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Chen, "Understanding the Buddhist Tzu-Chi Association: A cultural approach," 1990

USC dissertation in Anthropology.
August 27, 2009

Sheng Jen Chen, Ph.D

Abstract (Summary)

Based upon an organizational cognition perspective which views an organization as a system of knowledge which rests in the network of organizational members' shared subjective meanings, this research conducted a cultural analysis to examine the Taiwanese, voluntary Buddhist Tzu-Chi Association which has successfully mobilized large-scale social resources to undertake a vast variety of charitable and social services. By employing the Developmental Research Sequence Method, developed by cognitive anthropologist James Spradley, this research identifies and presents the major elements of Tzu-Chi's organizational culture. The cultural description which follows is organized around two of the most distinguished cultural themes of the Tzu-Chi organizational members' cultural knowledge: Tzu-Chi as a big family and Tzu-Chi as a group for self-cultivation.

Furthermore, in order to highlight not only Tzu-Chi's organizational nature but also the shortcomings of the all-pervasive bureaucratic organization and its remedies, there is a comparison made between Tzu-Chi and the bureaucratic organization, offering four levels of analysis: (1) meta-theoretical level (comparing their underlying assumptions); (2) metaphorical level (comparing their dominant metaphors and languages); (3) organizational level (comparing their organizational goals, organizational structure, and organizational functions--motivation, leadership, control, and communication); and (4) the outcome level (comparing the tangible and intangible outcomes).

Finally, based upon the "Tzu-Chi experiences," where organizational members experience a meaningful duality between personal meanings and organizational purposes, a sense of belonging, and states of psychic wholeness, this study suggests that (1) loss of personal meaning and purpose is not necessarily an inevitable sacrifice that needs to be made by the members of large-scale organizations, (2) a dehumanizing mode of organizing which treats people as mere instruments is not a necessary evil for attaining organizational goals, (3) "irrational" elements of human psyche such as feelings and intuition, and such emotional expressions as love, caring, friendship, joy, and pity do not necessarily lead to "malfunctions" in an organization, and (4) a successful indigenous organization based upon an eastern philosophical paradigm does exist, and it is worthy of further study by students of organizations.

Advisor: McEachern, Alex