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This article is dedicated to my friends in the Agile community who have shown interest and curiosity in understanding the academic origins of the study of culture change.  The content is derived from my chosen field in college, Cultural Anthropology.  One of my favorite things is to help build cognitive maps across domains. – E. Slomba

The group of disciplines we know today as the social sciences emerged in the wake of the Industrial Revolution.  This increasing specialization was a response to the world’s increasing complexities.   Anthropology distinguished itself from the other branches of social science in two ways: first, by attempting to retain a comprehensive view of humankind and second, by an emphasis on empirical data.

Early Attempts at Explaining Cultural Differences

19th century scholars attempted to place the development of cultures within a set of evolutionary stages to tell “the” story of humankind.

“There is a psychic unity of mankind – a basic similarity of all human minds – in every land, in every culture,” Edward Burnett Tylor.

Tylor was the first to use statistical analysis in comparing cultures.  He initiated cross-cultural studies of commonly observed themes like marriage and inheritance.

“Technological inventions and discoveries alter society in a way so that new traits become necessary for survival,” Lewis Henry Morgan.

Morgan associated stages of evolution with particular technologies, and wrote about “successive arts.”  To him we owe a debt related to the concepts of disruption and innovation tracing back through generations of scholarship to his foundational work.

Data Gathering

Scholars during the early development of Cultural Anthropology focused on methodologies for ethnography and linguistics.

“Whenever we make judgements about good and bad cultures, we do so on the basis of certain overt or covert premises,” Franz Boas.

Boas was a staunch believer in the value of first-hand information.  He tore down previous contributions of “armchair anthropologists” and attacked viewpoints of certain races as being more or less evolved.

“Culture forms recognizable and persistent patterns,” Alfred Louis Kroeber.

Kroeber found examples of patterns in philosophy, music, literature and nationalism to suggest that genius tends to develop in cultural clusters.

“Borrowing is always easier than originating,” Robert H. Lowie.

For Lowie, cultural contact is an exchange of ideas.  He was interested in the ways different cultures mix and mingle, especially at their peripheries.

“I consider as my greatest accomplishment that I am an adopted member of the Comanche tribe, was accepted as a master carver by the Marquesan natives and executed commissions for them in their own art, am a member of the Native Church of North America (Peyote) according to Quapaw rite, became a properly accredited ambiasy nkazo (medicine man) in Madagascar and was even invited to join the Rotary Club of a middle western city.” Ralph Linton

Linton stressed that cultural factors were more important than biological ones in explaining differences among tribes.  He studied status and roles in class-based societies, with a main focus on the individual creating and reacting to cultural influences.

“Institutions are the vehicle through which specific influences are brought to bear on the growing individual.” Abram Kardiner

Kardiner emphasized the adaptations people choose in order to negotiate culture. His fieldwork gathered first-person biographies.

The next post will continue with Organizations & Reciprocity.  Meanwhile, THANKS for asking, Lisette.  I hope some of these points at least are helpful, and I’m glad we’re in the same tribe!

Lisette Sutherland is an expert on remote collaboration and community-building.  For more information about Lisette and her work, see & follow her on Twitter @lightling


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 openLinkedIn Group

You can also see this piece on the Self Management Institute blogroll at

Over Labor Day weekend an extraordinary event took place in the world of self organized groups.  Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love, hosted the World Convention of one of the largest and most respected 12-Step recovery programs, known as Narcotics Anonymous.  Over 18,000 recovering addicts were in attendance, from over 100 countries.


Twelve-step programs are a massive worldwide movement of various, self-organized groups  – each aligned to address a common, life-threatening problem (alcoholism, addiction, overeating, etc.).  Their power is based on face-to-face meetings in which people identify with one another and share openly and honestly on a regular basis.

This month, twenty years ago, I began studying Narcotics Anonymous as a participant observer for my senior thesis in Cultural Anthropology at the College of William and Mary.  Using Victor Turner’s ideas as a theoretical framework, I titled the thesis “Betwixt and Between: Communitas as Cure in the Lives of Recovering Addicts.”  I have been privileged to spend time sitting inside the circle at NA meetings, discovering how principles like “anonymity,” “humility,” and “surrender” make it possible for men and women whose lives had been controlled by drugs to live clean one day at a time, with each other’s help.

Organic openness is the essence of “Communitas” as outlined by Victor Turner (an underrated genius!  Please read his anthropology essays if you’re at all interested in contemporary organizational culture.  I have recommended them to many Agile coaches and colleagues working to improve the workplace.)

Examples of Communitas throughout history:

  • the monastic tradition established by St. Francis

  • women in Paris in the 1920s

  • performance artists in New York City in the 1970s (the scene fed by collaborations like Merce Cunningham/John Cage)

These groups stepped away from old forms and took for themselves the freedom to experiment with new ones.  Eventually, their ideas fed back into the mainstream where society as a whole could profit from them.  In the end, everyone had more creative options.

Narcotics Anonymous was founded in 1953 in California.  NA describes iteslf as “a global, community-based organization with a multi-lingual and multicultural membership.”   Its message, often referred to as the Promise of Freedom is: that any addict can stop using, lose the desire to use and find a new way to live.

This message – shared spontaneously in every meeting by members and read aloud from NA literature – is clear, consistent and reliable.  There is not one single culture for which the message is designed or in which it can be heard and understood.  There is unlimited potential in its simplicity.

Since NA has been fully self-supporting and growing worldwide as a multicultural phenomenon of Self-Organization for sixty years, perhaps we should listen to the wisdom it espouses.

The following is a GAME OF ASSOCIATION.  I start with a principle of Self-Organization, and follow it with a 12-step slogan from Narcotics Anonymous meetings.

Opting in.  “You are a member when you say you are.”

Collaboration.  “I can’t.  We can.”

Simplicity.  “KISS – keep it simple, stupid”

Continuous self-improvement: “Progress not perfection.”  “The journey continues.”

Incremental development. “It’s a process.”  “One step at a time.”

Faith in the emergent solution.  “Trust the process.”  “Act as if.”

Servant-leadership. “Our leaders are but trusted servants.  They do not govern.”

Persistence.  “Stay in the solution.” “Don’t give up five minutes before the miracle.”

In Narcotics Anonymous, the stakes are the highest possible: people’s lives.  In order to have credibility and be able to attract newcomers as well as retain experienced members, it is essential that the organization be able to deliver on its Promise of Freedom.

They cannot achieve this through coercion.  It is only through Self-Organization that recovering addicts have been able to adopt this program of change and incorporate its sustaining habits into their lives.

There is a joke in NA that goes “How many recovering addicts does it take to change a lightbulb?  None!  The lightbulb has to be willing to change itself.”

Therefore, based on everything I have learned in Cultural Anthropology and can offer the workplace improvement movement, culture is more like a liquid than a solid.   It cannot be effectively hacked.  Instead, it flows like a river, carrying various messages along in its fluidity.

Cultural change is driven by those considered to be outsiders or rebels, individuals driven by courage and/or desperation to admit that standard ways of doing things simply DO NOT WORK.   These individuals gravitate toward the margins of organized groups, the interstices, the spaces in-between.   There, they have a better chance of finding each other, learning from one another, and together, eventually, making creative contributions.

  • What is your Self-Organizing group’s primary purpose?  
  • How do its members gather and share this message?
  • Have they experienced enough pain to truly want to change?

For more background on Outsider Wisdom, Cultural Anthropology, Narrative Intelligence and finding the right creative metaphor to spirit forward your self-organizing transformations, please contact Elinor Slomba at

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