Question from Denis for Our Readers

Hi Denis, Your interpretation sounds correct to me. (Beyond what Hatch describes, I see another, “constructive postmodern position” (1) which draws from both modernism and symbolic interpretivism).

I’m posting your question for our readers, as their perspectives might reveal new useful insights. 

Best wishes,


Hi Lisa. I’m trying to understand organization as culture. Can you forward to Carman de Voer to explain me these explanations. I am having great difficulty understanding this writing, the language she wrote were too heavy for me. If you understand would be even better.

Hatch (2006), which is given as an additional reading in week 2, has a clear explanation of the three perspectives of organisational theory: modernism; symbolic interpretivism; and post modernism (this last is not examinable). Where modernism assumes that there is an objective, external reality which exists independent of what we know about it, symbolic interpretivism assumes that we cannot know about anything except through our subjective awareness of it. As Hatch 2006, p14) puts it, ‘that which exists is that which we agree exists.’

Under modernism we can discover the truth about our world by measuring and testing from which we can deduce universal laws. The organisation is seen as a concrete separate entity driven by rational goals. The focus of organisational theory from this perspective is around developing universal laws and techniques that can be applied to the structures and processes of organisations to improve their efficiency and effectiveness in the pursuit if rational goals. Through much of the history of organisational theory this approach has dominated so you are probably most comfortable with this approach. It is consistent with the approach taken in the natural sciences such as physics and chemistry.

Under the symbol interpretive approach organisations are seen as arising from the social processes of their members as they interact and develop understandings about their selves and others. That is, organisations are socially constructed. The only way to know about organisations then is to understand the point of view of the individuals involved rather than seek for universal laws. The focus of organisational theory under this perspective is on ‘how people give meaning and order to their experience within specific contexts, through interpretive and symbolic acts, forms and processes’ (Hatch 2006, p14).

To take an example from the model exam on dso, question 6 asks about how we could study organisational culture from a modernist perspective. Modernism would assume that culture was a concrete phenomenon which could be identified, measured and understood using universal laws. Once properly understood it could be manipulated in the same way as structure and processes to increase efficiency and effectiveness. Sutton and Nelson (1990), give an example of this approach in their article when they talk about using cultural artefacts to facilitate change. A symbolic interpretive perspective on culture might look at the processes of interaction and meaning making that result in shared values, beliefs and assumptions with the aim of understanding particular cultures and how they are created and perpetuated.



(1) David Ray Griffin coined the term constructive postmodernism to refer to the view that all perspectives are limited and therefore fail to describe reality in an objective, complete way; however, these perspectives often still yield us some information about our shared reality. Charlene Spretnak terms this position, ecological postmodernism.


  1. carman de Voer says:

    Organizational Culture

    Hello Denis and Lisa,

    I’m not sure about the question but I believe you are asking about the odd language academics use to describe organizational culture. It’s so easy to feel overpowered by academic writing. Simply put, It has been said that “the water is the last thing the fish see.” If we imagine that organizations are fishbowls then the challenge of helping fish to comprehend their environment is obvious [if fish could think like we do!] We so often take words for granted. “Culture” is an example. So let’s go back to basics. What do we mean by “culture”?

    Gareth Morgan’s excellent work “Images of Organization” [which I highly recommend] says that “culture” comes from the idea of “tilling and developing the land” (p.120) Morgan says the agricultural metaphor focuses our attention on “very specific aspects of social development.” What does he mean?

    Does he mean that people are unique? Yes. Are you and I unique? Yes. But are we also alike in many respects? Yes. However, Morgan is talking specifically about “organizations.” So the metaphor of “culture” asks us to imagine that organizations are like countries and we are like anthropologists trying to understand the distinctive societies. Hence, an organization, like a country, will exhibit unique characteristics [I like to say that organizations are like fingerprints in that they both unique but exhibit commonalties].

    Following are some elements of “culture”:

    *Leadership: Who are in control?

    *Structure-How have those in control arranged positions?

    *Climate—How have those in control taught members to “feel” about one another?

    *History—Who were originally in control? How did they and their successors shape the organization?

    *Customs and rituals—What big meaningful events have been arranged by those in control?

    *Language-How do those in control communicate with organizational members?

    *Dress—How do those in control dress? How do they expect organizational members to dress?

    *Beliefs—What things are accepted as true by those in control? How deeply are those beliefs held by those in control? How are those beliefs communicated to those with less control?

    *Artifacts—How have those in control arranged buildings, furnishings and equipment?

    *Values—What do those in control expect of those they control?

    Culture is all about the creation of social reality. But power is key. Power is the ability to create or produce reality [organizations]. Here is an example from Morgan’s chapter on culture:

    “We sit in the same seats, like cows always go to the same stall. It’s a real waste of time. It’s a situation where you can say just about anything and no one will refute it. People are very hesitant to speak up, afraid to say too much. They say what everyone else wants to hear” p.131.

    *A modernist approach might begin by asking about the elements of culture—the big picture. For example, What elements of culture are useful in analyzing the above example? *A symbolic interpretivist approach might ask how members are making meaning within their experience. For example, How does the metaphor of the cow illustrate the member’s interaction? *A post-modernist perspective might ask about the member’s power and ability to make meaning and how the member’s perception impacts the organization [and yes, we can critique post-modernism].

    My advice to those studying organizational theory is to pay attention to power and control. It’s all very well to talk about “shared” meaning and “rational” goals, for example. But in the final analysis members will say and do what they are expected to do—by those in power.

    I hope this helps.

    Bye for now!


  2. Yvette says:

    My company is Walt Disney and how do these questions listed below tie into Symbolic Interpretivism

    How does your assigned perspective define and apply culture?
    How does the culture reveal itself in the daily activities of this organization?
    What instruments, tools, symbols, power displays, and so on are visible in your firm?

  3. Hi Yvette,
    Welcome! This is a particularly interesting question with respect to your organization, Disney, as the company is part of our larger cultural meaning-making.

    Given that symbolic Interpretivism/Interactionism deals with meaning making, you are looking at these questions from the lens of shared meanings. It might be helpful to you to shift from an intellectual consideration of the questions to thinking about your lived experience as a member of the organization.

    A good place to start is to consider the official mission and values, and the actual operational values of the organization: Who succeeds, is rewarded, is punished, and why? What are the stories and themes of founders, executives, and other colleagues, that capture core values, the company’s view of itself. What particular rituals, symbols, gestures enact the culture? What are the signs and symbols of power?

    Carrying the questions of this perspective with you as you go through your workday are likely to give rise to new insights.

    I hope these thoughts are helpful to you as you engage these questions…


    Yvette wrote:
    My company is Walt Disney and how do these questions listed below tie into Symbolic Interpretivism,
    How does your assigned perspective define and apply culture?
    How does the culture reveal itself in the daily activities of this organization?
    What instruments, tools, symbols, power displays, and so on are visible in your firm?

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