Is culture a thing?

Maybe, but I’m not sure to what degree we can view it as tangible, or definable, or an entity, because it’s made of feelings and fluctuations and a perceived reality of many. Is this why we are unable to plot it out or put diagrams to it, or why I have struggled to find a metaphor that I am truly satisfied represents my current state of trying to make sense of such a complex entity. This is a blog that doesn’t seek to answer questions, but instead looks to put together a series of observations for something which I so boldly claimed was ‘everything,’ but then, as Tom Rees asserted,

How can something be everything, or indeed anything?

Who is subject to the changes and contributes to the static or fluid nature of culture? In schools, we establish culture through vision statements and values, aims and objectives. We outline our key purpose through such statements, outlining that ‘this is what we do here,’ and believe that this will provide us with some form of core, a static point that we can return to if at any point, we need to reestablish that core purpose. It sets our belief system, without which perhaps we wouldn’t know which direction to head in- or at least, that’s how societally, we set out our stall. In organisations such as schools, where so much of what we do is hidden and immeasurable; where milestones are outnumbered by subtle moments that are at times so fleeting that it might even be that there is no one there to share in the success, values draw us together and enable us to experience an individual sense of autonomy, within the framework of organisational safety. This explicit definition of culture, whether agreed by all or not, at least speaks with a sense of clarity so that all stakeholders can consider what the words on the wall mean to them, and to what extent their own belief systems and professional sense of self aligns with them.

However, what about the innumerable contributing factors of the implicit enactment of school culture? Where the explicit talks the talk, the more implicit level walks the walk, and perhaps carries the larger influencers of what shapes the reality of school culture from day to day. So, what influences or contributes to the enactment and subsequently, the perceived reality of school culture? Well, countless aspects of school life: staff turnover, team dynamics, individual belief systems; workload, the current placeholder in the school calendar, policy in place or policy change; a sense of hierarchy, or lack of; a sense of directive, or lack of. These are all key fluctuations that ebb and flow towards or against the vision statement on the wall- they serve to either feed into, distort, erode or shift the culture as a result of their existence, action and the way in which people then respond. These implicit aspects of culture are perhaps more powerful than we give them credit for, because whilst subtle in their shift and standpoint in relation to the bigger messages, they shape perception of how it feels to work in a school: they give the word on the wall a far more tangible quality that we may at first notice. And with so many variables, from so many sources, can we ever really hope to claim that culture is under influence of anything other than these micro-forces at large? Particularly when with this definition, this more meaningful observation around culture is wholly based upon a series of shared and conflicting perceptions?

This then leaves questions around the role of leadership within culture. If we are unable to drive culture- because it does not take a roadmap, opting instead for this active, cultivating state instead of feeling inclined to find a clear trajectory, consuming what aligns- and indeed, what aligns less so- then what is a leader’s role in defining culture? If an organisational structure is determined to exist as its own entity, then what can we do as school leaders if we are unable to contribute to its curation at points where we know are its biggest influence?

Our roles then become possibly more observational, in recognition of the fact that the smaller adjustments cause the bigger shifts back to our original message. To undertake the role of paying attention to culture means to largely assert oneself as spectator, watching where actions or changes might take the whole-organisational structure even ever so slightly off kilter. What may look like a member of staff moving on, may set in motion a series of oscillations at such a minuscule level that they could go unnoticed, or may not present themselves until weeks, months later even. Noticing such moments makes them malleable, so that a leader can then deliberate over whether there is an imbalance that might endure: which conversations may take place, or how might we communicate our rationale to draw us back to those explicit messages that we originally agreed upon. Alternatively, that shift in balance might be welcomed, advantageous to what we thought was best bets, and we must decide whether to adjust to re configure, or whether to let the imbalance play out after all. Maybe the school leader does nothing but watches this all unfold, and instead, drawing from a series of well-established mental models, anticipates the consequence of the action, with nothing else but curiosity- because they do not perceive such a change to be a threat, but simply a natural occurrence as part of the evolutionary element of culture.

But the fact remains, the space within which culture exists- if that’s what we wish to call such a space- is malleable. It serves as a space that captures the interplay between individuals within the organisation of a school community; it captures the tension between an individual and collective pursuit. At its most effective, it breathes alignment over conformity through exchanges which perhaps ask rather than tell, through nudges rather than directives. There is certainly merit in finding metaphors and visualisations for us to sense-make what we believe to exist, but I’ve yet to be able to find such a metaphor for culture, because to acknowledge its existence as one of our most extensive complexities means that to do so might unintentionally overlook one of the many significant entities that cause it to be just outside the reach of truly definable. Perhaps because it breathes in these spaces between other more measurable aspects of school life, to which our attention is usually taken towards instead.

I look forward to thinking on it further, and many thanks to both Tom Rees and Kathryn Morgan for helping my thinking around this.

1 Comment

  1. Thanks for sharing. I sometimes think of culture as the overlap between different people’s experiences of a school. Therefore it’s not as monolithic as we might like to think. It might be more than the sum of its parts though. Artefacts and shared meanings can gain a momentum or solidity of their own. Almost like Durkheim’s ‘collective consciousness’ shared beliefs can transcend individuals, though at the same time it’s shaped by daily interactions between students and staff.

    The stories we tell ourselves and share with others about the organisation can influence things over time. These stories can be more or less positive and more or less fragile. I liked this piece on family stories: https://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/17/fashion/the-family-stories-that-bind-us-this-life.html?auth=login-email&login=email

    To an extent, this story telling can be an intentional process. But it’s easy to do this in a blunt and fragile way when we insist that things are as we declare them to be – making us impervious to useful (but challenging feedback). I.e. ‘this is a tolerant and caring community’ is good to assert but not to the extent that incidents of bullying or unhappiness become threats to this story – rather than glimpses into the myriad experiences and actions of people within the community.

    I would be interested to know how school leaders ‘read’ culture. It’s hard to do – and sometimes it seems their schools’ hierarchies, channels of communication and accountability pressures are a hindrance rather than help in this regard.

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