Organizational Culture Research Paper

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The concept of organizational culture typically is taken to refer to the beliefs, values, behavior patterns, and understandings that are shared by members of an organization and which are distinctive of it. These may be associated with organizational symbols, stories, and myths that are expressive of the culture and help to socialize people into the organization; or images, products, clothing, buildings, and other artefacts that materially embody the culture. The concept is often distinguished from that of corporate culture as being more naturally occurring and less consciously constructed by managers. However, there are considerable differences between scholars on how culture should be defined and how it should be studied.

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1. Defining Organizational Culture

One of the problems of culture as a concept is that it must always be seen in relation to some other concept—such as structure or strategy. In organization studies concepts of culture were borrowed, with few exceptions, from only one anthropological tradition—that of structural functionalism—when the concept of organizational culture became popular in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Much of the history of the concept since then has been of a process of appreciating its complexity and subtlety by incorporating perspectives from other disciplines, such as sociology and social psychology, as well as more recent developments in anthropology and social theory, such as postmodernism, which challenge the functionalist paradigm.

1.1 Levels Of Culture

Additional problems with defining the concept are associated with what have been called ‘levels’ of culture. Culture in advanced societies can be identified at the national level (usually but not always coincident with geopolitical boundaries), at the regional level (most meaningfully within geopolitical boundaries but again not exclusively) at the organizational institutional level, and at the level of subcultures within organizations based around formal (e.g., departmental, site) or informal social groupings. However, subcultures may also exist at national and regional levels, and may cut across organizational boundaries; they may exist among industries rather than companies (see Turner 1971), and even among professions. Subcultures may be oppositional to dominant cultures, at all levels considered, may become sources of opposition in relation to particular issues, or they may constitute a leading edge avant-garde from which the rest of the organization takes its inspiration. Diversified organizations in particular may intersect with several regional and national cultures such that it becomes difficult to identify the culture of the organization as separate from the local and national cultures in which it is embedded. Some writers distinguish between the culture of top management, or the official corporate culture, and the organizational culture, or culture of the workplace. Organizational or workplace culture is that which ‘grows or emerges within the organisation and which emphasises the creativity of organisational members as culture-makers, perhaps resisting … the dominant culture’ (Linstead and Grafton-Small 1992).

1.2 Definitional Elements And Problems

One division between commentators relates to the extent to which they emphasize the more obvious, concrete, and conscious aspects of culture as distinct from its tacit, submerged, and unconscious qualities. Early definitions of culture tended to emphasize the visible and behavioral, where more recent sociological definitions emphasize ideological assumptions more than the behavioral norms.

Schein (1985) defines culture from the perspective of a social psychologist as ‘the deeper level of basic assumptions and beliefs that are shared by members of an organisation, that operate unconsciously, and that define in a basic, ‘taken-for-granted’ fashion, an organisation’s view of itself and its environment.’ Schein developed an influential model, grounded in small group psychology rather than anthropology or sociology, which identifies three levels of culture: artefacts and creations (objects, buildings, uniforms, technology, including behaviors, etc.); underpinned by values which are not visible but of which we are or can be made aware; and basic assumptions which are taken for granted, invisible, preconscious and hard to access. Furthermore, he argues that the culture reveals itself when it is most stressed, when presented with problems, rather than in its daily routine.

Because of the complex and difficult-to-access nature of human understanding, researchers will give attention only to certain dimensions of culture in any investigation, and neglect others. However, the elements that they will need to address, whether or not they decide to leave some of them out of consideration will include the extent to which a culture is distinctive or unique; the extent to which it is a guide to action, a prescription or landmark for members; the extent to which meanings are shared or unshared, explicit, or implicit; the content of common-sense or local knowledges; the typicality of attitudes and the consistency of emotional climate; the extent to which culture acts as a means of problem-solving, resolution, or containment of conflict or dilemmas; the importance of behavioral norms and their transgression; the character of patterned responses and actions (rites and rituals); the development and stability of the culture over time; forms of symbolic expression and communication in myths, rhetoric, and storytelling; the significance of material objects, artefacts, and concrete phenomena; the significance of the immaterial, values, beliefs, and ideology; the effects of power, knowledge, and interests; to what extent culture functions as a means of control; the nature of social motivation and commitment to the culture; and the recognition and importance of subcultures.

2. The Importance Of The Organizational Culture Concept

The organizational culture concept became important both because of what it drew attention to and what it enabled. It underlined the fact that organizations were multidimensional, and that how individuals made sense of and felt about them could often be more important than what figures revealed about them. It placed emphasis on the hidden creative potential of human beings to transform organizations, and the importance of what happens in everyday relations rather than solely in the annual company report. It released a surge of interest in the human dimensions and ‘softer’ elements of organizing, providing a platform for human resources specialists to argue for the greater alignment of leadership styles, vision, recruitment methods, reward structures, and informal methods of management in relation to strategic objectives. The downside to this was that it became associated with faddish ‘quick-fixes,’ which were the antithesis of what culture was supposed to represent, and dramatic company turnarounds were attributed to changes in the ‘culture.’ For more careful observers, it drew attention to deeper elements, often obscured and unconscious, that obstructed or held back development and change, and which were in themselves hard to change. It underlined the need to move carefully, sensitively, and at a measured pace in transforming organizations in ways which would be sustained. Conceptually, despite the fact that some scholars immediately looked for what to measure in order to change culture, the concept delivered an awareness of the increasingly great complexity of organizations and organizing processes, and the need to develop richer analyses to do this complexity justice. Despite its unfortunate association with faddishness, culture became and remains a core concept in organization theory having transformed our understanding of human resource management, organizational change management, and the implementation of strategy.

3. The Historical Development Of The Organizational Culture Concept

The idea of culture in relation to organizations has a long but tortuous history. From the 1920s, at least, it was recognized that the social dimensions of work are important elements of effectiveness through the Hawthorne studies. Jaques (1952) first coined the term culture in relation to work organization in The Changing Culture of a Factory which was part of a series of accounts of participatory management in the Glacier Metal company in the UK, although structural elements, reward systems, and the use of hierarchy were also important to the success of the project.

In the 1950s Gouldner, a sociologist, also identified the importance of things that were taken for granted, implicit dimensions in Wildcat Strike (1955). Gouldner noted the importance of an implicit system of concessions, tolerated transgressions and obligations called the indulgency pattern that was necessary to maintain the formal order of the organization. Similarly, organizational psychologists such as Chris Argyris noted the importance of subconscious dimensions of organization and its psychological health, noticing in particular the difference between what is espoused by organizational members, and what they actually put into practice.

Another related development in the 1960s was the discovery of negotiated order theory which was based on work done in psychiatric hospitals by Anselm Strauss and co-workers. From the perspective of culture this work is important because it emphasizes that culture can cut across professional and nonprofessional boundaries; it is associated with typical organizational practices (e.g., care regimes); it has practical, moral, and ethical elements; it has implicit and explicit aspects; it is emergent and relationships shift over time; and it is related to organizational power and resource allocation.

Around the same time, Harold Garfinkel was developing ethnomethodology which was a form of sociology which concentrated on the ways in which people make sense of their social situations, which stressed the importance of unspoken rules, talk, common sense, and the taken-for-granted aspects of social life. The idea of membership was also important to Garfinkel, and particularly the things people had to learn to become a ‘member’ of a social group. Much of Garfinkel’s work overlapped with the work of anthropologists, who customarily studied exotic societies. Turner (1971), who was influenced by the work of Garfinkel, published the first book to bring the two disciplines together in looking at the way stories, rites, rituals, and humor shaped behavior in organizations.

Concerned with the nonobvious, and the importance of the implicit and taken-for-granted in forming our experience of organizations, early Organizational Development (OD) specialists began to recognize the significance of the unsaid as a barrier to transformation. They often argued that their work was to bring out the unconscious obstacles to organizational change, as a form of cultural intervention. In contrast to more recent literature, early antecedents emphasized the implicit and unconscious elements of experience and the processes of sense-making and meaning-making rather than the content of communication and the explicitly expressed values.

The one exception to this rule were the organizational climate studies which concentrated on the experiences and emotional responses which culture produces in its members. Climate is accessible and close to the surface, associated with attitudes, and there was a pronounced tendency for researchers in this tradition to want to develop instruments to measure it. As Alvesson and Berg (1992, pp. 88–9) note, much of the more positivistic work in the area of corporate culture in recent years would be better characterized as work on organizational climate.

Conceptual development during the 1970s began to take on two aspects—the development of the under-standing of symbolic processes, albeit in a pre- dominantly functionalist framework on how symbols work and the types and functions of stories, including images, rites and rituals, storytelling, humor, and what was coming to be understood as organizational symbolism; and the application of the culture concept to the process of changing organizations, sometimes referred to as cultural or value engineering. The development of the first aspect began somewhat earlier but was slower to mature; the second aspect had a dramatic impact on both the scholarly and corporate landscapes (Peters and Waterman 1982, Deal and Kennedy 1988).

3.1 Changes In Focus Or Emphasis Over Time

In the late 1970s culture took on a dimorphic emphasis on either organizational symbolism or corporate culture, its management and change. Culture was often seen, especially in the latter approach, as a property of an organization, something it has, and research questions tended to be framed according to whether culture was treated as an independent or a dependent variable. Positivistic approaches concerned themselves, with isolating the determinants of culture and measuring their effects, or identifying the properties of culture and measuring their strength. Some studies attempted to determine whether there was a relationship between the possession of a ‘strong’ or easily identifiable culture and success. Organizations themselves however, could be seen as types of culture, and some researchers attempted to typologize cultures, and infer their appropriateness for particular activities. Popular formulations of cultural typologies had little research base, and often confused cultural characteristics with those of the organization’s structure or its task. All of these approaches are still in evidence in some of the current work.

An alternative approach regarded organizations as the outcome of cultural processes, and some researchers regarded this process as being two-way— that is organizations were also producers of cultural forms in a constant interaction. Scholarly conferences produced several seminal collections in the US, and these tended to contain contributions from both the culture-as-property school and the culture-as-process school, although the latter tended to lack much of a micropolitical perspective (see Frost et al. 1991). Trice and Beyer (1993) produced the definitive functionalist work, while Martin (1992) attempted to develop a multiperspective framework which incorporated ambiguity, from slightly to the left of the theoretical mainstream (see Martin and Frost 1996 for an extension). In Europe in 1981 the Standing Conference on Organizational Symbolism and Corporate Culture was formed, and its members worldwide have contributed significantly to the development of the concept over the years. The European commentators, reflecting their rather different intellectual tradition, have been a consistent source of critical treatments of culture in which power and conflict of interest are central rather than externalized, and culture as a means of control is a focus. Alvesson and Berg (1992) produced a seminal critical review of the concept which emphasized the political and ideological dimensions of culture and Linstead and Grafton-Small (1992) produced a model of a postmodern approach to organizational culture that argued that culture as a phenomenon was inherently paradoxical. Subsequent postmodern treatments have tended to concentrate on culture as a form of seduction (in which organizational members are subject to an artificially manipulated sense of reality) or as a form of surveillance (in which they become self-policing cultural subjects). More recently Linstead et al. (1996) collected a number of ethnographic papers that argue most strongly that culture is a product of difference of views, being an ambiguous way to accommodate them at a generalized level rather than an expression of specific shared understandings.

4. Emphases In Current Theory And Research

The study of culture has given rise to a number of new directions for analysis. Perhaps the most obvious of these is the study of language processes, talk, rhetoric, narrative, storytelling, and deconstructive approaches. Related, emphasizing language and understanding, but from a different theoretical perspective, are a range of cognitive approaches grounded in psychology and cognitive anthropology. These approaches often concentrate on decision-making and learning processes, and the connection between culture and strategy as mediated through knowledge practices. They are also often associated with issues of corporate identity, and its relation to individual identity, another established and growing research area. Yet another important area has been the study of emotions, emotional labor, and the management of emotions in organizations, often taking a critical view of some of the more popular treatments of ‘emotional intelligence.’ Via developments in the theory of symbolism and symbolic processes, including semiotics, connections with the arts and humanities have been made as evident in the new field of organizational aesthetics. Where visual understanding is an element here connections have been made with marketing and advertising. At a practical level, there has also been an increase in treatments of cultural industries and performing arts organizations, and links have been drawn with cultural and media studies. Finally, gender issues recently have emerged to importance (Gherardi 1995).

4.1 Methodological Issues In Investigating Culture

There is considerable debate on how best culture can be investigated, which reflects some of the turmoil within anthropology itself. The debates are ongoing and centered around whether culture is observable, and if so whether it is measurable and how to measure it. There is also debate around whether culture consciously can be recognized and recounted by members, and the appropriateness of surveys, questionnaires, or even focused interviews as a means of locating and accessing culture. On the other hand, there are debates over whether and how fragmented and/or inferred by the observer culture is, and the consequences for participant observers. These issues are not resolved easily and because of the essentially contested nature of the culture concept, are likely to continue.

5. Some Future Directions

Some areas of interest already mentioned currently seem robust and likely to increase in importance, such as change management, postmodernism, and the treatment of gender and sexuality in relation to culture. Race and ethnicity have as yet been treated by only a few pieces of research and this must be an important area in which growth should be encouraged. The popular area of teams and team working has only been incidentally informed by work from the perspective of culture. The massive growth of work on knowledge management and transfer, innovation, and technological change remains to be fully informed by its conceptualization in terms of culture. New forms of work, including virtual organizations will surely have cultural impact, and the cultural consequences of downsizing and destructuring have not been treated in any depth from this perspective. Conceptually, the incorporation of insights from the ‘new science’ such as emergence, chaos, and fractal logic, has only just begun. Many of the critiques of the culture approach accused it of ignoring power, and although more recent treatments influenced by Michel Foucault have addressed culture by considering power, discourse, and subjectivity much remains to be done. Indeed, the extension of the work of Foucault into considering the importance of the body and embodiment in the social sciences has still had little impact in organization studies. As yet only small amounts of work have been done in some promising areas which offer exciting prospects for the continuing study of organizational culture.


  1. Alvesson M, Berg P O 1992 Corporate Culture and Organizational Symbolism: An Overview. Walter de Gruyter, Berlin
  2. Deal T E, Kennedy A A 1988 Corporate Cultures: The Rites and Rituals of Corporate Life. Penguin, Harmondsworth, UK
  3. Frost P J, Moore L F, Louis M R, Lundberg C C, Martin J (eds.) 1991 Reframing Organizational Culture. Sage, Newbury Park, CA
  4. Gherardi S 1995 Gender, Symbolism and Organizational Cultures. Sage, London
  5. Gouldner A W 1955 Wildcat Strike: A Study of an Unofficial Strike. Routledge and Kegan Paul, London
  6. Jaques E 1952 The Changing Culture of a Factory. Dryden Press, New York
  7. Linstead S A, Grafton-Small R 1992 On reading organizational culture. Organization Studies 13(3): 331–55
  8. Linstead S A, Grafton-Small R, Jeffcutt P S (eds.) 1996 Under-standing Management. Sage, London
  9. Martin J 1992 Cultures in Organizations: Three Perspectives. Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK
  10. Martin J, Frost P 1996 The organizational culture war games: A struggle for intellectual dominance. In: Clegg S R, Hardy C, Nord W R (eds.) The Handbook of Organization Studies. Sage, London pp. 344–67
  11. Peters T J Jr., Waterman R H 1982 In Search of Excellence: Lessons from America’s Best-run Companies. Harper and Row, New York
  12. Schein E H 1985 Organizational Culture and Leadership. Jossey Bass, San Francisco
  13. Trice H M, Beyer J M 1993 The Cultures of Work Organizations. Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ
  14. Turner B A 1971 Exploring the Industrial Subculture. Macmillan, London


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