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Anthropological Concepts for Understanding Organizational Culture and Communicating Results

Creating and shaping corporate culture are critical tasks, but are notoriously difficult to pull off well. Anthropology provides analytic frameworks we can use to help understand how organizations might deal with changes.

Editor’s Note: While many market researchers have at least some understanding of ethnography as a qualitative method, the anthropological study of culture has many concepts and approaches that are useful to consider. Margaux Fisher of MDGR discusses some of these. They are worthwhile to think about as we deal with the changing roles of Insights Departments within larger organizations, and the evolving relationships between market research companies and client groups. As Peter Drucker is reputed to have stated: “culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

Culture is key to any organization’s efficacy and success. The most successful organizations tend to share a common set of assumptions, values, beliefs, and behaviors that bind employees together.

However, creating and shaping a specific type of culture is a challenging task – because:

  1. Culture is negotiated and shared by members of an organization – thus, culture changes often cannot be successfully imposed vertically, from leaders to employees. They must be implemented collaboratively.
  2. For a culture change to take hold, the desired culture must align somewhat with the existing culture.
  3. Existing cultures are difficult to understand and measure because they are not explicit.

Culture is implicit – it is made up of metaphors, stories, rites and ceremonies, and social interactions. Many layers of cultural and cognitive meaning make up the overarching social structures that guide behaviors and shape organizational efficacy.

Anthropology provides an analytical toolkit for understanding the social behaviors and meaning that makes up organizational culture. Specific concepts developed by anthropology are useful for understanding how culture relates to organizational efficacy and reveal the ideal approach to communicating organizational news and changes based on the concepts at play in your company. Here are a few that we have found applicable in our recent organizational culture work:

Generalized Reciprocity

Organizations function more effectively when the relationships between members are characterized by what the anthropologist Marshal Sahlins termed generalized reciprocity – the idea that “we are all in this together.”

This stands in contrast to organizations with negative reciprocity, in which social bonds and exchanges are characterized by mutual predation, and negotiation is a zero-sum game.  Negative reciprocity most often occurs between strangers and enemies and makes close harmonious relations difficult to achieve. Although it might engender constructive forms of competition that enhance productivity and innovation, it must be balanced with forms of generalized reciprocity that enable teamwork and cooperation.

“Reciprocity is a whole class of exchanges, a continuum of forms. … At one end of the spectrum stands…the small currency of everyday kinships, friendship, and neighborly relations. … At the other pole, self-interested … appropriation by chicanery or force requited only by an equal … effort. … The distance between poles of reciprocity is, among other things, social distance.” – Marshal Sahlins

There are always forms of reciprocity between people in an organization, whether they exist between management and shareholders, labor and management, corporations and suppliers. The most successful organizations tend to have a greater emphasis on generalized reciprocity rather than negative reciprocity.


Communitas refers to feelings of solidarity created by shared experiences – such as rituals – that invert hierarchical social structures, equalize participants, and ultimately solidify group identities. This concept was developed by Victor Turner, whose work explores how social structures and identities are contested and reinforced by ritual.

Communitas typically arises when people experience liminal conditions together. Liminality is the ambiguity or disorientation that tends to characterize the middle of a ritual or rite of passage. During this period, social hierarchies are reversed or disappear, and the lack of order provides opportunities for new social orders and customs to become established. Liminal periods are typically unsustainable, and order is either re-established, or a new order is established at the end of a ritual.

“Communitas is …  a gift from liminality, the state of being betwixt and between. During this time, people find each other to be just ordinary people after all, not the anxious prestige-seeking holders of jobs and positions they often seem to be.” – Edith Turner

Rituals, workflows and activities that generate communitas have the potential to strengthen the relationships between members of an organization and facilitate more effective teamwork. An entry from a respondent’s journal entry collected in a recent study for a healthcare client illustrates how communitas is created. We summarize the entry below:

A patient arrived who was very ill, and the team immediately got to work. Different team members – ranging from nurses, to a physician, to a medical director – tackled a range of tasks: putting an order to an emergency release of blood, retrieving the order, taking x-rays, watching over the patient’s family members. Titles were unimportant in the greater goal of saving a life. Each team member was considered equally valuable. They were united on an equal playing field centered around a common goal: saving the patient.

Attempts to force communitas often fail – space must be given to allow communitas to develop organically, through rhythms of work and collaboration. For instance, creating space and time for employees to develop meaningful relationships with one another, facilitating two-way dialogues about the greater purpose of work, or giving employees the space and flexibility to develop personalized routines and rituals of work can indirectly foster communitas.

Everyday Resistance

Organizations that fail to develop any sense of communitas or generalized reciprocity between members often develop social environments that are less conducive to teamwork. As a result, authoritarian approaches are used to control employees, who sometimes respond with what anthropologist James Scott describes as everyday resistance.

“Organizational habits, structures, and rules of behavior. … These often work well, if they remain on the human level; yet if they become overly law-bound, communitas will bubble up again from below and question the older system.”  – Edith Turner

According to Scott, everyday resistance consists of routine and seemingly invisible tactics used by people to survive and undermine authoritative control. This everyday resistance can involve foot-dragging, sarcasm, laziness, misunderstandings, passivity, slander, avoidance, or disloyalty – small and indirect ways of inhibiting organizational efficacy.

Employees are less likely to deploy the subversive tactics of everyday resistance if leaders encourage generalized reciprocity and the rituals of work provide a sense of communitas.

“Communitas may be found when people engage in a collective task with full attention – often a matter of ordinary work. They may find themselves ‘in flow.’ That is, they experience a full merging of action and awareness, a crucial component of enjoyment.” – Edith Turner

Final Thoughts

The right balance of emphasis on communitas, generalized reciprocity, and resistance depends highly on an organization’s industry and goals. In healthcare, for instance, a cultural emphasis on developing strong relationships between employees is often desired to produce the teamwork necessary for delivering care. For creative industries, communitas can facilitate constructive creative thought, and negative reciprocity can engender constructive forms of competition that enhance productivity. However, too much emphasis on negative reciprocity – and underemphasis on generalized reciprocity – can inhibit creativity and motivation.

Ethnographic assessments of organizational culture can be used to identify whether an organization’s culture is oriented more towards generalized reciprocity and the production of communitas, or whether it relies more heavily on authoritative approaches. Comparing existing cultures to ideal or aspirational values can allow researchers to understand how current cultures align or diverge from organizational values, and what potential obstacles or points of leverage exist within the current culture.

For instance, understanding that overemphasis on control has fostered working environments in which employees resort to everyday resistance can allow leaders to account for that potential resistance when implementing a culture change. Understanding that communitas has created a strong sense of trust between mid-level leaders and employees can allow leaders to leverage those relationships to communicate and manage cultural interventions.

Concepts such as communitas, negative or generalized reciprocity, and everyday resistance provide analytical frameworks that researchers and analysts can use to understand organizational cultures and communicate how they might resist or accommodate change.

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Margaux Fisher

Margaux Fisher

Qualitative Analyst and Ethnographer, MDRG