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Culture: Broadening the Critical Repertoire

Abstract and Keywords

Raymond Williams' commentary on the etymological roots and semiotic complexity of culture as a concept is a frequent point of departure for many commentaries in the area. This article is an attempt, following Williams, to clarify the usage/s of the term as it has been applied in the study of organizations and management as a nouns and organizing and managing as verbs. Citing the late-1970s interest in corporate culture as a pivotal moment, it goes on to outline core components of well-known critical responses to orthodox deployments of the organizational culture concept. The article also seeks to broaden the critical repertoire by discussing the potential of a cultural studies of organization as well as postcolonial approaches to culture and organization. It aims to establish the various and manifold ways in which culture might be inhabited, cultivated, protected, and honoured with worship (amongst other less-positive responses) by members of organizations.

Keywords: Raymond Williams, organization management, organizational culture, postcolonial approaches, organization members, cultural studies


Culture is one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language … The fw [immediate forerunner of a word, in the same or another language] is cultura, L [Latin], from rw [ultimate traceable word, from which “root” meanings are derived] colere, L. Colere had a range of meanings: inhabit, cultivate, protect, honour with worship…. It is clear that within a discipline, conceptual usage has to be clarified.

(Williams 1976: 87, 91)

Raymond Williams's commentary on the etymological roots and semiotic complexity of culture as a concept is a frequent point of departure for many commentaries in the area. This chapter is an attempt, following Williams, to clarify the usage/s of the term as it has been applied in the study of organizations and management as nouns and organizing and managing as verbs. Citing the late 1970s interest in corporate culture as a pivotal moment, we go on to outline core components of well-known critical responses to orthodox deployments of the organizational (p. 233) Culture concept. We also seek to broaden the critical repertoire by discussing the potential of a cultural studies of organization as well as postcolonial approaches to culture and organization. Given the restrictions of word count and our own authorial blind spots, readers will inevitably find our discussion selective in content and partial in approach. However, we at least aim to establish the various and manifold ways in which culture might be inhabited, cultivated, protected, and honored with worship (amongst other less positive responses) by members of organizations.

Shared Values and the Corporate Culture Impetus

The publication of Ouchi's (1981) Theory Z, In Search of Excellence by Peters and Waterman (1982), and Corporate Cultures by Deal and Kennedy (1988 [1982]) mark not only the beginning of intense corporate interest in the role of culture in business organizations in particular, but also of a “cultural turn” in management and organizational scholarship. This is not to suggest that neither corporations and managers nor academic researchers had paid any prior attention to something called culture—i.e., values and norms in the organizational environment. Certainly Parker (2000: 31—emphasis added) argues that the emergence of the late 1970sfocus on culture can be understood as “a synthesis of many central concerns in writing on organizations throughout the twentieth century.” He cites Lewin's analysis of organizational “climate” as well the bureaucratic dysfunctions theorists—Merton, Gouldner et al.—as some of the precursors to full-blown “culturalism.”

Nonetheless, the explicit interest in culture developed out of a combination of different challenges facing Western managers at that time, notably the success of Japanese and other Asian economies/corporations vis-à-vis the US; as well as a growing belief that the established canon of management science with its hard-nosed mathematical formulations and rational strategic planning models had not delivered in terms of the bottom line (Alvesson 2002). Since the success of Japanese corporations was seen to lie in their more “holistic” organizational approach based on the cultivation and maintenance of shared values, in comparison to the more “rational/systemic” approach of US businesses (Grey 2005), these writers on corporate culture argued for a refocusing of the analytical lens on the “human” elements of organizations, on “the intractable, irrational, intuitive, informal organization” (Peters and Waterman 1982: 11).

What also distinguishes the management research of the late 1970s and early 1980s from what earlier commentators called “climate” or “informal organization” (p. 234) is the conceptualization of culture as a detectable and distinctive organizational variable, factor, or asset, much like a product portfolio or real estate. Culture here is something that an organization “has” (Smircich 1983): it exists in a measurable, quantifiable way. Equally it is depicted as a force for workplace cohesion and stasis, creating homogeneity: the assumption is that employees internalize “appropriate” values and norms and subsequently behave according to this interior script at all times without the need for a watchful supervisory eye. Shared values thus become the basis upon which corporations should develop a strong culture, and require management by senior personnel for maximum impact on worker performance. As Smircich (1983), Ray (1986), and Anthony (1994) all observe, then, culture in some ways replaced earlier foci such as rewards or social relations as the managerial panacea, the lever to persuade employees to work as hard as possible. The endgame is the evocative Deal and Kennedy (1988 [1982]: 15) claim that a strong corporate culture can actually add up to two hours' productivity per worker per day. Grey (2005: 68) argues that since this sort of commentary targets the worker, rather than work, corporate culturalism can be considered an aggressive extension of the Human Relations approach.

Nonetheless, an important difficulty for the management of organizational culture is its effective invisibility. Values and norms are, fairly obviously, cognitive phenomena, which Schein's influential modeling of culture from the mid-1980ssees as arising out of “basic assumptions.” These taken for granted and subconscious ways of seeing the world, he argues, might include the belief in the importance of all activity leading to a clearly identifiable outcome, or in humanity's superiority over nature. So the only level at which we can apprehend culture is what Schein (1992 [1985]) calls “artefacts”—including organizational traditions, rituals, heroes, stories, or architecture. The practice of culture management thus seeks to manipulate these different symbols (Gagliardi 1990)—they serve a pedagogical function by teaching employees dominant meanings, creating a narrative to which they are encouraged to conform. Or, to echo Williams's etymology of culture, to cultivate and honor with worship.

A noteworthy subtheme within this scholarship examines the influence of national culture on organizational culture. Hofstede is by far the best known exponent of such analysis, presenting in Culture's Consequences: International Differences in Work-Related Values (1980) the four key dimensions (later extended to five in his work with Michael Bond) of national culture reflected in the workplaces of that nation. This strand of culturalism has expanded into an “onion” metaphor for understanding culture—the idea that it exists in a number of interwoven “spheres” or “layers” such that national culture informs regional cultures, which inform organizational cultures within that region, divisions within those organizations, and functions within those divisions (Schneider and Barsoux 2003). That each layer does not precisely mirror the others due to the particular circumstances existing at these individual cultural “levels” requires senior management to work to integrate (p. 235) the resultant sub-cultures within their organization into a more or less united whole (Brown 1998: 72). The “has” camp is therefore sensitive “to the presence of value conflicts within modern (capitalist) organizations” but also holds the corollary belief that to some extent they are “a sign of cultural weakness that can be corrected” (Willmott 1993: 525).

There are of course differences between “has” theorists, and the most salient is whether one cultural “size” is assumed to “fit all.” Peters and Waterman's eightfold value framework—as apparently extant in each of their forty-three “best-run” organizations, and including close attention to customer needs and facilitating employee autonomy and entrepreneurship—certainly suggests there is a One Best Culture. Deal and Kennedy on the other hand are more of the cultural horses-for-organizational-horses bent, arguing that the best culture for any particular organization depends on how risky its activities are and how rapidly it can determine the success of any venture. Thus an advertising agency (risk high; feedback rapid) should have a very different culture from a public utility (risk low; feedback slow). But this division is arguably less significant than the shared emphasis in the “has” camp on culture's connection to the bottom line, on its magical stabilizing and guiding properties, and on “broadly applicable cultural dimensions or analytic categories” (Ashkanasy 2003: 301). These issues are manifest in its emphasis on assessing the connection between culture and effectiveness and the degree to which individual employees conform to the prevailing culture (Ashkanasy 2003: 306–307).

Having very briefly sketched out the orthodox cultural terrain in management studies, we will now turn to the four main themes within critical analysis of organizational culture, that: (a) “has” theory is methodologically deficient and thus its claims cannot be trusted; (b) “has” theory is ontologically mistaken about the nature of culture; (c) the management of culture is an attempt to delude and oppress employees via normative control; and (d) workplace cultures at one and the same time share certain contextual traits, but are also always distinctive, as well as cut across with varying identifications, predicated on employees' profession, location, and so on.

Heterodox Commentary on Organizational Culture

In synthesizing the considerable amount and complexity of critical work on the corporate culture approach articulated above, a relatively easy place to start is with methodology, or more specifically with the validity and reliability of the data used in the relevant studies. So Parker (2000: 16–17) and Thompson and McHugh (2002: 199) highlight the following methodological shortcomings of In Search of Excellence: companies are included or excluded from the sample without any real justification; central sectors of the US economy like financial services and car manufacturing are omitted; and most of the data derive from interviews with senior managers, who are hardly likely to be trenchant critics of their employers. Similarly, McSweeney (2002) systematically takes apart Hofstede's methodology by, for example, underlining the fact that the IBM data analysed for Culture's Consequences were generated by a company initiated and administered attitudinal survey, sometimes completed by groups of employees as opposed to individually, in an environment where respondents knew that “managers were expected to develop strategies for corrective actions which the survey showed to be necessary” (Hofstede, cited in McSweeney 2002: 103).

But the array of critical literature on organizational culture offers at least three further trajectories. First is an ontological critique which reframes the culture concept itself, arguing that the question unlocked by cultural analysis is not that of more effective management but of how organized activity comes about at all (Smircich 1983; Morgan 1997). To use Smircich's well-known distinction, it is to view culture as a root metaphor, something an organization “is,” rather than a critical variable that an organization “has” which is amenable to management. Here workplace values and norms are understood as jointly (re)produced in an ongoing, dynamic, more or less fragile, multitextured reconciliation between working life and the individual aspirations, needs, and desires of organizational members at all levels. This “culture-from-everywhere” is organic, emergent, and pluralistic, not imposed, static, or univocal. Chan (2003) labels this the “instantiative” view of culture (culture as realizing, processual, giving meaning to organizational reality).

The precursors of this instantiative conceptualization of organizational culture can, if we consult Parker (2000: 48–51) once more, be identified as sociologists like Goffman, Becker, and Garfinkel, given their attention to “the interactional processes through which actors create and ‘accomplish’ their world” (Chan 2003: 315), as well as cultural anthropologists like Geertz. In management and organization studies, such alternative conceptualizations of culture came to the fore through a number of now well-known articles (e.g., Smircich 1983), special issues (e.g., Administrative Science Quarterly 1983—in which the Smircich piece appeared; Journal of Management 1985), monographs (e.g., Gagliardi 1990; Martin 1992), and edited collections (e.g., Frost et al. 1991).

Calás and Smircich (1987) suggest three different but interconnected frameworks for understanding these various interests in culture and its ontological possibilities. To be specific, they argue that the culture literature can be organized: first by anthropological themes, including the organizational cognition, symbolism, and unconscious literatures which respectively position culture as knowledge structures, patterns of discourse, and externalizations of the mind; second by (p. 237) sociological paradigm, most especially evident (following Burrell and Morgan 1979) in contrastive studies of various organizational cultures based on functionalist, interpretive, or critical paradigms, and in pieces that address the incommensurability or potentially creative interplay of these paradigms (see Schultz and Hatch 1996); and finally by epistemological interest, notably following Habermas, where studies are marked by their bias towards technical, practical, or emancipatory interests (see Stablein and Nord 1985).1

Interest in organizational symbolism (OS) in particular, as exemplified in Europe by SCOS (the Standing Conference on Organizational Symbolism) whose inaugural conference in 1982 institutionalized OS as a vital area of organizational inquiry as it separated from its larger academic sibling EGOS, has provided a particularly rich vein of research into cultural aspects of organization/s. As Frost (1985: 6) suggests

engaging in an organizational symbolist perspective opens the door to a host of interesting research questions about how meaning in organizational settings is created, sustained, and destroyed, and what the implications of symbolism are for dealing with problems and opportunities facing people in organizations.

To whit, the late 1980s and early 1990s in particular produced some excellent qualitative, mostly ethnographic, accounts of organizational culture, offering “vivid descriptive accounts of organizational life, linking meaning to actions” (Calás and Smircich 1987: 241). These studies not only illustrate the processual qualities of organizational culture but also undermine a further key claim of the “has” camp; that shared (and managerially engineered) values and norms can provide a “‘natural’ force for social integration” (Meek 1988: 455) in the workplace.

One tranche within these studies focuses on less skilled occupations and how workers cope with the exigencies of dull, regimented, insecure, physically and emotionally demanding, and badly remunerated employment. These occupations we might also understand as “dirty jobs” in the physical sense—undertaken in onerous or dangerous conditions, or entailing confrontation with waste, bodily products, and death—or as socially tainted, requiring servility or submission to others, say (Ashforth and Kreiner 1999: 414–415, following Hughes). Ackroyd and Crowdy's (1990) analysis of workers at an English slaughterhouse for instance reveals how these men negotiated their “dirty work.” The workers “reject the common view” (1990: 9) of their occupation by emphasizing how unusually gutsy they need to be to do their jobs, and Ackroyd and Crowdy especially stress the importance of self-disciplining cultural norms and values in this milieu. They describe how the slaughtermen engage in what presents as humor but is also a means for sending messages to colleagues about keeping up with an intense rate of productivity of which they are explicitly and volubly proud (and which protects their collective bonus). One common ritual involves working harder and faster so that animal carcasses in various states of dissection begin to accumulate at the work stations of colleagues perceived to be swinging the lead. Thus—despite what looks outwardly (p. 238) like authentic workplace camaraderie—these men were so quick to jump on each others' perceived inadequacies that management usually had no need to intervene.

Collinson's (1988) shopfloor ethnography of the components division of an English lorry-making factory similarly reveals the ambiguous nature of workplace norms, especially when refracted through humor. On the one hand, the all-male workforce used humor to construct the shopfloor as a salt of the earth working-class environment where operatives were free to “have a laff” and make the best of their highly routinized and poorly recompensed employment. It served to distance them from the “twats and nancy boys” (“Dirty Bar”, quoted p. 186) in the offices who they regarded as effeminate, ineffective, and not engaged in “real work.” On the other hand, and echoing Ackroyd and Crowdy's slaughterhouse study, “as a result of these shopfloor battles for dignity, which emerge in jokes but collapse into mutual disdain, hierarchical control becomes unnecessary” (1988: 197).

Other studies deal with white-collar occupations—such as Rosen's (1988) analysis of US advertising agency Shoenman and Associates. He focuses on organizational rituals as cultural artefacts and explores the routine annual event of the agency Christmas party, seeing it as both expressive and reproductive of deeper organizational values. In this respect, the discussion echoes Rosen's (1985) earlier analysis of the manner in which symbols and artefacts exchanged during a business breakfast at the advertising agency Spiro's articulate and reinscribe this organization's asymmetrical social order. One important symbolic outcome of the party, Rosen concludes, is to surface but simultaneously defuse the contradictions of the S&A labor process. The antagonisms and imbalances of the capitalist employment relationship are expressed in the various skits and jokes which are a key tradition of this event. However, “while these conditions are recognized as difficult, they are at the same time glossed over insofar as they are comically portrayed and communally laughed at, and, further, are not seriously challenged” (Rosen 1988: 479).

Kunda's (1992) discussion of pseudonymous High Technologies Corporation (Tech), also a white-collar organization, can be compared to Rosen's in several ways. Kunda emphasizes that Tech management intend to

corner the internal market on the power to define reality, to prescribe and control the expression of the members' beliefs and emotions, to enlist members as agents of control, and, ultimately, to expand that aspect of the members' selves that is determined and defined by corporate interests. (1992: 219–220)

Nonetheless, “liminal episodes” of employees distancing themselves from this message are both common and public—such as employees describing the Tech corporate culture as “the bullshit that comes from above” (p. 158). But these liminal episodes do not substantively undermine the robust Tech ethos. Instead, again like the S&A jokes and skits, Kunda says they act as “time outs” whereby employees can voice their frustration with management's open attempts to manipulate the ways they think and feel but which ward off any more impactful expressions of dissatisfaction.

(p. 239) Relatedly, Van Maanen's (1991) study of Disneyland concentrates on how “cast members” at the “smile factory” actually negotiate management's incredibly high standards of customer care and deliver the Disney goods to the seventy or eighty thousand daily visitors during the peak summer season. As Kunda comments with regard to Tech, Disney employees are absolutely alive to their close surveillance by management, and realize they are most likely to keep their jobs if they practice rigorous emotional self-management so as to project enthusiasm at all times. But visitors sometimes behave so outrageously that an employee cannot pretend to be unruffled. Consequently, a key element of the unofficial culture at Disneyland is a series of techniques to deal with offending guests, which are virtually undetectable by the are a supervisors if practiced skilfully. The idea of culture as a mechanism for reconciliation, accommodation, or “learning the truce” (Mills and Murgatroyd 1991: 62) is very evident here.

In this latter respect these studies also point to a further trajectory for critical approaches to culture related to discussions of hierarchy, domination, and organizational politics. Broadly speaking, it views culture as a form of management ideology or hegemony. When inspired by Marxist Labor Process Theory, it sees organizations as theaters of capitalist oppression. Willmott (1993) in fact goes as far as to compare the management of culture with the mechanisms of government utilized by the totalitarian regime of Oceania in Orwell's classic novel 1984. Willmott argues that employees through taking on board management's values and norms can potentially become acculturated to the extent that they forget their interior script is not actually of their own making, and thus come to believe that “slavery is freedom” (1993: 527). In Rosen and Kunda, similarly, the motif is one of more or less deliberate management manipulation of the organizational ties that bind. However, these studies also reveal how employees “accept, deny, react, reshape, rethink, acquiesce, rebel, conform, and define and refine the[se] demands and their responses” (Kunda 1992: 21), suggesting that organizational members are not always passive receptacles for managerial intervention and that social control through value engineering is not necessarily successful. As Grey (2005) makes clear, sometimes values will be taken up, sometimes rejected outright, and at other times enacted ambiguously (as in Martin's (1992) ragmentation perspective). Indeed when this thematic is approached through Foucault's (1977) reading of panopticism in Discipline and Punish organizations become sites in which power and resistance exhibit contiguous relations in processes of subjectivation.

One final trajectory in the instantiative work on culture, particularly noticeable in Parker's (2000) discussion of an English health authority, building society, and factory, is the recalibration of the extent to which cultures are shared. Parker argues that cultures are both general and specific when compared to those in other workplaces, as well as riven with internal schisms (see also Schultz and Hatch 1996). On the issue of generality, he gives two examples. Firstly, local assumptions about the (p. 240) differing capacities of men and women in each of his empirical sites appear to reflect wider social beliefs such that there was no expectation that women would progress into managerial roles, say. Secondly, he talks of multiple sets of identifications, based on space, time, and occupation or profession, amongst his respondents. However, Parker argues that each organization, rather like S&A, Tech, or Disney, is culturally specific, however precarious its internal unity—thus emphasizing the instantiative reading that some level of “unique commonality” has to be reproduced on a daily basis in order for these organizations to continue at all. Overall, Parker formulates culture as approximating to “the contested local organization of generalities” (2000: 188).

In sum, these studies represent a distinctive alternative to the idea that culture is something that an organization has. They can be argued to be closer to the anthropological roots of the concept itself, because as Meek (1998: 459) observes “Most anthropologists would find the idea that leaders create culture preposterous: leaders do not create culture, it emerges from the collective social interaction of groups and communities.”

Widening Culture Through CMS

In this final section of the chapter we focus on two more recent sets of critical interest in the culture concept; studies of popular culture/cultural studies of organization and postcolonialism. Again they offer challenges to conventional treatments of culture in organization studies, but also pull culturalism in new and important directions. Here then we want to encourage organizational scholars to continue to recontextualize their narratives on culture, and to explore other locations, disciplinary or otherwise, where cultural critique and historical sensitivities can be conceived or further extended in/by CMS. In this sense, our aim is to contribute to “the transformation of the organizational culture literature into cultured organizational literature” (Calás and Smircich 1997: 49). That is to say, in taking up Calas and Smircich's postmodernist clarion call, our intention is to use these two sets of interests to “think culturally” rather than to “think of culture” (p. 33).

Studying Popular Culture/a Cultural Studies of Organization

Whilst the term “popular culture” is contested, its use within CMS has generally focused on artefacts of mass entertainment including novels, television series, newspaper coverage, films, cartoons, and so on. Here the analytical lens shifts (p. 241) away from “real world” organizations towards the ways in which popular culture depicts them, and what this might tell us in its turn about those organizations (Hassard and Holliday 1998; Rhodes and Westwood 2008). Here popular culture is understood as both poetic and rhetorical (Medhurst and Benson 1984: xv): its artefacts are not simply entertainment, journalism, literature, or art, but also act to reflect and reinforce (at times to generate) certain understandings of the wider social amongst their audience. Given that popular culture is just that—popular—it is also more accessible and evocative in its critique of management and organization than the representations we tend to find in critical scholarship. As Rhodes (2007: 23) suggests, popular culture can therefore provide a “dramatic, intelligent and aesthetically charged” account of its social context and of work under contemporary capitalism in particular. Within CMS, scholars have turned to popular culture both as a source of data to uncover the complex ways in which power relations are maintained in organizations, and as a conduit to explore neglected areas of organized activity which do not take place in the “standard” workplace locale, or during nine-to-five office hours.

With regard to the former, Czarniawska (2006) makes a methodological case for the use of detective fiction in research on gender. She contends that subtle modes of workplace gender discrimination are difficult to discern using conventional social science methods for reasons including the persistent sensitivity of such issues—which means that typically discrimination is recorded when research into something else is taking place. As she suggests “traditional fieldwork, unless done under cover, does not reveal enough of this aspect of work practices” (2006: 248). Elsewhere Czarniawska (2008) exemplifies and extends what we might call her “fictive methodology” in a paper discussing representations of women in finance. She discusses how popular cultural depictions draw on enduring plots derived from Greek tragedies, and includes media coverage in her data sources to augment the earlier focus on novels. In analyzing the stories of two “fictional” women and six “real” women using Euripides' plays, Czarniawska identifies a key theme in both the ancient tragedies and the contemporary fiction and media stories as their “abandonment of the proper women's place, an entrance into a [man]'s world, and an exit from it-by death or return to their ‘proper’ place” (2008: 170).

Sköld and Rehn (2007) discuss hip hop music as similarly instructive about organized activity. Their thesis is that attending to hip hop allows us to surface alternative versions of what or where entrepreneurship is to those we find in the relevant management scholarship. For Sköld and Rehn hip hop establishes

the “hood” as a dislocated entrepreneurial “heart of the city”… where the spirit of enterprise is abundant…. A locality of an Other (culture), not always abiding by the norms and value systems of bourgeois capitalism, instead praises other ways of going about your business and other ways (or at least areas) of learning your business'. (2007: 75–76)

(p. 242) They also point to the unresolvable dialectic in the music between “makin” itʼ (commercial success, often evident in ostentatious displays of gaudy bling) and “keeping it real” (staying loyal to the values and often harsh realities of the neighborhood from which one originates). The significant issue here is that, in order to “make it”, the artist has to construct a “real” persona in order to sell their wares-and at no point must the mask of the “real” persona slip, lest it affect their capacity to “make it.”

Further, work and organizations themselves are very common themes across a number of popular cultural forms, providing “dramatic, ironic and comedic embodiments” of the types of critique that inspire CMS (Rhodes and Parker 2009). Thus the vagaries of corporate power, and resistance to it, as well as everyday organizational politics and inequalities, provide the basis of much popular cultural satire. Rhodes's (2002) discussion of an episode of US cartoon series South Park takes up the theme of corporate domination. The episode simultaneously lampoons the werewolf hunger of expansionist multinationals (here represented by “Harbucks,” the barely pseudonymous coffee chain) and the nostalgia surrounding good old-fashioned family-owned SMEs and the threat posed to them by the “evil forces of big business” (2002: 302). Rhodes's argument is that South Park and artefacts like it (see also his 2001 essay on The Simpsons) can be read as carnivalesque critiques which “do not tell us about the single right way, but rather work to parody and relativise power—to always suggest alternatives and to keep power in check.” This kind of critique “does not send a ‘message’ that stands over the narrative, but rather…. laughs at a world to which it belongs” (2002: 305), thus unpicking relations of power “from the inside.” Such a “view from within” is what defines popular culture as popular, according to Rhodes and Parker (2009), and connects it to broader counter-cultural formations. This is not without a number of tensions and problems, however.

To illustrate, we turn to Parker's analysis of what he calls “the counter culture of organization”—the wide variety of adverts, television programs, websites, books, stickers, posters, cartoons, and so on suggesting “that work is boring and degrading, and that escaping from it can be fun” (2006: 2). Analysis of this kind of counterculture perhaps builds more directly on the instantiative analyses of organizational culture discussed earlier in so far as they are simultaneously damning of the “repetitive violence” of the workplace, and indicative of “the limits of management control and ideology” (Parker 2006: 2, 3). But Parker sees these cultural artefacts as ambiguous because they are all without exception parasitic on, and produced by, the very thing about which they are so condemnatory—work. Thus in traversing the gap between everyday culture and commercial life, these artefacts inevitably feed off/appropriate that which they satirize. This also accounts, in part, for the unresolvable dialectic pointed to by Sköld and Rehn.

Analyses of popular culture are just one tack in what Parker (2006) calls a “cultural studies of organization,” a label which seems to position his approach (p. 243) between some variant of cultural studies and a focus on “cultural economy.” The latter conceptualization is notable in a series of publications (e.g., Ray and Sayer 1999; Amin and Thrift 2004) discussing the implications of the “cultural turn” in the social sciences for studies of work and organization. Du Gay and Pryke (2002) suggest three interconnected avenues for this debate: the study of the production of meaning at work; the growing importance of culture, creative, and aesthetic industries to Western economies; and the theorization of economic and organizational life in ways that acknowledge the mutually constitutive relations of cultural and economic logic and practice. Viewing economy as culture thus entails a focus on “the practical ways in which ‘economically relevant activity’ is performed and enacted” (Du Gay and Pryke 2002: 5), whilst the inverse relationship acknowledges, inter alia, perceptions of the increasing encroachment of commodity relations into the cultural domain.

The cultural economy approach, with its preference for historical and anthropological sensitivity to the details and performances of work and organization, is identified by Parker as a way to circumvent the tendency from a cultural studies perspective to primarily understand counter culture at work through popular cultural representations; and thus to redress its consumption bias, which overlooks productive practices in the workplace. The broader cultural economy perspective instead allows us to articulate narrow conceptions of culture with broader ones; that is, to reconnect “the specific relation between lived culture and lived economy [which] seemed to become less and less important as cultural studies developed” (2006: 8). Parker is not completely uncritical of cultural economy either. His reading identifies this literature as preoccupied with the work of cultural production at the expense of an understanding of how the images of work found in popular culture are consumed in the workplace. This question of how cultural forms relate to organized work, and how popular culture structures organized activity, thus becomes the focus of Rhodes and Parker's (2009) guest edited issue of Organization. Above all, this special issue together with the individual studies discussed above exemplify the radical potential of interest in popular culture as a site for CMS—they draw our attention beyond the formal work organization, and its nine-to-five setup, within which previous scholars have limited or “containerized”2 their studies of organizational culture.

Postcolonial Studies of Culture and Organization

We now turn to the increasing CMS interest in postcolonialism (e.g., Prasad 2003; Westwood and Jack 2007). Noted by Calás and Smircich (1999) as one of four perspectives important for the theoretical development of organization studies in the twenty-first century, postcolonial theory and analysis offers CMS a cultural politics and an ethical critique of the colonial, neocolonial, and imperialist past (p. 244) and present of management and organization scholarship and practice. It places the study of management and organizations into historical and contemporary contexts of asymmetrical cultural, economic, and geopolitical relations between the so-called “West” and the so-called “Rest”. West—Rest relations are conceived and dramatized as a power struggle between the advancing interests and universalizing pretence of Western (post-)modernity(-ies) and the contestations and complicities of local elites and subaltern populations. Postcolonialism forces us to confront and embed more explicitly in our work an appreciation that global culture is hierarchically organized and tied in complex ways to oppressive material structures of production and consumption (Banerjee and Linstead 2001).

We see three main paths of postcolonial writing in CMS: interest in the politics of representation, knowledge systems, and knowledge transfer, by far the category that has received most attention; materialist analyses of the distribution of wealth and land rights, and the intersections of gender, race, and class, the category that is least studied; and historical and historicizing work. Each offers a number of different points of political and ethical critique relating to management and organization in its varied historical and contemporary milieux. Interest in knowledge systems and in history, however, opens up our understandings of how the social processes of managing and organizing have acted as forces of cultural imperialism in themselves (Said 1993).

Historicizing work, for instance, reveals how management theory and practice was borne out of the violence, racism, and misery associated with the colonial encounter, slavery, and the labor processes of the plantations. To preserve the illusion of cultural unity and purity, writing on the history of management has conventionally excluded any mention of subjugation and association with racial superiority (e.g., Cooke 2003; Frenkel and Shenhav 2006). Analyses of more contemporary management and organizational issues related to the politics of representation and knowledge systems revolve around the related concept of neocolonialism. Formal political independence and national sovereignty did not bring to an end overnight the economic and cultural structures shaping relations between colonizer and colonized: thus “the continuing imprint of colonialism and anticolonialism is discernible in a range of contemporary practices and institutions, whether economic, political, or cultural” (Prasad 2003: 5). CMS scholars have exposed neocolonialism in a diversity of representational forms, ranging from the deployment of Orientalist discourse (see below) in The Economist's portrayals of the Asian Tiger economies (Priyadharshini 2003) to the continuing subjugation of Aboriginal communities in Australia via contemporary government and organizational discourses of stakeholder and community engagement (Banerjee 2000).

The colonial discourse analytic approach found in Said's (1978) landmark publication Orientalism is the predominant theoretical frame in such studies of culture (p. 245) and organization. Inspired by Foucault and Gramsci, Said's book critiques the modern discourse of Orientalism as a system of representation which brought into existence (and thus enabled knowledge to be constructed of) both the “Occident” and the “Orient.” The Eurocentric nature of Orientalism, in which the Orient (the Other) is positioned as inferior to the Occident (the Self) through the workings of a series of binary oppositions and cultural myths, is revealed as a continuing presence in the discourses of management and organization. Bhabha's (1994) more psychoanalytically-inflected conceptual vocabulary has also been deployed in CMS studies of knowledge transfer within organizations, notably in MNC HQ—subsidiary relations (e.g., Frenkel 2008; Mir, Banerjee, and Mir 2008).

Critical scholars have, further, deployed postcolonial insights to investigate the “theory culture” (Mufti 2005) of the management academy. That is to say, there has been a concern to reveal the partiality and ethnocentrism of Western management theory, pedagogy, research, and critique as a local knowledge system (Jaya 2001; Westwood 2001) and to disrupt any pretence that it might have unfettered and unproblematic universal application. As noted by Calás and Smircich (2003: 45), “The stories we have written in much organization theory, our concepts and representations, no matter how ‘global’ (or precisely because of this), represent the ways of thinking of certain peoples and not others.” Postcolonialism thus provides a theoretical route for scholars in CMS to address the critical objectives of defamiliarization and denaturalization within the purview of a larger cultural and political objective of “provincializing” Europe (Chakrabarty 2000) and the US.

In part as a critical response and alternative to the universalizing and ethnocentric theory development of Western management and organization studies (CMS included), an “indigenous” turn is discernible in some quarters (e.g., Tsui 2004). On the one hand, we might interpret this validation of non-Western knowledge systems as a positive cultural development for the academy, evidence of a response to postcolonial concerns to return voice, agency, imagination, and the capacity for self-representation to the experiences, cultures, and languages of the Other. The well developed Māori approach to research across a number of different disciplines in Aotearoa/New Zealand is the most concerted example of a non-Western ontological, epistemological, and methodological alternative. It develops out of Māori cosmology and refuses translation into Western categories (e.g., Bishop 2005; Smith 2005). However, simply calling the cultural margins back into the center as a method for hearing the voice of the Other is extremely problematic, as Spivak (1990) discusses at length with regard to the subaltern: indeed it is often the site for neocolonialism in and of itself (Banerjee and Linstead 2004).

Relatedly, we should bear in mind some of the key criticisms of postcolonialism, or to be precise the variants of postcolonial theory based on poststructuralism. As Calás and Smircich (2003: 43) note, “poststructuralist analyses are also critiques (p. 246) of Modernity in the West by the West and, of necessity, themselves exclusionary of other voices.” In this philosophical mode, postcolonialism can be said to paradoxically deploy ethnocentric frames of reference in its critiques of the ethnocentrism of others (the lower case “o” is important here). Poststructuralist emphases on representational/cultural aspects of the colonial and postcolonial experience have been substantially criticized by Marxist and neo-Marxist postcolonial writers who view this approach as lacking an emancipatory politics (Ahmad 1992). The former's focus on cultural pluralism has been said to “obscure class and power differences, and prevent the possibilities for changes in structural relations” (Banerjee and Linstead 2004: 704) through a purported aestheticization (and in some instances commodification) of the margins. Future culturally focused CMS critique might wish to consider how it resonates with materialist questions of property and economic production, transnational feminist questions about the position of subaltern women (and men) in the global economy, and the legacy of the anticolonial movements and its leaders/writings for contemporary understandings of organization.


Taking the late 1970s interest in corporate culture as the arbitrary point of departure for this chapter, we have sought not only to outline well-established critiques of the concept of organizational culture, but also to frame future debates through discussion of recent interest in popular culture and postcolonialism. These latter two areas of inquiry seem highly promising moves to “think culturally” rather than “thinking of culture,” indexing as they do important issues of history, cultural reception, and imagination and life beyond the work organization. Of course we have hardly exhausted the range of possible interpretations of the organizational culture concept contained in previous scholarly publications. There are numerous other future possibilities, which space does not allow us to elaborate here.


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                                                                                                                                                                  (1.) Calás and Smircich's framework is one way of ordering the fundamental differences of opinion about ontological, epistemological, and methodological matters regarding the study of organizational culture. These differences form the basis of what Martin and Frost (1996) call the “organizational culture wars” which were animated in large part by the crisis of representation in the humanities and social sciences under the rubric of postmodernism.

                                                                                                                                                                  (2.) Thanks to one of our anonymous reviewers for this observation.