Sub-theme 32: Anthropology and Ethnography: Culture, Context, and Camera

Heidi Dahles
Dept. of Organization Sciences, VU University Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Heather Höpfl
Essex University Business School, UK
Juliette Koning
Dept. of Organizational Studies, Oxford Brookes University, UK

Call for Papers


What has anthropology contributed to the field of organization sciences so far? Is there such a thing as 'organizational anthropology'? If so, what are its object, perspectives and mission? What is the potential of organizational anthropology for the study of business, management and organizations? These and related questions will be addressed by this sub-theme.

It is claimed that the concept of culture as utilized in organizational studies has been borrowed from anthropology. Particularly popular became definitions of culture as a system of knowledge and beliefs as developed by cognitive anthropologists and as a system of shared symbols and meanings as developed by symbolic anthropologists. Both approaches address the problem of social order and cohesion. These definitions of 'culture' appealed to organizational scholars and practitioners who focus on sense-making processes in organizations.

When organizational anthropology emerged as a distinct perspective in the mid-1990s, 'culture' became viewed as unsettling instead of integrating. What may at first have been the 'anthropology of organizations' has developed into a multidisciplinary approach viewing organizations in terms of life worlds. Organizational anthropology acknowledges organizations not in terms of bounded entities but as processes of organizing, networking, and sense-making and, thereby, contributes to an understanding of organizational culture as ambiguous and fragmented, changeable and entrenched with unequal power relations and conflicting interests.

In this vein, it can be argued that anthropology contributes to organizational science not (only) the concept of culture, but the contextual and situational dimension of the process of organizing and managing. This positioning is rooted in the holistic approach that has been cultivated by anthropology ever since the Malinowskian fieldwork tradition established itself as a distinguishing paradigm. The methodology of fieldwork emphasizes the present tense, an emphasis that has become even more pronounced through the imperative of 'interventionist' methodologies in applied anthropology.

We invite papers that explore the impacts of anthropology and/or an anthropological lens on the field of organizational studies (including business, management and entrepreneurship studies) and its 'users'. We are particularly interested in receiving empirical, conceptual and reflective papers that address the vicissitudes of anthropology in the field of organization sciences, and the similarities and differences between 'organizational anthropology', 'business anthropology', 'the anthropology of work', 'applied anthropology', 'organizational ethnography' and associated fields.

Themes of interest might include:

  • What is organizational anthropology? How is it defined, by whom and with what purpose and/or hidden agenda? What are its boundaries and who are the gatekeepers?
  • What does an anthropological perspective contribute to specific topics in organizational studies (such as organizational identity, organizational learning, new public management, networks & networking and entrepreneurship) and how does this contribution differ from other approaches?
  • How is organizational anthropology practised? And is this practice of a scientific or rather of an applied sort?
  • What is the added value of anthropology's empirical focus in an increasingly globalized organizational context?
  • How does anthropology deal with the more complex and hybridized forms of organizing with extended inter-organizational networks and 'new localisms'?
  • What can anthropology offer to professionals and practitioners in the organizational field? What arguments can be offered to convince end-users (governments, corporations and other institutions) to give up their reliance on positivist approaches?
  • In which ways can organizational anthropology do justice to its holistic claims? What does holism imply for research agendas, approaches, publications?
  • What is the potential of anthropology to develop in the organizational field in the future? What in particular can anthropology contribute in terms of the study of ever more challenging environments (e.g. economic crisis, public sector cuts, sustainability, etc.)? Is an anthropological perspective useful for designing new forms of organizing?
Heidi Dahles Heidi Dahles is full professor in Organizational Anthropology at the Department of Organizational Sciences at VU University Amsterdam. Her research interest is in transnational organizations. She published in peer-reviewed journals such as Culture & Organization, East Asia; An International Quarterly, Journal of Developmental Entrepreneurship and Journal of Enterprising Communities. Among her recent books are Capital and Knowledge. Changing Power Relations in Asia (co-edited with Otto van den Muijzenberg, 2003) and Multicultural Organizations in Asia (co-edited with Loh Wei Leng, 2006).
Heather Höpfl 
Juliette Koning Juliette Koning is senior lecturer in Organizational Anthropology at the Management and Organizational Studies Department, Faculty of Business, Oxford Brookes University. Her current research focuses on business, leadership, identity, ethnicity and religion in Southeast Asia. Books and (co)edited volumes include Generations of Change (2004), Rope Walking and Safety Nets (2006) and Chinese Indonesians and Regime Change (2010). Recent publications are contributions to East Asia; An International Quarterly (2007, 24), Inside Indonesia (2009, 95) Copenhagen Journal of Asian Studies (2009, 27) and an edited volume on Christianity in Asia (Routledge, 2009) and Entrepreneurship in Context (Routledge, 2011).