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date: 27 February 2021

Leadership and Organizational Developmentfree

  • 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.

Anthropology, Leadership, and Deliberate Cultural Change

This article provides an overview of ethnographic work on leadership and organizational development—understood here as deliberate “cultural change”—over the 20th and 21st century. We focus particularly on these interconnected topics as related to the anthropological study of business and corporations. Rooted in research conducted in the 1930s, the anthropological study of leadership and organizational development is today experiencing a major resurgence. Following the initial flourishing of applied and academic work in the 1940s and early 1950s, anthropological research on corporations entered a period of dormancy lasting for two decades. Since the late 1970s, however, anthropologists have begun to return to the subject, with work accelerating throughout the 1990s. Unlike in the mid-20th century, the revived anthropological study of leadership and organizational development has split the field between academic researchers and those doing applied work in industry, with attempts at reintegration only making headway in recent years. This article offers a brief overview of anthropological research on leadership and organizational change since the early 20th century and outlines trends in recent work.


From 1927 to 1932, Western Electric’s Hawthorne Plant in Illinois (see figure 1) hosted a pioneering research program that played a central role in the birth of anthropological research on leadership and development in Western organizations.1 While anthropologists had studied cultural change widely before that time, the vast majority of this work was concentrated on the study of indigenous and non-Western peoples or in archaeology. Spurred on by the success of anthropologist W. Lloyd Warner at Hawthorne, the discipline finally began to bring its theoretical and methodological tools to bear on complex organizations in the West.

Figure 1. Aerial view of the Hawthorne Works, c. 1925.

Seeking to understand the “relationships between fatigue and monotony and job satisfaction and dissatisfaction” (Schwartzman 1993a, 5), researchers at Hawthorne were initially guided by the “scientific management principles” of Taylorism, which emphasized the deconstruction of work processes into discrete actions that could be tuned for efficiency. The researchers accordingly sought to determine the effect that changing a single variable, like modifying break lengths or offering a free lunch, would have on worker output (Schwartzman 1993a, 6). Puzzled by results that indicated increased worker output after any change, Western Electric brought in Harvard Business School psychologist Elton Mayo to help interpret the findings (Schwartzman 1993a, 6). Through his involvement with these “RATR experiments” (named after the special Relay Assembly Test Room in which they were conducted), Mayo helped uncover the Hawthorne effect, proposing that awareness of observation itself, rather than any particular alteration, caused the change in output (Wright 1994, 6).

Increasingly focused on the social aspects of the work environment as a result of the RATR results and the data from a massive employee interview program, the Hawthorne team sought anthropologist W. Lloyd Warner’s advice to explore the connection between work-group relationships and individual decision-making (Schwartzman 1993a, 7–9; Wright 1994, 6). With Warner’s help, the team developed an anthropologically informed research program, using observation and interviews to study intragroup relations in the “Bank Wiring Observation Room,” a recreated shop-floor (Wright 1994, 6–7). The study provided researchers insight into social relations at the factory, allowing them to identify a tension between the “formal organization”—the officially prescribed relationships among employees and with technologies—and the “informal organization”—the real-world relationships (Schwartzman 1993a, 12–13). In keeping with the dominant anthropological model at the time, the researchers interpreted these results in light of Radcliffe-Brown’s structural-functionalist framework, viewing relations between individuals as part of an organic, equilibrium-seeking whole (Wright 1994, 7).

Though it would be another decade before similar anthropological research would be carried out again (Wright 1994, 8–9), the Hawthorne studies, and particularly the Bank Wiring Observation Room program, would come to occupy a central role in the development of anthropological work on organizations (Moeran and Garsten 2012, 5–6). Within a few years of the study’s full publication by Roethlisberger and Dickson in 1939, anthropologists recognized its importance as “the first study ever made of a group in industry working under actual operating conditions . . . based directly upon anthropological principles” (Chapple 1943, 29).

The insights of the Bank Wiring Observation Room study came to form the basis of the Human Relations Movement, which would not only shape anthropological engagement with industry in the 1940s and 1950s, but would influence contemporary research in sociology, management, psychology, and the new field of organizational studies.2 Management-centric in its outlook, human relations-influenced anthropologists emphasized the importance of “harmony” between management and labor (Baba 1986, 6). Drawing on Radcliffe-Brown’s structural functionalism, these researchers conceptualized the organizations that they studied as equilibrium-tending organisms made up of workers and managers “inextricably bound in a complex web of interdependencies,” with emergent social relations serving some role in the existence of the whole (Baba 1986, 6). Where changes to this network of relations upset the existing order, the organization might be thrown into a state of “disequilibrium” (Chapple 1943, 26). In response, it might either adapt and return to its prior state or, where “the disturbing force impressed on the system is too great or too prolonged,” shift to a new equilibrium (Chapple 1943, 26). For those anthropologists interested in cultural change, management of equilibrium was therefore a key mode of intervention.

Early Attempts at Managing Cultural Change

The 1940s and early 1950s were a period of rapid growth in the anthropological study of organizations in general (Baba 1986, 5), and organizational development in particular, as academic and commercial research developed at a rapid pace. In 1941, anthropologists and researchers from anthropology and adjacent disciplines established the Society for Applied Anthropology, whose journal, Applied Anthropology (later, Human Organization), aimed at advancing the field of human relations through an emphasis on projects “which contribute to the solution of practical problems” (Editorial Board 1941, 2). In 1946, W. Lloyd Warner and two other prominent social scientists in Chicago, William Henry and Burleigh Gardner, founded the consulting firm Social Research, Inc., which built on the tradition of Warner’s anthropologically influenced commercial research at Hawthorne (Karesh 1995, 100).

Prominent among the academic researchers during the initial flurry of activity was Eliot Chapple. A strong believer in developing a scientific identity for anthropology, Chapple proposed that organizational conflict could be solved through a close analysis of cause and effect. In Chapple’s view, an individual’s relationships with others “are controlled to a large degree by the techniques, activities and symbols making up his adaptation to the environment,” which he sums up as “habits” or “culture” (Chapple 1943, 24–25). Influenced by the structural-functionalist understanding of organizations as equilibrium-seeking, Chapple believed that direct interventions on these factors—like modifying workshop layouts, the handling of materials, or record keeping—would cause a “reorganization and re-formulation of relationships . . . naturally and inevitably” (Chapple 1953, 829). Based upon this framework, Chapple advocated “anthropological engineering” that would enable “the administrator [to] attain a control in the field of human relations comparable to that which he already has in the field of costs and production” (Chapple 1943, 29, 31).

Chapple and Wright’s (1946) How to Supervise People in Industry: A Guide for Supervisors on How to Understand People and Control Their Behavior serves as an early, management-focused example of how the authors envisioned that anthropological engineering might be put into practice. Structured as a how-to guide, the book introduces factory foremen to the importance of managing human relationships for creating a well-functioning organization. Chapple and Wright emphasize the importance of individuals’ needs for “contact” with one another, and the role that factors like “layout, materials handling, job description and standards, routing and scheduling, and the type of records kept” play in shaping contact, and therefore in creating positive relationships (Chapple and Wright 1946, 49). After establishing the relevance of these factors, the authors then turn to educating foremen on how they might modify them while causing the least disturbance (Chapple and Wright 1946, 53). Notably, while Chapple identifies these same factors as the organization’s “culture” elsewhere (e.g., Chapple 1953, 829), he never applies the word here to describe the object of intervention.3

Chapple was not alone in his optimism about the role that anthropologists could play in solving organizational conflict through cultural change. In the article “From Conflict to Cooperation: A Study in Union-Management Relations,” for example, Burleigh Gardner, William Foote Whyte, and others analyze the establishment of a union at a manufacturing company as a case study of successful structural change (Buchsbaum et al. 1946). Though the authors note material constraints like the economic and regulatory environment, and acknowledge the importance of ritual in reinforcing relationships, they give most of the credit for the successful transition to shifts in attitude among union and labor leaders (Buchsbaum et al. 1946, 21–25). In this view, organizational development—though never explicitly identified at such—is largely accomplished by adjusting mental dispositions and is something established at the highest levels of the organization. For Gardner and Whyte, it is “the top executives,” who must “carry this reorientation of thinking, emotions, and actions all down the line” (Buchsbaum et al. 1946, 30).

Though different approaches to leadership and organizational development were evident among anthropologists by the 1950s, the researchers shared a common adherence to a structural-functionalist understanding of the organizations they studied. While some, like Chapple, sought to understand and modify organizational relationships through changes to the routines and material culture of the workplace, one of the prevailing frameworks for explanation—and intervention—was psychological.4 This trend, along with the central emphasis on the role of leadership, is captured in Warner and Abegglan’s (1963) Big Business Leaders in America. Rather than seeking to understand effective leadership through ethnographic study of the organizational context, Warner and Abegglan instead offer a sweeping study of managers’ personalities, relying on interviews and survey data to identify the social and behavioral factors that contributed to their success.

A Period of Hibernation

Almost as quickly as the initial group of anthropologists began to study cultural change in organizations, developments both inside and outside anthropology discouraged research in this new area of inquiry. By the late 1950s, the study of organizational development in anthropology departments had begun a decline from which it would not recover until the early 1980s.

On the one hand, the research program was undercut by dynamics within anthropology departments. First, because studies of organizational development were closely associated with the human relations framework and structural functionalism, its fortunes fell as anthropology moved on towards new theoretical models (Baba 1986, 6; Jordan and Caulkins 2013, 3). Human Relations, in particular, was criticized for being too management-centered, both in its ideological orientation and in its theoretical models, and for not paying enough attention to the broader context around the organization it studied (Schwartzman 1993b, 25–26; Wright 1994, 9). Second, disciplinary bias in favor of research in non-Western, non-urban communities, and against “applied” anthropological work weighed against a new generation of anthropologists taking up the mantle of organizational research (Morey and Luthans 1987, 130–131; Greenwood 2013, 31–33; Schwartzman 1993b, 24–25).

Third, partly in response to the government’s use of anthropologists and their data during the Vietnam War, many academic anthropologists questioned the ethics of applying their skills on behalf of corporations (Baba 1986, 7; Jordan and Caulkins 2013, 4; Urban and Koh 2013, 152). From the earliest days of Warner’s research at Hawthorne, prominent organizational anthropologists had performed work for corporations or moved back and forth between their duties in academic departments and applied work in industry, as with Warner, Henry, and Gardner’s founding of the Social Research, Inc., in 1946 (Baba 1989, 14). Increasingly, their colleagues questioned the ethics of these arrangements. Debates over the issue came to a head in 1971 when “the American Anthropological Association (AAA), the main professional association of all U.S. anthropologists, amended its Principles of Professional Responsibility to include a clause prohibiting research when the outcome of the research would not be available to the general public,” thereby rejecting the possibility of proprietary research on behalf of organizations (Jordan 2010, 19).

On the other hand, broader changes outside of anthropology also contributed to the decline. From the start, much organizational anthropology research was conducted through dialogue and collaboration with scholars from other disciplines, particularly at Harvard (Morey and Luthans 1987, 129) and Chicago (Karesh 1995). As anthropology resisted working in Western and urban contexts, psychology, sociology, and the new field of organizational studies moved in to fill the gap. While some members of the foundational generation of organizational anthropologists ended up in these disciplines and training future non-anthropologists, many others remained on the periphery of academia, moving in and out of private enterprise (Morey and Luthans 1987, 130–131).

The 1980s and the Birth of Organizational Culture

The 1980s began a period of rebirth for the anthropological study of leadership and cultural development spurred on at least in part by developments outside the walls of anthropology departments. As Ann Jordan has observed, this renaissance of organizational anthropology coincided with the parallel emergence of an interest in culture among scholars of management seeking to understand the success of Japanese businesses (Jordan 2010, 19). In 1981 and 1982, four books by Ouchi (1981), Pascale and Athos (1981), Deal and Kennedy (1982), and Peters and Waterman (1982) introduced the concept of culture to management and popular audiences alike, casting it as a key ingredient in Japanese—and potentially American—business growth (Jordan and Caulkins 2013, 4–5). Initially dubbed “corporate culture,” this supposed cornerstone of organizational success soon came to be known as “organizational culture” (Jordan 1994, 3).

Foreshadowed in part by psychological research on “climate” in the 1970s (Gamst 1990) and the work of Dutch social psychologist and organizational researcher Geert Hofstede (1991), management interest in culture blossomed into a new area of study and the rapid growth of a body of literature aimed at helping businesses create cultural change to drive corporate success. Among the most prominent voices in this new field was Edgar Schein, whose best-selling book Organizational Culture and Leadership, inspired in part by the work of anthropologists, argued that the physical manifestations of a firm’s culture—its “artifacts”—could be analyzed to understand deeper, shared assumptions and values which in turn could serve as a focal point for change (Schein 1985, 23–35).5

Even as this interest in “organizational culture” took off, it was clear to anthropologists that the model of culture that management and organizational scholars were working with was quite different from their own (Jordan 2010, 19). Though an almost limitless range of formulations of the “culture concept” exist—and though many anthropologists since the 1980s have completely abandoned the term—anthropological definitions tend to share a common set of features, generally treating culture as (1) socially learned and transmitted, (2) symbolic, (3) constantly re-shaped, and (4) layered. While early management and organizational studies approaches to culture also included variation (Hamada 2000, 79), the set of generally shared base-level assumptions was often quite different from those found amongst anthropologists. Rather than understanding culture as a set of constantly evolving beliefs and practices differentially shared amongst concentric and overlapping groups, scholars of these fields often addressed it as if it were “unified” and stable (Morey and Luthans 1991, 614–615).6 With a disciplinary focus on intervention and improvement, authors in management and organizational studies often treated culture as an “additive” characteristic of an organization (Jordan 1994, 4), a factor which could be “imposed from the top downward” (Morey and Morey 1994, 19). Further, where anthropologists tend to depend on long-term ethnographic field work, management and organizational studies typically privileged quantitative data (Morey and Morey 1994, 18; Hamada 2000, 91).

As interest in “organizational culture” among non-anthropologists took off, anthropologists responded with a flurry of important survey pieces outlining the history of anthropological work in organizations (Holzberg and Giovannini 1981; Pennbridge 1984; Baba 1986; Gamst 1990; Hamada 1994). By the early 1990s, academic anthropologists had started to engage directly with the growing organizational culture work outside their departments, leading to a small body of work attempting to define the relationship between the two fields. Notable among these publications was the fall 1989 edition of Anthropology of Work Review (Sachs 1989), titled “Anthropological Approaches to Organizational Culture” (Jordan 2010, 19–20). From the other side of the disciplinary divide, Morey and Luthans’s (1987) “Anthropology: The Forgotten Behavioral Science in Management History” paid homage to the role of anthropologists in shaping early management research, while pieces like Bate’s (1997) “Whatever Happened to Organizational Anthropology” reflected on what organizational behavior might learn from its estranged forebear.

Also contributing to anthropological interest in the new organizational culture literature was the reemergence of opportunities for anthropologists in industry. Though few corporations had engaged anthropologists between the 1950s and the early 1970s (Baba 1986, 7), more and more had begun to hire organizational anthropologists by the end of that decade to conduct in-house research (Urban and Koh 2013, 148). The National Association of Practicing Anthropologists (NAPA) was founded as a section of the American Anthropological Association in 1983 in response to the large number of anthropologists pursuing applied work as full-time careers (Kuklick 2009, 333). By the 1990s, perhaps half of all anthropologists earning PhDs entered careers outside of the university (Sibley 1994, vi). With years of in-industry ethnographic experience behind them, pioneers of the new applied wave began to publish some of their work in anthropological journals (Jordan and Caulkins 2013, 5). Responding to the proliferation of private employment opportunities, publications like Ann Jordan’s (1994) “Organizational Culture: The Anthropological Approach” and the National Association for NAPA’s 1987 bulletin Research and Consulting as a Business offered how-to guides for anthropologists curious about the transition into industry (Davis et al. 1987).

Along with these practice-oriented, retrospective, and theoretical articles, the 1980s and especially 1990s were also a period of rapid growth for ethnographic work from an anthropological perspective on leadership and cultural development, often published as part of edited volumes. While many of these articles took a more reserved view of the possibility for top-down cultural change than that found in management or organizational behavior literature, they nevertheless provided valuable insights into processes of cultural development. Hamada and Jordan’s (1990) Cross-Cultural Management and Organizational Culture offers one example. Among the diverse contributions to this volume by anthropologists and others is Jordan’s “Organizational Culture and Cultural Change: A Case Study,” which explores cultural persistence—and resistance—at a recently acquired company.

Hamada and Sibley’s (1994) Anthropological Perspectives on Organizational Culture offers another set of contributions. After a review article by Hamada (1994) tracing the roots of anthropological engagement with organizational culture, the rest of the work is broken into three sections. The first of these, “Ethnography and Organizational Culture,” offers seven different ethnographic case studies in a variety of organizational settings. The next, “Voices from the Field: Working and Organizational Culture,” includes articles by consultants and applied anthropologists grappling with how to apply anthropological concepts to the messy world of everyday practice. Finally, the book concludes with several pieces reflecting on the ethical concerns involved in anthropological work with organizations. Also noteworthy is Wright’s (1994) Anthropology of Organizations, an edited volume arranged around the topics of indigenous management, gender and organizational change, and clients and empowerment.

At the same time as this anthropological research on leadership and organizational development began to reemerge, sociologists also began to produce similar ethnographic works, as with Robert Jackall’s (1988) Moral Mazes: The World of Corporate Managers. Writing from the perspective of organizational studies, Barbara Czarniawska (2012) offers a helpful overview of the way in which anthropological theory and methods were taken up by those in these related fields.

Contemporary Approaches

In the 21st century, anthropological research and writing on leadership and organizational development has gone through another renaissance due to convergent trends internal and external to the discipline. Internally, Caulkins and Jordan (2013) argue that the rising number of anthropology PhDs working outside of academia has continued to spur a renewed interest within the academy in understanding how organizations work. The evolution of the Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference (EPIC) is illustrative of how this trend has continued and intensified since the late 20th century. EPIC was created in 2005 as a gathering to connect academics and practitioners interested in the application of ethnography to business. Interest in the conference grew to the point where leadership decided to recast EPIC as an association with year-round activities in 2014, a decision that indicates the flourishing of an established niche for anthropologists working in and on organizations. Other gatherings of anthropologists who regularly blur the line between academia and applied work in organizations evolved in parallel, such as the Global Business Anthropology Summit, which launched in 2018 (see figure 2). Additionally, Caulkins and Jordan argue that globalization has increased the complexity of organizational structures and relationships; anthropologists’ interest in understanding globalization has thus led us to explore the dense networks of inter- and intra-organizational relationships that globalizing trends have fostered at different scales (2013, 9–10).

Figure 2. Newberry moderating a panel of the Global Business Anthropology Summit at Fordham University in 2019.

Source: Robert Morais.

External to the discipline, there has been a renewed interest in the subject of corporate culture, both in the private sector among executives who see culture as a competitive edge in an increasingly volatile business environment, and broadly within the organizational studies fields that treat these executives as their subjects (Czarniawska 2012). Within the latter group, anthropological methods and theoretical perspectives gained cachet as these researchers have begun to view culture as a social construct (meaning, a product of shared, subjective beliefs), rather than a set of objective traits.

Nevertheless, research on organizational development and leadership remains dominated by quantitative methods (Sutherland 2018). As Bryman notes in his own review of leadership studies, “given that much of the study of leadership is actually about the behaviour of leaders, it is perhaps surprising that observation is rarely used” (2011, 19). This methodological preference among organizational behavior scholars is an extension of the common theoretical bias toward seeing leadership and change as a product of personal, often charismatic qualities that are separate from the mundane day-to-day activities of work life (Kelly et al. 2006). Observational research is also seen as being logistically difficult; it is time consuming, and the lack of clarity about what it means to “do” leadership makes it challenging to know how to focus one’s observations (Bryman 2011, 20). For these reasons, traditional organizational behavior approaches to leadership and development tend to rely on questionnaires and focus on generalizable qualities of particular subjects, both of which can have the effect of reifying and universalizing Western, individualistic assumptions about leadership and its impact on organizational development (Warner and Grint 2006).

Because the anthropology of leadership and organizational development is still underdeveloped as a field, the contemporary literature can be best understood as a response to these perceived shortcomings of traditional organizational behavior approaches. Rather than being structured around multiple coherent schools of thought, this subfield is instead loosely organized around a common understanding that these organizational phenomena should be studied relationally in a given context, rather than individually as generalizable elements. Leadership and organizational development involve actions people take in relationship to others, and these relationships exist within multiple contextual layers that can be understood systemically through observation (Jones 2005; Neyland 2007).

Leadership and Organizational Development as Praxis

To theorize the constellation of practices that are commonly glossed as leadership and organizational development, contemporary anthropological analyses frequently examine these practices through the lens of discourse, particularly as defined by the French social theorist, Michel Foucault. Foucault influentially argued that knowledge and meaning, far from being neutral or objective facts are social constructs. Thus, even the most basic assumptions we share, such as about who should lead and who should follow or what an organization even is, are shaped by power structures, often in ways that are hard to notice because they are so pervasive.7 As Sutherland notes,

This offers a useful starting point, because it may be seen that in order for [leaders’] meaning-making efforts to be understood as meaningful, they must rely on certain forms of knowledge that are perceived to be relevant to the reality of other organisational members. (2018, 7)

This emphasis on understanding power as a process of organic meaning-making and identity-formation, as opposed to a negative, repressive force exerted from above is especially timely at a moment when anthropology’s corporate subjects are increasingly interested in culture as a positive, informal means of shaping employee behaviors without having to revert to punitive practices. As Ross (2004) illustrates, the rise of the internet economy brought with it a new type of professional who resisted the stereotype of the Organization Man and idealized instead a work environment oriented around creativity and driven by a sense of purpose. As this Silicon Valley logic has become popularized across industries, power in organizations is exerted through a form of dominant discourse that manifests as the management of culture through the use of technologies for self-improvement and personal empowerment.

Understood in this way, leadership and organizational development are not individual actions imposed upon employees per traditional organizational studies perspectives, but rather they are processes in which employees actively participate; their routine behaviors constitute and reconstitute the organization as it undergoes change and transformation (Levin 2013). To understand how this happens, anthropologists examine the banal practices that constitute organizational culture, as well as how employees and leaders themselves attempt to make sense of and manage these practices in their day-to-day work (Riles 2006).

Krause-Jensen’s (2010) ethnographic research in the lifestyle company B&O exemplifies this approach. By embedding himself within the human resources function of B&O, the author is able to observe the everyday practices, such as meetings and the circulation of documents through which corporate values are manifested as a particular aspirational identity that employees internalize. Krause-Jensen uses the metaphor of the glass cage, as opposed to the Weberian iron cage, to illustrate how modern corporations paradoxically engender discipline through practices that are intended to make employees feel liberated and empowered.

While these practices tend to be framed in evolutionary terms through the language of continuous improvement, organizational development is more often a process of managing tensions between competing cultural imperatives such as empowerment and control, uniformity and flexibility, and innovation and efficiency, as Chen (2009) describes in her ethnography of the Burning Man organization. It is also a process of managing interpersonal conflicts and tensions among stakeholders during times of crisis, conflict, and change, as Jones (2006b) argues in his analysis of leadership development programs.

A growing group of researchers use semiotics and discourse analysis as powerful methodological means of understanding the effects of these practices. As Hankins (2012) argues, the kind of meaning-making that constitutes effective leadership and enables change in organizations is made possible through the work of creating commensurability between actors. Discourse analysis helps us to understand the semiotic work involved in creating common frames of reference through which values are propagated, and organizational culture is “improved.” Just as anthropological perspectives tend to critique the individualistic bias of traditional organizational studies, discourse analysis extends from a view of leadership as fundamentally relational and contextual, as opposed to a variable characteristic of individuals (Fairhurst and Uhl-Bien 2012). This form of analysis examines everyday interactions to understand the workings of larger-scale processes of identity-making. To paraphrase Fairhurst (2011), the aim is to understand “big D” Foucauldian discourse through the “little d” discourse of daily interactions.

As Fairhurst indicates, a common use of semiotic analysis is to illuminate how a dominant organizational discourse is created and minority views become marginalized. For example, in his analysis of a renewal initiative at a community college, Ayers (2005) describes how climate surveys are used to amplify dominant interpretations of organizational values, as dominant faculty groups are able to reinforce beliefs, such as the need for accountability of underperforming colleagues, that serve to legitimize their authority. Semiotic analysis is also useful for understanding how organizational rituals work to create transitions for leaders, often through developmental processes. Wilf (2015) explores this phenomenon in his analysis of a workshop in which facilitators skillfully deploy various leadership tropes to resolve the cultural contradiction between routinization and innovation for participants. The instructors semiotically guide the audience through a transition over the course of the workshop from embodying a Romantic ethos, in which creativity is the result of random, uncontrolled impulses, to a professional ethos in which it is the output of the facilitator’s branded formalized innovation process. As in other areas of inquiry, semiotic analysis is also used to explore the connection between structure and agency in processes of organizational development. In his analysis of leadership actions at a liberal arts college during a time of crisis, Tierney (2008) demonstrates that institutional history serves as both a constraint on the actions of leaders as well as a semiotic resource to be drawn upon to create effective change.

Leadership and Organizational Development at Different Scales

Anthropologists have also examined how these big “D” and little “d” processes of discourse construction around organizational development function at different scales. The contributors to the edited volume Cultural Change from a Business Anthropology Perspective use assemblage theory to understand how networks of people and objects form to create change at three scales: the structural level, the group level, and at the level of interactions, what they call the macro, meso, and micro scales (McCabe 2017). In a similar vein, Briody (2013) provides a framework for understanding how organizations affect each other’s development in partnership relationships through three phases of contact, conflict, and adaptation in which the culturally weaker of the partners adjusts to, resists, and/or influences the culture of the dominant organization. Baba et al. (2012) advocate for contextualizing organizational research subjects within different layers of relationships to understand how individuals and organizations co-create each other, as do organizations and the larger society.

While examining the influence of national and organizational culture on individual and group behavior, anthropologists also challenge taken-for-granted assumptions about these cultures as inert, pre-existing entities, and instead seek to understand how they serve as symbolic resources to be deployed strategically. Riad (2005) examines this practice in inter-organizational relationships. She argues that in merger situations, leaders will draw on popular discourses about strong and weak cultures to legitimate their claims for being the dominant partner over their counterpart in a merger. Riad studies this phenomenon in the context of a merger between two New Zealand-based companies in which what was conceived of as a merger of equals becomes more akin to a takeover when leadership in one of the companies begins portraying the other as having the “wrong” culture. Ailon (2007) illuminates how in the context of globalization, national identity becomes a symbolic resource to be deployed strategically in these discursive processes involving merger partners. In her study of an Israeli-American merger, she documents how employees in the two organizations exaggerate differences in their national cultures as a means of legitimizing their own power in the post-merger organization. For example, in conversations with each other, the Israelis highlight their stronger work ethic and flexibility in contrast to their American counterparts as a justification for their dominant role in the combined organization. Jones (2005) makes a similar point in his analysis of three firms in the American South, observing the efficacy of leaders in exercising power by relying on regional cultural tropes, such as the religiously infused image of themselves as the humble, hard worker, to build a connection to their employees.

Practical Applications

In contrast to the aforementioned academic perspectives on leadership and organizational development, there is a newly emergent body of more practically oriented how-to guides for doing leadership and organizational development in applied settings. Note that many of the authors we cite are not anthropologists, because, as Jordan (2012, 7) observes,

most practitioners of corporate ethnography are not anthropologists, despite the strong association of ethnography with the discipline. Nor, in fact, are corporate ethnographers predominantly academics. Even those who are academics are more likely to be teaching in schools of design or business schools than in traditional anthropology departments.

Anthropological methods and lenses are increasingly valorized as leadership techniques due to the overlap in underlying principles between ethnographic tools and popular management strategies, such as participant observation and the time-worn trope of MBWA—Management by Walking Around (Jordan 1994). As EPIC has served as a conduit for design-thinking into mainstream approaches in businesses, a growing number of managers have internalized the notion that they should “think like ethnographers” to understand consumers and employees better (Martin 2009). We include non-anthropologists in this review because the very fact that there is so much disciplinary boundary-blurring among practitioners who utilize ethnographic perspectives and methods in applied leadership and organizational development settings requires that we cast a wide net to capture the state of the field accurately.

These networks of organizational ethnographers with a mix of disciplinary backgrounds have come about due to the disciplinary and market trends. The combination of a resurgence of professional opportunities for practicing ethnographers, as well as lingering tensions between applied corporate anthropologists and the academy has led practitioners to form communities of professional dialogue, building on the foundation laid by NAPA in 1983. Members of these growing networks have generated intellectual capital from their collegial exchanges in the form of several publications and edited volumes. Here, we draw a distinction between those works that are oriented toward fellow ethnographers, and others that speak broadly to a popular business audience.

The former tend to be published in academic journals and presses but have the practical purpose of sharing “tips of the trade” to peers and more junior colleagues who are new to anthropological practice. This advisory tone is indicative of the degree to which these publications supplement the dearth of mentoring and peer-learning conversations that practitioners and application-oriented students experience compared to their academic counterparts (Newberry 2015). Nolan’s (2013) edited volume, The Handbook of Practicing Anthropology is a prominent example of this genre. A number of the contributions cover professionalization skills for anthropologists seeking to apply their skills in an organizational context, including such topics as how to network professionally in teams and communicate effectively with peers. Tso’s (2013, 36–46) contribution on building an independent business is notable for the kind of basic advice she provides on attending professional conferences and giving talks that would be taken for granted in an academic mentoring relationship.

Another series of contributions in this genre of knowledge-sharing guides for fellow practitioners focuses on building and maintaining effective client and peer relationships to facilitate leadership of change and developmental initiatives in organizations. These contributions interpret what most managers would consider to be financial or technical issues in the workplace as fundamentally “people problems” (Ensworth 2016). Thus, they tend to view the work of negotiating relationships to create mutual understanding as critical to the success of organizational development initiatives. As Darrouzet et al. note, “Ethnography is as much about assembling—through negotiated instances of shared frames—a new or revised model of system-like complexity as a basis for joint action, as it is about collecting or even constructing pieces of data” (2010, 89). Jordan and Dalal (2006) describe strategies for framing anthropological methods to non-specialist peers in ways that emphasize shared values and principles to create this basis for joint action. Hepso (2016) and Cottan (2016) analyze this relationship between anthropologist and organization from both an insider and outsider perspective, respectively, noting that while the former often have more credibility with their peers and co-workers, the latter are better situated to understand the external perceptions of an organization.

The result of this collaborative, empathetic approach is one in which a diverse range of perspectives are brought to bear on a given organizational change, thereby creating a stable, enduring transition from one organizational state to another. Prominent organizational-change consultant Elizabeth Briody uses the metaphor of the bridge in two case studies of her own work involving an automotive company (2010) and a long-term care community (2016). Drawing on Mary Douglas’s analysis of liminal states, she argues that the anthropologist’s work is to help organizations “counter resistance” by attending to both the structural and interpersonal aspects of change (Briody 2016, 127–128).

Members of the same network of anthropologists who produce these publications have also created storehouses of professional knowledge online, most notably on the NAPA, Business Anthropology website, and EPIC website. The emphasis on creating these public repositories illustrates the lack of such knowledge-sharing opportunities for practitioners in other settings, such as peer networks and mentoring relationships.

While many of these professionalization-oriented works are written by anthropologists for other practicing anthropologists, there is a small, but growing body of publications targeted towards a public audience. Accessibly written business books are produced by selected anthropologists and ethnographers for a mass audience of leaders and organizational development professionals who seek to apply ethnographic principles in pursuit of cultural change or development in their workplaces. Perhaps the most prominent examples among credentialed anthropologists writing in this genre are Grant McCracken and Gillian Tett. They argue that the anthropological emphasis on understanding context and building empathy with others provides a useful approach for organizational leaders seeking to maintain a competitive advantage in what they depict as an increasingly volatile and complex market environment.

Tett (2015) describes a world in which organizations have become increasingly internally fragmented and inward-looking—what she calls the “silo effect”—oftentimes to the point of being blind to changes in consumer preferences and competitor activity that can ultimately become their undoing. She argues that leaders who think like anthropologists are better-suited to mitigate these negative effects because, in her words, “silos are fundamentally a cultural phenomenon. They arise because social groups and organizations have particular conventions about how to classify the world” (2015, 19). McCracken (2011) more specifically calls on organizations to appoint Chief Culture Officers whose sole focus is to observe and respond to “slow culture”—that is, extreme shifts in marketplace behavior driven by long-term cultural trends.

Other teams of mixed practitioners including at least some anthropologists or ethnographers have similarly attempted to make the case to a broad business audience that this particular set of practices and theoretical lenses can help companies survive moments of volatility and external change. Moussa, Newberry, and Boyer (2016) describe how participant-observation techniques can be applied to organizational teams as a way to increase employee engagement and productivity. Authors associated with two firms that specialize in ethnographic methods, CFAR and ReD Associates, make a similar case at the level of organizational leadership (see O’Connor and Dornfeld 2014; Madsbjerg and Rasmussen 2014; Madsbjerg 2017).

Looking Forward

As we have described, the level of anthropologists’ interests in leadership and development in organizations has waxed and waned over time. After an intense period of holistic engagement with organizations as a subject of academic study as well as applied impact, anthropologists on the whole distanced themselves from the burgeoning field of organizational behavior that they helped to pioneer in the early to mid-20th century. As the discipline is going through a period of renewed interest in these subjects, this reemergence has been characterized by a bifurcation between academic anthropologists who study organizational development, and those practitioners who try to shape it.

Looking ahead, we see signs that this subfield is returning to its holistic roots in two ways: First, anthropologists are rediscovering the importance of “studying up” (Nader 1974) to gain a more nuanced understanding of the internal workings of organizations (e.g., Seaver 2014). Second, anthropologists are more willing to cross the academic-applied divide to produce work that contributes to theoretical dialogues about the nature of organizational culture while also having a practical impact on these cultures. The contributions to Cultural Change from a Business Anthropology Perspective (2017) in which the authors consider the ways assemblage theory helps them better understand the organizations that employ them and vice versa are exemplary of this kind of hybrid approach. Just as anthropologists have long sought to break down the divisions between ethnographer and subject, a hybridized organizational anthropology enables practitioner-scholars to engage their subjects as co-equal thought partners.

As anthropologists cross boundaries internally, they are better positioned to also cross disciplinary boundaries by using mixed methods approaches for “identifying, developing, and articulating ideas for new work processes and new organizational arrangements” (Jordan and Caulkins 2013, 14). While broadening their engagement with different academic fields and research methods, anthropologists are also better positioned to help their organizational research subjects and colleagues in organizations address new and emergent challenges, such as the increasingly fragmented nature of corporate spaces. As Czarniawska (2012) notes, there is a need for more scholarship on virtual organizations, as anthropologists have largely abandoned the assumption that “the field” must necessarily be a singular, geographically contiguous space. Jingjing and Desjeaux’s (2017) work on the Chinese beverage industry provides a strong illustration of how anthropologists can help managers who are grappling with the very real challenges of managing virtual work where the space of the organization might stretch across the globe. Julia Gluesing’s (2014) work on distributed teams points a way forward; she and her interdisciplinary colleagues demonstrate that ethnographic methods can add depth and context to quantitative social network analysis of large organizations.

In parallel with academic anthropologists’ increasing engagement with corporate and organizational culture as a subject, career opportunities for anthropologists are also expanding beyond the traditional niches of marketing and consumer-focused design to management of internal culture as well. For in-house positions, administration/management is the second most common field of employment for anthropologists after higher education (see figure 3). In these settings, anthropologists find footholds in human resources and as internal organizational development consultants, especially at a moment when large corporations are rediscovering the urgency of managing and maintaining gender, racial, and other forms of diversity (Schrank 2018). For this reason, anthropology degree holders can be found in organizations with titles like Diversity Officer and HR Manager where once they would have been predominantly found in customer and client-facing functions (Profita 2019). Anthropologists also routinely work with organizations from the outside-in as consultants, especially in design firms like IDEO and frog. While these firms have traditionally focused on design and marketing of products and services for consumers, they are increasingly growing their organizational design practices, applying the anthropological toolkit to improve services for employees and transform company culture.

Figure 3. Administration/management is the second most common area of employment for anthropologists, according to a 2016 survey of members of the American Anthropological Association

Source: Ginsberg (2016).

Whether as academics studying organizations, or as leaders, employees, and consultants working within them, the interdisciplinary and applied approaches anthropologists are taking to organizations are not so much new developments in this subfield as a return to its foundations. They open the possibility for the discipline to once again take a pioneering role in both the theory and practical application of anthropological perspectives to leadership and organizational development, much as the Hawthorne studies did nearly a century ago.

Further Reading

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  • Caulkins, D. Douglas, and Ann T. Jordan, eds. 2013. A Companion to Organizational Anthropology. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.
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  • Hamada, Tomoko, and Willis E. Sibley, eds. 1994. Anthropological Perspectives on Organizational Culture. Lanham: MD: University Press of America.
  • Jordan, Ann T., and D. Douglas Caulkins. 2013. “Expanding the Field of Organizational Anthropology for the Twenty‐First Century.” In A Companion to Organizational Anthropology, edited by D. Douglas Caulkins and Ann T. Jordan, 1–23. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.
  • Krause-Jensen, Jakob. 2010. Flexible Firm: The Design of Culture at Bang & Olufsen. New York: Berghahn Books.
  • Wright, Susan, ed. 1994. “Culture in Anthropology and Organizational Studies.” In Anthropology of Organizations, edited by Susan Wright, 1–31. London: Routledge.


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  • 1. Since the 1980s, many authors have traced the history of anthropological research in corporations, including Holzberg and Giovannini 1981; Baba 1986; Gamst 1990; Schwartzman 1993a; Hamada 1994; Wright 1994; and Jordan 2012. As Moeran and Garsten note, many of these accounts have coalesced around a largely shared narrative, with common signposts and periodizations, creating a sort of disciplinary origin myth (Moeran and Garsten 2012, 5–6). Because the history of anthropological research on leadership and organizational change is, especially in the 20th century, largely inseparable from broader trends in anthropological work on corporations, our account draws on this shared tradition.

  • 2. But see Bruce and Nyland (2011) for an alternative account of Human Relations.

  • 3. Chapple appears to have had a fraught relationship with the term “culture.” Referring to Chapple and Coon’s Principles of Anthropology, Gamst notes that Chapple’s “general theory of culture for application to organizations and for other uses is expressed in a tour de force of a monograph in which the—to him meaningless—word ‘culture’ is not once used” (Gamst 1990, 18).

  • 4. Chapple attributes this heavily psychological character to the influence of Elton Mayo at Hawthorne (1953, 825).

  • 5. As Baba et al. note, Schein’s perspective was not unchallenged, particularly with regard to his treatment of organizational culture as relatively homogenous (Baba et al. 2012, 84).

  • 6. Baba et al. note that some objected to this monolithic view of culture (2012, 84).

  • 7. Much ink has been spilled on this subject, but a good starting point for understanding Foucault’s notion of discourse is his seminal work The Order of Things (1971).