Studying culture in organizations: Not taking for granted the taken-for-granted

Mats Alvesson, Dan Kärreman, S.B. Ybema

Research output: Chapter in Book / Report / Conference proceedingChapterAcademicpeer-review


In A. Wilkinson, S.J. Armstrong & M. Lounsbury (Eds.) . Oxford: Oxford University Press,
At the beginning of the 1980s the publication of several key books and special issues of journals in the field of organization and management studies heralded the arrival of a new field known today as ‘organizational culture’. For academics the concept of culture served as a vehicle to renew their interest in the symbolic dimensions of organizational life and processes of meaning- making in organizations (Yanow and Ybema, 2009). For practitioners, it provided the promise of a most welcome toolkit for creating commitment in times of economic recession. However, after more than a decade of being a dominant management fashion, slowly scholarly and managerial interest in ‘culture’ started to wane, diminishing culture to a standard chapter in organization theory (OT) and organization behaviour (OB) textbooks. Recently, however, some scholars claim to be witnessing a renaissance of interest in culture and culture management (Fine and Hallett, 2014; Weber and Dacin, 2011). Some claim that the characteristics of this ‘second wave’ of culture interest are different from the first in its attribution of agency to individuals and organizations and its increased attention to ‘public culture’ and outside appearances (Weber and Dacin, 2011: 287– 8). Although we warmly welcome renewed interest and we see merit in analysing culture as strategically drawn on by organizational actors in their self- presentation to an outside audience, we also believe it is worth critically discussing this renewed interest by going back to the original inspiration for studying culture in organizations. We may lose some of culture’s strengths as a root metaphor in the second wave’s movement away from studying ‘internalized taken- for- granted beliefs’ and ‘private culture’. Specifically, culture as a concept used to have the capacity to elicit interest in more implicit processes of meaning- making and covert power processes and backstage politics, as well as dedication to provide thickly described analyses of everyday organizational life. In this chapter we first briefly revisit the earlier literature on organizational culture and culture management by offering a short historical overview. We then discuss the renewed interest in culture and compare its characteristics to the original interest. Nostalgically embracing the original ambitions of culture as a root metaphor then provides us with a viewpoint from which to critically assess the current interest in culture’s offsprings in organizational research as well as a foundation for offering an alternative. We claim that the zeal for providing layered interpretation and thick description typical of the original approach deserves to be revitalized in contemporary accounts of, and approaches to, cultural life in organizing. The movement in academic interest in culture and culture management from substance to image, from taken- for- granted beliefs to branding, deserves critical scrutiny. Rather than scratching the surfaces of public culture and actors’ strategies of self- presentation, we suggest that organizational research needs to focus on critically examining outward appearances, puncturing its myths by demasking its symbolic and staged qualities, and probing into the not- readily observable, the silent and silenced, backstage and off- stage worlds in the organizational dungeons, rekindling its fascination for what might be under the skin, beneath the surface, behind the scenes, and between the lines
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Oxford Handbook of Management
EditorsA. Wilkinson, S.J. Armstrong, M. Lounsbury
Place of PublicationOxford
PublisherThe Oxford University Press
Number of pages23
ISBN (Print)9780198708612
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2017


  • culture; organizational culture

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  • Governance for Society


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