«Abstract Page 1 of 23 JBA 1(1): 118-140 This text briefly depicts the history of an encounter between Spring 2012 anthropology and organization ...»
Organization Theory Meets Anthropology:
A Story of an Encounter
Page 1 of 23
JBA 1(1): 118-140
This text briefly depicts the history of an encounter between Spring 2012
anthropology and organization theory in the Anglo-Saxon literature in the
© The Author(s) 2012
period 1990-2010 as seen by an organization scholar. In focus are some ISSN 2245-4217 stable characteristics and some changes in this relationship, against the www.cbs.dk/jba background of wider developments in societies and in social sciences. The article ends with suggestions concerning future possibilities of combining the insights of the two fields in a fruitful and interesting way.
Keywords Anthropology, organization theory, social science In memory of Connie Perin (1930-2012), who was my guide into the world of contemporary anthropology, and the world of begonias.
Czarniawska / Organization Theory Meets Anthropology Introduction This is a story of two decades of interaction between organization studies and anthropology, told by an organization scholar. Like all stories, it is one-sided. Much as this interaction has enriched organization theory, it would be incorrect to claim that organization scholars have become fullfledged anthropologists, the recent fashion for "organizational ethnography" notwithstanding. Organization researchers have looked into the field of anthropology and borrowed devices that seemed useful;
translated concepts for their own use; changed and adapted, not always faithfully. It can be said that we organization scholars have poached within anthropology’s terrain. In our defence stands Michel de Certeau, who said that “readers are travellers; they move across lands belonging to someone else, like nomads poaching their way across fields they did not write, despoiling the wealth of Egypt to enjoy it themselves” (de Certeau, 1984: 174). Thus the following account, no doubt faulty and partial itself, tries to render the process and the results of an encounter between two academic disciplines from the perspective of one of them. A corresponding account from the other side would be a valuable complement to this picture.1 The story starts with a short excursion back into the 1970s, to create a background for its actual beginning: the 1990s. It was in the early 1990s that organization scholars "discovered" anthropology. It was not for the first time (see, for example, Jaques, 1951; Rice, 1958; Turner, 1971), but it was then that the geopolitical climate made the encounter truly noticeable. Under an umbrella of "organizational culture", at least two distinct schools of thought began to form: one that saw a new management tool in organizational culture, and an opportunity for organization studies to turn to humanities and symbolic analysis. Both have accomplished their goals, although the gap between them has grown bigger and bigger. The first group based its work on traditional anthropology; the second joined forces with anthropology's internal revolution.
Twenty years later, organization culture as a tool of management has given way to storytelling, while organizational symbolists have been taken to task by supporters of studies of science and technology (SST) for neglecting objects, bodies and machines. It can be somewhat surprising, therefore, that ethnography as a method of field study has now spread within both groups. Marketing and information technology people use ethnographies for practical purposes; researchers write ethnographies of 1 Editors’ Footnote: A corresponding account by an anthropologist has been commissioned for publication in the next issue of the JBA. Barbara Czarniawska will be given the opportunity to comment on this account and, thereby, to open up a debate.
Journal of Business Anthropology, 1(1), Spring 2012
observation takes place.
(1970: 90, italics in the original) Readers in the 2000s may wonder about this seeming obsession with structure and categories, but at the time Mintzberg wrote these words even direct observation was supposed to be strictly structured. The form for recording observed interaction created by US social psychologist Robert Bales (1950) was being widely used. Indeed, in the same journal article, Mintzberg apologized to the reader who "may feel that some of the categories are not sufficiently 'neat'" (p. 94).
Between listing the categories, Mintzberg gave examples of his field notes, revealing that he had, in fact, shadowed "Mr. M". He had sat in M's office and walked with M to the plant; they had returned to the office and then gone to a meeting with consultants (in some later descriptions of his work, the term "tracked" has been used, but it was later appropriated by Mintzberg for other purposes; see Mintzberg, 2007).
It took at least twenty years for Mintzberg's methodological approach to be taken for granted in organization studies; it took thirty years before a work of an anthropologist, Harry Wolcott, became a methodological hit in social sciences, including organization studies.
Harry F. Wolcott was an anthropologist who had studied the Kwakiutl for his doctoral dissertation, before turning his attention to the field of education, and it is this later dissertation that is of interest here.
Like Henry Mintzberg, he noticed that diary-type studies suffered from many shortcomings, and would not allow him to answer his central question: "What do school principals actually do"? He did not seem to be aware of Mintzberg's study, not only because the two studies were done practically in parallel, but probably also because management was not yet perceived as a general profession in the 1970s; nor was its knowledge base seen as applicable to all domains of life, as it is now. Wolcott decided to put his anthropological skills to work, but realized from the beginning that his study, focusing as it did on one school principal, would differ markedly from studies of tribes or kinship (Wolcott, 1973/2003).
In a letter to Jay Gubrium, Wolcott explained how his approach
acquired the name "shadowing":
If the idea of "shadow studies" developed as a consequence of the publication of Man in the Principal's Office: An Ethnography (HRW 1973), it evolved in a rather indirect and unintentional way. I was well-enough aware that I was already stretching the boundaries of ethnography with a study of an elementary school principal across town. The whole idea of doing ethnography locally, and in school, of all places, seemed new and novel. So novel that the first chapter of the book dealt with how I went about the study. One of the Journal of Business Anthropology, 1(1), Spring 2012
observer following well defined procedures for data collection and verification. It requires no great insights, however, to recognize that ethnographic realism is a distortion of convenience. Fieldwork, as all who engaged in it will testify, is an intensely personal and subjective process, and there are probably at last as many "methods" as there are fieldworkers.
(Kunda, 1992: 229) And so on and so forth, in a similar tone. The book has become a bestseller and has been recently (2006) reissued in the second edition.
Something pivotal had happened, and as its observer and participant, I tried to capture it on my own work.
A move toward an anthropology of complex organizations: the 1990s In 1989, I edited a special issue of International Studies of Management & Organization (ISMO, 19/3), which I prefaced with an excerpt from a book manuscript I had been working on at that time, called Anthropology of Complex Organizations. Sage published the book in 1992, changing its title to Exploring Complex Organizations: A Cultural Perspective. My publisher explained to me that because I was (and am) not an anthropologist, I should not use the word "anthropology" in the title; and furthermore, it would be placed on the wrong shelf in bookstores (those were the days when books were sold in bookstores, and not on the Web).
My reasoning, in the special issue, as in the book, went as follows.
Large and complex organizations are among the most characteristic signs of our times. Yet there are few traditional methods that would allow the study of this phenomenon, so central to contemporary cultures. Neither macroeconomics, with this bird's eye perspective, nor the theory of the firm, which reduces organization to a Super-Person, a "decision-maker", has much to offer. Social psychology requires groups; it is not certain that group behaviour covers everything that occurs in complex organizations.
If the phenomenon of a large and complex organization is seen as a central tenet of contemporary cultures, however, then anthropology is a discipline to turn to for help. And turn I did.
The definition of organization The definition of organization I presented in ISMO differed slightly from
that in the book. The earlier one went as follows:
Organization is a system of collective action, undertaken in the effort to influence the world (...) The contents of the action are meanings and things (artefacts). One system of collective action is distinguishable from another by the kind of meanings and products socially attributed to a Journal of Business Anthropology, 1(1), Spring 2012
anthropology, he suggested studying the way of life of selected people (which I then remade into "way of work"), and, in a Goffmanian style, to see it as enactment of a social drama. And then he made the most
Social anthropologists are bad novelists rather than bad scientists. But I hold that the insights of the social anthropologist have a special quality because of the arena in which he [sic] characteristically exercises his artistic imagination. That arena is the living space of some quite small community of people who live together in circumstances where most of their day-to-day communications depend upon face-to-face interaction.
This does not embrace the whole of human social life, still less does it embrace the whole of human history. But all human beings spend a great deal of their lives in contexts of this kind.
(Leach, 1982: 53-54) This admission apologetically assumes a narrative approach, and a conviction that life takes place "locally". But Leach's take neglects the connectedness between localities (see e.g. Sassen, 2001), and his statement was formulated long before more and more people started to spend a good part of their lives in a form of "response presence" (Knorr Cetina and Bruegger, 2000) – in front of their computers.
My other anthropological references survived the passage of time better, however. Geertz's The Interpretation of Cultures (1973) became fashionable in the early 1990s, but it is significant that Geertz listened to the young revolutionaries and, although keeping a somewhat ironic distance, contributed much to the wave of reflexivity in anthropology (see e.g. Geertz, 1988).
I have also included Mary Douglas' book How Institutions Think (1986) because Constance Perin took me along when she went to listen to Douglas lecturing at Uppsala University. The idea that classifications are at least as important in modern societies as they were in "primitive" societies (Durkheim and Mauss, 1903/1963) circulates impressively, not the least through such works as Bowker and Star (1999) and Bowker (2006).
I have also included Castaneda (1968/1986), still fashionable at that time, and Thomas P. Rohlen (1974), whose work is a standard example of an anthropologist studying an exotic (Japanese) company. Yet another example was Latour and Woolgar's Laboratory Life (1979/1986), as Latour was still presenting himself as an anthropologist in the late 1970s.
Tracing anthropology in organization studies Journal of Business Anthropology, 1(1), Spring 2012
Simultaneously, classes, ethnic group, and formal organizations have emerged with increasing significance throughout the world.
(Britan and Cohen, 1980: 9) Organizations in foreign contexts became more and more closely connected to local contexts, aid organizations being a good example (David Mosse, 2004/2007). Furthermore, certain organizations within a local context – hospitals, for example – can be more exotic than organizations in a foreign context previously studied. What is more, projecting an alien perspective – that of organization theory, for example – onto a well-known phenomenon like the university (Marilyn Strathern, 2000/2007) could produce the desired estrangement. Sharon Macdonald (1995/2007) announced a rapprochement not only with science studies, but also with marketing and consumer studies, soon to be developed even more.
Thus there is continuity, but also change. There are things and topics that are new, but with clear connections to the past.
The times we live now: the triumph of ethnography By the 2000s, certain developments were clearly visible. "Corporate cultures" became the domain of consultants. Organizational symbolism was absorbed by two separate trends. One was the narrative turn, which also reached organization theory, itself split into two parts: one inspired primarily by narratology (e.g. Czarniawska, 2004b) and one close to folklore studies ("storytelling", see e.g. Gabriel, 2000). The other was cultural studies – sociology inspired by anthropology – which focused mostly on popular culture (see e.g. Rhodes and Westwood, 2009). One thing is sure, however: ethnography is the dominant method in organization studies at present (see e.g. Nyland, 2007, and Ybema et al., 2009), although the term has acquired a wide variety of meanings.
The influence of anthropology on organization studies further weakened the impact of systems theory. In my chapter reprinted by Jiménez (Czarniawska 2004a/2007), I was already convinced that "organizations" are epiphenomena: they are one of the products of an action net that may spread wider and further than any organization.