It has become axiomatic that organizations need to change their cultures in order to reform or modernise, or to adapt to a changing world, or to bring about some kind of improvement in performance. Implicit (and sometimes explicit) in this kind of thinking is the idea that certain organizational cultures are more conducive to success than others, and that adopting a particular culture is likely to lead to organizational improvement. It has become a way of talking as though organizations can ‘have’ a culture which can be identified and changed from one state to another. Culture becomes reified, or ‘thing-like’, and is capable of being shaped and manipulated. Usually there is a close link in the discourse to values which are thought to relate causally and directly to behaviour. Restating the values required of staff, usually ones chosen by the Chief Executive or the senior team, is supposed to lead to improvements in the workplace.
As a counter to this idea of culture existing in one organisation as an object of intervention by senior staff, and as something manipulable over the short term, I would like in this post to think about culture evolving over the longer term in society at large with the sociologist Norbert Elias. In doing so we come to notice some of the paradoxical qualities of culture, how it both includes and excludes, and how it involves values as voluntary compulsions, which can take on the qualities of the sacred.
As we have explored elsewhere, Norbert Elias takes a highly social view of human beings. We are who we are because we are members of specific groups and live at a particular moment in history where social relations have evolved in particular ways. To a degree we take on national characteristics as well as personal ones according to our position in the social networks of the country, time and place in which we live. We participate in the habitus, the habituated life process of our society, which is both firm and elastic at the same time: we form it just as it is forming us. Elias studied the habitus of particular societies, especially Britain, France and Germany, as a form of enquiry into how specific national characteristics evolved as a consequence of longer term historical processes, how cultures emerged. For Elias these broader social processes were contributory factors in helping to explain how certain historical conditions, for example the rise of fascism in German, became possible. The evolution of highly interdependent societies also forms us psychologically: we develop a sense of self, with both an ‘I’ layer and a ‘we’ layer. However, in contemporary life, he argues, there have been significant changes in the I/we balance with the we-layer of our personalities has been pushed markedly to the background. We have become convinced that we are autonomous, separated individuals cut off from other, similar individuals. Our sense of we-ness is most likely to come to the foreground at times of national crisis or celebration.
In contemporary Britain the elections for the European parliament currently involve a great deal of debate about what it means to be British and how best to enhance a sense of Britishness, whether within or outside the European union. And similar arguments are currently taking place over the border in Scotland about what it means to be Scottish. Debates involve discussions of law and policy, but much more importantly they involve much trickier and inchoate deliberations about collective identity, which are much less easier to pin down.
In a book tracing the historical development of Nazi Germany, Norbert Elias (1997), himself a German Jew, reflects upon how nationalism came to take such a strong hold on the German bourgeoisie throughout the 19th C leading up to WWI and WWII. What interests Elias, and is key to our argument here, is how concepts evolve and change over many decades, becoming part of the competition and co-operation between different groups in society, and then, as some come to dominate, they come to be taken for granted as natural and given national or class characteristics. They become a way of thinking which is unquestioned because it is part of the group and/or national identity: certain notions become part of a society’s ‘we-identity’, the self-beliefs and values of a whole group of people. A good example of this is the way in the which the National Health Service has come to be seen as the embodiment of Britishness to the extent that it became part of the UK Olympic ceremony. This is not to suggest that these ideas, even when they become embodied in institutions, are uncontested, (as we can see from the current privatisation of the NHS) or experienced everywhere the same, but what is intriguing for Elias is to see the:
…persistence with which certain patterns of thinking, acting and feeling recur, with characteristic adaptations to new developments, in one and the same society over many generations. It is almost certain that the meaning of certain key-words and particular undertones embedded in them, which are handed from one generation to another unexamined and unchanged, plays a part in the flexible continuity of what one otherwise conceptualises as ‘national character’. (1997: 127)
I want to draw attention to two aspects of Elias’ argument. One is that ‘patterns of thinking, feeling and acting’ arise in the co-operative/competitive relationship between groups in particular societies although some may come to dominate. And secondly, he regards national character, or culture, as both flexible and continuous. In other words, it arises as the consequence of struggle between groups which calls out both regularities and differences. It plays out in the politics of every day life both local and global and so is constantly fluctuating and changing.
To continue, Elias comments on what he considers the barely understood processes of mutual identification which take place in highly developed mass societies. When people live together in large, highly differentiated populations, overseen by the same framework of governmental and administrative organizations, the links between them are much more complex than in simpler societies. Instead, he argues, they are woven together with symbolic emotional ties:
So, the emotional bonds of individuals within the collectivity which they form with each other crystallize and organize themselves around common symbols which do not require any factual explanations, which can and must be regarded as absolute values which are not to be questioned and which form focal points of a common belief system. To call them into question – to cast doubt on the common belief on ones own sovereign collectivity as a high, if not the highest possible value – means deviancy, a breach of trust; it can lead one to become an ostracized outsider, if nothing worse. (1997: 146)
This is Elias’ particular formulation of what Griffin (2002) has written about elsewhere drawing on Mead’s idea of ‘cult values’: collectively held ideals the conformity with which decides whether one will be included or excluded from a group. Here idealised symbols of social solidarity, such as nationalist language and symbolism, act as norms of inclusion and exclusion. It seems to me that it is precisely this that the more orthodox writers on organizational culture want to stake a claim to: they would like managers to set and be in control of what Bourdieu (1986) refers to as symbolic capital as a form of disciplinary control in organizations.
If one really could command it, it would be a big prize, because the symbols around which we identify provoke very strong feelings in us:
These symbols and the collectivity for which they stand attract to themselves strong positive emotions of the type usually called love. The collectivity is experienced and the symbols are represented as something apart from, something holier and higher than, the individuals concerned…whatever else it may be, it is also a form of self-love. (Ibid: 151)
If appeals to collective identity, in nations and in organisations, call out love as a form of self-love, then they are equally likely to provoke hate towards those who appear to be violating the symbol of love. This is a phenomenon we are currently experiencing in Britain in the run up to the elections, where strong feelings are being provoked towards non-British citizens in the belief that they are the prime cause of Britain’s problems. In popular management literature such as Collins and Porras’ Built to Last there is an explicit intention to provoke such a collective identification, to develop a ‘cult-like culture’ in their own words. It is not hard to detect some of the totalitarian undertones of this kind of thinking, both in encouraging cult-like identification and in the divisiveness to which it leads. At the end of 1984 by George Orwell, and after a long period of incarceration and torture the hero Winston Smith realises that he ‘loves Big Brother’.
However, for Elias there are two principal difficulties related to the control of shared symbolic affiliation. Firstly, if the numbers of people caught up in the phenomenon are large, it can take on a self-amplifying momentum all of its own, which goes beyond the ability of any individual, or group of individuals to influence it. Self-amplifcation can produce both extreme and unpredictable social effects. As an example, there have been a number of high profile cases of ‘rogue traders’ in investment banks who over- interpreted their employer’s buccaneering attitude to trading by gambling illicitly with the bank’s money. Equally, stigmatising Romanians in political debates may be an expression of well-founded concerns about the influx of European workers into Britain, but it may also trigger much nastier xenophobia. This leads into Elias’ second point, that when symbols get taken up as group norms, disciplining individual members of the group as well as acting as a form of self-discipline through guilt, they can have contradictory effects: they can bind people to each other as well as uniting them against others, depending on the degree to which the norms are shared. In this sense they have both integrating and disintegrating effects, uniting some and dividing others. Nor is it always the case that shared symbolic values experienced as norms are all of a piece: they may well be contradictory and pull people in opposing ways.
Elias recognises, as does the orthodox management literature, the importance of mediating symbols in social life, symbols which can also be represented in particular people (for example, the Queen of the UK, the NHS, or perhaps the CEO of a company). They contribute to our sense of individual and collective identity. However, for Elias they can have paradoxical effects: they both include and exclude, unite and divide. These symbols and the collective ideals and values they call out, and which provoke strong feelings in people, cannot be controlled by anyone, since they can take on a dynamic of their own ‘through a self-escalating dynamic of mutual reinforcement (Ibid: 150)’. In this way I think Elias’s descriptions of the processual and evolutionary nature of culture undermines the orthodox management idea that it exists in some kind of equilibrium state, or that it is always integrating, or that it can be controlled in any way (although it may be mobilised in political arguments as we can see in the UK at the moment). It seems to me that he argues that it is constantly evolving and that the evolution is driven by the constant flux of integration/division co-operation and competition between groups. Cultures change as much by conflict as by convergence.
Already, then we can see some of the difficulties arising for organizational scholars who claim that culture, whatever they understand by it, can be harnessed and manipulated for the good of the company. First in Elias’s terms it is a kind of voluntary and collective identification involving affect: since it is freely given, identification is a hard phenomenon to oblige someone to give. And second it both integrates and divides at the same time. Even if leaders and managers were able to manipulate culture it would still play out in contradictory and unpredictable ways.
Bourdieu, P (1977) Outline of A Theory Of Practice: Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Collins, J. and Porras, J. (2005) Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies, New York: Random House.
Elias, N. (1997) The Germans: Power Struggles and the Development of Habitus in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, Cambridge: Polity Press.
Griffin, D. (2002) The Emergence of Leadership: Linking Self-Organization and Ethics, London: Routledge.