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The Humanities Conference 2003

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Cultural Diversity and Alienation as Constraints on Employee Interaction in a Wholesale Company: An Anthropological Perspective

Stephne Herselman.

In the South African context diversity is often reduced to involvement of different racial groups in a particular setting. This has the implication of differentiating between people on the basis of identification with various cultural groups, and the establishment of cultural distances between them. In a study in a wholesale company, cultural diversity was described with reference to three dimensions: a primary dimension which includes observable physical traits of sex, race and ethnicity i.e. traits with which people are born and are fundamental to their identities; a secondary dimension that includes education, wealth and income, and adds depth and individuality to people's lives. A tertiary dimension involves cognitive and affective phenomena such as attitudes, perceptions, and work motivation, and ways of integrating personal, ethnic and professional aims and ambitions with official roles and duties. They cannot be observed and are deduced from observation of behaviour and expressed ideas.

Implications of the dimensions include group formation and the occurrence of latent tensions between them; stereotyping, and inconsistencies in the meanings ascribed to events, decisions and actions, which produce misunderstanding, self-justification and also alienation among employees. Alienation describes employees' experiences of separation in a work context characterised by diversity, but without physical separation or lack of interaction among them. It is linked to differences in experiences of organisational culture and frames of reference, to political and economic factors, and to varying power relationships between people. Its symptoms in the target company included employees' resentment, negative perceptions, suppressed anger and separation which, in terms of the theoretical assessment of this study, are aspects of the tertiary dimension.

This presentation considers alienation as a function of cultural diversity in the company, implications for employee interaction and factors that mitigate against it, and provides suggestions on how the causes and impact of alienation can be alleviated.


Stephne Herselman  (South Africa)
Senior Lecturer in Anthropology
Department of Anthropology, Archaeology, Geography and Environmental Studies
University of South Africa

Senior lecturer in anthropology, specializing in the anthropology of organizations and medical anthropology; focuses of research: the South African multicultural health care and corporate environments; MDR-TB and correspondence with HIV/Aids; impact of cultural diversity on workplace behaviour. Current research: work performance and output attainment among consultants of a financial institution.
Member of Department Executive Committee and School Management Committee; Chairperson of Dept. Promotion and Publications Committee; Editor of Departmental Newsletter

  • Cultural Diversity
  • Alienation
  • Employee Interaction
  • South Africa

(30 min Conference Paper, English)