This post concludes my December series on anthropology’s fundamental frameworks for understanding culture and organizations. I’ve prepared it for friends in the Agile community who have shown interest in scholarly reference points to inform their approaches to speaking and coaching.  Special thanks to Lisette Sutherland, who gave a presentation on Tribal Leadership at an Agile HR conference in Stockholm, Sweden and afterwards asked for some feedback.  – ES

Majoring in Cultural Anthropology began a trajectory of understanding how very much I do not understand.  Our own culture always constrains our understanding of other cultures.  This affects our development as an individual, our ability to communicate and the quality of our relations with people.


I used principles of Anthropology to climb out of the paper bag I was in, namely the American South.  As a white, privileged woman, my cultural lens had sculpted my viewpoint and behavior in ways I sought to change as I became aware that they caused harm and pain.  Of course, this is an ongoing process of awareness, acceptance and just plain muddling through.

With perspective gained through academic study I found it possible to correct for cognitive biases, navigate and contribute to cultural diversity, and learn to enter complex organizations and communities with respect and exit with mutual trust and new friendships.  Today as a business professional I draw upon my training in Cultural Anthropology to quickly map out underlying power structures, conduct ethnographic research and function effectively as a participant-observer.  I believe the discipline offers key insights on many of the problems that Agilists face in positioning their role as change agents inside organizations.

In a paper called Business Anthropology and the Technology Company, Daisy Rojas writes, “the use of anthropological practice within technology companies brings about understanding of something outside of engineering processes.  This may include human thought processes and methods of interaction.”  She quotes from Scott Ambler’s work Agile Modeling: Effective Practices for eXtreme Programming and the Unified Process (2002) in discussing information flow among teams about how new technologies are used or built.

I had the good fortune to meet up with Daisy in Charlottesville, Virginia, over the holiday break and chat about influential concepts in 20th century Cultural Anthropology.  (Previous two posts cover earlier periods.)

“Every technological system functions within a social system and is therefore conditioned by it.” Leslie A. White

White examined major historical events such as the Agricultural Revolution and the Fuel Revolution.  He looked at transportation, energy, medicine and communication in terms of social change and patterns of adaptation.

“Life inevitably diversifies,” Marshall D. Sahlins.

Sahlins defined diversity as the production of new cultural forms evolving out of old forms.  He saw progress as the tendency of forms to become increasingly complex.

“Anthropology will one day have a choice of becoming history, or nothing.” E. E. Evans-Pritchard

Pritchard turned a reflexive lens on his own discipline and helped Anthropology critique itself.  He accurately predicted a shift of the emphasis among anthropologists toward contemporary studies.

Claude Levi Strauss Picture Quotes 4 Claude Levi Strauss Picture Quotes 4

Levi-Strauss contributed a view of kinship based on alliances.  In much of his work he sought out a “deep grammar” of underlying structures within the human mind to explain culture in terms of contrasting binary opposites.

“A ritual is a stereotyped sequence of activities involving gestures, words, and objects…designed to influence forces on behalf of the actors’ goals and interests”  Victor Turner.

From the early to mid-1950s, Turner lived among the Ndembu, a central African tribe and studied their society and religious practices.  He contributed the concept of liminality as a state of being betwixt and between a culture’s recognized categories.

“Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun.” Clifford Geertz

Geertz interpreted the symbols that give rise to meaning in a culture.  He believed that cultural symbols are a primary source of order in people’s lives.  His writing has a distinct literary flair.  My favorite is an essay called “Thick Description” about all the different ways an you can interpret a wink and the ethnographer’s role in discerning among them.

Today, more in the Agile community are coming to see, understand and promote the value of anthropologists’ contributions to their approaches to leading change in organizations.

The Self Management Institute published my reflections on Victor Turner’s concept of Communitas earlier this year   Very similar anthropological concepts have been woven into the framework for Open Agile Adoption, as described in this article:

Here are some additional resources:

High Points in Anthropology

Conformity and Conflict, Readings in Cultural Anthropology

The Cultural Experience: Ethnography in Complex Society

The Anthropology Network, an open LinkedIn Group

Anthropology and Design, an open LinkedIn Group

Lisette Sutherland is an expert on remote collaboration and community-building.  We are presently gathering case studies for a book about working remotely.  If you have a story to tell on the subject, please reach out to us: @lightling and @artsint.   The results will help others and improve the world of work.  

Daisy Rojas can be reached at the University of Virginia.  Her paper was published in the International Journal for Business Anthropology:!