ABSTRACT The recent interest in cultural analysis of organizations is based on the belief that organizations have symbolic aspects that affect organizational behaviour. Underlying this research, however, are different assumptions about the nature of symbols and the role they play in organizations. The majority of writers have assumed that symbols perform an expressive function and are used in a type of action they call 'symbolic action’which they contrast with ‘substantive action’. This dichotomy between symbolic and substantive action has resulted in the development of models that assume culture is a causal factor in organizational change, and should be controlled by the management of symbols. In this article, this approach ‐ the management as symbolic action approach ‐ is examined and found to be inadequate. An alternative approach is developed ‐ the culture‐as‐context approach ‐ that assumes all actions have a symbolic aspect, all actions are value‐laden, symbols are meaningful only in terms of their relations with other symbols, and symbols are dispositions to action, not causes of it. The study of culture is seen, then, as the explication of action in terms of the system of symbolic forms ‐ goals, plans, ideas, roles and traditions ‐ that people use to give meaning and order to their experience. This approach is applied to the interactions of the members of the‘Transition Team’in a Bell Telephone operating company preparing for the deregulation of the American Telephone and Telegraph Company, its parent corporation, in 1981. It is demonstrated empirically and explained conceptually that culture leads to a certain class of possible actions which makes certain attempts at change, or reactions to change, probable in a given situation.
Journal of Management Studies – Wiley
Published: Nov 1, 1986
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