What is organizational anthropology?

What’s the first thing you think of when you see the word “anthropology?” Perhaps all the National Geographic documentaries you’ve watched? It may even conjure up romanticized images of an intrepid anthropologist who ventures into the “heart of darkness” and hacks through jungle vines in search of an elusive tribe.

Some areas of anthropology do focus on the study of remote tribes, albeit in a less romanticized way than pop culture would have you believe. But tribal culture isn’t limited to a dense jungle. Humans everywhere find themselves in all kinds of “tribes” that need to be studied and better understood. Organizational anthropology focuses on one of the most fascinating tribal cultures on Earth: human beings living and working in groups. Anyone who has ever worked in an organization, large or small, can attest to the fact that trying to understand how humans behave, communicate, and collaborate in an organizational setting can be as challenging as hacking through the deepest jungle.

What is organizational anthropology?

What is organizational anthropology? The answer begins with defining what an organization is from an anthropological perspective; the definition is broader than you might think. “An organization is any purpose-driven social group that tends over time to develop a shared culture, a way of acting, a set of beliefs, and a set of values,” says Dr. Greg Urban, professor of anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania. “It can be business corporations, of course, but also nonprofit organizations, parent-teacher organizations, local reading groups—people getting together for some particular reason to do something.”

Where then does the intersection of anthropology and organizations occur? Organizational anthropology applies the global insights of anthropology as an academic discipline to illuminate the problems and situations we encounter in the everyday groups and organizations in which we all participate every day. “The anthropology part comes in with the study of the culture of that organization,” says Urban. “Culture is all that stuff that we socially acquire from other people and that we transmit to other people, things like beliefs, values, ways of speaking, habits, doing things, getting things done, and how we do them.”

In a practical sense, creating, understanding, and managing organizational culture has a significant impact on the bottom line. “We know that from a leadership perspective if you don't understand your organization's culture, you're unlikely to be successful,” says Dr. Derek Newberry, a lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania and an organizational development consultant who advises senior executives on the human factors that drive performance.

Practical classes for the demands of the modern world

Urban and Newberry are the faculty co-directors of the new Penn LPS Online Certificate in Organizational Anthropology, a course of study designed to build the skills necessary to succeed in the evolving and diverse organizational landscape that characterizes today’s world. The four courses that comprise the certificate each examine a unique aspect of organizations and culture, with the emphasis always on the practical: How to translate theory into practice and put the knowledge gained in class to work in the office or other group settings.

“I saw one survey where something like 80 percent of managers said they feel like they don't have the right culture in their organization and that this is one of their biggest stumbling blocks,” says Newberry. “One thing we wanted to do with this set of courses and the certificate is to make it practical for people to develop a toolkit to use in their day to day work, whatever that happens to be. We want them to develop the skill to become a better observer of their own culture, understanding it so they can change it, or better integrate with it.”

Newberry teaches a course, Introduction to Team Culture, that helps students learn how to improve their ability to manage team culture effectively, be more inclusive, handle conflict and establish common ground rules that enable everyone to thrive.

These skills are more essential than ever because organizations and workplaces have changed fundamentally in our lifetime. Technology, remote work, the shared economy, globalization, gender relations, even cultural movements all exert a constant push and pull on organizational culture. If uniformity of culture and employee experience used to be the desired norm in many organizations, that is no longer the case. Diversity is now front and center.

“One of the key things that we find is that businesses that aspire to grow want a diverse workforce; they want racial diversity, ethnic diversity, gender diversity, and class diversity,” says Newberry. “With the growing emphasis on diversity, there's a realization that difference is good for lots of reasons. More diversity allows you to connect with a broader base of consumers. We know that diversity in teams improves performance. It improves decision making. It makes groups more creative because they have more different perspectives that they're bringing to the table.”

While diversity is being embraced in many organizations, managers and team members are also coming to the realization that a new toolset is needed to work effectively within an evolving organizational dynamic. “The emphasis now is on how we manage difference really effectively. How do we strike that balance between having a common shared culture that brings us all together, while at the same time respecting, managing and even encouraging difference and cultural innovation? I think that's a big culture challenge right now,” says Newberry.

It’s the little things that can trip you up

Organizational anthropology doesn’t just work in broad strokes, it also helps people understand that even small differences can carry a big impact. Globalization is playing a major role in driving a need to develop a deeper understanding of the nuances at play. According to Newberry, “One of the results of globalization is that there will be more boundaries to be crossed in organizations, so the anthropological toolkit becomes even more important.”

What needs to be in the toolkit? “The ability to pick up on subtle body language cues, to understand significance of the words people use to describe customers or colleagues—it becomes even more important to pay attention to those nuances to be able to understand what they reveal about how somebody views the world and how they're likely to react to new ideas or proposals or how they'll want you to work with them,” says Newberry.

Take, for instance, a smile.

“We find differences around the world in terms of something as simple as smiling. When do you smile? How frequently do they smile? These questions can be crucial to engaging successfully,” says Urban. “There's a wonderful anthropological story about McDonald's opening up different franchises around the world. In places like Russia and China, smiling is not the norm in customer relations. And indeed, it can be completely misinterpreted. For instance, if you're in Russia, that smile can be taken to mean that the person who's serving you is actually laughing at you and making fun of you.”

Contrast that with the service-with-a-smile that most US businesses require of their employees in customer relations and you can begin to understand why a robust organizational anthropology toolkit is essential in an increasingly globalized economy. The nuances even extend to how physical space is experienced across cultures.

“Take something like distance, how far you stand from a person. This actually varies around the globe quite enormously. People feel uncomfortable if they are around someone who isn't using space in the same way that they're accustomed to using it,” says Urban. “These kinds of issues are classically studied by anthropology. The work we try to do in organizational anthropology is to bring these broader insights of anthropology to bear on people's everyday experience in whatever purpose-oriented groups they find themselves in.”

Urban, who is an author and specialist in the ethnography of corporations, teaches the class Anthropology of Organizations. The class focuses on how culture moves through an organization and affects performance. As part of the class, students learn to identify some of the drivers of cultural conflict that can hinder organizational development and reduce collaboration.

Managing in a sometimes fragmented workplace

Social shifts like the growth in the shared economy have also had a measurable impact on organizations, leading to a degree of organizational fragmentation and a need to find new ways to build and manage organizational culture.

“In the US, the sharing economy is on the rise so more people are part of organizations but not full-time employees, so they have a more tenuous relationship with the organization. Companies have turned increasingly toward building a great culture. That's the one thing that holds everyone together, the idea that we share the same values and believe in the mission of the organization,” says Newberry. “I think culture is becoming a greater focus because it's something that as the formal organization starts to break apart a little, the informal part of the organization holds things together.”

In today’s organizations, that idea of “togetherness” can take on different forms, especially with the increase in virtual collaboration and remote work. Building strong collaborative teams can be tricky when some of your employees are there—but not physically there.

“Virtual collaboration is so important now in the workplace that it warrants having its own course,” says Newberry. “It’s critical to understand well how to manage a virtual team or a virtual relationship in an organization effectively.”

Virtual Collaboration, one of the courses in the certificate, focuses specifically on this aspect of the new organizational culture providing a rigorous foundation for learning to lead and to navigate in today’s socially and technologically interconnected world. The class examines the work of theorists who have grappled with issues of how organizations and social order are constructed, sustained, and changed and then bridges the gap between theory and practice—everything studied as a group is put in play and subject to observation and multiple interpretations of results.

While there are some obvious careers that benefit very directly from the toolkit of organizational anthropology—management, HR consulting, marketing, sales, and research, for instance—the toolkit is valuable for almost any career setting. “Organizational anthropology benefits anyone who participates in organizations large or small, in government units, schools, hospitals, the military, or businesses—and even families, for that matter,” says Urban.

The Penn LPS Online Certificate in Organizational Anthropology is open for enrollment. You can enroll in an individual course without committing to the entire Certificate in Organizational Anthropology, enjoying the flexibility and expertise offered by Penn LPS Online to suit your schedule and interests. (A separate degree concentration in organizational studies is also offered as part of the Penn LPS Online BAAS degree.) If you want more information about studying organization anthropology, please visit our program page.

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