Organizational Culture and Change

Share Share Share Share Share

by KATE SIECK (RAND Corporation) & LAURA A. MCNAMARA (Sandia National Laboratories); EPIC2016 Paper Committee - Ethnography/Organizations & Change Curators

Praxis is the bringing-to-life of a theory or philosophical position. It is the practical application of lessons learned through study and reflection. It is not simply what you do, it’s why you do it. Thus as the organization that specializes in ethnographic praxis in industry, we are the translators of ethnographic theory into action when applied to organizations and their cultures.

As the discipline which specializes in the nuanced and contextual understanding of culture, ethnography offers a much-needed voice in these discussions. However, organizational science has tended to be dominated by industrial/organizational psychology, business management research, sociology and economics. In the resulting literature, ethnographic methods are often lumped into the category of “qualitative organizational research,” subsuming organizational anthropology to the more established psychological, management and sociological paradigms. Yet within anthropology, organizational studies represent a well-established area of practice (particularly since the 1980s saw the emergence of ethnographic inquiry in business and industrial settings in the United States and Europe). Today, organizational anthropology is one of the most vibrant areas of interdisciplinary design and evaluation practice, with implications for human life in a wide range of areas—from technology design to government accountability.

For those of us who cut our teeth in classic anthropology, the wider embrace of our methods within the business world has often been a mixed blessing. While we welcome the greater recognition of our discipline and its contributions to human understanding (especially in complex topics like culture change), the usurpation of our ‘methods’ in the absence of our ‘theory’ or ‘thinking’ is a great disappointment. In too many cases, we’ve devolved into being the quirky cousin of the “real” social sciences that dominate organizational studies—psychology, sociology, economics, and business management. We’re fun and interesting, but few people really “get” it.

And that’s because, more often than not, we’re in the land of practice, not praxis. We’ve lost much of our theoretical core and moved right on to methods that ostensibly mimic things anthropologists do in extended fieldwork: observations, interviews, time allocation studies, investigations of material culture (plus detailed accounts of the weird, wonderful, and extreme). But we’ve mostly lost the reasons WHY anthropologists attended to these as part of their work. And we’ve sometimes lost our voice in shaping the conversation and the questions.

This is painfully true in the field of organizational studies. At core, all organizations are cultures: unique within themselves, but shaped by and able to influence the cultures that surround them. As collections of humans and things, they are the traditional fodder of anthropological inquiry. The kinds of questions ethnographers have asked of the !Kung, the Hadza, or the Trobriand Islanders, are precisely the questions we can (and should) also ask of the Volkswagens, the Amazons, or the Ferguson Police Departments of the world. If you have researched any of these areas, we would like to hear what you learned as a paper at EPIC 2016:

  • What IS organizational culture, anyway?
  • How does organizational culture enable and constrain the types of work we engage in?: (consumer research, innovation, design, marketing etc.)
  • How do anthropologists articulate “culture,” and how does this mesh (or not) with the articulation of “culture” in the organizational science literature and in “pop” business literature?
  • What are the nexus of factors that influence change in cultures?
  • What are the specific roles of narrative, material goods, social networks, rituals and physical space in promoting or inhibiting change in organizations like the companies we work with or study?
  • Why are we seeing resistance to change?
  • What are the different dynamics between “flat” and “hierarchical” cultures, and what are the consequences for individuals within each, and for how they change?
  • How can anthropologists articulate the nature of organizational culture in a way that provides practical insight to people in institutions (and the work they do)?
  • How do we understand power, authority, and charisma in changing work practices?
  • How do professional cultures invite new people in?
  • How do they convey standards and hold people to expectations?

Allowing theory to drive our process of inquiry enables us to approach organizational challenges as human challenges, and shifts the role of ethnography from providing “interesting” methods to asking powerful questions.

The influence of social  theory should not end in shaping the questions we ask. The collected body of ethnographic knowledge – more than a hundred years of writing about human behavior – can and should inform our understanding of what we find. At the end of our research, we have data. Lots and lots of data. Making sense of that requires some ideas about how the dots connect and why. In essence, it requires that we be cognizant of and articulate our assumptions about the patterns we see and motives that drive those connections. It’s not so much imposing a structure ON the data, as it is seeing how multiple theories enable different interpretations of the data itself:

  • What happens if we apply Foucault versus Weber versus Lukes to our assessment of power dynamics in this organization?
  • How does our understanding of what people said shift if we incorporate the lessons of Bakhtin or Labov?
  • How is our persona map or org chart impacted by shifting contexts? How can Goffman’s theory of “front stage / back stage” add nuance to the models?

At EPIC this year, we want to re-engage the focus on praxis with a clear return to how theory informs our practice when it comes to the study of organization culture and change. If we are to remain a science in the truest sense of the word, our practice must be informed by and contribute to the wider body of ethnographic thinking. As one of the most vibrant and fastest-growing areas within the discipline, organizational and business anthropology has the ability to translate the best of our history (and shape the path forward). Come join us as we re-ignite the conversation around why we do what we do. Contribute your best to EPIC 2016!

sieckKate Sieck, PhD, is a behavioral/social scientist at RAND Corporation. An anthropologist by training, she has been applying ethnographic theories, methods and insights to organizational and brand challenges for over a decade. Her work spans topics as diverse as American families, health care, non-profits, and CPG brand development. She has particular interest in integrating disparate data points to locate innovative opportunities for strengthening organizations and brands.

mcnamaraLaura A. McNamara, PhD, is an organizational anthropologist and Principal Member of Technical Staff at Sandia National Laboratories. She has spent her career partnering with computer scientists, software engineers, physicists, human factors experts, I/O psychologists, and analysts of all sorts. She is co-editor of Anthropologists in the SecurityScape and Dangerous Liaisons: Anthropologists and the National Security State, and lead editor of the Elsevier Science Publications series Studies in Multidisciplinarity.

Related Articles

Sensemaking in Organizations, Laura McNamara

The Not-So-Blind Watchmaker: Evolution by Design in Corporate Culture, Kate Barrett (free article—sign in required)

Trajectories of Change in Global Enterprise Transformation, Jeanette Blomberg (free article—sign in required)

Integrating Organizational and Design Perspectives to Address Challenges of Renewal, Jo Aiken (free article—sign in required)


  4 comments for “Organizational Culture and Change

  1. Great post! Industrial/Organizational Psy was one of my favorite areas of study in grad school and issues of organizational culture have become a focus for me again as I moved from consumer back to enterprise research. I would love to understand the differences between I/O Psy & Organizational Anthropology. Do you have any recommended readings on the topic?

  2. Hi Kathy!

    Great question. In theory, there need not be any difference, as anthropologists are rampant borrowers of theories and thinking from other disciplines, and as other disciplines have incorporated some of the methods and thinking of anthropology. However, the roots of the disciplines and their general POV and approach tend to be somewhat divergent.

    Industrial/Organizational Psychology has its roots in trying to fit workers into the systems in which they find themselves. Meaning, how do we make them more efficient, less challenging, and ostensibly, more docile so that the work of work can proceed. This is a bit of a gross generalization, but you get the point. Even with modern approaches like “flat” structures, open offices and “Strengths Finders,” it’s ultimately about how to get people to better fit the needs of the organization (to the extent that organizations can have needs independent of the people who create them). As for methods, most I/O Psychology will rely on methods familiar to psychology: surveys, controlled observations, mini-experiments, and possibly focus groups. They’re looking for centralizing tendencies and controlling variables. This is a laudable approach when you can’t really address the much more complicated “big picture” issues that undergird our entire labor system and economy. Because catered lunch is a delightful and wonderful thing.

    Organizational Anthropology, as with most versions of anthropology, takes a broader perspective and will typically do two things: first, position the organization within a much wider cultural and social context; and second, challenge the assumptions of organizational theory – hence my comment that “organizations” have needs distinct from the people who comprise them. An anthropologist would take that apart immediately and explore the power structures and relationships that really make an organization. As for methods, we’ll turn to those that are core to our discipline: participant-observation (what’s it like to work here?), detailed observations, narratives, photography and film, social network analyses, time allocation studies, etc. We’re looking for range, not necessarily agreement, and we would rarely try to control variables (what’s the fun in that??). Anthropologists won’t be daunted by challenging the uber-systems that structure what happens inside any particular organization. Their next task, however, lies in what to do after that: what’s the alternative?

    For example, an Industrial Psychologist might recommend an open office plan as a way to inspire teamwork and collaboration by “leveling the playing field” and creating a more relaxed and creative work environment. However, an Organizational Anthropologist might know that such formats also negate any spaces for privacy and essentially turn the entire office into a kind of Foucauldian Panopticon – where your every move is visible and known by your employer. Why we want that kind of control over employees and what the consequences are for employees are the kind of question an Organizational Anthropologist might explore, and what alternative recommendations to the design would accommodate a need for privacy.

    Or, an Industrial Psychologist might recommend office perks – from ping-pong to dry cleaning to catered meals – as one way to make employees happy and connected, and improve team functioning. On the flip side, it also ensures they have no need for a life outside of work, and might in fact contribute to versions of social isolation, increased dependence on one’s employer, and the collapse of communal ties beyond work – questions an Anthropologist might explore.

    Some of it also comes down to the question Laura raised in the article: what, exactly, do you mean by “culture”? Anthropologists have debated this term for more than a hundred years, and we have more definitions than I can count. But we’re typically clear about which one we choose when we use it. For those outside our discipline, it’s a kind of catch-all for a host of things that are often lumped as “things beyond our control” or the “day-to-day.” Really thinking through what we mean, how you study it, and how you impact are other central questions in Organizational Anthropology.

    There are a host of readings on the topic, and your request has inspired me to start pulling together a good reading list. A few to start with:

    Batteau, A. 2000 “Negotiations and Ambiguities in the Culture of Organizations,” American Anthropologist; 102(4): 726-740.

    Hamada, T. 1998 “The Anthropology of Business Organization,” Anthropology of Work Review; 18(2-3): 1-6

    Nader, L. 1972 “Up the Anthropologist: Perspectives Gained from Studying Up.” (available on ERIC)

    There are many more (these are a few of the classics) – and many great ones from within the EPIC community as well. But still so much to be done. Hence this section. I do hope you’ll submit and bring your questions and thinking to the table.

    I’d love to hear the responses from others in the community too. What do you see as the differences? The relative strengths and challenges of each approach? The potential synergies between them?


  3. Hi Kathy,

    As the only organizational anthropologist at Sandia – which is the largest of the DOE’s national laboratories – I work quite a bit with I/O and human factors psychologists. I’ve similarly enjoyed learning about the field and actively look for opportunities to work with those folks.

    I could articulate differences in terms of training, theory and methods, but what I tend to notice are ways in which our approaches complement each other. For example, while I/O psychologists tend to bring universalizing constructs to the investigation of organizations – like “leadership” and “aptitude,” we anthropologists tend to be very focused on the particulars of individual experience in the context of an enterprise. In discussing these perspectives with my I/O psychologist colleagues, we find that ethnography appreciation for the contextual can help I/O psychologists translate universalizing constructs into the specifics of the enterprise we are studying. In turn, I’ve learned a lot about the validity of constructs, data, and methods from my psychologist colleagues and I think they’ve made me a more thorough and thoughtful researcher.

    I’ve never actually searched for articles or books that articulate differences, per se. Instead, I’ve looked for resources that help me build working bridges with my human factors, industrial engineering and I/O psych friends. Edwin Hutchins’ articulation of distributed cognition is a fun read and has had a tremendous impact in human factors and HCI, for example. I also rely frequently on Bonnie Nardi’s writing about activity theory. AT itself is a fascinating intellectual history, if you dig into it – It’s is rooted in Russian psychology, whose influence you can also see in Scandinavian design thinking (Rasmussen’s methodological writing in cognitive work analysis, for example).

    I’ve not looked, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there are some annual-review-type articles that dig into this topic, too. Or maybe it’s time to write one… hmmm….

Leave a Reply