About Sarah J. Tracy, Ph.D.: Sarah J. Tracy is School Director and Professor in the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication at Arizona State University (ASU). A widely acclaimed organizational communication scholar, Dr. Tracy has made invaluable contributions to organizational research using qualitative and critical methods. Her work, which consists of over 100 publications, has appeared in journals such as Qualitative Inquiry and Communication Monographs and includes two books, Qualitative Research Methods: Collecting Evidence, Crafting Analysis, Communicating Impact and Leading Organizations Through Transition: Communication and Cultural Change.

Dr. Tracy’s research and teaching have received numerous accolades. For example, she was named Distinguished Scholar by the National Communication Association and Distinguished Teacher by the Western States Communication Association. At ASU, Dr. Tracy is also Instructor in the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, a Senior Global Futures Scholar at the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory, a research institution invested in cultivating environmental and social sustainability, and a co-founder of The Transformation Project, which aims to cultivate beneficial communicative practices and community engagement.

Dr. Tracy received her M.A. and Ph.D. in Communication from the University of Colorado at Boulder and her B.A. from the University of Southern California.

Interview Questions

[MastersinCommunications.com] May we begin with an overview of your academic and professional background? How did you become interested in studying organizational communication, qualitative research methodologies, and their applications to understanding issues such as workplace bullying, work-life balance, and emotional labor?

[Dr. Sarah J. Tracy] I became interested in these topics and pursued a Ph.D. in large part because I was in a job position in public relations where I myself was experiencing stress and burnout. I wanted to better understand how we could create organizations where the communication and workplace structures could lend themselves to flourishing, creativity, and possibility, rather than stress, burnout, and a narrow focus on weakness.

I am always invested in immersing myself in issues that I think are curious, interesting, or problematic. For instance, I was first introduced to the concept of emotional labor, which came from the field of sociology, in a communication course. As I was reading about it, I was thinking about how the need to change one’s physical comportment, self-presentation, and communication so that it meets organizational emotional norms is applicable in a whole range of settings. I learned epistemologically what emotional labor was through reading about it, but I wanted to practice it myself.

That led me to apply for and take a job as a Junior Assistant Cruise Director on a cruise ship. I worked there for eight months between my master’s and my Ph.D. My first sole-authored article, “Becoming a Character for Commerce: Emotion Labor, Self-Subordination, and Discursive Construction of Identity in a Total Institution,” is all about the emotional labor involved with working on a cruise ship, and how people manage their identities in that context.

On my website, I published a blog called “How I Chose my Academic Path, or Better Yet, How it Chose Me.” More of my background is there, so your readers are welcome to take a look at that as well. (You can find Dr. Tracy’s blog post at sarahjtracy.com.)

[MastersinCommunications.com] You have published extensively on qualitative research methodologies in organizational communication and employed diverse approaches to qualitative and critical methods in your own work, from ethnographic methods and fieldwork to discursive interviews. For our readers who might be less familiar with qualitative and critical methods, could you discuss the value you place in these approaches for understanding organizations, and the significance they have had in driving your own applied research?

[Dr. Sarah J. Tracy] I am a huge fan of fieldwork. There is something about putting your body, mind, spirit, and heart on the line that really helps you know a topic inside and out. It does take a lot of time and effort, and that’s why you see most fieldwork studies from scholars written when they’re in the junior parts of their career before they have other responsibilities. There’s something about being in that space that is fascinating to me, and if I can then write about it in a way that helps that group of people address a certain problem, like burnout or workplace bullying, or the problems with work-life balance, that is something that just lights me up and I think is really valuable.

When we think about why you would do qualitative research in general, it’s because it helps us understand the “Why?” and “How?” and “In what ways?” of our research questions. It gives us this opportunity for a depth of description that helps people do sensemaking. It not only helps participants make sense of their experiences, but if we write in an aesthetic, deep way, our readers are able to make naturalistic generalizations. Another way of saying that is we create transferability in our research that allows readers to understand and connect with our work.

We can then move forward with a critical approach. A critical approach goes beyond qualitative research in terms of asking not only “What is?” but also “What could be? or “What should be?” It becomes normative, and that’s when we start really examining how power plays a role in explaining most phenomena. For example, why is it that the 911 call taker speaks to one set of callers differently than the other set? We might need to look at the demographics of where that call is coming from and the larger discourse and forces that make it such that, when a call comes from one part of the city versus another part of the city, there’s always already a predisposition for communicating with those people in a certain way.

A critical approach asks us to look beyond what the participants might say themselves and to the larger discursive power structures that help explain why things happen the way they do in organizations and why they happen the way they do in our communication.

[MastersinCommunications.com] One of your leading articles on qualitative methods, “Qualitative Quality: Eight ‘Big-Tent’ Criteria for Excellent Qualitative Research,” argues for inclusive but rigorous standards for assessing qualitative research methods. This is an argument you have recently revisited with reference to autoethnographic organizational research, which you pose both exemplifies the merit of diverse approaches to qualitative inquiry while testing our traditional notions of “quality” qualitative research. You also discuss this argument in the piece “A Short Soliloquy on Merit,” in which you connect ideas of merit to normative standards tied to power relations. Could you discuss the importance you place on generating consistent standards for evaluating the diversity of scholarly approaches found in qualitative research and how your thoughts on this issue have developed or shifted over time, or with developments in the discipline?

[Dr. Sarah J. Tracy] That article [“Qualitative Quality”] started with me thinking that I was just going to write a review of what other people had said about what makes for high quality qualitative research. The impetus for that was wanting to help people do qualitative research. Teaching qualitative research methods is a pet passion of mine. I was thinking about the book that I wrote, Qualitative Research Methods: Collecting Evidence, Crafting Analysis, Communicating Impact, and considering how I could explain these different norms in qualitative research.

As I began writing that piece, I realized that there was a conflation in much of the literature between the end goals of good research, and good qualitative research in particular, and the main practices to get there. There was similarity in the end goals of most scholars, and that’s where the eight big tent criteria for qualitative research came from. However, the main practice to get there looks very different and it differs based on your paradigm, your research ethics, and so on.

One of the biggest mistakes that people make when they don’t read that article closely enough is thinking I’m saying that everybody needs to do qualitative research in the same way. I’m precisely making the different argument that, even though there are these eight goals that scholars seem to agree on, there are many different pathways to get there.

When I wrote that piece, I was mostly thinking about what makes for good qualitative research for the reader. For the reader, it needs to be a topic that they find worthwhile, so a worthwhile topic is one of the criteria. For the reader to believe it, it needs to have credibility from the reader’s point of view, and there’s a lot of different ways that we can assess credibility. The reader can also think about how they can act on the research, or how it can actually guide their life. It can impact or change them in a certain way.

In the latest piece that I co-authored with Cary J. S. López, “Anchoring ‘the Big Tent’: How Organizational Autoethnography Exemplifies and Stretches Notions of Qualitative Quality,” we examined autoethnography and organizational autoethnography in light of the criteria I identified in the first article, and one of the things we realized is that the criteria does not consider what is actually good quality for the researcher.

Autoethnography provided us this path, or shined this light, on how, when we think about what makes research good, we need to consider not only the end users but also the participants and the researcher. Autoethnographic research is particularly strong at self-reflexivity and helps us think about how we do research that actually allows the researchers themselves to end up in a better place in terms of their own sensemaking after they’ve done the study.

That expanded that tent a little bit. My idea of that criteria is mostly to help people do high-quality research. There are some people who have taken these criteria as a checkmark list, thinking qualitative research needs to do this, this, and this, and it all needs to look the same. If you read closely, I clearly discuss in that article that that is not my intention with it. This is a risk all of the time when we write something: that people will use it in ways that we don’t like.

The piece on merit [“A Short Soliloquy on Merit”] connects to this. It’s a very short article, but if we look at the etymology of the word merit, it basically means standard. When we think about standards, we think about sameness. This is a loaded, packed word. This is where my critical sensibility is apparent. We think about merit as this objective thing.

When the #communicationsowhite discussion shook up the communication discipline, there were scholars throwing around this idea that it was merit versus diversity rather than seeing them as two things that work together. What I was trying to do in the essay was to problematize this dichotomy by pointing out that the very definition of merit (based in notion of being standard) means that the word merit, itself, privileges people with dominant identities and marginalizes those who are considered different from the standard. I wanted to point out the discursive sensibilities of the very notion of “merit.”

[MastersinCommunications.com] One central application of these methods across your research has been an understanding of the role emotions plays in organizations, from the emotional labor of correctional officers, to the affective dimensions of workplace bullying and organizational burnout. Are there certain key findings you would highlight from the research you have done on emotion in organizational contexts? How does your work understand the relationship between emotion and power embodied in these contexts?

[Dr. Sarah J. Tracy] When you look at my research on emotions in both correctional settings and cruise ships, one key theme is that both of those are what [Erving] Goffman would call total institutions. These are institutions where there is one part of the population that never leaves and so cannot escape the discourse of structure of that organization. In cruise ships, it’s the employees that cannot escape, and with correctional officers it is the inmates that do not go home.

There are some specific things that happen in total institutions in terms of emotional control that are unique, and that is that we’re unable to as fully see what we’re doing as a performance, because we don’t have another space to go backstage. Even backstage can be performative.

In fact, in my cruise ship research I talked about how employees would escape to the front stage, because at least there they knew they were acting, whereas backstage it was almost having to kid yourself by pretending you weren’t acting. It’s painful to act, but it’s even more painful to find yourself being inauthentic and to try to make sense of that.

Emotions are also central to our discussions of burnout. Burnout can be especially problematic in total institutions where there are paradoxes at play. Paradoxes put people in a paralyzing situation. An example of a paradox is a demand to be spontaneous. If I tell you to be spontaneous, you can’t be spontaneous because I’ve told you to act on command. This leads to some very strange emotional constructions.

Similarly, I’ve not only looked at how people do the emotional labor on the interpersonal or group level, but also at how larger discourses create emotional moods. Twenty years ago when I was studying them, correctional officers were considered the scum of law enforcement. Now, law enforcement in general is really being critiqued, and for many valid reasons. But when you’re living under a discursive structure in society where you are considered scum, and professional babysitters, and of similar status to flight attendants, and you’re trying to do this work in a total institution where you have very little power, this creates real issues.

Correctional officers are in that sandwich space between inmates and administrators. They’re surveilled by inmates, they’re surveilled by administrators, and oftentimes they really don’t have any daily control. The paradoxes can really create a problem. In terms of burnout, when I was doing my research, the average life expectancy for correctional officers was 59 years old. They retired and then they died. I don’t know if that has changed, but it tells you a little bit about how that kind of job eats you up.

It’s important for me to clarify that I did not do research on connecting these emotional issues with the mortality of corrections officers. Still, a characteristic of all of my research that I would recommend to graduate students is starting with a problem in the field and then thinking about if your research sheds light on even a small part of what might explain that problem. That provides a built-in rationale. When I saw that life expectancy figure, I thought, “Wow, something is going on here. There’s probably a lot of contributing factors, but my expertise in burnout, paradox, and emotion might help explain part of it.”

[MastersinCommunications.com] In your recent work, you have turned to study emotion in relation to coping and occupational burnout during COVID-19, both in general, and in the specific case of the academy. What has your work in this area led you to understand about the impacts of the pandemic on organizations and their workers? How have these problems impacted the academy in ways that resonate with, or differ from, their impact on other organizations?

[Dr. Sarah J. Tracy] The research on coping was a team research project. The research project itself served as a coping device for the team of us involved with it. All of us were involved with other projects and all of a sudden they all got cut off. So this group of five or six of us, depending on the time, decided that we were going to commit to sensemaking about what was happening and what we were experiencing.

The whole process of this research may have been influenced by some of the work that Cary López and I had just done on how autoethnography can really be helpful for the researchers themselves, though I didn’t think of it at the time. We set a sampling technique. We did interviews or focus groups with 44 people, and we decided from the get-go that we were going to talk with people that we wanted to talk with anyway, and also people that were easy access to us and that we had a relationship with.

We set up the interview guide, and on our IRB application we called it “Sensemaking and Coping with COVID-19.” As we got into it, we did some more purposeful sampling to get a larger range of people in different professions. We really didn’t study that many academics. It was a whole range of people.

This 44-person study generated a number of articles. Two of the pieces are much more social scientific. In one, we examine the metaphors that people use for the pandemic. It’s fascinating. We asked in the interview questions, “What color would COVID-19 be if you had to give it a color? What animal would it be?” These metaphors provided us a linguistic way to get into their mental models and helped explain why it was that some people were viewing COVID as less of a threat and other people were thinking, “Oh my gosh, this is awful. This is going to totally impact my life, and it means death and destruction for the world.” When somebody says they think of COVID as a pesky fly versus thinking of it as a gorilla or a lion, that gives us insight to how they view the problem.

The second piece looked at coping strategies. There were a lot of obvious things. People said that they were drinking more or sleeping more and so on. There were also larger discursive structures that they drew from to make sense of their experience. We had a population that drew from a notion that being worried about something like this was kind of a girly feminine thing to do and, you know, they’re not that and so they don’t need to be worried about it.

Finally, we did an autoethnographic chapter on our own personal coping superhighways. We talked about our habitual ways of coping in times of stress. For many of us, including myself, our habitual coping strategy was just to work harder. We talked about the unintentional consequences of that. I had the privilege of working harder like many academics, but this can also normalize and sediment the idea that one should be productive in times of crisis. There were many people who didn’t have that privilege, because of childcare, because of caring for sick relatives, because they were in jobs where they couldn’t continue to work, because they were facing huge financial insecurity. This helped us think critically.

Typically, we think that coping is just a personal thing. What if we started thinking about how your personal coping strategies affect those around you, especially if you’re in a position of power?

[MastersinCommunications.com] At Arizona State University you are co-founder of The Transformation Project which works, in diverse capacities ranging from teaching and research to community engagement, toward individual and community-level empowerment and the advancement of social equity. Could you provide us some background on The Transformation Project, your role in founding it, and the work that it does?

[Dr. Sarah J. Tracy] The Transformation Project came about because of our realization that wicked problems cannot be solved or even addressed very well from our disciplinary silos. For us to understand the challenges of work-life balance, we need scholars who study organizational communication and scholars who understand organizational policy. We need scholars of family communication and domestic communication to understand the division of domestic labor related to work-life balance. We need interpersonal and relational scholars to discuss conflict resolution and coping at home.

At Arizona State University, we realized we needed an initiative that would bring together scholars who could address some of these more complex problems that are not just disciplinary. In fact, most problems are interdisciplinary. The Transformation Project creates a structure to bring together that range of scholars. At this point, it serves as a think tank. The COVID-19 study we discussed was a part of it, and we drew on scholars and graduate students associated with the project to conduct that research.

Overall, it’s a group of people who have an interest in transforming relationships on the interpersonal level, group level, family level, and societal level, for the larger good. We also do things to support wellbeing and flourishing. We host writing retreats. We have regular walk-and-talks where people will gather to go on hikes together where we can talk about school or about personal things. That kind of shoulder-to-shoulder communication does something that is quite different from face-to-face task-based communication.

Last year, we held a grief retreat. One of our colleagues, my good friend and the respected scholar Daniel Brouwer, died. We brought in an expert, and we did sensemaking and reading around grief, not only to research it, but to also help us manage our grief as we went through that and continue to go through that.

[MastersinCommunications.com] Do you have advice for students interested in organizational communication, critical and qualitative research methods, or the more specific applications of your research we have discussed here, who are considering pursuing a graduate degree in communication?

[Dr. Sarah J. Tracy] I think there is value when you are considering the kind of research that you want to do to start with a problem in the field or something that is a dilemma for participants. This provides a sort of built-in rationale for your work. This is quite different from saying. “I’m interested in a certain topic.” If we can start with, for example, the identification that there are people that are being bullied in the organization. This is not good. It’s not good for their mental health, their physical health, or for productivity in the organization. How can I do communication research that might shed light on that issue? Or, given our interest in critical approaches that consider not only what is but what should be, how can I do communication research that might transform that issue?

I would also suggest a starting point of, “What are you curious about that you do not already know the answer to?” Rather than writing about something that you already know and regurgitating that, ask yourself what you’re curious about. What do you not know that some people might be more familiar with that you’re interested in exploring?

Finally, ask yourself, “What is it that I want to stand for creating in the world?” What shows up when you, as a researcher or a teacher, show up? What I try to be a stand for is compassion and flourishing in organizations. This helps provide a lens that informs what I do. As a scholar you have to say no to good to say yes to great. People are going to ask you to do things all of the time.

How is it that I know what my core genius is? What is it that I’m going to say yes to? Where is my scholarship going to go, so that I’m not being bounced around like a ping-pong ball with all these different stakeholders saying, “Oh, come and do this, come and do this.” I need to know what I am up to creating in the world. Does what is being asked of me relate to that? If not, then you need to be able to say no. Or, if you’re in doubt about where your research is going, you can remind yourself, “This is what I’m up to creating.” This is how I know I have success at the end of my article or the end of my research project. Has what I stand for been part of the result of it?

Looking ahead and thinking about what you want to do with this degree is very important. I’ve been very active during the last few years in terms of normalizing the idea of alternatives to academic jobs, or “Altac,” and making it okay and normal for doctoral students to not end up in academia. If you’re thinking of going to graduate school, really take a good, hard look at how many academic jobs of the kind that you would want to have are available. If that’s where you want to end up, think about how you might place yourself, while also realizing that a Ph.D. can be useful for a range of things in the industry as well.

Thank you, Dr. Tracy, for sharing your insight on organizational communication, emotional labor, 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.