How can corporate anthropology help in understanding culture?

What is anthropology?

Anthropology is the scientific study of humans, human behavior and societies in the past and present. Social anthropology studies patterns of behavior and cultural anthropology studies cultural meaning, including norms and values. Linguistic anthropology studies how language influences social life.

As anyone who has started a new job will realize, each company and each team has it’s own culture. Sometimes it very obvious, sometimes it is more subtle. But the corporate culture is always there. Anthropology helps in understanding this corporate culture and making sure your change efforts do not fail because of it. Analyzing culture is very much about perspective.

perspective game 1

Emic and etic perspectives

Anthropology had two very helpful concepts when talking about culture. You can analyze from each of these two perspectives:

  • Emic: You look from the inside out to understand the culture of a company. You use the words that have meaning to the culture you are studying. The knowledge you are looking for is the knowledge that exists inside the culture. You go to the place where people do their work, have lunch and coffee and socialize together. You take part in these interactions and try to understand why these interactions are important to the culture of a company.
  • Etic: You look from the outside in to understand the culture of a company. You use your own theories and vocabulary to understand the culture you are studying. You invite people into an environment of your choice to understand these people. Focus groups are a good example of this perspective.

One perspective is not better than the other. Both perspectives are extremely helpful in mapping and understanding a culture and in taking away language barriers inside a company.

Emic and etic in anthropology

The concept of identity

Identity is self ascribed and very dependent on the context a person is in. On a more general level there are always the following parts of identity to consider:

  • Gender
  • Race
  • Socioeconomic status

Inside a company there are even more things to consider when talking about identity. Each company, specialization and team tends to use their own jargon. How well you are versed in that jargon is important in being able to do that job well.

Apart from language there are also differences in teams. When you are part of a team, that team has stories to tell about their own value and strong points compared to other teams. Always important for a culture is the feeling about salary and performance reviews and the relationship these have to doing your job well. Teams that feel structurally undervalued will have different stories and values than teams that feel highly valued. You can find some examples below of what to look for when you are trying to get a  feel for culture and identity.

analyze culture by perks language behavior and values

Using the emic and the etic point of view

Unless I am much mistaken, a couple of the questions in the picture above have raised an emotional response in you ( recognition, surprise, irritation etc). These emotions are important to recognize. They tell you something about your own values and beliefs. When you understand your own values and beliefs you will be more effective in using both the emic and the etic perspective. Be sure not to ask people if you are right in your feelings when trying to analyze values and beliefs. Suspend your judgement and try to empathize and truly understand, even if the culture does not make sense to you at first.

You get an emic perspective by living and working like the people you are trying to understand. You should hold interviews onsite. Ask questions when you see things that amaze, irritate or touch you in some way. It is important to ask open questions. This is often harder than you think. I worked at a company where being late for a meeting was considered very normal. I thought that being late was very disrespectful to the person organizing the meeting. For them is was normal that each meeting started five minutes late. Imagine what would have happened if I would have told them the ‘right’ way to behave (either in a leading question or a statement). I would have put them on the defensive. This can be helpful sometimes to gain deeper insight, but not at the start of a project.

You get an etic perspective by bringing people into a neutral setting and using a focus group, interview or panel discussion.  Here you can use your own theories and ideas to gain a deeper understanding of their culture.

Both in the emic and the etic perspective being respectful is important. You also need to be honest about why you are there. There are a lot of things you can analyze on from both perspectives and i will get into those in a later blog. I feel it is important to take culture into account, both national and corporate, when you are trying to change everyday work. A lot of change projects are implemented as a one set of tools fits all. This will often mean that not all of the tools, if any, will lead to structural change.

For now I want to show you one my own culture analysis. I changed the rows of this table to match the context i am working in. The power to veto or overrule is about power and respect for a certain specialization. In some companies this will be marketing in other it will be compliance. They can determine outcomes in other teams on improvement efforts. This can be about formal power, but also about informal power.

When you see this, what do you think this means for day to day business or change efforts? Which teams will be annoyed with each other? Which teams will work well together? I will get to the interventions you can use for this kind of challenge in a later blog.

Example of corporate culture

Two great resources

The corporate tribe by Danielle Braun and Jitske Kramer

On corporate anthropology

Book Practical ethnography by Sam Ladner

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