Sub-theme 67: [hybrid] Whatever Happened to Organizational Anthropology? Past & Prospects

Michiel Verver
Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Leonore van den Ende
Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Heidi Dahles
University of Tasmania & Griffith University, Australia

Call for Papers

Hybrid sub-theme!
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In his paper titled “Whatever happened to organizational anthropology? A review of the field of organizational ethnography and anthropological studies” (1997), Paul Bate contemplated the dire state of the sub-field 25 years ago. He argued that while anthropology had created the field of organizational behaviour (most notably by way of the Hawthorn studies), “the two fields got separated, and organization studies gradually lost touch with the essential qualities of anthropology” (Bate, 1997, p. 1148). Anthropology remained at the outskirts and in Bate’s view was the “forgotten science” in organizations studies (Bate, 1997: 1149).
25 years later, the status of organizational anthropology – which may be defined as “the cultural study of human behavior in organizational settings” (Mir & Fayard, 2021: 2) – is paradoxical. On the one hand, anthropology has left its trace by way of its perspective, methodology, themes and concepts. Organization researchers who became disenchanted with positivist approaches particularly embraced the symbolic-interpretive perspective integral to cultural anthropology (e.g. Geertz, 1973). They viewed organizations and organizational cultures as continually (re)constructed by their members and studied processes of sense- and meaning-making “from below” and “from within”. In the wake of such a perspective, anthropology also made inroads into organization studies via the ethnographic method. While other qualitative methods prevail, ethnography has received adequate cachet and, in part by way of the Journal of Organizational Ethnography, been accredited a legitimate methodology in organization and management research (e.g. van Maanen, 2011; Ybema et al., 2009).
On the other hand, explicit reference to the discipline of anthropology itself remains conspicuously lacking in organization studies (Fotaki et al., 2020). Some exceptions since Bate (1997) include two edited volumes on organizational anthropology (Caulkins & Jordan, 2013; Garsten & Nyqvist, 2013), several edited volumes on business anthropology (Tian et al., 2010; Jordan, 2003), the Journal of Business Anthropology (e.g. Baba, 2012) and the International Journal of Business Anthropology, reflections on the position of anthropology in business and management schools (Czarniawska, 2012), and a recent special issue in Organization Studies on spirituality, symbolism and storytelling that explicitly engages with anthropology (Fotaki et al., 2020). Despite these efforts, an established sub-field of organizational anthropology is a far cry. Indeed, as the culture concept was appropriated to fit corporate-oriented research, the critical, anthropological perspective was supplanted by a more instrumental one that favoured the strategic use of “strong culture” as a management tool to secure and enhance employee commitment and satisfaction. Critical scholars (e.g. Kunda, 1986; Martin, 2001) have countered such appropriations revealing power dynamics, normative control and micro-level particularities, thereby debunking dominant essentialist interpretations of culture by those who had followed in the footsteps of Hofstede (1980). While such critical voices are likely inspired by anthropology, the latter is seldom accredited for it, nor do these studies explicitly draw on anthropological literature.
In all, anthropology’s contributions to organization studies remain elusive and implicit, sometimes absent. At best, organizational anthropology reveals “an incomplete history” (Mir & Fayard, 2021: 3). Hence, Bate’s question of “whatever happened?” is still valid today. Taking stock and moving on, in this panel we ask: Where is the connection between anthropology and organization studies? Where is the tension? Does the sub-field of organizational anthropology really exist? Can research and theory benefit from bringing anthropology back into the field of organization studies? Could such an endeavour allow us to see “familiar landscapes with new eyes” (Bate, 1997: 1148) or, more ambitiously even, address the “crisis of imagination” (Fotaki et al., 2020: 7) in organization studies?
In line with the Colloquium’s theme of “The Beauty of Imperfection”, we do not merely attempt to examine the imperfections and unrealized potential that characterize the field, but also/rather how such imperfections implicate opportunity for further academic scrutiny and cross-fertilization. The focus – as was Bate’s – is on what the field of organization sciences might gain from anthropology (rather than the other way around). Moreover, we welcome papers on a range of themes pertaining to the interface of anthropology and organization studies, including organizational ethnography but also other themes, acknowledging that ethnography is more than a method and that, vice versa, anthropology cannot be reduced to ethnography. Drawing on and extending Bate (1997), themes may include:

  • Anthropology’s contributions to organizational ethnography (as method, paradigm, and way of writing) or related methodologies (e.g. participation, storytelling, visual methods, reflexivity).

  • Anthropology’s contributions to literature on organizational culture or other sub-fields (e.g. organizational change, entrepreneurship, family business, cross-cultural dynamics, space and materiality, practice, discourse).

  • Contributions of anthropological concepts (e.g. culture, liminality, symbols, gender, ethnicity) to explain behaviour and meaning-making within and across organizations.

  • Contributions stemming from what Bate referred to as the texture of anthropological research (including context, history, process, and actor-centeredness).

  • The contributions of anthropological criticality, both in terms of a thematic focus on power and frontstage versus backstage dynamics, as well as in its empirical focus beyond the mainstream and managerialism (for example, shop floor practices, non-western countries, extreme contexts, informal settings, indigenous organizations).


  • Baba, M.L. (2012): “Anthropology and business: Influence and interests.” Journal of Business Anthropology, 1, 20–71.
  • Bate, S.P. (1997): “Whatever happened to organizational anthropology? A review of the field of organizational ethnography and anthropological studies.” Human Relations, 50 (9), 1147–1175.
  • Caulkins, D., & Jordan, A.T. (eds.) (2013): A Companion to Organizational Anthropology. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell.
  • Czarniawska, B. (2012): “Organization theory meets anthropology: A story of an encounter.” Journal of Business Anthropology, 1 (1), 118–140.
  • Fotaki, M., Altman, Y., & Koning, J. (2020): “Spirituality, symbolism and storytelling in twentyfirst-century organizations: Understanding and addressing the crisis of imagination.” Organization Studies, 41 (1), 7–30.
  • Garsten, C., & Nyqvist, A. (eds.) (2013): Organisational Anthropology: Doing Ethnography in and among Complex Organisations. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Geertz, C. (1973): The Interpretation of Cultures. London: Fontana Press.
  • Jordan, A. (2003): Business Anthropology. Prospect Heights, Illinois: Waveland Publishers.
  • Hofstede, G. (1980): Culture's Consequences: International Differences in Work-related Values. Beverly Hills: SAGE Publications.
  • Kunda, G. (1986): Engineering Culture: Control and Commitment in a High-Tech Corporation. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
  • Martin, J. (2001): Organizational Culture: Mapping the Terrain. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications.
  • Mir, R., & Fayard, A.-L. (2021): “Anthropology and organizational studies: A symbiotic connection.” In: R. Mir & A.-L. Fayard (eds.): The Routledge Companion to Anthropology and Business. New York: Routledge, 1–13.
  • Tian, R.G., Lillis, M.P., & can Marrewijk, A.H. (2010): General Business Anthropology. Miami: North American Business Press.
  • van Maanen, J. (2011): “Ethnography as work: Some rules of engagement.” Journal of Management Studies, 48 (1), 218–234.
  • Ybema, S., Yanow, D., Wels, H., & Kamsteeg, F.H. (eds.) (2009): Organizational Ethnography: Studying the Complexity of Everyday Life. London: SAGE Publications.
Michiel Verver is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Organization Sciences at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, Netherlands. His academic interests lie in the anthropology of entrepreneurship. Michiel has conducted research among family businesses, elite entrepreneurs, social entrepreneurs, and migrant and ethnic minority firms, particularly in Cambodia, Thailand and the Netherlands. Michiel has published in journals including ‘Entrepreneurship Theory and Practice’, ‘Entrepreneurship & Regional Development’, and ‘Journal of Business Anthropology’.
Leonore van den Ende is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Organization Sciences at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, Netherlands. She applies anthropological theories and ethnographic methods to study and conceptualize projects, rituals, and festivals as temporary organizational forms and transformative spaces. Leonore has published in ‘Long Range Planning’, ‘International Journal of Project Management’, ‘The Journal of Organizational Change Management’, and ‘Journal of Organizational Ethnography’.
Heidi Dahles is an Adjunct Professor at the School of Social Sciences, University of Tasmania, and at the Griffith Business School, Griffith University, Brisbane, Australia. She is also a Visiting Professor at the Cambodia Development Resource Institute (CDRI), Phnom Penh. Heidi’s commitment to ethnographic fieldwork is reflected in her research which focuses on local livelihoods, community resilience, social entrepreneurship and small businesses, particularly in the tourism industry, in Southeast Asia.