Anthropology, organizations and interventions: new territory or quicksand?

Anthropology, organizations and interventions: new territory or quicksand?

Frans Kamsteeg and Harry Wels

Anthropology and management do not sit very comfortably beside each other. It is rather like the difference between ‘thinking’ and ‘doing’. Both accuse the other of not doing what they themselves can do best. Anthropologists say of management that they do not think enough; they act without a basis of proper reasoning. Management on the other hand says that anthropologists do not know anything about how to intervene in situations, not even on the basis of their own analyses. Management does have a point here: anthropologists in general are hardly ever interventionists, aside from the odd wayward individual. Industrial anthropology as a subject never really got off the ground, although Richardson and also Warner, Chapple and Arensberg in the 1940s and 1950s pushed strongly for more of an interventionist approach in anthropology. Yet so far it never developed into a love-affair for the majority of the hard-core anthropological fraternity. Undoubtedly, this has much to do with the interventionist implications of involvement with organization and management: ‘The most important aspect of the transition from academic to practising anthropology for Richardson was the early discovery that analysis was not enough. [Richardson] had to learn the art, long made explicit by the military, of relating means to ends. For every goal there are multiple means, and effective and ineffective sequencing and timing of means. Devising effective ways to achieve future goals usually required far more creative thinking than analysing past events’ . But despite his pleas, ‘(a)nthropology, of course, did not develop along the lines envisioned by Richardson, and industrial anthropology never became a credentialed profession’ . 

Of course a counter-narrative can also be written on industrial anthropology’s accomplishments in the applied field. Already in 1957, Keesing, Siegel and Hammond edited an inventory volume on the contributions of anthropology to industry , although interestingly it would take 24 years before another comprehensive review would be published . Holzberg and Giovannini conclude euphemistically that the anthropological focus on organizations and industry has led to a ‘highly varied and somewhat eclectic body of literature’ . As part of the counter-narrative one can also mention the contributions of W. Lloyd Warner, the anthropologist who was called in as a consultant by the famous Elton Mayo for the Hawthorne studies which were to open the eye on social arrangements of the plant. This anthropological turn later gave birth to the popular and well-known Human Relations School. Disciples of Warner, Eliott D. Chapple and Conrad Arensberg, together with Richardson whom we mentioned above, founded the Society for Applied Anthropology in 1941 to spread further the message of an intervention-oriented anthropology. The tone of their work was rather over-zealous: they preached that anthropologists should turn into interventionists. ‘Once the anthropologist gets over his nostalgia for the vanishing primitive, he will find that the industrial situation affords him a magnificent opportunity to improve his understanding of changes in human relations, not merely through observation over a long period of time, but also through the use of deliberate and controlled experiment’ . But no matter how optimistically the counter-narrative may be dressed up, the overview of Holzberg and Giovannini rather sadly concludes that ‘(i)ronically enough, although industrial anthropology began with an applied focus, the recent literature contains few works directly concerned with applied industrial research’ . In 1987, after more than 40 years of missionary work to get industrial anthropology and other applied varieties of the discipline accepted as part of mainstream anthropology, Morey and Luthans could still entitle their paper for the Academy of Management: ‘Anthropology: the forgotten behavioural science in management history’ . 

In 1997 Bate seems to echo the sentiments expressed by Holzberg and Giovannini some 16 years earlier about the varied and eclectic nature of the body of literature that has come out of anthropology’s involvement with industry, organizations and management. Bate formulates the purpose of his paper as ‘to speculate on the nature of the ‘ethnographic quest’, and on what might be gained from trying to put organization studies and anthropology back together again in some form or other’. The somewhat undisciplined character of the ethnographic approach is reiterated throughout the paper. As a method ‘(…) many ethnographers believe there are no rules as such (…)’. As a paradigm, ethnography ‘challenge[s] the highly influential ‘KISS’ (Keep It Simple Stupid) paradigm found in the best-selling business books’ and offers a ‘radical perspective’. As a way of writing there is a commitment ‘(…) to experimentation with different styles’. Ethnography is presented as a no-fixed-rules-paradigm in contrast to the rule-driven organization behaviour paradigm. Although there may be no consensus, in the second half of the 1990s and beginning of the new millennium some common characteristics and categories seem to have developed in the ethnographic approach to organizations. Van Maanen, e.g., suggests that organizational ethnography focuses on process and informal relations, identity and change, organizational environments, and morality and conflict Such an emphasis contrasts with main stream organization theory. It more or less provides a common framework for looking at organizations from an anthropological perspective. Organizational ethnography is characterised as historical, contextual and process-oriented, while most studies of organizational behaviour lack these characteristics, according to Bate.

Bate and Van Maanen both provide insightful overviews of the state of the art of organizational anthropology. The first does so in relation, or contrast, to more conventional approaches to the study of organization and management, the second, in relation to the different types of studies in organizational anthropology. Both texts indicate that finally perhaps the unruly tribe of ethnographers have been tamed into, primary something like a set of overarching characteristics and categories. Although both authors refer to all kinds of concepts that are used in the interpretative frameworks of organizational anthropologists (although most of the time only implicitly), they do not offer any kind of conceptual overarching categorisation. What is lacking in both approaches - to a large extent because they were not intended to do so in the first place - is, first of all, a theoretical framework for organizational anthropology. Secondly, the mentioned authors do not elaborate on the interventionist implications of organizational anthropology. We would like to explore both these two themes in more detail in this paper. By doing so, we wish to contribute, just as Bate and Van Maanen do, to creating more order and system in organizational ethnography. Not for the sake of order an sich, but for the sake of luring organizational anthropology into thinking systematically about matching interventions to their analyses, the ultimate aim being intended to make a better match between anthropology and management or deciding once and for all to leave the two worlds apart.

To tackle the first challenge, we will present a conceptual framework in which organizational anthropology is positioned and presented vis à vis the more conventional organizational theoretical paradigms. This framework puts the familiar anthropological concepts of culture, identity, power and symbolism together into an integrated perspective for the analysis of organizational phenomena. The second challenge will be taken head on by proposing a framework for an anthropological intervention strategy which is intended to invite further debate about this issue in organizational anthropology circles.

An Anthropological Model for Studying Organizations.
‘Culture’, ‘identity’ and ‘power’ are key concepts in the anthropological tradition. Cultural anthropologists have produced numerous case studies of tribes, villages, towns and even (small) nations, in which these concepts serve as markers to describe the customs of groups of people living together, and the ways they attribute meaning to their mutual relations and their environment. Traditionally anthropologists have paid less attention to political processes, although a description of hierarchical positions has seldom been lacking. In this contribution we want to deal with the related concepts of culture, identity and power and argue that they can only be sensibly used if a symbolic perspective is taken. Our argument, in short, is that the cultural, identity and power aspects of organizational settings can only be understood by interpreting their material (objects), verbal (words), and behavioural (deeds) symbolic manifestations.  

Culture, the first concept of the model’s substructure, may refer to such a variety of properties like ideas, values, habits, symbols and artefacts, depending on the particular focus of the anthropologist . It may refer to something of the mind as well as to material objects. In this paper we propose a more or less idealist use of the culture concept. Man is the only animal possessing the capacity to give meaning to himself, his deeds and the world –including other people– surrounding him. Such a view remains close to the original meaning of the word, which refers to the basic human activity of working (‘cultivating’) the land . Metaphorically, ‘doing culture’ would be something like the interpretative labour human beings display in the world in which they live. In this tradition, cultural meaning is described as the “typical (and frequently recurring and widely shared aspects of the) interpretations of some type of object or event evoked in people as a result of their similar life experiences” . It should, however, not be forgotten that although the result of human meaning–giving does lead to particular and more or less standard repertoires of interpretation and corresponding behaviour, these are not fixed for eternity. The dynamic aspect of culture is very convincingly argued by the anthropologist Clifford Geertz. His often quoted definition of culture as “a system of symbols” may on the surface still suggest that culture is predominantly static. Yet his elaboration of culture offers a useful distinction between culture as a model of the world – that is a set of ideas and basic assumptions that explain and describe the complicated world people are placed in – and a model for the world, which teaches them how to interpret it and to behave correctly within it. These models can be separated analytically, but it is better to assume they reflect and reinforce each other, thus constituting a dynamic approach to culture. People interpret the world around them using available interpretations, thus simultaneously applying and adapting them in daily practice. 

The usefulness of this double–edged quality of culture clearly comes to the fore when we look at the anthropological perspective on organizational culture sketched by Tennekes . Culture has been a fashion word in organization studies since the early 1980s, but its use is very often rather instrumental . Such an approach upholds that it is possible to agree on the content of organizational cultures and –what is most important– that changes in culture can be easily decreed and managed. This view stresses that organizations possess cultures , as just one of the structural characteristics of any organizational system that can be distinguished from the view of organizations as life-worlds , small societies of their own, whose members actively and constantly take part in daily meaning–making processes. With Bate, we share the view that the focus should be on the working of culture in exactly these alter kinds of process. If we agree that organizations have cultures, it means that they are made up by meaning–giving people who make use of available ideas, norms and the repertoires of behaviour to work within given structures and perform their tasks in relation to, and in co-operation with, their fellow workers. This dynamic, changeable culture–in–use concept is not so easy to discern in daily practice, because it is a subtle process that most of the time does not involve explicit, conscious action. It means that we consider that it is only useful to study culture in actor–in–context situations.

Such and approach should also be applied to the other two concepts of our analytical model’s substructure. Our interpretative treatment of the culture concept gives priority to the ideational aspects of culture rather than what might be labelled the ‘materialisation’ of the cultural activity. It is about meaning–giving and sense–making. When adopting such a life-world approach to organizations, this means that we automatically arrive in a world which is not so ideal at all. Ideas may play an important role in daily work processes and decision–making, but organizational behaviour is not just an interchange of ideas. More down-to-earth sentiments often predominate and from the available cultural options people very often pick those which serve their (group’s) interest best. Thus we cannot dispense with the concepts of identity and power .

Identity, that other buzz-word in social sciences today, etymologically refers to sameness. When we relate this sameness to (groups of) people, identity is about the mutual imagery between individuals and groups, and their identification with those images and the people sharing them. Images, and the ways people deal with them, express who a person or a group of people is in the context of his/their social environment. In the words of Jenkins, ‘identity construction is a dialectical process of internal and external definitions of self’ . Such a view implies two important things: a) identity is as much about difference as it is about sameness and b) identities are not stable since they are multilaterally defined and depend on the specific configuration of people involved . Hence, in specific identity processes people are driven by a mixture of identification and dis–identification, a consciousness of kind and a consciousness of difference. In social identity theory it is the psychological drive of belonging to a positively valued reference group that is considered to be responsible for the genesis of strong group identities. In such a perspective, group identities and the corresponding behaviour hardly ever transgress the boundaries between these groups. The application of social identity theory has proved valuable in emphasising the importance of group processes in organizations, but generally studies of this kind give a rather static impression.
Again, it is from the life-world focus of anthropology that the concept of identity in organizations may receive new analytical value. In a still highly readable study on Ethnic Groups and Boundaries (1967) Frederick Barth discusses the subtle balance between the boundedness of ethnic groups, and the tactical management of ethnic identity. Until then, studies of ethnicity had been rather static, but Barth convincingly argued that the concept of ethnic identity cannot be limited to describing stable self images of ethnic groups, but that people belonging to these groups strategically use elements and characteristics they think to belong to the group they are part of, in order defend or expand their position. They do so according to the circumstances they are in. They adapt their ethnic presentation or performance to the situation. Anthony Cohen, elaborating on Barth’s ideas, emphasises that this outward performance is often a “symbolic construction of community”, a curtain behind which members of the social groups applying such a strategy may give rather a different content and meaning to their identity and the symbols used to express it. 

These views are very promising for application in organizational analyses; still there is one more concept we need to complete our model, which is power. Mentioning of the power concept carries the danger of making our argument redundant. Bookshelves have been filled with books that try to grasp its essence. The field of organization studies has probably paid more attention to the phenomenon than any other. Power structures, the distribution of corporate authority, leadership and management hierarchy are among the topics that are almost constantly debated. Most, though not all, of this work focuses on formal positions and competencies. For our purpose, however, we need another, more relational, concept of power that enables us to catch the concrete and often subtle power-play in the organizational life world. Whereas the principal emblem of power in organizations is the organization chart, where all of those who possess power in whatever way are neatly listed, it does not tell us a lot about the ‘real-life’ exercise of power in everyday setting. To assess the relative playing strength of the organizational actors we need an alternative power chart. Power as the ‘capacity to influence the behaviour of others’ suffices for this purpose, because it permits us to take into account all human behaviour in organizations, including the decisions of the CEO, department managers, controllers as well as the secretaries and the tea ladies. The very organization chart, viewed from a life-world perspective, may happen to display serious omissions and disproportional emphasis on certain positions that in daily practice prove to lie far away from the real, informal power channels. Once we allow ourselves to look at organizations from this perspective, what is generally believed to be a common ‘power truth’, requires serious relativism and adjustment. All this is, of course, not to say that power structures and their different organizational configurations are not to be included in our analysis; what is needed is the adoption of a standpoint admitting that this is not all there is to it. An in–depth study of the function of humour and jokes on the work floor can, for example, reveal how precarious formal power relations really are, how role reversal may affirm existing power relations –those from the organizational chart– or equally seriously underplay them.

Our anthropological model of organizations has so far brought us three still rather theoretical concepts. We have emphasised that culture (the rules of the play), identity (the position of the players) and power (their playing strength) are the theoretical labels organization researchers should combine to describe the play organizational actors perform daily. Sometimes they give frontstage appearances, sometimes their backstage play is even more serious , but always they express –by their words, deeds and the artefacts–how they experience meaning, sense, belonging, separation, commitment, control or contrary feelings of powerlessness and distress . These expressions, material and immaterial, we call symbols: in the simple but powerful words of Tennekes, ’things that refer to something else’ . There are of course many kinds of symbols (signs, indices or symbols proper ), and we are to deal seriously with these differences of kind in our studies. For the purpose of illustrating what sort of organizational symbols are included in the proposed model for organizational anthropology, consider the following :

Material symbols (artefacts)
Corporate logos,
Billboards, posters, photographs, etc.
Architecture, rooms, furniture
Organization charts
Workplace decoration

Verbal symbols (myths and discourse)
Slogans, and folders
Gossip, oral/written organization histories
Jargon, standard expressions and reasoning, manuals
Jokes, anecdotes, nick–names
E–mails, memorandums, minutes

Behavioural symbols (rituals and practices)
Initiation rituals and rites of passage
Celebrations, anniversaries 
Meetings, consultation
Work routines

All of these symbols in one way or another represent, express, and hence symbolise a visible, or better, perceptible aspect of the culture, identity and power trio lying below the surface. As for an anthropological research methodology, these symbols are the anthropologist’s tool kit, compartments s/he will fill during his/her participant observation. Such an approach is not simple nor mechanistic, for it is far from easy to tell whether something is a symbol or not, nor are meanings to be simply deciphered in organizational settings, as Schein has already suggested. 

A good example of organizational anthropology broadly following this model can be read in Kunda’s Engineering Culture . The book is based on extensive fieldwork in an American IT firm and argues how corporate culture was used by the management as a powerful instrument of normative control over the employees/engineers. The text is full of examples of how performative events, books, minutes, meetings are used as the symbolic means through which the cultural message was spread among the organization’s members. But it also shows the reactions of joy, enthusiasm, cynicism and despair of these same employees. All in all, by taking a real life perspective the study gives a telling description of how culture as a managerial instrument may impact upon the lives and identities of people in organizations. As a case–study the book has, however, a strong internal focus. We see mutual stereotyping, power plays and burn-outs, but we hardly get to know in what environment the organization has to operate. The context relating to the rise of the information age, the paradoxalities of the (post)modern American society and fundamental shifts within the economic field, are hardly included in the explications of the organization members’ (re)actions and behaviour.

Anthropological analyses, including the one by Kunda, often suffer from a certain myopia and parochialness, and would greatly benefit if a more contextual approach were adopted, one which takes the layeredness of social, and hence organizational, phenomena as the point of departure. In his New Strategies in Social Research, Derek Layder proposes four levels of analysis to which social science research should pay attention: the self, situated activity, setting, and context and the general dimension of history . Most (organizational) anthropological studies over-emphasise the first two levels, pay only limited attention to the setting and generally avoid any reference to the wider context. It is particularly the combinative use of micro and macro perspectives, the implication of Layder’s research map, that is challenging for organizational scientists, and certainly for anthropologists. We therefore propose to merge our anthropological model for studying micro and meso-aspects of organizations with Layder’s plea for including analyses of specific settings of organization members’ behaviour and context.

If, for example, the power dimension of organizations is the subject to be dealt with, anthropologists tend to limit themselves to internal organizational struggling, whilst leaving the effects of shifts in political and economic power relations in society in general to other disciplines, such as business administration. But if we anthropologists only limit ourselves to the internal power play within organizations, we run the danger of being stuck in one-sided, still rather static organization views of the type cultural anthropologists have produced far too often. However, when we adopt a relative concept of power –as we have done in the model described above– our attention automatically shifts to power balances and distribution. Then we reach beyond the micro level, because such power balances are almost by definition changeable, depending on the circumstances. Thus, linking cultural meaning–making and identity formation in organizations to power processes requires particular attention to the concept of context. Taken together, all this might produce more convincing analyses of processes in organization and management. Written in a prosaic narrative style, it might also offer some good reading. But does it also offer perspectives on interventions based on the analyses? After all, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, i.e. nowhere can better proof of the value of our anthropological understanding of (cultural) processes in organization and management be found than in their application to concrete organizational change problems and challenges. 

Outline of an Anthropological Intervention Strategy
Although anthropological analyses by their nature may seem more apt for describing daily work floor processes –and anthropologists do indeed tend to take the side of the not-so-powerful in organizations- we want to argue here that our approach may also shed new light on some fundamental dilemmas in management. However, this paper is far from a fully developed anthropological intervention methodology. Starting from some anthropological basic assumptions and concepts we want to picture the consequences of applying them to organizational intervention strategies. Before doing so, we need to briefly indicate for which managerial questions such new answers are so badly needed.

Management and Managing
We think the short answer is that management theorists as well as management practitioners themselves have failed to realise how complicated an issue managing is, because it involves changing the signification processes of a great number of (groups of) people. ‘Management of meaning’ has become a fashionable topic, but thus far it has not given much attention to the fact that managerial efforts are interventions meant to affect human meaning-making - and that implies intervention in cultural processes.

This view is not commonplace in organization and management studies. In her Organizational Culture. Mapping the Terrain, Martin describes the steady march of culture to a front-runner concept in management studies . Weick’s influential books on sensemaking in organisations also emphasise culture as a meaning-making process for organizational actors. Westwood and Clegg’s Debating Organization also makes a plea for a process view of (organizational) culture, stressing? the importance of knowing cultural enactment instead of cultural recipes . Yet, broadly speaking, ‘management’ is still a predominantly univocal concept: it involves regulation, organization and direction. Management tasks that were considered valid by Taylor and Fayol, such as planning, organization, issuing orders, co–ordination and control are still in evidence, but by now with a more subtle meaning. Organization experts have introduced few real changes to the discourse on control and management for decades, although in the last twenty years greater value has been attached to flexibility , culture , self–management , employee empowerment and the ‘learning organization’ . All these concepts emphasise the softer side of management and control, but are nevertheless still predominantly presented as management tools imposed from above .

This ‘humanisation’ of management discourse has been in evidence since the emphasis shifted to motivation and reinforcement of the self–image under the influence of the Human Relations school of Mayo (1930–40). This led to the discovery of informal processes in organizations, which haveover time only become more sharply defined. As a result, we are now seeing the emergence of an ‘applied management of meaning’, which requires not only the management of the business processes as such, but also control over employee commitment to the organization. In the culture and identity approach, which has been taking root since the 1980s, it is still primarily the managers who determine the mission, identity and core values of the organization through a form of meaning management that is designed to lead to unity and convergence. The manager had to be a charismatic, inspiring and coaching figure and to be intellectually challenging as well. Schein even turns the manager into the founder of the – corporate – culture, someone who has to provide the organization with integration, stability and continuity, an order to which all the members would eventually belong.The belief that such a unified culture can actually be created by management remains largely unshaken. The opposite is true, however, of the means of realising this control, which, in its refined form, causes increasingly more complex configurations in the colonisation of the everyday world of the employees. Consequently, the tasks required of managers have shifted towards a world of which they often know very little. Knowledge of how culture and identity processes actually shape employee behaviour goes largely beyond the grasp of the average manager.

The ideals of today’s management have strong paradoxical characteristics. Under the regime of a strong, corporate culture in which we now live, the manager has been driven towards the role of culture maker, taking care of the meaning and identity of his or her employees. Yet this is a field of which s/he has at best only some limited schematic knowledge. It has resulted in the predominance of an instrumental approach because of the mechanistic view on cultural engineering that managers tend to have. 
Kunda illustrates in vivid detail how much of an instrument of control culture and commitment have become and describes the paradoxical implications that such ‘normative control’ can create. In the computer firm he studied, the management catch words were culture, ownership, openness, etc., but behind the scenes the managers, and especially the staff, pointed out that this debate was completely at odds with the performance norms upon which everyone in the organization, from top to bottom, was ultimately judged. Culture and the unifying effects that it was meant to generate was unmasked as a management control tool.

Why management as absolute control is ultimately doomed to fail, is simply because organizations are not machines. They may have machinelike characteristics, as Morgan rightly maintains, but they are first and foremost real life worlds, where people produce, share or contest meaning, work relations etc. Since the days of the Human Relations School, there has indeed been a certain awareness that the effective functioning of this microcosm is crucial for any successful organization , yet this mini society does not let itself so easily become known to, let alone controlled by, managers. Whether this control could be increased – or whether this is desirable in the first place- by applying culture as a tool is fairly doubtful. Yet, knowing more about culture and identity processes might help managers better understand employee behaviour and possibly involve them more in the change and intervention processes managers are currently so obsessed with. It hardly needs saying that the latter implies substantial redressing of the issues of management and control.

To support our contention that anthropology is particularly well equipped to provide this kind of knowledge on culture and identity processes in organizational contexts, we go somewhat deeper into the nature of what we believe cultural meaning-making processes to be about.

Learning Culture
The concept of culture is applied to an explanation of a range of organizational phenomena. People and their organizations are generally believed to possess and transmit culture, but surprisingly little is known about how, what we call culture, is actually taught and learned. We are accustomed to praising organizations for their innovative, learning cultures or, in contrast, blaming them for having conservative or rigid cultures. At moments when we are somewhat more analytical, we provide a broad panorama of cultural artefacts, values, norms and the ensuing practices (as in the model presented above). We use these to give nice descriptions of what we have defined as culture, but we tend to leave it there. What processes we are actually describing remains a kind of black box, despite the many cultural manuals and clinical approaches we have at our disposal. The earlier mentioned Clifford Geertz has made a useful distinction between cultural models for behaviour and the behavioural specificity of such cultural models. From anthropologists working in his tradition we have learned much about what kind of deeper meanings and meaning systems lie hidden behind ostensibly unambiguous and simple symbols. The sheer wonder of how it comes that people do need all this, and even more intriguingly, how these cultural processes exactly work, we almost seem to take for granted. Studying the mental process of how it is that we actually think, learn and hence transmit culture is a topic that is often left to others, such as psychologists.

Meanwhile, there is a growing literature on cognitive anthropology, which is indeed greatly indebted to psychology. For several reasons this is an important development, particularly for organizational anthropology. First, we should note that cognitive anthropologists have brought about a shift in the study of culture. According to Strauss and Quinn, the attention is moved from learned ideas and behaviours to meaning - “the interpretation evoked in a person by an object or event at a given time” - that is, to how people respond to words, objects or events. A cultural meaning is thus the typical interpretation people give as a result of similar, or shared life experiences. The concept presupposes more–or–less shared experiences but –and this is important– the focus is not on sharing the same ideas, but on sharing similar patterns of interpretation, or cultural ‘schemata’.

Second, the idea of culture as something ‘lying out there’, is seriously undermined. It follows from the idea that culture is about experiencing meaning, that culture may reside in these same objects (forms) but this meaning only then becomes noticeable when people render attach meaning to them. It is the human mind that has the capacity to produce these meaningful experiences. Cognitive anthropology thus tries to reach beyond the cultural ‘objects’ into this intrapersonal characteristic of culture.

Third, and closely related to the first two, is that for cognitive anthropologists this intrapersonal culture is not just something personal. Cultural meaning is not reduced to a personal idiosyncrasy; rather, cognitive anthropology aims to discover how meaning is provoked by cognitive–emotional responses to the public world in which people live. Others who have learned to think and experience similarly condense these responses into schemata that are recognisable. 

How do anthropologists come to know how those we study think? We cannot be satisfied with guessing “how we think they think” . Cognitive anthropology suggests that culture might well be a different phenomenon from what we have been thinking so far. If we adopt this approach, it will not suffice to establish, for example, the set of common values of a group of IT engineers and explain their behaviour as following logically from these. This supposes a sentential logic, which is at best only partially true. The famous phrase of respondents when they are asked why they do what they do goes something like: “don’t know, I just do it”. Similarly, a concise working definition of culture is ‘the way we do things around here’. Both rather unspecified phrases hint at another, connectionist logic as cognitive anthropologists are used to calling it. The term ‘connectionist’ refers to the capacity of the human brain to make connections with previous, similar, experiences and directly apply this ‘knowledge’ to the situation at hand. The idea is that people acquire various different schemata sets that serve to give the appropriate meaning in given situations. It only then becomes sensible not to limit the content of schemata to words or other linguistic expressions, but also to take into account the way things look, sound, feel, smell, taste and so on.

Similar schemata can be ‘sensed’ within organizational contexts, but they often tend to be overlooked or ignored. Organizations in transition often talk a lot about (the need for) cultural change. Generally, this means people have to adopt the new practices that the management of the organization has defined as following from new cultural values. Such an approach underestimates the power of received culture schemata and it fails to appreciate their different expressions. It leads to people not recognising themselves any more in the organization. If, for example, professionalism is to be the new value, we need to know what that means to the organization members, and how they live, enact it. In other words, we need to go and search for common meaning–giving schemata.

Methodologically, organizational anthropologists who value the cognitive approach have the same duties as organization managers: they need to learn to think as organization members think. Good old participant observation is an indispensable research instrument here for recognising the cultural models, or sets of schemata, people in organizations –as well as outside them– constantly apply. Ideally, the researcher at a given moment arrives at a point where s/he can –at least temporarily– share the cultural meanings of those s/he is studying. Those who migrate to a foreign country know how much time it takes before one starts to think –that is, recognise and share meaning– as the foreigner, if indeed ever one reaches this point. In management and organization contexts, we tend to forget this common sense lesson. An anthropology that is prepared to learn from psychology can help bring this notion to (the management of) organizations, since according to Sperber “cultures are the collective output of human mental abilities” . Of course it is not a panacea, but by recognising the working of cultural schemata and the value of the time–consuming effort in retrieving them, this may put into perspective the cultural engineering approach to which managers, as well as those who study them, have become too easily addicted. Cultural schemata in organizations are, to be sought in the organizations’ (partly collective) memory that members build together. This memory may become known through an in–depth study of organizational rituals, such as habitual performances of (organization) people’s cultural capacity of expressing meaning. 

Another way of retrieving the cultural reality of organizations that has recently been explored (not surprisingly often by anthropologists) is the so-called narrative approach which concerns itself with the retrieval, representation and interpretation of organizational stories . From a common social science way of reasoning, the tension between facts and fiction is the main issue that has to be tackled in such an approach, one that considers the oral tradition (within and around organizations) as the primary mode of cultural orientation. How can organizational stories, for example, acquire a legitimate place in scientific discourse ? Storytelling as a powerful instrument of sensemaking in organizations is indeed a welcome source of information for organizational scientists who favour taking a cultural approach. Yet, the cognitive approach described above points at one possible weakness that has to be taken seriously or that we at least have to be on our guard against. Making (the reconstruction of) the narrative the main focus of organizational research rests upon the premise that an interpretation of behaviour can be deduced from the words and stories that people tell, or better, are capable of verbalising. According to Bloch, however, we should have in mind that when informants “say ‘this is why we do such things’ or ‘this is what this means’, or ‘this is how we do such things’, instead of being pleased we should be suspicious and ask what kind of peculiar knowledge is this which can take such an explicit, linguistic form ?” The concepts people possess and that constitute the basis for their behaviour are kinds of “lived–in models, that is, models based as much on experience, practice, sight, and sensation as on language ”. A cognitive approach emphasises that what is most essential to a given culture cannot be so easily expressed in words. Culture is first of all “what goes without saying” (tacit knowledge), and that holds particularly true for organizations where words are predominantly used to deliberately spread messages, and sell images (and products). They may tell us a lot about corporate strategies and communication, but certainly not everything about the cultural reality of organizations. This can only be discerned by simulating “native cultural learning processes”, that is, by our participating in the daily organizational work processes in which the stories find their roots. Anthropological research, then, should be considered as a peculiar kind of learning process, where expert theory is blended with folk theory, that is, where the professional researcher learns to see through the insider’s eye.

Translating cultural knowledge for intervention: some suggestions
Attractive as this type of organisation studies may seem, at least to anthropologists, this approach is extremely time–consuming, whereas organizations and their managers live under a constant time pressure. Furthermore, it tends to produce very specific knowledge presented in lengthy texts and full of detail and nuance, while the organization and their managers believe they need facts, figures and policy recommendations. Does the model presented earlier, or the cognitive elaboration of it, provide more than a sophisticated tool for scientific knowledge production? Does it promise any practical value, any solutions to the concrete problems managers are daily confronted with?

It is indeed true that anthropologists will not give quick answers to complex problems of management, nor simple recipes for cultural intervention . Still, this does not mean they have no audience for the insights they might offer. There are managers –this is not just wishful thinking– who are not satisfied with the products of the traditional business academia. In an interesting contribution to Inside Organizations, Malcolm Chapman discusses a research project in which he co-operated with a business economist on how companies and their managers understand and consume what is happening at their boundaries. No results are given in the paper, which focuses more on the methodological aspects, but several interesting issues are brought to the fore. For example, that managers generally tend to welcome in-depth interviewing for the research, no matter how long it takes, because through this they are able to reflect on the complexity of their tasks. They also indicated that they were fed-up with questionnaires, which did not allow them to express what really bothered them. Here, an interesting parallel appears between the traditionally holistic approach of anthropology and the importance these managers attach to contextual and multisided approach of their management practice.

If the reactions Chapman encountered are even only partly representative, it would still mean that anthropologists have a world to win in organizations. They might, as Chapman further suggests, take the role of teaching anthropology to people in these organizations . Having people with trained anthropological skills at the company’s disposal has some advantages over hiring one (if ever that would happen) at the moment his/her expertise is wanted.Yet, employing a –part-time- anthropologist, could well turn potential disadvantages into a strength. Such an ‘innocent anthropologist’ would be able to walk through, see and smell the company life. S/he could be the organization’s conscience, the ‘left’ hand of the manager, the ‘awkward’ guy or girl in the management team.

Obviously, there are many reservations about adapting such an approach, which we will not try to number here. It might give the manager direct access to what usually stays below the surface, remains backstage , while at the same time permitting that s/he continues to play the role of the tough manager still in control of the events. The anthropologist may thus become the company’s loincloth. Kunda extensively describes one example in which culture expert Ellen Cohen was writing culture operating manuals and teaching corporate culture to reluctant employees . She had become a puppet, a company servant.

However, we do see possibilities in coopting anthropologically trained consultants on to organizational change teams, where they could begin to bridge gaps between the different parties involved. In particular, interventions focused on culture change may greatly benefit from someone who knows how culture is learned, reproduced and changed, often as the result of unintended actions. S/he can bring back to earth those managers who foster high expectations on the viability of cultural change that their organizations, that is to say their employees, are able to generate and accept. This is also a plea for the combined efforts of practitioners and academic scientists. It might well be that the kind of organizational science that anthropologists represent comes far closer to acceptance than the detached views displayed by many change model consultants. It also comes close to the proposal of Jean Bartunek for academic–practitioner collaboration. Instead of considering them as belonging to two different communities, each producing different kinds of knowledge, she proposes they come together in ‘joint interpretive spaces’ , where knowledge is produced by translating ideas for different audiences, sharing interpretations of organizational events and exploring applications for management practice.

The rest of this first issue of Intervention is filled with examples of change projects and processes in and among organizations that all –to varying degrees- are anthropologically inspired. We believe the contributions of Bate, Eriksen, Spierenburg and García Lorenzo are in themselves inspirational because they explore new paths for academically inspired anthropological intervention. These are the ‘tales of the field’ from anthropologists who went into organizations and lived - and came back to tell the tale.


1. Pp. 6, Industrial anthropology’s future. “The road not taken”? in: Anthropology Newsletter (March 1980) vol. 21, no. 3. 
2. Pp. 6-7, idem. Our italics.
3. Keesing, F.M., Siegel, B.J. and Hammond, B., (eds)(1957) Anthropologists and industry: some exploratory workpapers, Stanford: Stanford University Press
4. Holzberg, C.S. and Giovannini, M.J. (1981) Anthropology and industry: reappraisal and new directions, in: Annual Review of Anthropology, 10, pp. 317-360
5. Idem: 349
6. Pp. 830, Chapple, E.D. (1953) Applied anthropology in industry, in: Kroeber, A.L. (ed.) Anthropology today; an encyclopedia inventory, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp. 819-831
7. Holzberg and Giovannini 1981: 349
8. Morey, N.C. and Luthans, F. (1987) Anthropology: the forgotten behavioural science in management history, in: Academy of Management Best Papers, Proceedings 1987. Our italics
9. Bate, S.P. Bate (1997) Whatever happened to organizational anthropology? A review of the field of organizational ethnography and anthropological studies, in Human Relations 50, 9: 1147–1175
10. Ibid: 1148, italics added
11. Ibid: 1152
12. Ibid: 1153
13. Ibid: 1154
14. Van Maanen, J. (2001) ‘Afterword: natives ‘R’ us: some notes on the ethnography of organizations’, in: Gellner, D.N. and Hirsch, Inside organizations. Anthropologists at work. Oxford, New York: Berg, pp. 233–261
15. This is not to say that political anthropology, in the tradition of N. Elias (What is sociology, London: Hutchinson, 1978), F. Baily (Stratagems and spoils, Oxford, Basil Blackwell, 1969), A. Blok (The Mafia of a Sicilian Village, New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1975), D. Kertzer (Ritual, Politics, and Power, New Haven, Conn., [etc.] Yale University Press,1988) has not produced valuable insights. It is rather the (sub)disciplinary division of labour within anthropology that has permitted cultural anthropologist to refrain from political analyses.
16. See Keesing, R.M. (1976) Cultural anthropology. A contemporary perspective, New York: Holt, Rinehard and Winston; Sahlins, M. (1976) Culture and practical reason, Chicago: University Press of Chicago; Geertz, C. (1973 ) The interpretation of cultures. Selected essays. New York: Basic Books; Brumann, C. (1999) ‘Writing for culture. Why a successful concept should not be discarded’, Current Anthropology 40: S1-S27.
17. It could be argued that man’s meaning–giving capacity is already neatly described in the Book of Genesis where Adam makes sense of his world by giving names, simultaneously attributing tasks to everything he sees. His own destiny dramatically changes after the Fall, when he is commanded to working the soil. This labouring, however, did not deprive him of his meaning-giving faculty.
18. Pp. 6, Quinn, N. and Strauss, D. (1997) A cognitive theory of cultural meaning. Cambridge [etc.]: Cambridge University Press 1997  
19. “A system of symbols which act to establish powerful, pervasive, and long–lasting moods and motivations in men by formulating conceptions….with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic”, Geertz 1973: 90.
20. This so–called re–productive character of culture is most clearly described by Berger and Luckmann (1967) in their The social construction of reality. A treatise in the sociology of knowledge. Garden City, New York: Doubleday.
21. In his Organisatiecultuur, een antropologisch perspectief [Organizational culture, an anthropological perspective) (1995), Tennekes systematically explores what anthropology has to offer to the study of organizations. The book fills a gap, but unfortunately only on the Dutch market.
22. See for an overview Ten Bos, R. (2000) Fashion and Utopia in Management Thinking. Amsterdam: Walter Benjamins.
23. The discussion whether organizations are cultures or possess cultures is an unresolved question. See Linda Smircich, L. (1983) ‘Concepts of culture and organizational analysis’ (in: Administrative Science Quarterly 28, pp. 339-358); and also Morgan, G.(1997), Images of organizations, London, New Delhi: Sage Publications
24. The life-world and systems approach go back to a discussion most pointedly promoted by Jürgen Habermas. See also Tennekes, opus cit.
25. We do not bother too much about the concept of corporate identity here, although there are obvious links with the psychological and anthropological use of the concept we use here. For a discussion about the relation between corporate and social identity, see Whetten, D. and Godfrey, P. (1998) Identity in organizations: building theory through conversations, Thousand Oaks etc., Sage; M.A. Hogg, M.A., e. o. (2000) ‘Social identity and self categorization processes in organizational contexts’, Academy of Management Review, 25/1: 121-140 
26. Pp. 20, Jenkins, R. (1996) Social Identity, London: Routledge
27. Psychologists have much to say about individual or personal identities. For the purpose of developing a perspective on organizational phenomena we deliberately focus on the social aspects of identity. Personal idiosyncrasies may certainly play a (sometimes decisive) role in particular organizational settings, but we think they are generally of secondary importance.
28. Social identity theory has become well known by the work of Henri Tajfel and John Turner, nicely summarized in their 1985 The social identity theory of intergroup behavior in: Worchel, S. and Austin, W.G. (eds), The psychology of intergroup relations, vol. 2, Chicago: Nellson Hall, pp. 7-24. The influence of their work today is predominantly expressed among American organizational scientists, such as Gotfrey and Whetten, op. Cit. and Hogg, op. Cit., who all build upon more or less sophisticated versions of Tajfel and Turner’s framework
29. See also pp. 3, Cohen, A. (2001) Signifying identities. Anthropological perspectives on boundaries and contested values. London: Routledge
30. Cohen, A. (1985) The symbolic construction of community, Chichester, London and New York: Ellis Horwood Limited, Tavistock Publications. See also Vermeulen, H. and Gevers, C.(?) The anthropology of ethnicity : beyond ‘Ethnic groups and boundaries’, Amsterdam: Het Spinhuis and Eriksen, T.H. (1993) Ethnicity and nationalism: anthropological perspectives, London: Pluto Press
31. See Foucault, M. (1980) Power-knowledge. Selected interviews and other writings, 1972-1977, Brighton: Harvester Press; Lukes, S. (1974) Power: A radical view, London: McMillan; Morris, P. (1987) Power. A philosophical analysis, Manchester: Manchester University Press; Wolf, E. (1999) Envisioning power. Ideologies of dominance and crisis, Berkeley etc.: University of California Press
32. This view on power, which is also advocated by Tennekes (op. Cit.) goes back to Elias’ figuration sociology (e.g. 1981)
33. See e.g. Mintzberg, H. (1995) Structure in fives: Designing effective organizations, Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall
34. Bolland, R. and Hoffman, R. (1983) ‘Humor in a machine shop: an interpretation of symbolic action’, in: L.R. Pondy et al. (ed.) Organizational symbolism, Greenwich/London: JAI Press, pp. 187–198
35. Goffman, E. (1959) The presentation of self in everyday life. New York: Doubleday
36. see Fineman, S. (1993) Emotion in organizations, London: Sage and Schulz, M.,Hatch, M.J. and Larsens, M.H. (2000) The expressive organization. Linking identity, reputation and the corporate brand. Oxford: Oxford University Press
37. Tennekes, J. (1982) Symbolen en hun boodschap [Symbols and their Message]. Assen: Van Gorcum
38. see e.g. Leach, E. (1976) Culture and communication, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
39. The list of items is of course not exhaustive, and the categories clearly have some overlap.
40. Schein, E.H. (1985) Organizational culture and leadership, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass
41. Kunda, G. (1992) Engineering culture. Control and commitment in a high–tech corporation, Philadelphia: Temple University Press
42. It could be argued that Kunda’s analysis is only contextual in the sense that he convincingly combines the various theoretical perspectives on culture and identity, but that he neglects the wider social and economic context.
43. Pp. 72, Layder, D. (1993) New strategies in social research. A resource map for research, London: UCL
44. The political anthropology of organizations, in combination with a cultural analysis that gives, in our opinion, the ethnographic approach surplus value compared to the average management and organization approach. But its strength in detail, is also its weakness in scope.
45. A further exploration and problematisation of the concept of context falls outside the scope of this paper. See for a good exploration of a discussion on the concept from an anthropological perspective: Dilley, R. (ed.)(1999), The problem of context, New York, Oxford: Berghahn Books
46. Cf. Edgar Schein’s “We cannot build a useful concept if we cannot agree on how to define it, ‘measure’ it, study it, and apply it in the real world of organizations” (our italics, from “What is culture?” in P. Frost et al. (eds) Reframing Organizational Culture. Newbury Park, CA: Sage, p. 243)
47. Joanne Martin, Organizational Culture. Mapping the Terrain, 2001, London: Sage.
48. Karl Weick, Sensemaking in Organizations (1995), Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage and Making Sense of the Organization (2001), Oxford, Blackwell.
49. Robert Westwood and Stewart Clegg, Debating Organization. Point-Counterpoint in Organization Studies. (2003). Oxford: Blackwell. Particularly the chapter by Andrew Chan, ‘Instantiative versus Entitative Culture: The Case for Culture as Process.’ In opus cit., 311-320.
50. Mintzberg, Henry (1979) The Structuring of Organizations: a Synthesis of the Research. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall; Pascale,R. (1990) Managing on the Edge: How Succesfull Companies Use conflict to Stay Ahead. London: Penguin.
51. Peters, Tom and R.H. Waterman (1980) In Search of Excellence. Lessons from America’s Best-run Companies. New York: Harper and Row.; Deal T. and A. Kennedy (1982) Organizational Cultures. Reading: AddisonWesley; Schein 1985
52. Merry, U. (1995) Coping with Uncertainty: Insights from the New Sciences of Chaos, Self-organization and Complexity. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger.
53. Block, P. (1990) The Empowered Manager. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.
54. Senge, P. (1990) The Fifth Discipline. The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, New York: Double Day.
55. see Casey, Catherine (1995) Work, Self and Society. After Industrialism. London, etc.: Routledge; Hope, V and J. Hendry (1996) Corporate cultural change, is it relevant for the organization of the 1990’s?, in: Human Resource Management Journal, 5,4, 61-73; Alvesson, Mats and Hugh Willmott (1996) Making Sense of Management, a Critical Introduction, London: Sage; Knights, David and Hugh Willmott (1999) Management Lives. London: Sage.
56. Schein, E.H. (1985) Organizational Culture and Leadership. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
57. Parker, Martin (2000) Organizational Culture and Identity. Londen, etc.: Sage Publications; Bate, S.P. (1997) Whatever Happened to Organizational Anthropology? A Review of the Field of Organizational Ethnography and Anthropological Studies. Human Relations, 50, 9: 1147–1175
58. Sperber, Dan (1985) On Anthropological Knowledge. Cambridge, etc.: Cambridge University press.
59. Sperber, Dan (1984) Anthropology and Psychology: towards an Epidemionlogy of Representations. Man (N.S.) 20, 73–89
60. Bloch, Maurice (1991) Language, Anthropology and Cognitive Science. Man. (N.S.) 26, 183-199
61. Bloch, Maurice (1998) How We Think They Think. Anthropological Approaches to Cognition, Memory and Literacy. Boulder: Westview Press
62. Quinn, Naomi and Dorothy Strauss (1997) A Cognitive Theory of Cultural Meaning. Cambridge [etc.]: Cambridge University Press
63. D’Andrade, Roy (1995) The Development of Cognitive Anthropology, Cambridge [etc.] Cambridge University Press
64. Connerton, Paul (1992) How Societies Remember. Cambridge: Cambridge UP
65. Holland, Dorothy and Naomi Quinn (1987) Cultural Models in Language and Thought. Cambridge etc.: Cambridge UP
66. Op. Cit.: 7
67. The title of Bloch’s 1998 book.
68. Sperber, op. Cit. 1985: 3
69. Barbara Czarniawska’s A Narrative Approach to Organization Studies (London, Sage, 1998) and Yannis Gabriel’s Storystelling in Organizatons. Facts, Fictions and Fantasies (Oxford, Oxford UP, 2000) are telling and well-worked efforts of this path.
70. Czarniawska, op. Cit., p. 6
71. Bloch, op. Cit., p. 16
72. ibid., p. 25.
73. ibid., the title of chapter two.
74. Bate’s Strategies for Cultural Change (1999), Oxford: Buttterworth Heinemann though heavily leaning on rather conventional organizational change models, pleas for a more culturally and context sensitive approach.
75. Malcolm Chapman, Social Anthropology and Business Studies: Some Considerations of Method. In: Gellner, D.N. and Hirsch, Inside Organizations. Anthropologists at Work. (2001) Oxford, New York: Berg, pp. 19–33.
76. Chapman, op. Cit., p. 32.
77. Nigel Barley's The Innocent Anthropologist Notes from a Mud Hut (Harmondsworth [etc.]: Penguin Books 1986) portrays the anthropologist as a somewhat naive Livingstone type. The jester I am talking about to be the contrary. He is the insider who plays the role of the foreigner. 
78. Erving Goffman (1959) The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. New York: Doubleday
79. Kunda, opus cit., p. 72ff
80. Jean M. Bartunek (Boston College) Political and Other Dynamics in Academic–Practitioner Collaboration. Key note lecture at the EGOS Conference on Organizational Politics in Barcelona, July, 2002.

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