. That was my dissertation. As I came to find out, my approach in my dissertation was part of the first or second generation of computational social science. Today, studying a year’s worth of data seems pretty trivial compared to scraping the web!

As I started doing more research as an assistant professor, I began to focus on civil society research, which I did collaboratively for a number of years in Croatia. We were asking how organizations were working together, even though in many ways they are so competitive. When resources are thin, nonprofits work together, and their reputations matter. A dynamic unfolds between individuals who work with different businesses and organizations. They bring the complexities of the organizations that they are a part of and the reputations of those organizations to their cooperative interactions and the assumptions that they make.

I got into disaster research in similar ways. I was trying to bring those civil society and interorganizational relationship theories to some collaborative grant proposals at Rutgers. I met some mathematicians, some engineers, and a behavioral psychologist, and we began writing grants trying to study these puzzles from these different disciplinary perspectives. We wrote several grants that did not get funded, but then Hurricane Katrina hit. We thought, “Oh, we should try to apply our research to study how people respond to this.”

We were awarded a small grant to go to New Orleans. Over the course of two years, I interviewed every organizational business or government agency leader who would talk to me. There was no model for it. I thought I would conduct a survey or something similar, but I realized very early on my usual methods, which were quantitative social network analysis and the use of surveys — the tools that I was originally trained on and was expert on — were not the tools to use here. The business leaders, the organizational leaders, the nonprofit people really wanted to be seen. They did not want to fill out a survey, but they would talk to me for an hour, even though a survey could be twenty minutes of their time. And these were busy people!

I went down to New Orleans the first week they allowed non-emergency workers to get hotels. I realized very quickly how traumatic Katrina was for so many people. There are some people that did great survey research down there, and props to them, but I wanted to hear the stories of the people who were affected. My interview protocol was about asking, “Who are you reaching out to in your networks?,” “Who are your partners?” They told me their stories, and I had to learn a whole lot of new methods in order to sift through all the data. I had to figure out how to deal with qualitative data. I had these questions about the networks, but I also had to let my subjects speak to me.

That was how I transitioned into the realm of disaster research. I talked about civil society in that grant proposal. I did not use that technical terminology, but the grant project worked from that theoretical framework. I thought, “Here we are in the United States and the institutions of our civil society are failing.” When Katrina hit New Orleans, they had to evacuate the whole city. The disaster was amplified even more by stranded people without resources. Civil society was not recognizable in the aftermath of Katrina. There was no power for weeks and weeks and even longer in many areas. There was no functional garbage collection, let alone police and fire and ambulatory care that could keep up with the demand.

It is humbling that the NSF wanted our expertise to understand how we can exchange information in these situations. How does communication work in this context, when the infrastructures are gone? Who comes back first, the organizations who employ people or the people who work for them? Do the schools open before the kids are back? Or do the kids get back because they find out school is open?

When you ask these questions, you suddenly start seeing in disaster situations the interaction of all of the different aspects of society: schools, police, fire employers, nonprofits that serve vulnerable populations, government agencies that manage aspects of communities — all of these interlocking elements. Organizational communication is one lens for trying to understand how that is done.

[MastersinCommunications.com] One common thread that runs through your research has been the study of resilience, and specifically the relationship between organizational and community resilience in times of crisis. Could you discuss what resilience is and the role communication plays in cultivating it? Are there key findings you would highlight from across your work on resilience or important ways your perspective on resilience has shifted over time?

[Dr. Marya Doerfel] We often use the term resilience in the vernacular, and we think about it as a state. It is used structurally, too, by engineers who build buildings or bridges. They need resilient structures, but resilient structures are dynamic. They can handle motion. A rigid bridge could not take the vibrations and pressure that cars generate; it would not be resilient. Even though we think of a bridge as an object, it is actually this dynamic thing. Likewise, in human communication and in our everyday lives, resilience is not an object or a noun. It is a verb. It is a state of being. It is a process we take up to work through chaos.

A variety of scholars who are thinking about resilience with a communication lens conceptualize resilience as being multilevel. My colleagues at Rutgers study couples (Dr. Jennifer Theiss), families (Dr. Kristina Scharp), and cancer patients and survivors (Dr. Maria Venetis). Common across our research is a commitment to thinking across levels that are nested, being made up of different groups, organizations, and communities. We think of organizations and associations as mutually interdependent with communities.

I see resilience as multilevel and communicative because of the stories that we tell. The way we talk about events work to legitimize them and helps us understand where we belong relative to that event. When normalcy feels disrupted, we start automatically thinking through, adapting, and thinking about how we respond to our changing environment. We cultivate resilience through the stories that we tell, through our routines, and through our networks that we build.

It would be irresponsible to not also talk about the dark side of resilience. Narratives emerge after disasters like “Houston Strong” after Hurricane Harvey, and we need to think critically about messages like that. Celebrating our successes out of these dark experiences and the language of resilience like “Houston Strong” can be alienating to people who are suffering. There is some empathy that the language of resilience might not have baked into it.

We also have to think about how resilience can be enabling. I am very excited about a paper that I published in Journal of Communication [“Resilience Organizing: A Multilevel Communication Framework”]. It discusses how, when we talk about resilience, there is a tension in our conversations. We see nonprofits rolling up their sleeves and protecting the vulnerable, serving the homeless, and taking care of people who are infirm or need meals. We see the public sector organizations that draw on government funding to deliver services to vulnerable populations. On the one hand, thank goodness we have them and that they help us through these hard times. We should celebrate that. On the other hand, resilience and that language also enables policymakers to point to these successes instead of addressing the root problems.

Addressing the root problems is necessarily political. Are you going to ask an entire community to move away from that flood zone? Climate scientists and sociologists discuss this too, and we have to keep sending this message. Think about the maps of New Orleans. Guess what areas flooded and were really devastated versus what areas made it through and were resilient? We add another layer to the discussion when we start talking about the poverty divide: the wealth gap that we have in this country. Resilience has a very different meaning to different people. There is a very different infrastructure for some people. I think it is very important to capture both sides of that dynamic.

[MastersinCommunications.com] Your research often employs social network analysis in studying organizational responses to disasters. For our readers who may be unfamiliar with this theoretical lens, could you provide a brief explanation of this approach to studying organizational communication? What has this framework helped you grasp about organizations that other theoretical and methodological approaches to organizational communication might overlook?

[Dr. Marya Doerfel] We look at social networks, especially with respect to organizations, as the emergent way in which we communicate with others to accomplish our shared tasks and goals. In some areas of social science, this perspective dates back to the middle of the 20th century, when we talked about formal organizational charts of how work is supposed to get done and who is supposed to communicate with whom. The social network is how work actually gets done — the real communication networks that are created through the work people do.

The essence of the social network lens is a way of looking at the complexities of social structure. I really like the network approach because it is fluid, meaning I do not have to put you in a box. For instance, who is your friendship group? It may seem to only be a limited number of people, but if you look closely, those friends know people too. Immediately, we are seeing a map of relationships that cascade far beyond our own egocentric worlds.

That is why I have adopted a network approach to my research. It is just the way my brain works, too. I see the world through social connections. One important implication of this is that sometimes the most popular person is not always the most influential. Sometimes it is the friend of the most popular person. Social network analysis helps you identify those spheres of influence, so to speak, that are not always obvious just because someone has the most friends. In the online realm, influencers tend to have the most followers. That is obvious. We need to ask what other dynamics are playing out one tier away from that, and who might be the ones that share something that then gets shared.

In my interorganizational research, I have seen that influential people are not necessarily the most popular in social networks. There might be a funder who is at the hub of a network, because they have lots of financial resources, but we also then start looking at who holds institutional knowledge, which organizations have partnerships that are actually productive. We start seeing then how decentralized networks reveal other power dynamics and spheres of influence.

On its face, network analysis looks like mapping the exchange of information and explicit communication, but it helps us to see the underlying social structures and power structures established by who is communicating with whom. This is how my work has evolved. I used to study organizations as black boxes by looking at their interorganizational connections. My work with network theory has come a long way from my original training. Now, I peel back those layers and try to understand what is going on inside the organization — how they build their own capacities to develop partnerships. Academia is a privileged career because we get to be students our whole life, and we just keep learning more and more.

[MastersinCommunications.com] As we have discussed, your research often focuses on crisis situations and natural disasters. For example, you received a grant from the National Science Foundation to study organizational resilience in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. What has been your experience conducting scholarly research in contexts such as these? Are there particular difficulties and rewards, either personal or academic, that stem from studying crises and disasters?

[Dr. Marya Doerfel] There are difficulties in studying crises, and sometimes they are very reflective of the ethical and social concerns discussed in the methods classes that one takes. Who is going into these environments and studying them and building a rapport and trust with participants and figuring out the rights of human subjects? I do not want to use subjects’ time unless the project benefits them in some way. Human subject protocols really do help us think about if we are asking questions that will help us build theory and build a better understanding of the ways in which society is working. For us as communication experts, it is about asking what the role of communication is in that and how we can give back and make sure that this information is going to have broader impacts.

I think one of the rewards of this research is that I can speak to policy and use data to reveal the structural, political issues that we have been discussing. We just talked about the dark side of resilience, for example, and joining the chorus of scholars who are saying that these issues reveal a problematic set of assumptions that our policymakers and politicians are ignoring. To be part of that societal conversation and continuing to put pressure on that and show how communication as a discipline can influence policymakers has been really rewarding.

Another aspect of this is how climate change and the wealth gap are motivating more students to engage with these foundational problems. It feels like there are more and more students asking these questions. I see this with my graduate students. It is really gratifying to me that my research team and my graduate students and I are all collaborators. They are my equals. I am their professor, but we are peers in so many ways, because our care for these issues is mutual. They bring certain expertise and knowledge that make our conversations and our learning environment so robust, and we learn from each other.

That has been really cool to see. As I have grown as a scholar and as a mentor, the societal impact our research has the potential to make has become clearer, and our work has become more and more focused on that impact. That has come into focus for me because of the questions our students are asking.

[MastersinCommunications.com] In 2020, you published the edited volume Organizing Inclusion: Moving Diversity from Demographics to Communication Processes with Jennifer Gibbs. Could you discuss the aims of this collection? What does emphasizing communication processes help reframe about our discussions regarding diversity and inclusion within academic institutions and other organizations?

[Dr. Marya Doerfel] The idea of doing a pre-conference on this topic first came from seeing so much societal divide in the wake of the 2016 Presidential Election. A collaborator of mine, Jennifer Gibbs, and I were talking about how communication has the particular tools to understand this divide. We wanted to figure out how to have an impact in this conversation, and decided we needed to understand a side of this problem using our own social scientific lenses.

There have been scholars who have done a great deal studying race, difference, and power structures. We know those experts are there, and we are so grateful to them for teaching us so much about these issues — all these ways in which we divide ourselves, how dominant groups obtain power, and the non-inclusive ways that we live.

I had just been elected as Chair of the Organizational Communication Division of the National Communication Association. It was the 2016 political climate that inspired us to say, while some organizational communication scholars do not explicitly do race research or work on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), we still have these frameworks to help explain and understand what is going on. Social network analysis, for example, helps us understand how groups become cliques. Some people’s social networks are very intertwined and insular. Some social networks span many different people and organizations as opposed to being closed and insulated from others.

The book came out of that pre-conference. The people that were in the room that day used their networks so we could literally diversify our book and make sure we had a variety of voices heard in it. This was also in the early days of the #CommunicationSoWhite discourse. The article “#CommunicationSoWhite” was recently published, and it felt important to listen to these calls for diversification. The contributors to the collection are experts in a particular area, and we wanted to take that area and understand its limits and contribute to this movement for equity.

We were not trying to be experts on DEI. We were trying to say we are experts in these various areas that we can use to look at organizational communication, which can, in turn, be used to look at DEI and be a part of the conversation. Our country has had amazing activists and thinkers champion ideals of equity and inclusion, but, in the United States and in the world, the path is not always clear nor progress evident. We need to wake up again and again.

[MastersinCommunications.com] The publication of this book came on the heels of a moment in which the response you delivered to the Top Paper Panel for the Organizational Communication Division spurred a walkout from scholars in attendance — a moment you describe, in the preface to the volume, as one where you unintentionally perpetuated the white supremacist protocols that this edited volume intended to resist. Would you reflect on your experience with this controversy? Are there important lessons you might distill from this experience you would want to pass on to students or scholars?

[Dr. Marya Doerfel] That controversy has had a long tail over the past few years, which is understandable. I was a leader in the division and really screwed up. I screwed up in a way that reveals some of the insecurities many of us hold. To fight imposter syndrome is a difficult thing. The panel had some amazing papers that were pushing us to think about all the different ways that we were seeing issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion play out in society and in organizations.

I was excited to talk about it and to be provocative, but it revealed my own ignorance about some of the issues. I was speaking outside of my expertise. In the book, I was trying to bring my research in organizational communication to these issues. I was disciplined in the book about taking the network lens and asking, “How do network phenomena enable groups to become ingroups and outgroups?” But in that response, I spoke outside of my expertise and revealed my ignorance about some very important issues that some really great scholars are challenging us to recognize in our own division and in our own discipline. I enacted the everyday nature of white supremacy that they were pointing to.

Despite being a person who likes network research because it does not put us in boxes, I always put myself in a box by thinking this was personal reading as compared to the substance of my research. I put myself in a box by thinking, “I care about these issues, they matter,” while still seeing racism as other people being racist, and really missing that very important message that a lot of scholars are talking about: how racism is baked into our intellectual assumptions in our systems and our discipline.

The walkout forced me to say, “This is about me and my own education.” But there is also a part of it that is not about me; these are issues we are all a part of. The experience has changed my ambassadorship as an organizational communication scholar, and it has helped me to disrupt my assumptions.

I am so grateful for that disruption at my response because if someone had come up to me privately and said, “I didn’t like that you said these things in your speech,” I have to admit I would have apologized and thought, “Oh, that’s unfortunate, I wonder if anyone else thought that way.” For people to physically walk out sends a message that says, “We are so done telling you privately and in a polite way you’re getting this wrong.” It was important for our division. It was important personally.

Of course, it was very stressful to see my name on social media and to navigate conferences for some time after that. But the way to come out of it is to learn from it. It is also helped me be more disruptive, not only academically, but also in my personal life and extracurricular activities. It is a learning process. How do we do better? How do we do this as a society? Sometimes we need these dramatic events to realize how much change needs to happen.

It also inspired our school to start a diversity book club, which has been a great success. It is attended by other faculty, our master’s and Ph.D. students, and our staff, and we recently expanded it to include watching films and documentaries. If you are not a part of a diversity book club, and you think that the PowerPoint, self-training, DEI videos are going to help your organization or your business be more diverse, you are missing the best opportunity to engage with these issues. Books give you a completely different perspective. I am always excited about our book club meetings and what I will learn from them. It is a discussion space, and in it, a couple of people have said to me about the walkout, “That day, you said things that I thought were okay, and now I realize they weren’t.”

I am trying to be public about it and to do the work. I wrote about this in the book, too. We pulled the initial draft from the publication process. We integrated what happened that day into the text in a variety of ways. I could not have made this an opportunity to be so reflective and transformative without a lot of people being willing to mentor me and provide advice, including People of Color and other minoritized people who gave me their time and their emotional labor. That is really humbling and gratifying too. It is not their job to educate me. I have never asked or tried to put that on them, but thankfully I have relationships with a variety of people who were willing to have those conversations and help me navigate the situation and grow from it.

[MastersinCommunications.com] Do you have any advice you might give to people who are interested in organizational communication and organizational responses to disasters and crises who might be considering pursuing a graduate degree in communication?

[Dr. Marya Doerfel] Ironically, on the heels of talking about my own crisis, my advice is to be an expert and a translator of your expertise. Know your theoretical foundations, know the boundaries of those foundations, and have the humility to know when your expertise gets fuzzy and you need others. When can you be confident you are that expert? People with Ph.D.s often do deep dives into specific research areas. The more we learn, the more we realize how much more there is to learn. You think, “I need to read that paper, I need to read that book,” and every book and every paper you read makes you feel like you need to read more. It is a deep dive that continues to build your expertise.

I think that the best advice I can give is to be an expert, know your foundations, figure out how to translate them for non-expert audiences who are smart, and figure out where the boundaries of your expertise are. Where those boundaries start getting blurry is when you start the collaborations or, depending on where you are in your career as a graduate student, stick with your area of expertise. You cannot do everything in graduate school. Your whole life can be about solving the world’s problems through your schooling and work.

Being able to translate for the non-expert audience is also really important, partly for grant funding reasons. My research is funded by the National Science Foundation. Those reviewers are not communication scholars. They might be sociologists who think “How is this different from what I do?,” or who might think your research is doing something cool and unique. It all depends on how you explain it.

Whether it is the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Institute for the Humanities, or foundations that provide grants to nonprofit organizations, your grant proposal will be reviewed by smart people who do not want to be in the weeds of your expertise. They need to see that your expertise is legitimate and that it makes sense to them without having to do a dissertation on all the jargon. Be an expert, know the boundaries of your expertise, and know how to translate it.

Thank you, Dr. Doerfel, for sharing your insight on organization communication following disasters, resilience, social network analysis, and more.

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About the Author: Ben Clancy (they/them) is a critical scholar and creative living in Chicago with their partner, child, and other wildlife. They are a PhD candidate at UNC Chapel Hill in the Department of Communication, where their research focuses on the politics of communicative and artistic technologies. Ben has an M.A. from Texas State University, has worked as a research fellow for the Center for Technology Information and Public Life at UNC, and is an alum of the Vermont Studio Center residency in poetry writing.

Please note: Our interview series aims to represent the diverse research being pursued by scholars in the field of communication, which is often socially and politically engaged. As a result, all readers may not agree with the views and opinions expressed in this interview, which are independent of the views of MastersinCommunications.com, its parent company, partners, and affiliates.