Academic journal article Administrative Science Quarterly

Culture and Subcultures: An Analysis of Organizational Knowledge

Academic journal article Administrative Science Quarterly

Culture and Subcultures: An Analysis of Organizational Knowledge

Article excerpt

This study investigated the potential existence and formation of subcultures in organizations, using an inductive research methodology to study the extent to which four different types of knowledge were shared by organization members. Fifty-two interviews were conducted in three different divisions of the same firm. These were content-analyzed and compared with data obtained from observations and written documents. A number of cultural subgroupings were found to exist in regard to two kinds of cultural knowledge, while an organization-wide cultural overlay was identified for a different kind of cultural knowledge. The implications for the concept of culture in organizational settings and future research on this topic are discussed.(*)


Research on culture in organizational settings faces two major interrelated problems. First, little empirical knowledge is available about the concept in the context of organizations to guide research efforts. Second, the existing conceptual diversity makes it difficult to operationalize culture. Existing research on organizational culture has explored its components and structure primarily on theoretical grounds or empirically with deductive reasoning. While both approaches have their merit, some questions about culture remain unanswered. Is culture homogeneous (e.g., Davis, 1984; Schein, 1985)? Is it heterogeneous (e.g., Gregory, 1983; Martin, Sitkin, and Boehm, 1983; Van Maanen and Barley, 1985)? Or is it both (Martin and Meyerson, 1988)? If the latter is the case, which aspects of culture are homogeneous and which are heterogeneous? If culture is composed of subcultures (e.g., Handy, 1978; Louis, 1983; Jamison, 1985), where do they emerge and what triggers them to emerge? Given the sparseness of empirically based knowledge of organizational culture, an inductive research approach can provide valuable insights at this stage into its complexity (Van Maanen, 1979a). This paper describes one such inductive approach.

Conceptualizing Culture in Organizations

The concept of culture has been adopted primarily from the field of anthropology, where it has been defined in many different ways and from different perspectives (Kroeber and Kluckhohn, 1952). These have found their equivalents in the organizational literature (Smircich, 1983). Despite the different perspectives on culture in organizations, the focus on cognitive components such as assumptions, beliefs, values, or perspectives as the essence of culture prevails in the literature (e.g., Gregory, 1983; Dyer, 1985; Schein, 1985). Such an exclusive focus on cognitive components has its shortcomings (Martin and Meyerson, 1988: 96). Given that organizations are purposive, the manifestations of ideas in practices are important. Comparing expressed ideas and actual practices as perceived by others can provide valuable information about the world view of organizational members and its degree of overlap with reality as perceived or experienced by others. In a study of culture, observations of manifestations such as artifacts and behaviors can therefore be used as sources of data to "triangulate" with information obtained about cognitive components.

Definitions of culture vary, however, in their use of a central concept. The central concept in use may include ideologies (Harrison, 1972), a coherent set of beliefs (Baker, 1980; Sapienza, 1985) or basic assumptions (Wilkins, 1983; Phillips, 1984; Schein, 1985), a set of shared core values (Deal and Kennedy, 1982; Peters and Waterman, 1982), important understandings (Sathe, 1983), the "collective will" (Kilmann, 1982: 1), or the "collective programming of the human mind" (Hofstede, 1980: 25). These concepts are either used from a functionalist or an interpretative perspective, with culture being something that an organization "has" as compared with something an organization "is" (Smircich, 1983; Sackmann, 1989). In addition, different authors tend to use these concepts in different ways, creating some conceptual confusion and ambiguity (cf. …

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