The Migration and Mutation of "Culture"

Bruce Fortado and Paul Fadil

University of North Florida


Defining what one will talk about is a traditional starting point. Most words have numerous definitions in large dictionaries. Sometimes, one word or term builds on another. Care must therefore be taken to make sure what people mean.

One must first understand what “culture” refers to before one explores “organization culture.” Readers need to recognize there are multiple academic or “book” definitions of both culture and organization culture. Dealing with such matters tends to excite many scholars and bore most regular people. The focus here will be placed on what has actually happened in the lower levels of organizations. Thus, only a limited amount of space will be devoted to outlining some introductory “book definitions.”

Our analysis will depend heavily on the comparative method. Our real-world examples will be compared to a few historic usages of culture and organization culture. In addition, comparisons will be made of what things were like before and after a cultural change effort was undertaken. Some of our participants compared a current state to ones that existed in prior workplaces or under a different manager in the same workplace. Such comparisons can uncover critical aspects of these cultural situations.

The term “culture” originated in Anthropology and Sociology. We will initially review what “culture” referred to in these disciplines. Next, the Human Relations field research conducted from the 1920s to 1960s will be examined. Subsequently, in the 1980s, consultants told leaders managing their “organization culture” could improve performance outcomes. Culture advocates now exist in many disciplines: including, Organization Development (OD), Operations Management (OM), Marketing and Public Administration. This chapter will show how “culture” has migrated and mutated.

2 Bruce Fortado and Paul Fadi I

Grasping the Idea of "Culture"

What does “culture” refer to? Anthropologist Edward Burnett Tylor in 1871 authored the first definition. He said culture was “that complex whole which includes knowledge, beliefs, art, laws, morals, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society” (Hamada, 1994:10). Some scholars have said this definition is largely accepted and followed (Maccoby, 1994:267). Others argue “culture” has “no fixed or broadly agreed meaning even in anthropology” (Alvesson, 2002:3). It is important to understand this disagreement exists. We will make no attempt to resolve this matter. Our aim is just to grasp what culture generally refers to.

All of the knowledge that others pass on to a newborn child over time is culture (Benedict, 1934:3; Trice, 1993:20). Children are taught language in oral and written form. They learn how to dress and cook. They are instructed how they should and should not act. They are shown how tools are made and used. They are taught about math and science. They get exposed to art, music, song and drama. They identify useful ways of solving the commonly encountered problems in life. These are all parts of “culture.”

Humans must deal with a surrounding environment. The techniques, activities and symbols that are used by a group of people, in other words their habits, are summed up under the term “culture” (Chapple, 1943:24). When facing the difficulties of surviving in a complex and changing world, culture gives members of a group the best-known methods to date (Turner, 1978). It also provides the best explanations for questions about unknowns and the nature of human existence. Culture is what makes a group distinctive. This includes patterns of belief, values and action (Whyte, 1961:58). Culture provides a group identity. Group members are also identified by their culture. Culture consists in no small part of the knowledge that has been built up over time. Each new generation learns from the prior ones and when possible improves upon their work. By doing these things, culture provides a sense of order, continuity and confidence. Aspects of culture are learned, shared, transgenerational, symbolic, patterned and adaptive.

A person can better understand “culture” when one visits a foreign country (Whyte, 1961:57). The initial confusion should give way to insightful comparisons of the foreign and home cultures. Cultures are often studied by examining artifacts (e.g., technology and art), symbols (e.g., objects, settings and functionaries), organizational languages (e.g., jargon, gestures, songs, humor, gossip, rumors, metaphors and slogans), shared stories (e.g., legends, myths and sagas) and rituals (e.g., ceremonies and rites) (Schein, 1985; Trice 8c Beyer, 1993).

Some scholars have stressed the unique aspects of cultures, while others have explored common dimensions that span many cultures (Benedict, 1934). These dimensions have included the nature of

The Migration and Mutation of “Culture” 3 spiritual beliefs, relationships, reality/truth and time (Kluckhohn & Strodtbeck, 1961). When you are a part of a culture, many things are taken for granted. This means the underlying assumptions are not easy to bring to the surface. Members believe their way of doing things is the right way and other ways are inferior. This frame of mind is called “ethnocentrism.” Overall, both the unique aspects of a culture and common cultural dimensions deserve study.

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