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date: 05 April 2020

Leadership and Organizational Development

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Anthropology. Please check back later for the full article.

Since at least the 1930s, anthropologists have been conducting research on the dynamics and features of leadership and complex organizations. Though the anthropological study of organizations has changed dramatically since W. Lloyd Warner (an anthropologist) and Elton Mayo’s (a psychiatrist) first project at Western Electric Company’s Hawthorne Plant, two of anthropology’s defining features—the ethnographic method and the culture concept—have remained steadfast characteristics of the field for nearly a century.

While the particular methodologies of ethnographic research can be as varied as the studies they undergird, anthropological work on leadership and organizational development is generally performed from the inside, involving medium- to long-term research centered on participant observation. What separates anthropologists of organizations—and particularly corporations—from those in other subspecialties is that a significant amount of their ethnographic research is funded not just by academic institutions but also by private organizations that employ anthropologists on a permanent or contract basis. Though some within the field welcome the diverse research questions and perspectives that corporate-sponsored projects bring, others raise ethical and methodological objections to this work.

As is the case throughout anthropology in general, 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 is a byproduct of the larger trend toward reflexivity over the last two decades, in which anthropologists have increasingly problematized the concept of culture itself as well as attempts to develop broad theoretical frameworks.

For anthropologists of organizations, this shift has created a division between more academically oriented scholars who produce highly particularistic ethnographies that resist generalization and applied anthropologists who have created more practical guides on methodological approaches to studying organizations. In this vacuum, anthropologically informed frameworks for understanding leadership and culture in organizations have been developed by academics and practitioners in the related fields of design-thinking and industrial-organizational psychology. It remains to be seen whether, moving forward, the field will continue down this bifurcated path or instead reconnect with its roots in broad cultural theory, leading to more efforts to develop new frameworks for understanding leadership and organizational change.