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An Anthropological View of how Organisations Think

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journal contribution
posted on 08.06.2017, 01:10 by Bell, Wendy, Dr
Models of rational decision making have been widely used to explain how institutions 'think' or behave, and to train managers to make decisions. As a model, rational decision making has proven remarkably resilient despite increasing evidence in recent years that culture, rather than logic, is central to organisational as well as anthropological study. What will be argued here is that the cultural theories we are accustomed to using in management may need to take into account some of the current anthropological models in order to adequately deal with the complexity of future organisations. Rational decision making itself, has been defined by the British anthropologist, Mary Douglas, as a form of cultural bias, that is, only one of several rational 'ways of seeing' the world. In 1970, Mary Douglas published a two-dimensional typology designed to capture cultural biases and make them visible. It formalised her anthropological experience that cultures could be categorised according to two socio-cultural dimensions; the degree of group pressure which she called Group, and the extent of the social controls exerted upon group members, which she called Grid. In 1990, Michael Thompson, Richard Ellis and Aaron Wildavsky adapted Mary Douglas' Grid/Group schema to propose the existence of five predictable worldviews, or cultural biases, each of which perceives the world quite differently, and are present in any decision point or in any public debate. This paper sets out to apply the above model to management decision making, arguing that as we approach the third millenium, managers will need to harness the energy and engagement of all the competing worldviews which Mary Douglas and her colleagues have suggested comprise organisational and social life. It further suggests that in the future, managers may need to abandon today's one-dimensional or dualist decision making models in favour of a single, multi-dimensional cognitive framework capable of holding co-existing and conflicting points of view in an integrated whole.


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Department of Management.

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