Culture in Organizations

Culture in organizations refers to the values, norms, and patterns of action that characterize the social relationships within formal organizations. Jaques (1951) first described the changing culture of a factory, defining it as the customary or traditional ways of doing things, which are shared to a greater or lesser extent by all members of the organization and which new members must learn and at least partially accept in order to be accepted into the service of the firm.


Turner (1971) defines culture and its importance for organizing. According to Turner, part of the effectiveness of organizations lies in the way in which they are able to bring together large numbers of people and imbue them for a sufficient time with a sufficient similarity of approach, outlook, and priorities to enable them to achieve collective, sustained responses which would be impossible if a group of unorganized individuals were to face the same problem. However, this very property also brings with it the dangers of a collective blindness that some vital factors may be left outside the bounds of organizational perception. Culture is the source of blind spots because sharedness in values, norms, and perceptions results in a similarity of approach, shared expectations among members of the group to bring certain assumptions to the task of decision making within the organization, and to operate with similar views of rationality. Culture is therefore a double edged sword.

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Intellectual and Social Context of Culture

Culture was primarily a central concern for anthropologists and sociologists throughout the twentieth century. Only more recently, in the 1980s, did it catch the attention of the structural contingency school of organization theorists and economists, as a result of a number of popular texts that advocated an optimistic, even democratic view of the capacities of ordinary employees: In Search of Excellence (1982), The Art of Japanese Management (1982), Theory Z (1982), The Winning Streak (1984), and Corpo rate Cultures (1988) are some examples. These popular books reiterated and consolidated the insights of the human relations approach of industrial relations. These books also prefigured alternative management theories, ones that capitalized on culture as a precursor of more effective production and less hierarchical arrangements. Rediscovering culture seemed to be a way of responding to economic recessions at that time, and especially the challenges coming from Japanese companies. Organizational culture became seen as a variable in the firm’s success equation and ultimate performance. As Chan and Clegg (2002) observe, one consequence of these enthusiasms has been to reduce the culture concept to an effect, constituted as a (metaphorical) object of inquiry. In the realm of organizational research, culture therefore very often only refers to ‘‘organizational culture’’ – a term that came to the fore in a series of British and American popular management texts of the 1980s. However, research did not stop with this popular consensus. Existing chasms between functionalist and pluralist paradigms, modern and postmodern approaches, and science and contra science were reiterated in much of the research on organizational culture. Authors argued differences openly in a number of publications. A major axis of difference centered upon the definition of the construct per se (ontology), and upon the paradigms and methodologies used to apprehend it and to generate knowledge about it (epistemology).

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Major Dimensions of Culture

One dimension of culture was depicted by organizational anthropologists who pointed out that the organizational literature hijacked culture and used familiar concepts related to it (i.e., rituals, myths, taboos, and symbols) in disconcertingly unrecognizable ways (Marcus 1998). The displacement or transfer of the terms from anthropology to organization studies was inadequate and far from satisfying. Anthropologically and sociologically informed researchers considered that culture was not as pliable as practitioners and managers seemed to think it should be (Meek 1988). For the latter, culture, as broadly construed by the organization and management literature, embodied consultant driven reform initiatives for corporations, as well as managers’ own attempts to gain control of their organizations through influencing the value premises on which organizational members’ behavior was based. With this dimension of organization culture, clearly the least deeply conceived, widespread interest and enthusiasm extolled its perceived potency; culture assumed the character of a panacea, one that, potentially, could solve many organizational ailments. The business community had no qualms about the seductiveness of cultural management techniques as they infiltrated management circles. The panacea attributes of culture became widely identified with and internalized by the practitioner and managerial community throughout the 1980s and 1990s, even while more fundamental research continued. Willmott (1993) provided a comprehensive review of this ‘‘corporate culturalism’’ phenomenon over that decade.

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Methodological Issues

Martin (2002) used the metaphor of ‘‘culture war games’’ to describe the paradigm dissensus and struggle for intellectual dominance within culture research communities throughout the 1980s and 1990s. From the outset, the culture movement represented a promising alternative and even a counter initiative to functionalist and quantitative approaches in organization studies. The interest in culture in the 1980s gathered momentum amid a general discontent with quantitative approaches and structural contingency theories of organization that had already evolved from the systematic critique of normal organization science developed in the 1970s.

Administrative studies of culture favored quantitative techniques to provide functionalist accounts that lent themselves to the development of empirically based generalizations. Chatman (1991) and O’Reilley et al. (1991) were good examples. On the other hand, more pluralistic researchers had good reason to employ qualitative methodology and other multi paradigmatic methodologies in developing context specific explanations of culture. Qualitative research on culture allowed multi perspective ethnographic methodologies to acquire legitimacy, representing an opportunity to break with the constraints of dominant quantitative and positivistic approaches.

The underpinnings of the two broad camps may be classified using Martin’s (2002) ‘‘differentiation’’ perspective and its opposite, the ‘‘integrationist’’ genre of culture research. Research following a differentiation perspective, according to Martin, acknowledges inconsistencies in attitude. It sees consensus as occurring only within subcultural boundaries. It acknowledges conflicts of interest, for example, between top management and other employees, and within the top management team. These studies describe the inconsistencies and subcultural differences they find, so that inconsistency, subcultural consensus, and subcultural clarity become seen as the characteristic hallmarks of differentiation research. The integrationist perspective drew from the managerially oriented and popular culture writings. Many quantitative studies depicted culture as an internally consistent package that fostered organization wide consensus, usually around some set of shared values. Aspects of change and reform in organizations were seen as an embodiment of organization wide cultural transformation, whereby either an old unity could be replaced (it was hoped by a new one) or unity forged out of difference. Some of the major themes that directed work undertaken in the integrationist framework were concerned with the management of meaning and various practices and devices through which managers attempt to bring off acceptable definitions of organizational reality as a basis for collective action, such as, for example, specific adoption of language, ritual, myth, story, legend, and narrative, etc., that were organizationally approved.

On one hand, the integrationist genre sees pragmatism, certainty, rationality, homogeneity, harmony, and a unified culture as an order of things that are both to be striven for and are achievable. Research in the integrationist genre conceptualized culture as a benign panacea, with properties that lent themselves to being pliable, at will, by managers. By contrast, the differentiation perspective criticized integrationist social engineering and value management treatments of culture. The differentiation perspective developed a critical assortment of theories of organizations that opposed a seemingly scientific, variable based cultural theory of organization.

The bifurcation of cultural research into differentiation and integrationist camps was a result of resistance to the dominant integrationist and positivist approaches to organization theory and culture. The differentiation perspective argued that the existence of dissent and ambiguities, conflicts, and confusion in organizations, and the nature of the workers’ passionate engagement in work, are glossed and rendered mute by the mainstream integrationist literature.

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Future Directions

Between 1990 and 2001 three major handbooks were published: Organizational Climate and Culture (1990), Handbook of Organizational Culture and Climate (2000), and the International Handbook of Organizational Culture and Climate (2001). Additionally, economists such as Hermalin (2001) provided a comprehensive review of the relationship between economics and corporate culture. Administrative study of culture continues to thrive, emphasizing employee and company culture fit. Culture audit and organizational culture diagnosis tools continue to be refined mainly in company organizational development and applied settings that make use of such survey tools. More classically, future research in the differentiation tradition is likely to develop in the broad direction of studies of the hermeneutics of sense making and exploration of process philosophy views of culture.

The first view considers that material aspects of organizations are made real only by being given meaning. We make sense of the realities of our everyday world by invoking and bringing to bear prior experience and assumptions. When we observe culture, whether in an organization or in society at large, we are observing an evolved form of social practice that has been influenced by many complex interactions between people, events, situations, actions, and general circumstances. The hermeneutic perspective is based on culture being constructed and accounted for through meaning giving and sense making.

The process philosophical perspective treats culture not as entity like structures but as instances that give meanings to actions and behaviors (Chia 2002). Culture is treated as a process of reality construction enabling people to understand certain events, action, things, and situations in distinctive ways. The treatment of culture as a fixed, unitary, bounded entity gives way to a sense of fluidity and permeability. It requires also that explanation of cultural forms be situated in a larger environment and a wider arena of different forces.

Future research on culture is likely to become more fruitful by returning to analysis of the social interactive processes through which actors create their world, via interpretive schemes. Deterministic models of culture are likely to give way to a reconsideration of culture as an inference making process, except perhaps where culture is conceived of as the subject of managerial tools and techniques.

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  1. Chan, A. & Clegg, S. (2002) History, Culture and Organization Studies. Culture and Organization 8(4): 259-73.
  2. Chatman, J. (1991) Matching People and Organizations: Selection and Socialization in Public Accounting Firms. Administrative Science Quarterly 36(3): 459-84.
  3. Chia, R. (2002) Time, Duration and Simultaneity: Rethinking Process and Change in Organizational Analysis. Organization Studies 23(6): 863-8.
  4. Hermalin, B. (2001) Economics and Corporate Culture. In: Cooper, C. et al. (Eds.), International Handbook of Organizational Culture and Climate. Wiley, Chichester.
  5. Jaques, E. (1951) The Changing Culture of a Factory: A Study of Authority and Participation in an Indus trial Setting. Tavistock, London.
  6. Marcus, G. (Ed.) (1998) Corporate Futures: The Dif fusion of the Culturally Sensitive Corporate Form. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
  7. Martin, J. (2002) Organizational Culture: Mapping the Terrain. Sage, London.
  8. Meek, V. (1988) Organizational Culture: Origins and Weaknesses. Organization Studies 9(4): 453-73.
  9. O’Reilley, C., Chatman, J., & Caldwell, D. (1991) People and Organizational Culture: A Profile Comparison Approach to Assessing Person Organization Fit. Academy of Management Journal 34(3): 487-516.
  10. Turner, B. (1971) Exploring the Industrial Subculture. Macmillan, London.
  11. Willmott, H. (1993) Strength is Ignorance, Slavery is Freedom: Managing Culture in Modern Organizations. Journal of Management Studies 30(4): 512-52.

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