Advancing the Value of Ethnography

Agency and Change: Using Anthropology to Improve Organizational Change



The language of change is practically ubiquitous these days: from tech startups to legacy manufacturers and government agencies, organizations of every stripe want to innovate, grow, pivot, reorient, or disrupt. But although the language of change is varied, the burgeoning field of change management is dominated by simplistic models of how to lead it—and surprisingly often, these models often fail to deliver. This is particularly true with efforts to change internal cultures and teams.

In this talk we’ll explore how concepts from social theory, with a particular focus on agency at individual and systemic levels, to understand organizations more rigorously. We will revisit models of organizational change through the lens of agency: What kind of agency is implied by a particular kind of change? What internal and external dynamics will this require and produce? What are the formal and hidden “rules” for engagement? What are the risks and rewards for beliefs and behaviors? What kinds of engagement are most effective for making change in those contexts?

As organizations take on change management initiatives to improve diversity, agility, or bottom lines, ethnographers can be at the forefront of these efforts with richer, more dynamic models of agency, thereby improving the likelihood of success.

Selected Bibliography:

Ahearn, L. 2000 “Agency,” Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, 9(1–2):121–5.

Ahearn, L. 2001 “Language and Agency,” Annual Review of Anthropology, 30:109–37.

Bourdieu, P. 1977 Outline of a Theory of Practice. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

D’Andrade, R. & C. Strauss (eds.) 1992 Human Motives and Cultural Models. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Duranti, A. 2004 A Companion to Linguistic Anthropology. New York: Blackwell.

Giddens, A. 1979 Central Problems in Social Theory: Action, Structure, and Contradiction in Social Analysis. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Gleeson, B. 2017 “One Reason Why Most Change Management Efforts Fail,” Forbes.

Kockelman, P. 2007 “Agency: The Relation between Meaning, Power, and Knowledge,” Current Anthropology, 48(3): 375-401

Mukerji, C. 2009 “Anthropology and Social Theory: Culture, Power, and the Acting Subject by Sherry Ortner,” American Journal of Sociology, 115(2): 560-563.

Nuckolls, C. 1998 Culture: A Problem that Cannot be Solved. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Ortner, S. 2006 Anthropology and Social Theory: Culture, Power, and the Acting Subject. Chapel Hill: Duke University Press

Shore, B. 1996 Culture in Mind: Cognition, Culture and the Problem of Meaning. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Katharine Sieck Kate Sieck, PhD, leads the business intelligence function for the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit, non-partisan policy research and design organization. Her team is central to helping the organization understand the changing competitive landscape, identify emergent trends and areas for policy work, and position itself for success moving forward. Across her career in academia, private sector and now public sector work, her driving goal has been to use core anthropological theory and methods to build accessible, rigorous frameworks for understanding collective human behavior.

Steven Garcia leads the cultural anthropology practice at Team One, a full-service communications agency based in Los Angeles that specializes in premium and aspirational brands. With over 13 years of experience as a brand strategist, he studies and translates the broader cultural shifts and phenomena influencing consumer behavior into actionable opportunities for brands to help solve their sticky business challenges. Using his training in anthropological theory, ethnographic methods, and cultural analysis, he ensures that communication strategies are culturally informed and provides contextual insights to inspire new thinking and approaches.


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