OUR ROOTS: SOCIAL ANTHROPOLOGY
Have you ever looked at your organization as a tribe? We have. An organization is a living entity, with village squares and town halls (meeting rooms), alleyways and taverns where the real dialogue takes place (smoking areas and bars). With chiefs (leaders and program managers), elders (regulatory bodies and politics), hunters (the creative innovators), magicians (IT, HR, change managers, consultants) and gatherers (the fee earners). Tribes are constantly in motion, exist in the communal narratives and are created in dialogue and decisions.
FROM INSIDE OUT
Cultural anthropology is a discipline with a rich and colorful history. A long time ago we spoke of ‘armchair anthropologists’, people who would write books about faraway peoples, without ever having met them, from the comfort of their armchairs. Then, at the beginning of the 1900s the ‘real’ anthropologists arrived. They went out into the world, lived for months in villages and communities, among the local people, to learn about the local habits and customs from the inside out. In order to understand the meaning that people give to the world around them and how this is expressed in symbols, behavior and rituals. Corporate anthropology examines organizations, companies, boardrooms and board members with the same wondering gaze as anthropologists use to examine tribal societies.
INTERPRETER OF (SUB)CULTURES
Anthropology is the study of how people shape cultures and how cultures shape people. Anthropologists do not look so much at the individuals in an organization but rather more at ‘the spaces between people’. At the relationships between people, the kinship systems, the expectations, the unwritten rules and the judgments that seem to hang in the air. Anthropologists listen to the small details to get the bigger picture. As their starting point they take the dynamics between different worlds – teams, departments, sub-cultures, paper realities and the experienced realities. There is always tension between these worlds through which the anthropologist moves as an interpreter of (sub) cultures and social systems. Clashing worlds between client and provider, management and the work floor, IT and the rest of the organization. But also between men and women, age groups, ethnic differences and religious worldviews.
ALWAYS IN BETWEEN
It is the anthropologist’s fate to always be in between things: cultures, countries, languages, and even realities. The aim is to get to know and understand every (sub) culture from the inside out and to understand it as someone would themself understand work and life. Without judgment. Any judgment may be attached later on, by looking at a culture from the perspective of the outsider. To determine whether the established culture and work method really is desirable. To decide if change is needed and if so, what change is needed.
All, so that we can talk about our ways of doing things and implement new behaviors and rituals.
If you let an anthropologist look at organizations it is as if you switch from black and white to color TV. Challenge the Obvious. Every day.