Anthropologist Clifford Geertz views cultures as webs of
shared ,meaning, shared understandings, and shared sense
Geertz’s work has focused on third world cultures, but his
ethnographic approach has been applied by others to
organizations. In the field of speech communication, Michael
Pacanowsky has applied Geertz’s approach in his research of
“Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance that he
himself has spun”
Geertz is referring to the influence of culture on human
Geertz is saying humans have the ability to create and modify
their cultures, but their cultures serve to define the world
around them.
In order to travel across the web toward it’s center,
outsiders must discover the common interpretations that
hold the web together.
To become an integral member of the web we as outsiders
need to understand the common culture of a business to
become part of it.
Introduced theory:
Culture as a metaphor of organizational life
Culture as a root metaphor was undoubtedly stimulated by
western fascination with the economic success of Japanese
corporations in the 1970’s and 1980’s.
Our industrial leaders travelled to the far east to study their
methods of production, what they discovered was their superior
output and quality was not so much technology driven. It was a
shared culture among the workers and loyalty to the corporation.
The Japanese methods of production that our leaders went to
the Orient to study weren’t solely their ideas or based on their
Edward Deming – The father of the Quality Evolution
In the 1950’s in Japan, he taught top management how to
improve design through various methods.
He is regarded as having more impact on Japanese
manufacturing and business than any other individual not of
Japanese heritage.
Now corporate culture means different things depending on
who you ask.
Some use the term to describe the environment that limits a
companies freedom of action.
Others look at it as image, character, or work environment
Pacanowsky believes in Geertz symbolic approach and
considers culture as more than a single variable in
organizational research.
Culture is not a piece of the puzzle, it is the puzzle.
An organization becomes what it is based on the people who
work within the organization
Introduced theory
What Culture is; What Culture is Not
Geertz admits that the concept of culture as “Systems of
Shared Meaning” as somewhat vague and is difficult to grasp
Geertz and his colleagues do not distinguish between high and
low culture
The elusive nature of culture prompts Geertz to label its study
as a “Soft Science”
Culture is not whole or undivided
Geertz points out that even close knit societies have subcultures
within their boundaries.
The sales and accounting departments might eye each other warily:
Accountants are number crunchers or bean counters
Salesmen are fast talkers and glad hander's
You may also have those seen as slackers and brown noser’s
All of these groups may or may not look at another groups non
work activities as being normal or important as they do their own
Pacanowsky views the web of organizational culture as the residue
of employee performances
The very actions by which members constitute and reveal their
culture to themselves and others.
Job performance may play only a minor role in how a corporate
culture is created
People get the job done. Not only by performing the actual steps
required to complete a task. They talk, joke, pick on each other,
while doing the least amount of work required to not get in trouble
with superiors
Introduced theory:
Thick Description: What Ethnographers Do
Ethnography – Discovering who people within a culture think
they are, what they think they are doing, and to what end do
they think that they are doing it.
Social discourse –
Thick descriptions are powerful reconstructions, not just
detailed observations
Most Ethnographers realize that their task is to:
1. Accurately describe talk and actions, and the context in
which they occur
2. Capture the thoughts, emotions, or purpose to what people
say and do
3. Assign motivation, intention, or purpose to what people say
and do
4. Artfully write this up so readers feel they’ve experienced the
5. Interpret what happened: Explain what it means within this
Thick description starts with a state of bewilderment
-What is going on
-The only way to reduce this feeling is to observe as if you were
a stranger in a foreign land
Introduced theory:
Metaphors: Taking Language Seriously
Metaphors can be a starting place for accessing the shared meaning
of a corporate culture
Example: Lattice Organization
One on one communication is more important than traditional top
down communication
No one group is more important to the outcome than another
Everyone is free to talk to another employee in another department
Introduced theory:
The Symbolic Interpretation of a Story
Stories provide windows into organizational culture. Pacanowsky
suggests three types of narrative that dramatize organizational life
1. Corporate stories – Carry the ideology of management and
reinforce company policy
2. Personal stories -Those that the company personnel tell about
themselves, often defining how they would like to be seen
within the organization
3. Collegial stories – Are positive and negative anecdotes told
about others in the organization
Introduced theory:
Ritual: This is the way its always been and always will be
Einstein described lunacy this way – Continuing to do the same
thing and expecting a different outcome
Said differently – If we continue to do what we’ve always done,
we will get what we always did
Staying with what has always worked – The fear of change
Introduced theory:
Can Management be an Agent of Cultural Change
The popularity of the cultural metaphor when it was first
introduced to the corporate world in the 1980’s was undoubtedly
due to business leaders’ desire to shape interpretation within the
Symbols are the tools of management
Executives don’t operate forklifts or produce widgets; they cast
vision, state goals, process information, send memos, and engage
in other symbolic behavior.
If they believe that culture is the key to worker commitment,
productivity, and sales, the possibility of changing culture
becomes a seductive idea
Creating favorable metaphors, planting organizational stories, and
establishing rites would seem an ideal way to create a corporate
myth that would serve managerial interests
But once corporate culture exists, can it be altered by a manager?
Geertz regards shared interpretations as naturally emerging from all
members of a group rather than consciously engineered by leaders.
Shared meanings are hard to dispel. Symbol watchers within a
company quickly discount the words of management if they don’t
square with performance.
But even if culture could be changed, there remains the question of
whether it should be
Managers who regard themselves as agents of cultural change create
bull-in-a-china-shop fears for ethnographers who have ethical
concerns about how their corporate analysis might be used
Is the Cultural Approach Useful?
The cultural approach adopts and refines qualitative research
methodology of ethnography to gain a new understanding of a
specific group of people
A crucial part of that understanding is a clarification of values
within the culture under study.
Today the cultural approach to organizations isn’t as important to
interpretive scholars as it was in the 1980’s.
This may be because many researchers trained in organizational
communication are hired as consultants by corporate managers
looking for change
Geertz would regard this quest to alter culture as inappropriate and
virtually impossible. This purist position exposes him and his
admirers within our discipline to criticism from corporate
consultants who not only desire to understand organizational
communication but also want to influence it
A First Look at Communication Theory - Eight Edition
Wikipedia – Biography of W. Edwards Deming