Liminality as Cultural Process for Cultural Change

in Organizational Change, Research Day
May 14th, 2012

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Karen Golden-Biddle

Organizational Behavior

Authors: Jennifer Howard-Grenville, Karen Golden-Biddle, Jenn Irwin, and Jina Mao

This paper offers a revised understanding of intentional cultural change. In contrast to prevailing accounts, we suggest that such change can take place in the absence of initiating jolts, may be infused in everyday organizational life, and led by insiders who need not hold hierarchical power. Drawing on data from field studies and in-depth interviews, we develop a model of cultural change in which everyday occurrences such as meetings or workshops are constructed symbolically as ‘liminal’ phenomena, bracketed from yet connected to everyday action in the organization. The construction of these occurrences as liminal illuminates the symbolic realm, creating possibilities for people to experiment with new cultural resources and invite different interpretations that hold potential for altering the cultural order. Our analyses contribute to the literature on culture by developing liminality, a process that brings forward the symbolic and invites recombination, as a cultural explanation of cultural change, to complement prevailing political or social structural explanations. We discuss implications and boundary conditions for this type of intentional cultural change.