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How gowns, candlelight, and age-old traditions nurture a powerful elite

December 1, 2010

For more information, contact: Benjamin Haimowitz,

Among the unsettling features of the financial collapse that precipitated the current recession was the sudden downfall of illustrious companies that sustained great business traditions. The demise of Lehman Brothers 158 years after its founding recalled that a former partner, Herbert Lehman, served for a decade as New York's  governor and then as a U.S. Senator, while his cousin Robert Lehman, whom Fortune magazine described as "the very definition of a patrician," headed the firm during the golden age that ended with his death in 1969.
Equally extraordinary, if less devastating, was the tarring of Goldman-Sachs, a spectacle that prompted one leading journalist to wonder how this could happen to a company that "from its founding in 1869 epitomized with only rare slip-ups, the best of American finance. Serving the client was its lodestar, and its bankers were pillars of society, more conversant in literature than in the vagaries of, say, mortgage securities."
Why did these world-renowned institutions permit such great heritages to fall by the wayside? Evidently  because tradition, however illustrious, has not counted for much on Wall Street -- nor, it would seem, in American business and American life in general. Thirty years ago, in his book Tradition, the cultural scholar Edward Shils wrote that "the time through which we have just lived has been one in which what was inherited from the past was thought of as an irksome burden to be escaped from as soon as possible." Shils summed up society's prevailing attitude thus: "Change must not be resisted; it must be accepted. Even better is to seek change; best of all is to initiate it."
"If that was true 30 years ago, how much truer is it in the era of Facebook and Google," comments Prof. M. Tina Dacin of Canada's Queen's School of Business, the co-author of an intriguing new study which may signal a growing respect for tradition among management thinkers.
The report, in the Academy of Management Journal, closely examines a centuries-old organizational tradition -- "the seemingly innocuous ritual of formal dining" -- at one of the world's leading universities and shows "how its significance goes far beyond a group of college members getting together to dine in the evening."
The rituals embodied in Cambridge University's dining traditions "are powerful carriers of cultural material," conclude Prof. Dacin and her co-authors, Kamal Munir and Paul Tracey of Cambridge's Judge Business School. The professors find the traditions' effects to be far-reaching and enduring; in their words, "It is the trans-temporal and trans-spatial nature of the effects of organizational rituals that underpin their capacity to regulate behavior and ultimately their capacity to maintain institutions."
And the most important such institution, the study finds, is the British class system itself, a discovery that came as something of a surprise  to the professors. "While we did not immediately connect dining rituals with the British class system when we began our research," they write, "as our study progressed we came to the view that Cambridge college dining rituals serve to tacitly support the class system." As they explain, "The norms, values and practices celebrated in the ritual are taken away by participants who help reproduce them in other settings and at other times in order to gain entry to, and flourish in, an elite professional-managerial class that dominates many aspects of the British establishment."
The professors are quick to acknowledge that both the "opulence reflected in these rituals" and the class system that they support "make them obvious targets for critics." Yet, the inequality that the traditions foster is different in basic ways, they observe, from what prevailed in the past.  "More than 50 percent of current Cambridge students are women, more than 50 percent are state-school-educated, and nonwhite students make up 15 percent of the 2008 intake," the study points out. "Indeed, as entry to Cambridge has become more meritocratic, the influence of dining rituals on the class system has arguably increased because...participants from a wide range of social backgrounds now need to be 'prepared' for their future roles amongst the elite."
The study is based on interviews of 60 to 90 minutes each with 57 informants who were participating or had previously participated in dining rituals, as well as on observation of 29 dinners at 21 Cambridge colleges. Several times a week students in formal attire and gowns sit at long refectory tables, while at the far end of the hall, usually on a raised platform, the Master and Fellows of the college sit at the High Table. A dinner of several courses that can last up to two hours is served by a regular staff whose "duty is to serve the Fellows and the students as well as impose order should any student appear to be deviating from established custom."
Tradition enforces a definite hierarchy, the professors note. "Fellows consume different (and higher quality) food than the students, drink much more expensive wine, and often use higher quality silverware as well...The gowns of the Fellows are more elaborate than those of the students, [and] students are required to stand whilst Fellows enter and leave the dining hall in a procession. Interestingly, during dinner we did not observe any interaction between the Fellows and the students (except for those few students who were invited to dine at High Table) nor....between Fellows and college staff [who were] effectively third-class citizens within the college system, performing a role akin to that of servants during Victorian England. However, rather than seeing themselves as a kind of underclass, many of the staff expressed a deep sense of pride in their positions and their roles as custodians of a ritual stretching back up to 500 years."
What emerges with particular force from the interviews is the profound effect these centuries-old traditions have on students, as illustrated by these comments:
-- "The first time I went for formal hall, it was absolutely overwhelming...Formal dress with gowns and all that. All these famous scientists, philosophers, poets, who had sat here on these tables and whose portraits now adorned the walls. We were part of this illustrious legacy now. We were being waited upon, and big things were, I guess, expected from us."
 -- "It all starts feeling normal by the middle of your second year (halfway point). In the first year, we all needed a reason to go, but by the second year it was like the most normal thing to dress up, wear your gown and go to this three-course formal dinner in that amazing hall with candlelight."
-- "I have invited a few friends from outside to formals. They always ask how formal is it, and I tell them, but they are still awe-struck every time. Their reaction is, we don't have anything like this! I guess the word would be jealousy? Or envy? Yes, I think they are envious, and I would be too."
-- "At our first formal hall, a couple of people got up to go out and have a cigarette in between the courses, and the sort of head waiter came up to them and said loudly, 'You are not peasants! Getting up and smoking in between meals is for peasants!' That incident has just stuck in my mind."
In sum, the study concludes that Cambridge "presents a context in which particular rituals have persisted over centuries, defying functionalist explanations and influencing University life in important ways...Our [initial] impression was that the various rituals enacted at Cambridge were relics or hangovers from the past, expensive and extravagant undertakings that served no other purpose than to keep alive an artificial sense of grandeur among the participants. However, when we combined the analysis of our interview and secondary data with our own observations of dining at Cambridge, a new understanding began to take shape, one that no single informant appeared to appreciate in its entirety, or any individual observation captured for us. Specifically, we found that dining rituals serve as powerful devices for socializing new generations of actors who, when they leave Cambridge, go on to reproduce various aspects of the British class system...and more specifically to maintain an elite professional-managerial class that dominates the establishment in Britain."
The new study, entitled "Formal Dining at Cambridge Colleges: Linking Ritual Performance and Institutional Maintenance," is in the December 2010/January 2011 issue of the The Academy of Management Journal.  This peer-reviewed publication is published every other month by the Academy, which, with more than 18,000 members in 103 countries, is the largest organization in the world devoted to management research and teaching. The Academy's other publications are the The Academy of Management Review, The Academy of Management Perspectives and Academy of Management Learning and Education.
Media Coverage:
The Times Higher Education Supplement (UK). Hall of mirrors: do college dinners circulate class along with the port?. (Thursday, May 05, 2011).

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