Anthropology in Organizations? Why? (was Re: a good university for anthropology?)

Noel Dickover (
Thu, 19 Dec 1996 12:22:21 -0500

In article <>,

> BTW: i'm intrigued that applied anthro is used in organizational
> management... i'd always heard that was for psych majors!

I am not sure I've ever seen psych majors get work in this area, unless
you are refering to behavioral science as applied to organizations. In
my earlier post (yes, it was me and not John Acar (my network
administrator whose name automatically appears in new software for some
reason)) on this subject, I strongly emphasized my belief that this is
where anthropology should be placing its major emphasis. This is, of
course, at odds, considering there is virtually no emphasis being placed
here (in comparison to everything else).

I work in a small consulting firm, doing organizational change work, both
internally and for our customers (primarily the US govt, with some
commerical jobs thrown in). I use my undergrad training in anthropology
everyday in my job. Just for the record, I also have a MS in Cybernetic
Systems, which I see as merely an extension of anthropology in a
particular direction (understanding and modifying organizations). Many
anthropologists, including Gregory and Mary Catherine Bateson, Margaret
Mead and others have employed cybernetics into their understanding of
culture. There are some organizational anthropologists (although I've
run across scarce few) that apply cybernetics to their understanding of

In any event, both of these disciplines bring the same thing to the
table: a holistic view of a complex situation, one in which an outside,
multi-perspective analysis can yield a very different and very USEFUL
understanding of the current situation than is present in the minds of
those embedded in the system/business/culture. This outside, holistic,
multiperspective viewpoint can allow the intervener to better define
probem areas (that are usually defined as a complex "mess"), and come up
with comprehensive approaches to address these problem areas. A holistic
viewpoint will come in with the false notion that THE problem will be
identified and solved.

Too often, business community trained people are looking for SINGLE
causes, that will lead to THE solution. This is a very simplistic way of
addressing complex issues, one that rarely yields good results. The most
critical aspect of any organizational change implementation involves
people issues, not technology issues. Too often business trained
professionals look for ways of forcing solutions down on people, without
ever understanding the patterns of interaction which led to the problems.

I really and truely believe that this holistic perspective that
disciplines like anthropology can bring are critical to the success of
modern businesses. Cultural change over time is a poorly understood
phenomena in the business community. Anthropology's real strength,
critical observations of external cultures, is both relevant and needed
in this environment. Too often, people will not even realize the have
internal assumptions of the way the world works which scew their results.
When this is discussed, its almost in a comical way of stating, "Well,
lets make our culture explicit, so we no longer have any of these
problems." Or, "My first job as CEO was to change the culture from X to a
Y culture". Never is organizational culture in its current form ever
considered good.

Truly revolutionary change perspectives, like those of Chris Argyris
depend upon interveners which have a good understanding of this holistic
perspecitive. Good organizational modeling requires this perspective.
Good group based facilitation requires this perspective. Good HR
rewuires this perspective. Good management of information as a strategic
resource (I think they call this CKO- chief knowledge officer, nowadays)
requires this perspective. Good change implementation requires this
perspective. As Mary Catherine Bateson says, we are improvisational
beings. To understand this at a societal level, I think the type of
perspective that disciplines like anthroplogy brings are essentially.

And as a side note, the pay for doing this type of work is pretty damn


Noel Dickover