Are there good ways to ask the management to improve the clarity and detail level of work requests and be more specific rather than just throwing you into a war zone and expecting you to figure out on your own how to be useful to the team, being kind of like an individual shop within a shop. Or if the culture is like that already, and I don't find myself functioning well in such an environment of undefined roles and expectations, is it better to just look for a more structured place rather than try to change it. Or am I expecting too much? Is it bad to ask a manager to be more specific and clearly define what the expected work results should be if he seems to be vague as a matter of general habit.
It's reasonable to ask for clarification of vague directives, but if you find that you are asking for more specificity than those around you of comparable experience/grade level, then the change will need to come on your end, not your manager's. If a manager has ten people with comparable experience and skills and nine of them are handling his directives just fine, then he's not going to be very receptive to requests from #10 to do things differently.
Here are some ways that you can try to address the problem at your end:
Get a mentor or buddy (a fellow developer). Obviously this person needs to be willing. If your company doesn't have a mentor culture, you (plural) may want to try to change that. You can point out to management that all new employees need some help to get settled in any company, and by investing a little mentor time they'll get to productive new hires more quickly.
When your manager gives you a vague directive, if you're talking you can immediately ask for clarification. if the directive came in some other way (email, line-item on a project plan, bug report, whatever), then before going to your manager, try a sanity-check with your mentor or a peer. The question is "is there enough information here?", not "is this reasonable?" or "how does he expect me to do that?".
If you're still confused and need to go to your manager for help, show him that you've spent some time thinking about it first. Don't ask "what do you mean by performance problem?" but "are you concerned with response time, or bandwidth usage, or delays in updating the back-end database, or...?".
Some industries, and some companies, are fundamentally uncertain. To succeed in those environments you need to be flexible and adapatable. If that turns out to be beyond your current abilities, it might be better to seek out a more structured environment.
Managers don't want to spend tons of time creating detailed plans for what their employees do.
However, a really easy way you can make this happen in effect is to take the vague work requests/instructions you receive and translate them into a much more detailed document (of the type you want from them). After doing this, run this document by your manager and project leads to ensure you have correctly understood what they are looking for in their vague request.