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The cultural perspective on organizations (Van Maanen).pdf

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York University
Organization Studies
ORGS 2010

THE CULTURAL PERSPECTIVE ON ORGANIZATIONS John Van Maanen MITThe cultural perspective on organizations takes issue with a good deal of conventional managerial thought on how to run a business It is a complex perspective that emphasizes the inherent limitations of managerial authority and influence and rejects claims that strictly structural rational or interest factors best describe or explain human behavior A cultural perspective focuses on social and personal identities carried by people the cognitive or mental maps they utilize to come to terms with the requirements and difficulties they face in their daytoday activities and the moral precepts and normative standards they take for granted but nonetheless bring to bear on the world and those around them Attention is directed to such matters as the ideas and skills individuals and groups hold display and value the reasons or motives people accept as legitimate accounts for their actions and thus enact in their ordinary affairs the special languages and expressions they cultivate and use the boundaries they recognize to mark membership in various social groupings and the networks of trust to which they belong that wax and wane within across and often beyond work organizations Cultural understandings are collectively shaped and rooted in the past and as a result are often difficult to surface and articulate because they are so takenforgranted as natural obvious habituated and unquestionable by organizational members The cultural perspective emphasizes what it is that people must learn to become fully functioning and accepted organizational members Underlying such an emphasis is an appreciation for the situationally specific character of individual and collective actionthat people take action only on the basis of what a specific situation means to them Assigning meaning is of course an interpretive act and therefore rests on cultural understandings since the terms labels concepts and languages we have available to us to make sense of the world come from the social and not physical or biological world The cultural perspective on organizations focuses then on the meanings people assign to their respective work experiences People are thus more than cogs in a machine nodes in a network sources of intellectual capital or selfinterested political actors They are more importantly meaning makers identity carriers moral actors symbol users storytellers who are actively engaged in organizational life and through interaction with one another they continually create sustain and modify organizational events processes and products 2The Centrality of Symbolism The concern for meaning in organizations focuses attention on such matters as values languages beliefs founding legends social norms myths rituals mental frameworks or maps metaphors superstitions and ideologies shared by a few many or all organizational members Meanings guide behavior The key to the cultural perspective is not meaning per se but the symbola more or less arbitrary but conventionalized sign that stands for something else Symbols are vehicles for meaning A symbol such as a corporate logo or a marketing slogan may stand for a particular company or a public claim of quality They may also invoke notions of personal identification and honor to some and alienation and distrust to others The symbol is the unit on which the cultural perspective rests and decoding what a given symbol or set of symbols means to a specific group of people is what cultural analysis is all about Symbols carry both denotative and connotative meanings Denotative meanings refer to the direct instrumental uses of a symbolan annual report as standing for the performance of a given firm Connotative meanings refer to the expressive more general and broader uses of a symbolthe annual report as standing for a firms meticulous record keeping and its concern for the financial well being of its stockholders The two are not unrelated or necessarily stable however Take for example the financial reporting practices of major US companies Up to say the year 2000 those companies such as Intel who apparently always met or exceeded their projected quarterly or annual revenue and profit goals were the darlings of Wall Street Yet when the false reporting scandals shook the investment community those firms who never missed their paper targets were under closer scrutiny and the meaning of financial reports began to shift What had been viewed as superlative came to assume new and more problematic meaning To take a cultural perspective on organizations is to treat symbolism seriously and learn how meanings are created communicated enforced contested and sometimes changed by individuals and groups interacting both inside and outside the organization There are at least four interconnected areas to be explored when the workings of a given symbol are at issue First symbolsboth material eg buildings products machines and ideational eg values norms ideologiesare cultural objects or artifacts whose form appearance logic and type can be categorized although category systems differ and some differ spectacularly Second symbols are produced and used by identified and selfidentifying people and groups within and beyond organizations for certain purposes and thus the intentions of the symbol creators and users must be understood Third symbols are always put forth within a particular historical period and social context which severely shapes and limits the possible meanings a symbol may carry Finally symbols typically mean different things to different groups of people so the receptive competencies and expectations of those who2
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