The myths of corporate culture: Myth 1 Culture is a noun

Anthropologists are often very deliberate about the way we deploy concepts and theories. This comes from a well documented disciplinary history that has taught us to be mindful and explanatory lest we do more damage than good. I’ve been thinking about one of our more contentious concepts and the valences applied to it as it shifts and moves through new landscapes. What is culture in an organizational and business context? Does it bear any resemblance to anthropological understandings of culture? There are 3 myths that we can explore to get a better sense of the gravity of the concept of culture. Here is myth #1.

Myth 1: Culture is a noun or thing

Culture is not a noun. Full stop. Culture is not a hat or pair of shoes, although it could be the meanings ascribed to a hat or the broader social value of a pair of shoes. But it’s not something people consciously select from a range of alternatives, like shopping for tomatoes. Culture is a set of habits, a range of dispositions, a way of making sense of and giving meaning to the world, a worldview. This view of the world is an embodied attribute of living and learning; it can be composed of a hybrid collection of ways of being. What “it” is not is a static, unitary, or finite.

The concept of culture has a deep history; one that can’t be erased by transposing it into new contexts, like the worlds of business. Anthropologists are acutely aware of the “neo-colonialist, racist and nationalist” overtones of the concept of culture, says Brian Street (1993:23). This acuity, however, may not be reflected in the popular discourse around the term or in the way it is used to describe organisational formations. Does culture drag it’s baggage into contemporary usage? Of course, it does. One need not list all the range of examples that come to mind of words and concepts that bear the burden of their histories of use (like race, which became an institutionalized and politicized form of identity. See the great documentary and research by PBS). Culture is not a noun

But, you might argue, we’re using it in a new, fresh way that offers a contemporary and youthful definition! Once a concept like culture is defined, Street suggests, we tend to believe in our definitions in an essentialist kind of way, “as though we had thereby found out what culture is” (1993:25).  Street argues instead that “culture is an active process of meaning making and contest over definition, including its own definition” (1993:25). As an active process, culture is processual. But it is not without its contests over meaning.

“The reification and naturalisation of ‘culture’ hides the kinds of questions about power and social change that are…are the forefront of anthropological enquiry…” (Street 1993)

Street invokes the work of Talal Asad who drew ardent attention to the concept of culture and the reification of meaning. This is the notion that there exists an “a priori system of essential human meanings – an ‘authentic culture'” (Street 1993:26). Where, in an “authorised” and “authentic” culture, is there room for change or power? Essentialized notions of culture foreclose the possibility of alternative meanings by making them incomprehensible. Moreover, that incomprehensibility, within essentialized notions of culture, goes unchallenged. The statement: ‘It’s our culture’ is left unchallenged, with questions about how meanings are made and authorised, unasked.

What’s your experience been? Let me know in the comments.

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