Hofstede on Cultural Difference - To Sneer? Or Reflect?

Having been invited to a conference on business anthropology to be held in Guangzhou (a city I used to call Canton) in China, I have been thinking about the relationship of anthropology to business—actually, given my interest in material and other forms of knowledge, the relationship of anthropological knowledge to the knowledge taught in business schools and created and written about by their faculties. The conference has provided the occasion, but my thinking about this topic is also informed by awareness of the number of young anthropologists who may never obtain tenured positions in academia and may, as I did, find themselves looking for other ways to make a living. Another influence has been following discussions on the AnthroDesign email list and the EPIC (Ethnographic Praxis in Corporations) group on Linked-In. 

I recall one discussion in which I said something that was, in effect, a sneer in response to someone mentioning the work of Geert Hofstede, whose ideas about culture are arguably far more influential than those of any living anthropologist among the world's movers and shakers. I am having second thoughts.
According to Wikipedia,
Geert Hofstede proposed a systematic framework for assessing and differentiating national cultures in relation to organizational culture known as the cultural dimensions theory. He gathered and analyzed extensive data on the world's values and cultures, particularly through the IBM survey study, in order to build a comprehensive model which argues that people differ across on the extent to which they endorse six dimensions of values – power (equality versus inequality), collectivism (versus individualism), uncertainty avoidance (versus tolerance), masculinity (versus femininity), temporal orientation, and indulgence (versus restraint).
To hear disciples of Hofstede apply his categories in sweeping categorizations of national character is to be instantly transported to a world of simplistic generalizations long criticized and ridiculed by anthropologists. But Hofstede was no fool, and while the limitations of his model and research technique (survey research using questionnaires) must be acknowledged, the data with which he worked was substantial.
In 1965, Geert founded the personnel research department of IBM Europe (which he managed until 1971). Between 1967 and 1973, he executed a large survey study regarding national values differences across the worldwide subsidiaries of this multinational corporation: he compared the answers of 117,000 IBM matched employees samples on the same attitude survey in different countries. He first focused his research on the 40 largest countries, and then extended it to 50 countries and 3 regions, “at that time probably the largest matched-sample cross-national database available anywhere.
I am not, however, here to attack or defend Hofstede. What I want to reflect on, instead, is the likelihood of anthropologists armed only with critical disdain having any effect whatsoever on the views of Hofstede's admirers or those who engage and pay very substantial amounts of money to consultants who also claim to know something about organizational culture: the Society for Organizational Learning, Human Synergistics International, or The Network Roundtable, for example. As I read their books and explore their websites, what I find is sophistication in presentation coupled with a focus on what businesses or governmental organizations will take to be actionable insights. As anthropologists we may complain about what seem to us to be their oversimplifications, association with neoliberalism and globalization, or the taint of supporting directed change, instead of remaining content with respectful admiration or moral outrage. On closer look, however, their ideas are, on the whole, more nuanced than those found in discussions of anthropological theory, more inclined to advocacy of egalitarian, collective teamwork than hierarchical discipline, more dedicated to doing well by maximizing opportunities for individuals to exercise their talents to the full than explaining how to manipulate the ignorant masses. They cannot be confined to 19th century boxes labeled "capitalist pigs," "running dogs of imperialism," or, more 20th century,"neoliberal elite ideology."
And, here's the rub, any anthropologist who seeks employment in a business consulting role and knows as little about them as I did when I started poking around in this stuff is going to sound like an idiot if he or she can't say something intelligent that shows that you know about them, have taken the time to think about the frameworks they offer, and have something, if not better at least additional, to offer.

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Comment by John McCreery on May 15, 2012 at 2:48am

I like that phrase "model agnostic" and the remark that "I often find that it's possible to converse meaningfully with people one might otherwise not be able to if one's willing and able to use their frameworks." Should be Fieldwork 101. I used to tell my marketing students that, on close examination, most marketing textbooks consist of (1) success stories to raise hope and (2) check lists of things to pay attention to. The point is that the check lists are lists of things to think about, not recipes for success. I see frameworks like Hofstede's in the same light. There is not a lot to be gained by attacking them as though they were comprehensive theories of everything whose errors must be exposed. There is often considerable benefit in using them as starting points for deeper exploration.


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