Powerpoint Presentation As Organizing Rite: A Durkheimian View on Materiality and Visuality in Embodied Practice

Wednesday, 18 July 2018: 08:30
Oral Presentation
Jo Ann BROOKS, Independent Scholar, USA
PowerPointâ„¢ presentations are pervasive in contemporary organizations; yet despite popular criticism, theoretical explanations for the phenomenon remain weak. Most scholarship characterizes it simply as "ritual" (routine) behavior or rote-force cognition. This paper offers a fuller account, highlighting the role of material and visual elements in PowerPoint presentations.

Leveraging Durkheim's classic work on rites as strengthened with recent extensions of his theory, this paper builds on his definition of rites as "particular modes of action" oriented toward socially meaningful objects. Most importantly, the significance of a rite is in its efficacy for establishing certain mental dispositions, shaping participants' consequent behavior and interpretation processes.

As commonly enacted within organizations, PowerPoint presentations are organizing rites which afford this efficacy. The power of these organizing rites lies in their being a sociomaterial practice that assembles embodied participants into organizational units together with material artifacts bearing organizationally-relevant visual symbols. Enacting the practice generates collective sentiments which are superimposed onto psychological images of the projected visual symbols. PowerPoint presentations thus comprise a material framing practice through which participants collectively constitute an embodied frame which focuses their collectively organized attention on commonly-shared, organizationally-relevant visual symbols. Emergent outcomes include moral force of (collective) authority and ultimately, categories and concepts anchored in the visual symbols.

After each enactment of an organizing rite, "re-shaped" individuals return to their more isolated work environments, able to interpret and respond to emails in ways shaped by the organizational frame(s). Recurrent enactment of organizing rites supports organizational sensemaking and other more distributed forms of organizational work.

Each tenet of this argument is illustrated with ethnographic data from an engineering organization. Theoretical and methodological implications are discussed.