About Shiv Ganesh, Ph.D.: Shiv Ganesh is Professor in the Department of Communication Studies at The University of Texas at Austin’s Moody College of Communication. Dr. Ganesh’s research investigates diverse forms of political organization and collective action, from digital social movements to nongovernmental organizations. He has made invaluable contributions to communication scholarship in social movement studies, organizational communication, intercultural communication, and beyond. Dr. Ganesh’s work has appeared in the field’s leading journals, including Communication Monographs, Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, and International Journal of Communication. His recent journal publications include “Membership Matters: Organizing Archetypes, Participatory Styles, and Connective Action” and “Revisiting Ethnography in Organizational Communication Studies,” both in Management Communication Quarterly.
Dr. Ganesh’s research has been recognized with a number of accolades, including top paper awards from the Organizational Communication Division of the International Communication Association (ICA) and the Ethnography Division of the National Communication Association (NCA). He has received the Fredric M. Jablin Award for Outstanding Contributions to Organizational Communication from the ICA, and an Article of the Year Award from the International and Intercultural Communication Division of the NCA, among other accolades.
Dr. Ganesh was named a Fellow of the ICA in 2021. He serves on the editorial boards of a number of top journals and was previously editor of the Journal of International and Intercultural Communication. His co-authored volume Organizational Communication in an Age of Globalization: Issues, Reflections, Practices is currently in its second edition, and he is co-editor of the 2021 collection By Degrees: Resilience, Relationships, and Success in Communication Graduate Studies, and HIV, AIDS, and Sexuality in Later Life, published in 2022.
Dr. Ganesh’s research has been supported by grants from the Swedish Foundation for Strategic Environmental Research, the Royal Society of New Zealand’s Marsden Fund, and a number of other institutions. Prior to joining the faculty at UT Austin, Dr. Ganesh was Professor of Communication and Head of the School of Communication at Massey University in Aotearoa New Zealand. He received his Ph.D. in Communication from Purdue University, his M.A. in Social Work from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai, India, and his B.A. in Sociology from the University of Delhi.
[MastersinCommunications.com] May we begin with an overview of your academic and professional background? How did you first become interested in researching social change and collective action, and begin to apply perspectives in organizational communication to studying forms of social and political organizing as varied as global social movements, NGOs, and community organizations?
[Dr. Shiv Ganesh] I think when a lot of academics look back at their record they think, “My gosh, whatever have I been studying for the last 20-odd years?” It can seem like a mixture of all kinds of unrelated things. One thread that cuts through different dimensions of my work has been an interest in how groups of people come together to try to make decisions about the public good. You can be vastly complex about what constitutes groups and decisions, what constitutes a good, and increasingly what constitutes people, but this central question is something I have always been interested in.
My undergraduate degree was in sociology at the University of Delhi and it was a very cerebral program. It was a sociology honors program where we read a lot of [Karl] Marx, [Max] Weber, and [Émile] Durkheim in the original. It really changed my outlook on life and the world, and it was transformative in all of the right ways an undergraduate education should be. Still, it left me with a sense of disengagement, so I went and did a master’s in social work at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai. Social work in India at the time was not the kind of professionalized, highly bureaucratic occupation that it is today. There was a strong activist bent to that program. We were in a sense expected to be activists while we were students in that program.
I focused a lot of my work on criminal justice but was interested in communication during this time as well. The faculty I worked with in Mumbai put me in touch with some people in the U.S. and that’s why I ended up coming to the United States. I came to communication studies only at the Ph.D. level, and I was interested in what we were calling new media or emerging media, which was the nascent internet. This was 1995. It was a year or two into my Ph.D. at Purdue, Cynthia Stohl told me, “Shiv, you cannot study global communication and NGOs without studying organizations. You have to study organizational communication.”
I was quite resistant to that, though I’m not sure why; perhaps because it felt like a managerial thing. Once I got into it, I thought, “Wow, this subfield really gives me a purchase on the issues that I’m interested in, whether it’s social justice, global communication, or digital technology, in a way that I’m not getting elsewhere.” That’s why, since then, I’ve been embedded in organizational communication even though my work has always intersected with international communication and environmental communication studies.
My Ph.D. ended up being a critical qualitative study of information technology in a Nongovernmental Organization (NGO). I went to the NGO I was working with three times over the course of two or three years. I look back at that and see how it really set the stage for the fieldwork I did in subsequent years.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Your research frequently makes use of ethnographic and participatory methodologies, and you have conducted fieldwork in a number of countries including Aotearoa New Zealand, India, Sweden, and the United States. Could you tell us a little bit about your experiences conducting fieldwork and how you have drawn on this research in your scholarship on, for example, global activist networks?
[Dr. Shiv Ganesh] I have conducted fieldwork in a number of countries. Like most researchers in the field, I began with where I was. I think an important part of being a critical qualitative researcher is making sure your work involves interrogating and working from the standpoint of your positionality. For me, that was being a South Asian, cisgender, gay male around the turn of the millennium. My first few big fieldwork projects were in India, and that started with my Ph.D. work. A couple of years ago, I wrote a piece about what characterized that fieldwork in the beginning, and one thing I think is common to a lot of my projects is long-term immersion. The ethnographic engagement of my shortest projects was over a year long, and the longest project has been six years long.
My work is ethnographically engaged, which means a long-term commitment to studying what I’m studying, but for me ethnography is not coterminous with qualitative methods: things like interviewing, or focus groups, or observation, and situated conversations are critical and indispensable parts of ethnography, but I think long-term engagement could also mean doing a survey as part of that engagement.
For example, one project I began in 2012 was with a group of activists called Loomio. Loomio was a digital platform that was created by activists who came out of the Occupy movement. It was a widely successful platform for many years. At one point, it had about 20,0000 activist groups from all over the world using it. They wanted some help in figuring out what people were using it for, and what kinds of organizing the platform enabled. That’s how I got into that part of my work; it was in response to some of the exigencies I encountered in the field, and that involved getting into analytics, which I knew nothing about, and designing a survey that went out to about 30,000 people. The actual method of engagement has been unexpected, but the critical thing has been the long-term, ethnographic commitment.
So, I’ve always started where I’ve lived, which, at first, was India. Then I moved to the United States, and then I moved to Aotearoa New Zealand for about fifteen years. The funny thing is when I moved to Aotearoa New Zealand, I stopped doing fieldwork in India for about 10 years, and it’s only been since 2015 that I went back to India to start a long-term fieldwork project on Indigenous displacement. My work has always dealt with long term engagement. You could call it multi-methodological, but I prefer to think of it as methodologically responsive to the study and its context.
[MastersinCommunications.com] For those of our readers who may be unfamiliar with ethnography and participant observation, could you discuss how you approach conducting research in these diverse cultural and political contexts? What are some of the challenges of conducting global fieldwork and what has it uniquely enabled you to attend to in your work?
[Dr. Shiv Ganesh] The biggest challenge is doing global work while based in the United States. I think that’s a challenge for all kinds of reasons. For one, it’s resource intensive. It requires traveling outside the U.S., and it involves extra resources and commitment in that sense. The second reason is that, frankly, I don’t think that doing research outside the United States is particularly rewarded in our field. For better or worse, but mostly for worse, our discipline is parochial and incredibly U.S.-centric in terms of what counts as communication, in terms of whom is studied when we talk about communication processes, and in terms of how we study them. Our methods themselves are quite parochial.
If you want to do global work and global ethnography and you live in the United States, I think that continues to be a significant challenge. Perhaps it is less so now than when I started in the field around the turn of the millennium, but certainly I think doing global ethnography remains challenging for those reasons. At the same time, I think doing global research has uniquely enabled me to develop interesting perspectives on communication and organizing themselves.
When you study globalization, for example, you’re much less likely to rely on a “container” metaphor for organization. When those of us in organizational studies do ethnographic work, more often than not it has been based in one organization which is the container within which the ethnography happens.
When you do global work, you cannot do that sort of container-based work, you have to move outside of it because by its very definition it’s globally focused. My most recent project for example is one that involves a supply chain ethnography. Along with a number of other researchers, both students and colleagues, in five different countries, we’ve been studying how organic cotton moves from fields and farms in South India to garment factories, to mills, to ginning centers, and eventually to Sweden where it is marketed, put into stores, and consumed by largely white consumers in Europe. Doing that is the exact opposite of treating an organization as a container. It involves figuring out how these connections stretch across the globe. That’s a unique insight afforded to you by global ethnography.
Another thing I think is unusual about my work, which is maybe something all ethnographers actually feel about their work, is that any time I do an ethnographic project I end up doing a deep dive into something I truly don’t know anything about. I mean that from my heart. It’s not that I don’t understand what communication is like in a certain context. For my most recent project that we were just discussing, I took a deep dive into cotton, into trying to understand cotton as a species, the DNA of cotton, and how that DNA is connected to things like colonialism and slavery. I live and work in Texas right now and this state was formed by cotton and slavery. The interesting thing about that project, even though it’s based in India and Sweden, is that it’s teaching me a heck of a lot about Texas.
My very first project was on digital media, rationalization, and NGOs. That was my Ph.D. work. The NGO that I studied was an environmental NGO working in sustainability, and so all of a sudden I found myself studying sustainability for my Ph.D., which is not something I had anticipated doing at all.
[MastersinCommunications.com] One thread of your scholarship – an early example being your edited collection Organizational Communication in an Age of Globalization — investigates how globalization and neoliberalism have shaped contemporary organizing. Could you introduce us to these phenomena of globalization and neoliberalism and briefly explore how they have significantly altered how we organize? Are there common dynamics you would draw attention to, with respect to the ways different types of organizations have been transformed by neoliberal globalization?
[Dr. Shiv Ganesh] I remember when I was writing my Ph.D., there was an entire chapter in there inspired by Foucault and governmentality, and neoliberalism in particular, and I had to talk to my committee about what neoliberalism was. Now anyone who does critical or qualitative work knows that word and knows what it means in the context of capitalism. It’s really interesting to go back to that project now and think about how there were some people in critical/cultural studies working on neoliberalism, but it certainly wasn’t the key word in critical inquiry that it is today.
When we talk about globalization and neoliberalism, the two things go hand-in-hand. You cannot talk about one without the other. My Ph.D. project was precisely about how organizations have been transformed by neoliberal globalization.
One of the first publications out of the project was called “The Myth of the Nongovernmental Organization.” The argument was that a Foucauldian project of rationalization had produced a type of organization that was eminently governmental in terms of how it enshrined rational principles of how to work with rural communities in terms of a market, or how it promoted entrepreneurialism as a solution to what it called market-driven problems. These modes of rationalization elided deep-seated caste-based inequities. You cannot solve caste by talking about the market, but if you don’t define problems of rural development as being caste-related then those issues are overlooked.
That is one sense in which I think different kinds of organizations have been transformed by neoliberal globalization. More and more, NGOs around the world are being bifurcated. On the one hand, you have a highly professionalized, glossy, “with it,” NGO sector, and on the other you have community-based organizations that are trying to resist those very trends.
Changes in corporate organizations have also impacted NGOs, because corporate logics involve partnering with NGOs and co-opting social movements in increasingly bizarre ways. At the same time, I see the transformation of NGOs and social movements as being much broader than corporate influence. I’m much more likely to talk about capitalism in my work than I am to talk about the influence of specific corporations.
For instance, what constitutes activism has become increasingly commodified. When you actually look at social movements over the last 20 years, I identify at least three waves in which what we call activism has transformed.
The first wave is the networking of activism that we saw around the turn of the millennium that culminated in protests in Seattle and elsewhere. That was the emergence of a new, highly networked form of global activism that connected actors in Brazil with, for instance, farmers in India and activists in the Global North. Consequently, coalition building was much more possible.
The second wave is what I would call the individualization of activism. Folks in the field talk about connective action and talk about how we don’t need organizations to organize because individuals can do everything organizations used to be able to do on their own. Now being an activist is almost a social position or stance people take, or an identity, rather than a practice or a commitment.
The third wave is what I would call the commodification of activism, which follows from the individualization of activism — not just activism as a subject position, but as part of the way capitalism co-opts social issues into a capitalist logic. That’s the trajectory where changes in social movements and activism and the influence of capitalism come together.
Lately, in work I have published related to fieldwork I’ve been doing on Indigenous displacement, I’ve realized that some of the more global, Indigenous organizing efforts end up othering the very communities that they are supposed to be supporting. As soon as we get into a global arena, even if we’re talking about Indigenous issues, you have to have a particular set of accoutrements to be a part of that network: you have to have a logo, and a cause, and a slogan, and a website, and social media, and so forth. That leaves behind communities that are just outside that vocabulary.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Your recent publication, “Fluid Hybridity: Organizational Form and Formlessness in the Digital Age,” co-authored with Cynthia Stohl, reflects an attention to how technological innovation shapes organizing that you have also pursued elsewhere in your research. Would you discuss what it means that digital technologies have allowed for “formless” organizing, and that, in turn, this leads to the production of “hybrid organizational forms?” Putting this piece in conversation with your work more broadly, what would you identify as some of the critical changes that these “fluid” modes of organizing have engendered in, for instance, how people around the world work or engage in politics?
[Dr. Shiv Ganesh] When the Occupy movement first started, I wanted to study it. I was in Wellington on the International Day of Occupation, and went down to the central library in Wellington where protests were taking place and spent a couple of days there with people. What was really interesting to me, and which I subsequently wrote about, was that, unlike previous generations of protest where there is a great deal of incipient organizing and then you have the protest–that is, traditionally groups come together, they identify an issue, they figure out where they’re going to have the protest, what their goals are, and then the protest happens—here the logic had been flipped. People had gathered together, and in the moment of the protest itself the sensemaking work of asking, “What was this about? How do we communicate about this and frame this?” began.
We think of digital technologies as being networked and affording people the ability to plan with greater ease, but we don’t think of them as being aggregative technologies, that is, technologies that actually produce people in particular places, which is what Occupy did. It produced people in places and once it produced them there then the organizing began. That’s one way in which politics has changed. Issues aren’t as well-defined and worked on at an incipient level. The evolution of movements is much more dynamic now than it used to be because of the technological environment.
That’s how I got interested in what we later began calling formlessness and fluidity. You didn’t have to have an organizational form in order to have a movement; the form emerged later. It was at Occupy that I met a group of people who were really concerned about the fact that these technologies allowed us to meet but they didn’t allow us to stay together. That’s when this group of computer science nerds got together and created the platform called Loomio. They said, “This will be a platform where we use the Occupy protocols so activists can make decisions together that are robust, work together over a period of time, and actually be an organization. After the next four or five years of working with Loomio, we ended up doing the survey I mentioned previously.
The results of this survey were really interesting. Usually the logic goes something like this: once you have all these technologies, you don’t need organizations anymore because individuals can do the work of organizations, so you don’t have collective action as much as connective action.
What we found is that this platform allowed multiple types of organizing archetypes to flourish, not just connective action but also organizing that was organizationally-driven, that was organizationally enabled but not conducted by an organization, and also “organizationally light,” which is to say people were coming together but no one knew who those groups were because they were part of a group that was invested in, for example, opposing a free trade agreement, but they weren’t there because they were a trade union member. That organization membership textured their decision to attend, but the organization itself wasn’t there.
All these different archetypes were interacting in the organizational environment, and that just makes it more complicated and more crazy. One of the things we found in that particular study was that, even if people were meeting online through Loomio, say the Pirate Party, which is one organization in Europe that used Loomio quite a lot, to talk about an issue they were concerned with, like intellectual copyright, they weren’t necessarily following the script of their organization. They were talking in more creative ways, they tended to be more transgressive and disruptive. Even when people were working in organizational capacities on collective action issues, they seemed to be working differently. That’s just one example of how all these archetypes are interacting in the digital space, and I think we can expect that to continue for the foreseeable future.
My big worry since that study is not about the potential for collective action to happen digitally, but just how much that space has been co-opted and how difficult it is for activists to find safe spaces online anymore that are not surveilled, monitored, and from which data is not extracted. That should be the next step in studying digital collective action. What exactly is happening now that all these spaces are co-opted by this extractive logic that [Shoshana] Zuboff in her book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism cast light upon so well.
[MastersinCommunications.com] In 2020, you co-edited the forum in Management Communication Quarterly, “When Words Do Not Matter: Identifying Actions to Effect Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in the Academy,” to which you contributed the piece, “Putting Our Own House in Order: Research, Race, and Reflexivity,” written with longtime collaborator Heather Zoller. Could you provide us with some background on this forum and discuss how its collected pieces, including your own contribution, illustrate the unique perspective organizational communication has to offer toward understanding and resisting the academy’s marginalization of cultural difference?
[Dr. Shiv Ganesh] Dawna Ballard came to me with the idea for that forum, and I encouraged her to lead it, which she did so expertly. She got a few of us together to try to talk about the need to think about how we can do things to effect diversity, equity, and inclusion in the academy. The exigence for that was, of course, the summer of 2020, the murder of George Floyd, and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement. That was one piece of the context.
Related to that, there was the U.S.-centric issue where the National Communication Association had the controversy about distinguished scholars and the lack of diversity among them, and the real and very painful tension between those scholars and the Association that was so distressing for so many people. We felt that it was time to think not just in terms of what was happening at an associational level, or what the issues were, but also in terms of what we should try to do as academics.
The ax I had to grind in the particular forum was one related to the departments in which we work and, let’s face it, live in [laughs]. I don’t mean to disrespect the people who have done so much hard work trying to procure changes in our professional association. Targeting our professional associations or highlighting and making visible the deep-seated inequities of these institutions is critical work, but it is a lot easier than turning around and doing the same thing in your own department. It’s easier because the stakes are a little bit lower. Your actual employment doesn’t depend on it as much. Your career does and your future employability does, so I don’t mean to marginalize or minimize that.
At the same time, Heather, with whom I have done some of my best work, and I thought, “This is a great first step. If we are making visible issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) and the need to address them in our professional associations, then let’s talk about these issues in our own departments.” That’s why we call that subsection of the forum, “Putting our Own House in Order.”
If we’re talking about DEI, let’s do a few things about how we consider this at a department level, and in terms of our everyday teaching, research, and service. I think we identified 10 things that folks can do, which includes everything from ensuring there are explicit criteria for tenure and promotion to making sure there is a moratorium in our research on white-only samples that are not called white-only samples in our data. I would direct you to our piece to see the full list of suggestions.
I’m really gratified that the forum was so well received. I think that’s a good sign. It was given a top article award by the Organizational Communication Division of NCA the following year, which I thought was a real testament to the work that Dawna [Ballard] did in putting it together, but it’s also a good sign that people were reading this and recognizing its importance. Hopefully it means positive change might begin to happen.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Would you put your contribution to this forum in dialogue with another essay that you recently contributed to: “‘Aliens’ in the United States: A Collaborative Autoethnography of Foreign-Born Faculty.” Are there dimensions to the inequities of the academy that this autoethnographic work helped identify that valuably supplement the dialogue of the forum? Taken together, did working on these collaborative projects impact your larger outlook on current movements for racial and cultural equity in the discipline and in academia more generally, and where we might go from here?
[Dr. Shiv Ganesh] I’ve always called myself a guest author on this project because all I did was try to help people who were really leading the project. It was an exciting opportunity for me because I had the chance to work with these early career researchers who came together to discuss these issues on a panel. I helped moderate that panel as somebody who had gone through that process, 5-20 years prior, and who, interestingly enough, is now going through that process again. I’m now back in the United States as foreign-born faculty going through that H-1B Green Card process.
This is a critical justice, diversity, and equity issue that is just not visible. It connects to our discussion about how the U.S. academy and our field are quite parochial. The default assumption is that you will be a U.S. citizen. As U.S. citizens, your colleagues are not likely to know much about how you experience professional life or how you experience being in the academy. As an example of how vexed those issues were, when I took my job at the University of Montana back in 2000, my last name was misspelled by one letter when I put the application in. I didn’t see the application that the university filed, and when my visa came to me, I said, “This is wrong. I won’t be able to travel on this because it’s wrong by a letter.”
They tried to change it, but didn’t realize that what is now the USCIS [U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services] took their request to change my last name as evidence of an attempt to falsify information and they canceled my visa. They put my entire case in storage in Nebraska, and it took a year to resolve. It took the intervention of a Senator. I was taken off payroll. I got the replacement visa on the 10th of September, 2001. Think about that date. That’s just my personal experience, and that’s one reason I thought, “These things need to be made visible. They need to be talked about.”
I was so proud to be invited to be part of this project. That paper has also been really well received and won an award from the Ethnography Division of NCA. I think that kind of work really needs to continue. Hats off to Joëlle Cruz, James McDonald, Kirsten Broadfoot, and Andy Kai-chun Chuang on that forum. I’m so proud of them.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Your forthcoming co-authored book is entitled By Degrees Resilience, Relationships, and Success in Communication Graduate Studies. After working on this book, are there any lessons you would like to pass on to current graduate students or students who are contemplating pursuing an advanced degree? Do you have any advice you would like to give, more specifically, to students interested in organizational communication, the study of social movements, or critical qualitative research more broadly, who are considering pursuing a graduate degree in communication?
[Dr. Shiv Ganesh] The first piece of advice is something I’ve implicitly been speaking to throughout this conversation. It is to look outside the United States. It’s a big world out there. It’s only when you look outside where you’ve come from or where you live that you get some kind of analytical or ethical purchase on what you’re doing and who you actually are. That’s something I can’t emphasize enough.
I’ve remarked on how U.S.-centric our field is, and I think we can only begin to systematically change that if people inside the United States start studying things outside the United States, in collaborative ways, and with a gesture of humility, of course. I now insist that all my Ph.D. students do fieldwork outside the U.S., at least to a measure. I think that’s tremendously important work to do, and work that is increasingly rewarded within the U.S. That is my first piece of advice, which is maybe more of a request to graduate students.
One of the other axes I’ve been grinding lately is the feeling that we’ve failed our graduate students and one of the critical ways we’ve done this is that we have not provided enough messages of hope. We’ve been really good at talking about what the problems in the academy are, how screwed up things can be, how vicious tenure and promotion cases in the U.S. can be, how terrible the world is becoming, how many wicked problems there are, how we don’t really have a hope in hell of decolonizing anything.
All these messages are true and important to know and learn. But they have not come alongside any kind of speech, discussion, or discourse — what, in Te Reo Māori, is called “kōrero” — about hope. If everything’s going so badly, then what’s the point? I want to end by saying there is, in fact, a point. If we did not have the capacity to change things then I wouldn’t still be here. None of us would. Even though the academy is in chaos, and things are going up in flames all over the place, there is still a lot of opportunity to do things well, not just in the United States but also outside of it.
There are more opportunities than there have ever been for joining with other people who are committed to the same issues that you are, to actually try to do something about them. If that weren’t the case, there would not have been the fracas over the distinguished scholars issue at NCA. There would not have been the kind of chaos we saw in the Organizational Communication Division of that association that same year. Papers that I and others have written would not have received the recognition and light that they have. All of those things are really good things happening in our field. I think we need to do a better job helping our students see and appreciate that.
Thank you, Dr. Shiv Ganesh, for your fascinating discussion of your research on organizational communication, political communication, and collective action in the modern, digital-centric era!
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.