Why don’t collectivists act like collectivists? the disconnect thesis

The simple answer to this question is that this is because there is no such thing (abstract noun or otherwise) as a ‘culture’ and therefore no such thing as a ‘collectivist’. So, in Africa (and perhaps other post-colonial societies) a “culture” (as a concrete noun) starts to get fuzzy. When a Hofstede (1980), or a Trompenaars (1993), or a Schwartz (1999), or a House et al. (2004) comes along with their questionnaires to ask questions about the values of a representative of the “culture”, they are in trouble. Their individual “subject” represents not a “culture”, but the confluence of a complex and multi-layered interface that can only be accessed through the agency of individuals’ cultural identity, but can only really be understood through an analysis of the cultural interfaces involved. Yet a cultural interface does not necessarily involve a fusion, a crossvergence or a hybridization of cultural values, beliefs and actions (‘actions’ are meaningful behaviours). This can also mean a schism.

For example, Dia (1996) takes the view that institutions were imposed on African societies during the colonial period. They have largely remained and evolved through the post-colonial period, and mostly are seen as still inappropriate to African societies and their context. Here rules seem to be at odds with values; institutions appear to be at odds with symbolic culture. The split between (local) culture and “global” or “Western” institutions in Africa and other post-colonial countries can only be explained by geopolitical power relations. This introduces another aspect into the idea of cultural interfaces: power.

The introduction of colonial institutions into Africa, no doubt, involved a number of elements: first, the (cultural) background of the colonizing countries; second, the interaction of colonizers with colonized societies and institutions (for example, African institutions such as chiefdoms were integrated into colonial administrations to enlist the help of local chiefs to keep law and order and to collect taxes); and third, the wielding of (economic, military and then ideological) power by the colonizers within the interactions with local communities. There is no doubt also that these institutions have an influence on African communities today, and that they have helped to shape modern and urban African cultures.

COLLECTIE_TROPENMUSEUM_Bestuursambtenaar_van_Seram_tijdens_een_reis_bij_de_Talsetibaai_TMnr_10001632

Through interactions, these institutions have also been shaped by African cultural influences which include African institutions (Ayittey, 1991). Hence, there is not a simple schism described here, there is also a fusion between Western and African. Yet there is evidence of Dia’s (1996) Disconnect Thesis. Sentiments captured in the phrase ‘when I go to work in the morning I step outside my culture, and when I go back home at night I step back into my culture’ was something I reported as hearing a number of times from interviewed African staff and managers (Jackson, 2004). Hence any ‘collectivists’ going into work in the morning aren’t going to act like collectivists if they want to survive in the imposed institution of a work organisation.

The interaction effects among “rules” (institutions), “values” (culture) and “control” (power), may therefore be the way forward in understanding culture as a dynamic, rather than a static entity. In other words, culture is created/recreated at the point of intersection – the interface – depending on the nature of interaction and who is doing the interacting. Central to this is “power”, in Foucault’s (1979, p. 194) terms, for example: “power produces, it makes reality; it produces domains of objects and rituals of truth”. He contends that power relations do not stand apart from other relations, but power is inherent in all relations and is the effect of divisions, inequalities and imbalances found in these relations, and at the same time are preconditions for these differentiations. Dominance in a power relationship has a legitimizing effect. Yet, for Foucault power also infers the possibility of resistance, and that resistance is always part of a power relationship. Hence, values (culture) come into conflict with rules (institutions). So, it is in Africa (and perhaps other post-colonial societies) where a “culture” (as a concrete noun) does indeed start to get fuzzy and can only really be understood through an analysis of the cultural interfaces involved. Hence researchers might get surprizing results in work organisations if they don’t take account of the disconnect thesis.

References

Ayittey, G. B. N. (1991) Indigenous African Institutions, New York: Transnational Publishers.

Dia, M. (1996) Africa’s Management in the 1990s and Beyond, Washington DC: Word Bank.


Foucault, M. (1979) Discipline and Punish, New York; Vintage Books


Hofstede, G. (1980) Culture’s Consequences: International Differences in Work Related Values, Beverly Hills, CA: Sage


House, R, Hanges P J Javidan, M and Dorfman, P W, (2004) Leadership, Culture and Organizations: The GLOBE Study of 62 Societies, Thousand Oaks: Sage


Jackson, T (2004) Management and Change in Africa: A Cross-cultural Perspective, London: Routledge.


Schwartz, S H (1999) A theory of cultural values and some implications for work, Applied Psychology: An International Review, 48(1), 23-47.


Trompenaars, F (1993) Riding the Waves of Culture: Understanding Cultural Diversity in Business, London: Nicholas Brealey

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