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Mirror mirror on the wall-cultures consequences in a value test of its own design Essay

The paper offers a critical reading of Geert Hofstede’s (1980) Culture’s Consequences using an analytical strategy where the book is mirrored against itself and analyzed in terms of its own proposed value dimensions. “Mirroring” unravels the book’s normative viewpoint and political subtext and exposes discursive interests in its research process. Making all this evident in the canonical book’s own terms, this paper communicates critical concerns across paradigm boundaries. It indicates the need to reconsider concepts and convictions that predominate cross-cultural research and to adopt norms of reflexivity that transcend existing notions of “cultural relativism.”

Globalization, there seems to be a need to further these attempts at reevaluating its foundations. To a great extent, the knowledge produced in this field is still firmly rooted in the orthodoxy of functionalist, “normal” science—its positivist epistemology and objectivist rhetoric (see Burrell & Morgan, 1979). While there are a few interpretive, emically oriented case studies (e.g., Ahrens, 1996; Brannen, 2004), these generally remain a marginalized pursuit (MarschanPiekkari & Welch, 2004); studies are usually nomothetic and quantitative, with researchers posing themselves as discoverers of universal regularities and systematic causal relationships. Cultural relativism, when admitted, is seen to relate to the scientist—not to science

Itself—and is accordingly “corrected” by rituals of confession, (rare) attempts to create crosscultural research teams, or various “bias control” techniques. In this vein, international management thought is evolving into quite a large body of thought— one that, despite its name, underrepresents many regions of the world in terms of authorship and topics of analysis (Kirkman & Law, 2005). Moreover, like other managerial disciplines that aspire to shape actual workplaces, its influence extends into the world of practice as well.

 The book indeed entailed various substantive contributions. Apparently, as globalization progressed into the 1980s, crossing traditional boundaries, national culture could no longer be disregarded. What until then constituted a beast too “soft” or vague for the positivist epistemology of “normal” science became a focus of much interest. Hofstede, it can be said, tamed the beast— he divided it, counted it, tabled it, and graphed it. “Culture” was reduced to “values,” which were reduced to a limited set of questions on an IBM questionnaire. “National society” was reduced to “middle class rather than the working class” (1980: 56), which was reduced to IBM personnel from the marketing and service divisions. Answers were quantified, computerized, “statisticalized.” Things cultural could finally be said in “scientific” language.


Subsequently, the book promoted sensitivity to cultural diversity at the workplace (and beyond it). In addition, it undermined the widespread assumption that American management knowledge is universal and thus easily transferable across cultures, and challenged psychology’s long-standing refusal to acknowledge the relevance of culture as anything but an external variable (see Joseph, Reddy, & Searle-Chatterjee, 1990: 21; Triandis, 2004). Culture, Hofstede claimed, is a “mental programming” instilled in people’s minds—an internal variable, shaping behavior from the inside out. Thus, for organizational practice, management theory, and psychology, national culture is relevant; it does count. And as far as the scientific community of his time was concerned, he had the right numbers to prove it.

There were, however, very serious critiques from the outset (e.g., Baskerville, 2003; Eckhardt, 2002; Harrison & McKinnon, 1999; Kitayama, 2002; Merker, 1982; Robinson, 1983; Schooler, 1983; Singh, 1990). In what appears to be one of the most damning critiques of the book, McSweeney claimed that “the on-going unquestioning acceptance of Hofstede’s national culture research by his evangelized entourage suggests that in parts of the management disciplines the criteria for acceptable evidence are far too loose” .

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Galit Ailon ([email protected]) is a lecturer in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Bar-IIan University. She received her Ph.D. from the Department of Labor Studies at Tel-Aviv University. Her research interests include organizational globalization, organizational culture, organizational theory, and managerial ideologies.

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