Organizational Culture Theory

• Introduction.
• Anthropologist Clifford Geertz views cultures as webs of shared meaning, shared
understanding, and shared sensemaking.
• Geertz’ work has focused on Third World cultures, but his ethnographic approach
has been applied by other scholars to organizations.
• In the field of speech communication, Michael Pacanowsky has applied Geertz’s
approach in his research of organizations.
• Pacanowsky asserts that communication creates and constitutes the taken-forgranted reality of the world.
• Culture as a metaphor of organizational life.
• Initial interest in culture as a metaphor for organizations stems from initial
American fascination with Japanese corporations.
• Corporate culture has several meanings.

  1. The surrounding environment that constrains a company’s freedom of
  2. An image, character, or climate that a corporation has.
  3. Pacanowsky argues that culture is not something an organization has, but
    is something an organization is.
    • What culture is; what culture is not.
    • Geertz and his colleagues do not distinguish between high and low culture.
    • Culture is not whole or undivided.
    • Pacanowsky argues that the web of organizational culture is the residue of
    employees’ performances. Geertz called these cultural performances an ensemble
    of texts.
    • The elusive nature of culture prompts Geertz to label its study a “soft science,” an
    interpretive approach in search of meaning.
    • Thick description: What ethnographers do.
    • Participant observation, the research methodology of ethnographers, is a timeconsuming process.
    • Pacanowsky spent over a year imbedded in Gore & Associates to understand how
    members experienced the organization.
    • He advised other researches to assume an attitude of “radical naivete” to
    experience the organization as a “stranger.”
    • An ethnographer has five tasks.
  4. Accurately describe talk and actions and the context in which they occur.
  5. Capture the thoughts, emotions, and the web of social interactions.
  6. Assign motivation, intention, or purpose for what people said and did.
  7. Artfully write this up so readers feel they’ve experienced the events.
  8. Interpret what happened; explain what it means within this culture.
    • Thick description refers to the intertwined layers of common meaning that
    underlie what people say and do.
  9. Thick description involves tracing the many strands of a cultural web and
    tracking evolving meaning.
  10. Thick description begins with a state of bewilderment.
  11. The puzzlement is reduced by observing as a stranger in a foreign land.
    • Ethnographers approach their research very differently from behaviorists.
  12. They are more interested in the significance of behavior than in statistical
  13. Pacanowsky warns that statistical analysis and classification across
    organizations yields superficial results.
    • As an ethnographer, Pacanowsky is particularly interested in imaginative
    language, stories, and nonverbal rites and rituals.
    • Metaphors: Taking language seriously.
    • Widely used metaphors offer a starting place for assessing the shared meaning of
    a corporate culture.
    • Metaphors are valuable tools for both the discovery and communication of
    organizational culture.
    • The symbolic interpretation of story.
    • Stories provide windows into organizational culture.
    • Pacanowsky focuses on the script-like qualities of narratives that outline roles in
    the company play.
    • Pacanowsky posits three types of organizational narratives.
  14. Corporate stories reinforce management ideology and policies.
  15. Personal stories define how individuals would like to be seen within an
  16. Collegial stories—usually unsanctioned by management—are positive or
    negative anecdotes about others within the organization that pass on how
    the organization “really works.”
    • Both Geertz and Pacanowsky caution against simplistic interpretations of stories.
    • Ritual: This is the way it’s always been, and always will be.
    • Many rituals are “texts” that articulate multiple aspects of cultural life.
    • Some rituals are nearly sacred and difficult to change.
    • Because it is ”their” ritual, researchers should be guided by employees’
    interpretation of what it means.
    • Can the manager be an agent of cultural change?
    • Geertz regarded shared interpretations as naturally emerging from all members of
    a group rather than consciously engineered by leaders.
    • The cultural approach is popular with executives who want to use it as a tool, yet
    culture is extremely difficult to manipulate.
    • Even if such manipulation is possible, it may be unethical.
    • Linda Smircich notes that communication consultants may violate the
    ethnographer’s rule of nonintervention, and may even extend management’s
    control within an organization.
    • Critique: Is the cultural approach useful?
    • The cultural approach adopts and refines the qualitative research methodology of
    ethnography to gain a new understanding of a specific group of people,
    particularly in clarifying values of the culture under study.
    • The cultural approach is criticized by corporate consultants who believe that
    knowledge should be used to influence organizational culture.
    • Critical theorists attack the cultural approach because it does not evaluate the
    customs it portrays.
    • The goal of symbolic analysis is to create a better understanding of what it takes
    to function effectively within the culture, not to pass moral judgment or reform
    • Adam Kuper is critical of Geertz for his emphasis on interpretation rather than
    behavioral observation.
    • There isn’t as much excitement about the cultural approach among organizational
    scholars today as there was when it was first introduced. That may be because few
    interpretive scholars write in the compelling and quotable prose produced by

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