National Cultural Characteristics

        In the past decade of increased globalization and diversity, business across borders has increased. Although cross border business faces a lot of challenges not only from the political and socio economic paradigm but also from culture (Porter, 1990). National culture has gained importance, as it is significant in managing global operations. Multinational business strategy research has long acknowledged the importance of national cultural characteristics as determinants of management behavior (Cheng 1989; Rosenweig and Singh 1991). So now , What is culture? It is true that no two human would know the same things but they often have great deal of knowledge in common. This common knowledge or collective memory to a large extent make people work together, communicate and live together. This forms communities and if shared among enough people in a country, its characteristics are called national culture. The common knowledge constitutes one of the elements which make national culture unique (The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, 2nd edition, revised and updated, by E. D. Hirsch, Jr., and James Trefil, is reviewed).

There are a lot of theories that attempt to explain culture like the ones proposed by Fons Trompenaar,1993; Kluckhohn and Strodtbeck, 1961, Edward T.Hall but Geert Hofstede’s “Culture’s consequences” has been remarkably influential and his work has provided the foundation for many studies on, intercultural relations (Hart, 1999), cross-cultural management control systems design (Harrison & McKin- non, 1999), international business research (Chandy & Williams, 1994), and psychology (Baskerville, 2003; Oyserman, Coon, & Kem- melmeier, 2002; Schimmack, Oishi, & Diener, 2005; Triandis, 2004) , most often seeking to determine how differences on cultural dimensions (i.e., power distance, individualism, uncertainty avoidance, and masculinity) impacted work related values and behavior.( National Culture, Leadership and Citizenship: Implications for Cross-cultural Management, p 78)

According to Geert Hofstede the culture is defined as “collective programming of mind and explains that it lies between human nature on one side and individual personality on the other”(Hofstede 1991). Hofstede’s cultural framework has been applied in a wide variety of contexts and his work has gained great support and is of prime importance to many researchers in various disciplines. As stated by Baskerville, “Culture’s Consequences demonstrates an average of 94 citations per annum in the last 18 years. Part of this level of usage appears to reflect efforts of researchers unaware of debates concerning the legitimacy of Hofstede’s dimensions” (R.F.Baskerville,2003). So huge is the acceptance of hofstedes work.

Geert Hofstede an expert of studies in culture from Netherland developed a cross- culture model. “The five dimensions of culture are defined as follows Power Distance: ‘the extent to which the less powerful members of organizations and institutions (like the family) expect and accept that power is distributed unequally’ (Hofstede, 1991: 28; Hofstede & Peterson, 2000: 401). Uncertainty Avoidance: ‘intolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity’ (Hofstede, 1991: 113; Hofstede & Peterson, 2000: 401). Individualism versus Collectivism: ‘the extent to which individuals are integrated into groups’ (Hofstede, 1991: 51; Hofstede & Peterson, 2000: 401). Masculinity versus Femininity ‘assertiveness and competitiveness versus modesty and caring’ (Hofstede, 1991: 82-3, 1998b; Hofstede & Peterson, 2000: 401)” (McSweeney,2002)

        Hofstede defined culture as a “Collective programming of mind”, his concept of culture promotes an image of the individual as merely a passive carrier of a predetermined cultural template (Ailon, 2007;Ailon -Souday & Kunda,2003). As much as Hofstede’s work has been universally accepted as I was researching I came across a number of critics for his work (e.g Galit Ailon(2008);R.F.Baskerville(2003);McSweeney (2002)). It was then it dawned on me the validity of the theory that even I had used in my graduate dissertation like an unquestionably acceptable principle. As G.Ailon(2008) stated “it is not he(Hofstede), the individual, who is of interest here; instead,the discursive practices that governed his text that predominated and ‘ran through’ him (Foucault, 1972: 139)that are of interest.” So here I am going to critically evaluate his theory within a certain degree of my personal understanding of it although heavily relying on the articles of McSweeney and Galit ailon.

        A significant aspect of national culture research of Hofstede is the transparency with which he related the cultural dimensions with other studies of country or national differences for the purposes of making international comparisons. Each of the dimensions of index was compared to seven other national measurements: GNP, latitude, economic growth, population size and growth, population density and organization size. So the socio economic data used by him does describe cultural dimension rather the historical origins of nations. (R.F.Baskerville, 2003). His study comes to show that a nations attributes are culturally influenced. And most of the critiques have remarkably questioned the simplest of facts that many have failed to think. As Mikael Sondergaard puts it , most of the debate on hofstede’s work has been on the following aspects of his study:

  1. surveys are inappropriate instruments to measure culture
  2. unit of analysis of nations is not the best unit suited for studying culture
  3. One company cannot provide information about the entire nations culture
  4. IBM data is old and obsolete
  5. Four dimensions cant tell the whole story

(http://geert-hofstede.international-business-center.com/Sondergaard.shtml).

I am going to be discussing the above mentioned in detail now, though hofstede’s work has entailed substantial contribution in the field of cultural studies there are some pertinent issues that leaves doubt on the validity of the typology produced by him. It is not possible for national culture to be uniform, there is considerable diversity. An assumption of a homogeneous culture can only be made by assuming that culture is coherent, pure, stable, and nothing external like other cultures and non cultural factors influence a national culture.(McSweeney, Forthcoming)Which is hard to believe in reality because when a number of cultures and subcultures co-exist it is impossible for it remain independent and completely uninfluenced by the other. Otherwise we have to consider cultures as being tough enough to withstand any attempts to change them. Some of the issues are discussed in the due course.

The surveys were the backbone of the study. The surveys were carried out on 40 IBM subsidiaries around the world between 1964 and 1973 and used about 117000 questionnaires. Most of the researchers state that a survey is not an appropriate instrument for accurately determining and measuring cultural disparity. This is especially apparent when the variable being measured is a value which culturally sensitive and subjective (Schwartz 1999). Two surveys were carried out and results are a combination of responses from both the surveys. A closer examination revealed that not all questionnaires were used and that the average number per country was small and sometimes evens a minuscule. In only six countries() the number of respondents were more than 1000 and in Pakistan was only 70 The narrowness of the Hofstede surveyed research population radically compounds the scale problem(. McSweeney, 2002). This leads to a doubt in the statistical integrity of the results obtained from the survey. As Schwartz’s (1992) puts it ‘that one cannot derive the normative ideals of a culture from the average of individual responses’ (p. 51).

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The PD(Power distance) index was based on three questions in the IBM questionnaire. The first question was a five point scale , and it asked how frequently in their experience employees were afraid of expressing disagreement with their managers and second and third questions asked about their preferred leadership style(autocratic, persuasive, consultative, and democratic) and the style that closely matched their boss. G.Ailon(2008) states that “in each stage of the research process an attempt of neutralization is visible. This begins with the standardized uniform questionnaire that has been used worldwide. In effect, how- ever, uniformity was, meant ot direct respondents in the paths determined by a Western, managerially oriented research team. The questionnaire coerced a western axis of comparison on non-western cultures. It had a egalatarian portrayal of western culture and ignored racial and colonial inequalities and defined racial power distance under uncertainity avoidance. This fact, enabled a country like South Africa due to apartheid to be represented in the sample by “white respondents only” whether partial in terms of population sample, questionnaire content, or both, it constituted a political act that, however unwittingly, neutralized racism and colonialism by excluding them from measurement.Hofstede also tried to neutralize certain aspects of the dimension by universalisation, stating that Hierarchial inequality is something “we inevitably find,” “the essence of organsation” and so the choices given on the questionnaire was already based on the notion of its universal inevitability thereby trapping the respondent in an invisible way to positively answer the neutrality and inevitability of the managerial power.”(G.Ailon,2008).Though they had choices , and their answers did vary , these were again manipulated and labeled in such a way that hofstede tried “to expropriate the meaning of the answers from his respondents, claiming, in so many words, that anything they said proves his point-using their voices to turn his hypotheses into axioms” (G.Ailon,2008).

The large power distance in France and Belgium (which were exceptions in Nordic, Anglo, Germany) he attributed to the cultural inheritance of Roman empire, likewise the small power distance in Pakistan he attributes to their Islamic religious background and belief that ‘all are equal in the eyes of god’. He used such exemptions to justify his claim that “small PD countries are economically “developed,” large PD countries are “less developed” or “developing.””(Ailon.G,2002). It emphasizes that those from small power-distance cultures are likely to accept responsibility, while those from large power-distance cultures are likely to be more disciplined(Triandis,1993)

The Uncertainty Avoidance(UA) index was based on three questions again and they were related to the frequency of nervousness and tension at work, the second was “”How long do you think you will continue working for this company?” “Please indicate the extent to which you personally agree or disagree . . . [that] company rules should not be bro- ken- even when the employee thinks it is in the company’s best interest”(Hofstede,1980:76 -77,405,408 – 409).Hofstedes book states “those in weak uncertainty-avoidance cultures may be very high in basic innovations, while those in strong uncertainty-avoidance cultures may triumph in precision manufacturing”.(Triandis,1993)

Though Hofstede admits that better indicators could have been developed in ascertaining the UA , because it wasn’t a familiar concept when they developed the IBM questionnaires, he very strongly and emphatically links a high UA to a number of socio-psychological tendencies.(G.Ailon,2008) low UA, for example, is suggested to result from advanced modernization; older democracies; dense populations in poor countries and sparse populations in wealthy countries; tolerant religions that stress relativity; historical events marked by less legislation and more settlement of disputes by negotiation and/or conflict, as opposed to mere inheritance of developed systems of legislation; low mean age of population leaders; and smaller organizations (1980: 185). The suggested consequences of low UA include slower economic growth after World War II, weaker nationalism, less aggressiveness versus other nations, “looser” societies, stronger feelings of citizen competence, a casuistic approach to legal issues, a stronger accent on lay competences as expressed by having more nurses per doctor, more religious tolerance, pragmatic or introvert meditative religions, rel- ativism, empiricism rather than “theoricism” in social sciences, more ambitious employees, managers who are more involved in strategy issues, and so forth (1980: 186-187). He is just forcing people to envision a world where everything is interconnected through simple logic.(G.Ailon, 2002) At a point Hofstede states “people from lower UAI cultures will tend to do better in cross-cultural contacts” (1980: 398), I doubt this as it is something that is related to individuals personal communication skills and doesn’t matter if he were from a country with a low UA index. Hofstede justifies the power of managers with a western background that they have a low UA and Small PD and so they are most suited for strategic and cross cultural management. So is that only the western managers have this skill which they imbibed from culture and their counterparts around the world lack this vital skill.(G.Ailon, 2008)

The Individualism (IDV) index was based on work goal questions in which the respondents were asked to rate the importance of a variety of statements, in which high IDV were attributed to giving importance to doing a job leaving out personal and leisure time and, low IDV were attributed to having good physical skills and training opportunities at work. These tried to assess a person independence from organization and second to assess what the individual expected from the organization. (G.Ailon,2008) As McSweeney put it ” ‘power distance’ and ‘individualism and collectivism’ were statistically identified by him only in nationally averaged data. At the level of individuals, they had near- zero inter-correlations (Bond 2002; Schwartz 1994) for those dimensions and thus no explanatory power at that level”. Hofstede states that those from high-collectivism cultures may show employee commitment, while members of organizations from high-individualism cultures can profit from management mobility.

Hofstede’s book states that “those from cultures high in femininity may be able to provide personal services, custom-made products, and be especially successful in biochemistry, while those in masculine cultures may excel in mass production, efficiency, heavy industry, and bulk chemistry; The masculinity index like the IDV was also based on work goal question and it attempted to measure the extent to which respondents endorsed “ego goals” (related to earnings and advancement) and “social goals”(related to cordial relations at work place and a friendly atmosphere)”. This index is based on the universal dissection relating to sexual character and goals, in which men are more assertive and tough and women are more nurturing and Tender. He states that the distribution of labor is affected by the goals of the organization. This according to me is true but he also goes to say that business organizations have goals of achievement which relates to the masculine index and it is not surprising they are run by men and their climate is set by men, which I as a girl would detest. Not just from a point of defending my own sex but from the common world examples, A study organized by the Finnish Business and Policy stated, Companies managed by women are on average ten per cent more profitable than those with a man as CEO. The study was conducted on atleast 14000 limited liability finish companies in 2003 .(http://www.hs.fi/english/article/Study+companies+managed+by+women+more+profitable+than+those+run+by+men/1135230562325). Even in a country like US which has a fairly good masculinity index of 62, You have companies form the fortune 500 like yahoo, pepsico, Newyorktimes and Kraft foods that are run by women ceo’s so it doesn’t necessarily mean one has to be a man to be the big boss.

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Though “national culture is not theorized as the only culture or a totality of cultures, within a nation, but by definition it culturally distinguishes the members of one nation from another.”(Mcsweeney,2002).Hofstede says that each country has a unique culture. I would slightly differ from that opinion, because that sort of unique cuture may be attributed to the cultural heritage and aspects like performing arts that may vary from country to country uniquely but on the basis of individual attitude and behavior it seems a little irrelevant. If you take India for example, it is culturally diverse and it does have numerous subcultures but the attitude and behaviors differ so widely even inside a subculture.

Hofstede states that National culture is said to be carried by all individuals in a nation (1980a: 38) or a ‘central tendency’ (1991: 253). The IBM survey responses within each country were characterized by radical differences. This now leaves doubt on his assumptions of national culture as being same in all individuals in a nation. He assumed that the average tendency of the IBM employee’s responses as the national representative. There seems to be no valid reason to prove it due to the complete ignorance on the background of those interviewed, who mostly well educated, middle class

The samples for his study was exclusively from a single company called IBM. A study fixated on only one company cannot possibly provide information on the entire cultural system of a country (Graves 1986, 14-15; Olie 1995, 135; Søndergaard 1994, 449). The responses were also from only the marketing and sales executives of the company for which Hofstede claimed they shared the same organizational culture as that of all the other employees of IBM. The cultures carried by each respondent are effectively assumed to be three exclusively non-interacting and durable cultures: the ‘organizational’, an ‘occupational’, and the ‘national’. He assumes there is only one IBM culture and not cultures, which, as it were, possesses all employees and every occupation has a common worldwide occupational culture (McSweeney, 2002). Furthermore, McSweeney also evidences Hofstedes blind assumption that every individual in the company had the same organizational and occupational culture regardless of the commitment and loyalty each individual had to his organization and also the duration of service by the employee to the organization which are all factors that lead to the bond that an employee creates overtime with the organization he works for. Though after a few years Hofstede did acknowledge that there is a variety of distinct cultures within and between units of the same organization and also redefined his statement on organizational culture so his assumption made in the first study wouldn’t be invalidated.(McSweeney,2002). It is not known if the factors he redefined are supposed to be self evident. Regarding occupational culture, as McSweeney puts it , Hofstede assumes that members of a single occupation around the world share the same occupational culture. Clarification regarding his acknowledgement of cultural heterogeneity in organizations is needed i.e. it lacks clarity. Another instance where we might raise a brow is authenticity of replies by the questionnaire respondents, though the answers were confidential, the respondent’s prior knowledge of the end purpose of the survey might have influenced their answers so as to improve theirs or their divisions’ position (McSweeney, 2002). Yet hofstede’s reliance on his supposition that the answers are immune to respondents gaming and were the pure outcomes of unconscious pre-programmed values (1980a,1991;Hofstede & Peterson, 2000). Another aspect is the comprehensiveness of the questionnaire to elicit all the necessary inputs to assess a culture.

As McSweeney stated in any circumstance the IBM subsidiary had many nationally atypical characteristics. When initially IBM had centralized control and its US ownership during a period in which foreign direct investment was comparatively new. In instances where working for high technology was rare in third world countries like Bangladesh and India than in an industrialized nation like United states. What happens when countries are integrated, for instance the integration of Hongkong into the People’s Republic of China (McSweeney, 2002).Does the national characterization change? Does the attitude and behavior of people at work place change immediately? Do we immediately consider a nation with a larger sample to portray the national culture of two countries ?

Political influences and social institutions, law are the non cultural feature that influence culture in a large way and that Hofstede excludes and denies having a link with national culture. For example, Christmas was once illegal in England, during 1647, during which singing Christmas carols could end a person in prison for almost six months but it was later reinstated in 1660. Don’t you think this must have has an obvious effect on the culture (“mental programming”) that children born and raised in that 22 year period developed. Though this is dated way before the study was undertaken I have quoted it as an example to say there might have been other consequences that might have likely influenced any cultural feature. Hofstede might acknowledge these as exceptions but they have to considered when drawing conclusions about a nations culture.

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Has Hofstede really identified all the primary cultural level dimensions? Many others like Schwartz have tried to identify some national cultures using different questionnaires and have produce very different descriptions. In fact Schwartz(1994) found seven cultural level dimensions which indeed was acknowledged by Hofstede as simply not being identified because questions related to those dimensions /descriptions were not asked in his survey. Hofstede gave a bipolarity to each of his dimensions for example the ‘individualism’ and ‘collectivism’ , but as Triandis(1994) puts it , “the two can coexist and are simply emphasized more or less… depending on the situation.” But Hofstede’s dimensions do not consider such co-existence and blindly ignores such important cultural qualities.(McSweeney forthcoming)

Another obvious flaw I found on the credibility of his typology is his addition of the fifth dimension: ‘Confucian Dynamism'(1991) or ‘long versus short-term orientation'(1999). He extracted this from a ‘Chinese Values Survey’ (CVS) by the Chinese culture connection group which identified hofstedes fourth dimension(‘Uncertainty avoidance’) as irrelevant to their population and downgraded it to a non universal dimension.(Bond,1988;lowe & Oswick,1996).As stated by Mcsweeney(2002) from the wide literature of culture , it is still essentially a thing to be ‘grasped’ and cannot be described by ‘dimensions’ and ‘units’.

Another consideration advanced by researchers is if Hofstede’s model reflects the present day (Roberts and Boyacigiller, 1984; Sondergaard, 1994). Hofstede (1980a, 1991) assumes that cultural values are stable over time. But is his work out of date after thirty years? Hofstede claims to have identified entire nations culture and not that which is specific to workplaces (McSweeney, 2002) and Producers of scientific knowledge, it seems, not only misrepresent “the Rest” (the primary emphasis of postcolonial writing; e.g., Said, 1978) but also misrepresent the West.(G.Ailon, 2008)

There is no denial that Hofstede’s work has given substantive findings. His findings do tap some of underlying significance of nation’s culture. However interpreting them and using it to deal with other nations requires a certain degree of caution. Hopefully, these findings eventually lead to a valid measure that captures the richness of the various cultural dimensions and can be deployed at an individual level. Given the diversity of the world marketplace, it is essential for marketers have a proper measure of culture in order to understand consumer behavior. (Blodgett et al, 2008)

        As McSweeney puts it “Hofstede’s research can legitimately be called a cross-national opinion comparison only from the point that data from organizations in different countries were compared Culture is conceptualized as a force, as a determinant, but descriptions of it are based on analysis answers to fixed-choice questions.”(McSweeney forthcoming), which I think were manipulative enough (even if it wasn’t in certain cases, they were justified by researcher to correlate with his findings) to extract the desired answers of the researcher. It was argued that what Hofstede ‘identified’ is not national culture, but an averaging of situational specific opinions from which dimensions or aspects of national culture are unjustifiably inferred. Hofstede’s claim to have empirically measured national culture differences relies on crucial but unwarranted assumptions. (Mc Sweeney forthcoming). Hofstede has given bipolarity to each dimensions for example his ‘masculinity’ and ‘Femininity’ any culture will present a number of contrary adages(“All good things come to those who wait” and “time and tide wait for none “as a part of its repertoire(Mcsweeney,2002) Hofstede miserably failed to identify that theses bipolarities could co-exist in any situation.

Hofstede’s replies to McSweeney were evasive and non-adhering to the main aspect of the critique. As G.Ailon (2008) put is “If one accepts the framework, it basically follows that one must also accept the logic of the critique.” Generalizations about national culture are no good. Him identifying a nations culture with the responses from a very small sample in each country (compared to the country’s’ population except for those 6 countries with more than 1000 respondents), and also using the questionnaires that weren’t created purely for research purpose is a very visible flaw. He tried to expropriate the meaning of the answers from his respondents, claiming, in so many words, that anything they said proves his point and used their voices to turn his hypotheses into axioms (G.Ailon,2008)

The analysis throws light on the dominance of western theories, regardless of intentions, it reinforces a certain set of values of managers, Westerners, Europeans while at the same time devaluing the Rest. Though he tried to compensate and praise the east by adding his fifth dimension. I would say Hofstede tried to provide like a “Single Magical formula”(Elman Service, 1968:409) and easily valued culture using statistics and scientific stamps and X’s and Y’s. Just so that this would allow research to be completed more quickly and easily through employment of his prefabricated depictions of causal national culture. This actually in my view devalues culture that has a myriad of ethos. His employment of very unusually sophisticated statistical techniques in the late 1970’s probably were a reason for his model’s legitimacy (Oyserman et al. 2002a, for an overview)

To conclude, from what I infer from all the readings, more research is needed to give a tough measure of culture and also identify the shifting cultural maps which is greatly influenced by, and influences, globalization and technology, however this is difficult to achieve and may have temporal value due to the dynamic nature of culture.

Reference:

  1. McSweeney,Brendan. (2002) ‘Hofstede’s Model of National Cultural Differences and Their Consequences: A Triumph of Faith — a Failure of Analysis’. Human Relations. 55, no. 1: 89-118.
  2. Ailon,Galit. (2008) ‘Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Culture’s Consequences in a Value Test of Its Own Design’. Academy of Management Review. 33, no. 4: 885-904. 3. Blodgett,Jeffrey, Aysen Bakir, and Gregory Rose. 2008. A Test of the Validity of Hofstede’s Cultural Framework. Journal of Consumer Marketing. 25, no. 6: 339-349
  3. Baskerville,Rachel. (2003) ‘Hofstede Never Studied Culture’. Accounting, Organizations & Society. 28, no. 1: 1-14.
  4. Testa,Mark. (2009) ‘National Culture, Leadership and Citizenship: Implications for Cross-cultural Management’. International Journal of Hospitality Management, 28(1): 78-85.
  5. Jones, M. (2007) ‘Hofstede – Culturally questionable?’. Oxford Business & Economics Conference. Oxford, UK, 24-26.
  6. Triandis,H. (1993) ‘Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind. Geert Hofstede’. , 38(1), 132-134.
  7. ”In my opinion’ – Mikael Søndergaard on ‘Cultural differences’ by Mikael Søndergaard’.Available: http://geert-hofstede.international-business-center.com/Sondergaard.shtml, (Accessed:2009, December 27)
  8. McSweeney,Brendan. (Forthcoming) ‘Dynamic Diversity: Variety and Variation Within Countries’ , 1-25.
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