Modernization theory in international management studies and the role of cross-cultural management scholarship

‘Autocracy is better than democracy’. How many cross-cultural management scholars would agree with this? Yet why should democracy be an aim of modern societies? Are there not other routes to societal development? And, as an ideal, how democratic are our modern democratic societies? With 1% of the world population owning 50% of the world resources, how democratic are economically advanced societies? And, why should I be asking these politically charged questions when I am a dispassionate, scientifically minded cross-cultural management scholar?

My point is that these are questions that most cross-cultural management scholars do not ask. Why should they? They do not seem relevant to our work. Yet an assumption of modernization is extremely pertinent to the way we formulate our work, and its outcomes.

In the forthcoming issue of International Journal of Cross Cultural Management (Sage) Kemp et al (2015) provide a useful survey of women in leadership positions in the Arab Gulf countries. They say ‘Many countries and regions around the world have made progress in past decades in terms of women holding senior management positions.’ And again ‘although progress has been made, women are still underrepresented in senior positions particularly within business across the world’ (my emphasis). I do not mean to single out Kemp et al particularly, but why is this assumed to be progress, a word they use in this context throughout their article?

I pointed out in my editorial in International Journal of Cross Cultural Management 13(2) (Jackson, 2013: 135) that different inflections, or assumptions, about the role of women in Islamic societies may have an impact on our research in this area. Perhaps prevalent (in Kemp’s et al work, and others) is the first of these inflections that I pointed to that ‘Women have few rights, and therefore, such societies are backward (and can learn from our society which is more advanced in these issues).’ Hence a concept of ‘progress’ towards more women’s rights and more employment at a higher level would be compatible with this assumption.

My opening remark about democracy is relevant to broader issues in cross-cultural research. Is it right or wrong to assume that ‘progress’ is achieved if societies move from a lower power distance to a higher power distance, if we take one of Hofstede’s widely cited cultural dimensions?

No, I have not written that the wrong way around, I just wanted to question the converse assumption, and ask how many cross-cultural management scholars would question an assumption of moving from high to low power distance cultures as a sign of societal progress. Certainly Hofstede has been taken to task about the value judgements his cultural dimensions seem to engender (Human, 1996) as being far from dispassionate descriptors. Indeed, Hofstede (1980a) showed a .82 correlation between individualism and economic development, although Kagitcibasi (1997) noted a challenge to this by the rapid industrialization of collectivist Asian countries. This challenge may go far deeper today with developments in the Chinese economy. I will come back to this later, as I want to pursue the problem of a modernization assumption in international management studies that I believe cross-cultural management scholars should challenge.

As early as 1997 Blunt and Jones had suggested that:

‘Current theories of leadership….in the West place high value…on teamwork, empowerment …… [and]… is more a construct of the rhetoric of management consultants than it is the reality of management practice. … and this helps to disguise its discordance with most of the cultures in which its tenets are applied’ (Blunt and Jones, 1997: 11)

Yet I think this argument goes deeper, as Taylor (2002) remarks that:

‘…participatory discourse and practices are part of a wider attempt to obscure the relations of power and influence between elite interests and less powerful groups… (p.122). ….I would argue, however, that participatory discourses are utilized in both the development and managerial contexts because they serve essentially the same purpose of giving the “sense” and warm emotional pull of participation without its substance, and are thus an attempt to placate those without power and obscure the real levers of power inherent in the social relations of global capitalism.’ (p. 125).

This appears as a real challenge to assumptions that more participation, and more democracy in the workplace, arising in Western management scholarship and applied to other cultural context reflect positive development and part of a desired ‘progress’. Taylor is not just challenging the cultural appropriateness of aspects of low power distance culture to high power distance cultural contexts (something that many cross-cultural management scholars may well do), but also the bases upon which participatory discourses are founded: power relationship that are often overlooked or ignored in cross-cultural management scholarship.

I have recently been researching Chinese MNE expatriation in Africa, noting that for Western organizations knowledge transfer (from West to East, or North to South) is assumed. Hence a literature has arisen around the concept of absorptive capacity of the ‘receiving’ organization in attempts to transfer knowledge from expatriate staff to local staff, with a critique of African organizations for being weak on this capacity (Osabutey, William and Debrah, 2014; Kamoche and Harvey, 2006). Absorptive capacity is ‘the ability to recognize the value of external knowledge, assimilate it, and apply it to subsidiary operations’ (Cohen and Levinthal, 1990). Yet knowledge transfer appears not to be important for Chinese MNEs operating in Africa. This has been criticized. While a modernization ethos appears prevalent among Western MNEs, or at least certainly in international HRM theory, this appears not to be present in Chinese MNEs and how they operate. This unwillingness to get involved in changing host country institutions (at government levels) and organizations (at MNE levels) has gained them a bad Press in areas such as human rights. It is likely that in order to understand this approach a cross-cultural analysis is needed, with a certain paradigm shift in expatriation theory away from the assumptions of modernization in international HRM theory.

Although numerous cross-cultural management scholars have provided valuable critiques in international management and international HRM studies by challenging the appropriateness of transferring participatory and other culturally-grounded practices to different cultural contexts (from Hofstede, 1980b, onwards), fundamental assumptions of modernization theory persist and should be challenged. These assumptions are not just grounded in culture-centric suppositions. They are also grounded in power relationships that because of changing global dynamics are gradually shifting. It is the role of critical cross-cultural management scholars to make these assumptions and relationships explicit, and to integrate them into their work while contributing to the wider scholarship in international management.

(Adapted from my editorial to appear in International Journal of Cross Cultural Management, 15(2), August 2015.)


Blunt, P. and Jones, M. L. (1997) Exploring the limits of Western leadership theory in East Asia and Africa, Personnel Review, 26(1/2), 6-23.

Cohen, W M and Levinthal, D A (1990). Absorptive capacity: a new perspective on learning and innovation, Administrative Science Quarterly, 35, 128-52

Hofstede, G. (1980b) Motivation, leadership and organization: do American theories apply abroad?, Organizational Dynamics, Summer, pp. 42-63.

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

Human, L. (1996) Contemporary Conversation: Understanding and Managing Diversity in the Modern World, Dakar, Senegal: The Gorèe Institute.

Jackson, T. (2013) Seeing the Middle East through different inflections: implications for cross-cultural management research, International Journal of Cross Cultural Management, 13(2), 133-36

Kagitcibasi, C. (1997) Individualism and collectivism, chapter one in J. W. Berry, M. H. Segall and C. Kagitcibasi, Handbook of Cross-Cultural Psychology, Vol. 3 Social Behavior and Appplication, Second Edition, Boston: Allyn and Bacon, pp. 1-50.

Kamoche, K. and Harvey, M. (2006). ‘Knowledge diffusion in the African context: An institutional theory perspective’. Thunderbird International Business Review, 48 (2) (2006), pp. 157–181

Kemp, L., Madsen, S. and Davis, J. (2015) Women in business leadership: A comparative study of countries in the Arab Gulf states, International Journal of Cross Cultural Management, 15(2) In Press.

Osabutey, E. L. C., Williams, K., & Debrah, Y. a. (2013). The potential for technology and knowledge transfers between foreign and local firms: A study of the construction industry in Ghana. Journal of World Business, 49(4), 560–571.

Taylor, H. (2002) Insights into participation from critical management and labour process perspectives, chapter 8 in Cooke, B. and Kothari, U. (eds.) (2002) Participation: The New Tyranny? London: Zed Books, pp. 122-138.

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