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date: 25 June 2022

Leadership and Organizational Developmentlocked

Leadership and Organizational Developmentlocked

  • Derek NewberryDerek NewberryUniversity of Pennsylvania
  •  and Eric GruebelEric GruebelUniversity of Pennsylvania


Since at least the 1930s, anthropologists have been conducting research on the dynamics and features of leadership and organizational development. After a period of dormancy lasting from the middle of the century to the end of the 1970s, work in the field has taken off. Drawing on two of anthropology’s defining features—the ethnographic method and the culture concept—scholars working within the field have provided an alternative and productive approach to a subject studied across a range of disciplines.

As is the case throughout anthropology, no one definition of culture serves as the universal touchstone for the anthropological study of organizations. Still, anthropologists working within the field commonly reject any notion of culture as static, uniform, or fully bounded within an organization. Unlike in the traditional management scholarship, there are few explanatory frameworks on effective leadership or organizational functioning in the anthropological literature. This different emphasis is a byproduct of the larger trend toward reflexivity over the last two decades, in which anthropologists have increasingly challenged both the concept of “culture” itself and attempts to develop broad theoretical frameworks.

For anthropologists of organizations, this shift has created a division between more academically oriented scholars who produce small-scale ethnographies that resist generalization and applied anthropologists who have created more practical, method-focused guides to the field. At the same time, academics and practitioners in fields like design-thinking and industrial-organizational psychology have developed their own, anthropologically informed approaches and theories for understanding leadership and cultural change in organizations. Entering the third decade of the 20th century, it remains to be seen whether the field will continue down this divided path or instead reconnect with its roots in broad cultural theory, leading to greater efforts to synthesize practical, academic, and interdisciplinary approaches to develop new theoretical frameworks.


  • Applied Anthropology

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