Table of Contents

General Contexts

Intrapersonal Communication (Persuasion)

Interpersonal Communication

Small Group Communication

Organizational Communication

Intercultural Communication

Mass Communication

Applied Contexts

Health Communication

Instructional Communication

Honors Capstone Home Page

Last updated February 14, 2001


Click Here to Go Back to Organizational Context Page

Cultural Approach to Organizations

Explanation of Theory:

Geertz and Pacanowsky describe organizations as having their own culture.  This means that any given organization has a particular culture in which the meanings for things are shared between individuals.  This symbolic interactionist approach is influenced by the East, and Japanese companies that have moved into the West.  The environment that surrounds each company is called the corporate culture and consists of the organization's image, character, and climate.  The culture is learned through the use of Stories (or metaphors) used to convey the messages the corporation wants to share with its employees.  There are three types of stories told:  Corporate stories, information which the management wants to share with the employees; Personal stories, which include personal accounts of themselves that employees share with eachother to help to define who they are within the organization; and Collegial stories, which are stories (positive or negative) that employees within an organization tell about eachother.  Using the scientific method of ethnography, we can learn to understand the rituals of a given culture of an organization. 

Theorists:   Clifford Geertz &
                       Michael Pacanowsky

Date:  1973

Primary Article:

      Geertz, C. (1973). The interpretation of cultures.  New York:  Basic Books.

     Pacanowsky, M., & O'Donnell-Trujillo, N. (1983).  Organizational communication as cultural performance. Communication Monographs 50, 127-147.

Individual Interpretations:

This theory clearly comes from a humanistic perspective.  It is very interpretive, the use of thick description as a means to understand corporate culture shows us that through symbols, we seek to reach shared meaning throughout our corporate experience.   Geertz and Pacanowsky help us to understand the intricacies of any given corporate culture.  This culture could also be described as the corporate climate.  Their work in describing how a corporate culture often takes on a life of its own is clearly needed for its descriptive quality. 

Metatheoretical Assumptions:

Ontological Assumption:
This brings us to Cultural Approach's ontology.  Coming from the humanist standpoint, cultural approach clearly shows us that the individual has a right to choose whether or not they will be included in a certain group--including the work group.  This right to choose comes from their own ways of knowing about the world.

Epistemological Assumption:
This phenomenological perspective shares an epistemology of creating multiple truths.  For instance, the management does not just hand down a set of rules and expect everyone to act on them.  Rather, management sets down guidelines but it is up to the individuals involved in an organization to make sense of them.  Each person brings his/her own ideas and beliefs to the table and therefore brings his/her own idea of reality to.  There is no right or wrong, just an interpretation of the rules. 

Axiological Assumption:
The axiological assumptions about the Cultural approach are somewhere between value-
conscious and value-laden.  Although we have stressed the individual's influence upon an organization, the individuals are still aware of the goals and ideals of the corporation itself.  An organization is more the "sum of its parts" within the guidelines of this theory. 


This interpretive approach to looking at organizations is a useful tool for providing "thick description". It has a nice conceptual fit and fulfills Farrell's (1987) criterion for Analytic Consistency.  It has been checked out and tested well proving its Methodological Rigor, and makes sense to us in the real world--it is credible.  The implications for future research are vast.  The cultural approach has spawned many studies. 

Ideas and Implications:

This theory has been widely used as interpretive research along with other methods.  This theory provides a good base which is useful to triangulate research.  The multiple methods approach helps us to discern quantitative as well as qualitative research, and the cultural approach allows that.  The life-like origin of this theory reminds us that we are all from the same earth, giving and receiving of it mutually.  The cultural approach takes a humanistic look at what goes on inside the workplace.


Just because Lynn has joined a new company does not mean that she has to become one of "them" all of the time.  Just as we do interpersonally, Lynn chooses the appropriate time and place and person for her to tell her 'stories' to.  Collegial stories among friends, corporate stories among colleagues, and personal stories to friends.  Her descriptions of events help us to understand her role in an organization, as well as her perceptions of it.

Relevant Research:

    Lee, M. & Barnett, G. A.(1997). A symbols-
and-meaning approach to the organizational.Com-
munication Research, 24 (4), 394-413. 

    Blyler, N. R.(1996). Narrative and research in professional communication.Journal of Business & Technical Communication, 10 (3), 330-352. 

    Larkey, L.& Morrill, C. (1995). Organizational commitment as symbolic process.Western Journal of Communication, 59 (3), 193-214.

    Wendt, R. F.(1994). Learning to `walk the talk'. Management Communication Quarterly, 8 (1), p5-46. 

Location in Eight (8) Primary Communication Theory Textbooks:

     Anderson, R., & Ross, V. (1998). Questions of communication: A practical introduction to theory (2nd ed.). New York: St. Martin's Press.  N/A.

     Cragan, J. F., & Shields, D.C. (1998). Understanding communication theory: The communicative forces for human action. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon. N/A.

     Griffin, E. (2000). A first look at communication theory (4th ed.). Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill. 248-58.

     Griffin, E. (1997). A first look at communication theory (3rd ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill. 273-284.

      Infante, D. A., Rancer, A. S., & Womack, D. F. (1997). Building communication theory (3rd ed.). Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press. N/A.

      Littlejohn, S. W. (1999). Theories of human communication (6th ed). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth. N/A.

      West, R., & Turner, L. H. (2000). Introducing communication theory: Analysis and application. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield. 225-240.

       Wood, J. T. (1997). Communication theories in action: An introduction. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth. N/A.