Power in Critical Cross-cultural Management Studies


Guest blog post by Henriett Primecz, Jasmin Mahadevan and Laurence Romani

This is an abridged version of an editorial for a Special Issue International Journal of Cross Cultural Management  on Power in Critical Cross-cultural Management Studies, edited by the above, to be published in issues 16(2), August 2016.

The current question in cross-cultural management studies is how exactly the perception of cultural differences becomes important and meaningful in complex and often paradoxical situations. This question is based on the understanding that the cultural context of every given situation, interaction or organization might be characterized by multiple elements, dormant or salient cultural identities, and complex and fluid processes of meaning-making.

As distinct from other scholars such as Sackmann (1997), Tsui et al (2007) and Holden et al (2015) we do not see this type of question being answered through a search for an exhaustive list of variables influencing international and intercultural interactions. Nor do we see context as an accumulation of different factors. Rather, we see this as intertwined dynamic complexities, of which power is an important factor. This suggests that rather than a search for even more influencing factors, it is the investigation of how these factors are interconnected and how power relationships take part in this combination that becomes of interest. In other words, we wish to stress the point that power manifests itself in multiple, context-specific ways which need to be investigated critically.

We aim to contribute to the critical study of cultural complexities in organizations, keeping in mind that it is the nature of dynamic complexities to be fluid and difficult to grasp systematically. Our contribution evolves around one key element which, to our mind, is prevalent in virtually all cross-cultural management contexts, namely: power discrepancies.

We are seeking to highlight- ing how power is intertwined with the contexts wherein current cross-cultural management takes place, and how it is equally intertwined with cultural explanations.

Locating power in context

We understand context as referring to relations of power, to the specific nature of interactions, and to wider geopolitical frameworks and their historical roots.

Locating power in context requires taking into account diverse issues. For example, colonialism has shaped the map of the world, and most of todays’ flows of power and knowledge can still be understood in terms of the dichotomy between former colonizers and colonized (Cairns and Śliwa, 2008; Moussebaa & Morgan, 2014). Cultural interactions and the world’s economic system are linked to imperialist thought (Said 1998; Gallagher and Robinson, 1953), with limited attention being given to knowledge flows from the global South to North.

Mirroring the idea of a supremacy of the West, cross-cultural management builds on the ideology of universalism and objectivity of macro-comparative analysis originating in the first world. Managerial and organizational flows of power originate from global North and West as well (Cooke, 2004), and it is often assumed that it is the ‘Western’ managers responsibility to “manage the third world” (Cooke, 2004), based on the presumed superiority of the ‘Western’ and implicitly white and male manager. Cross-cultural management knowledge and practice can be considered instrumental to this project (Leeds-Hur- witz, 2014), and the corporate intercultural training business tends to overstress the difference of those who are considered ‘the non-Western Other’ and to present them “through Western eyes” (Szkudlarek, 2009; Jack & Lorbiecki, 2003). Ultimately cross-cultural management theory and practice is linked to studying others in order to satisfy the needs of mainly western managers: it is considered instrumental to “global competitiveness” (Kedia and Mukherjee, 1999), be it merely on the explicit level of having more successful business interactions, or on the implicit level of manipulating others. In other words, cross-cultural management knowledge and practice is linked to an agenda of control of ‘the Other’ (Jack and Westwood, 2009), which creates, asserts and institutionalizes power inequalities.

Race: migrants or expatiates

Perceptions of race are implicit components of power in context, with cross-cultural management suspiciously silent about race. According to Jackson (2014: 3), these and other cross-cultural management blindspots might be due to the self-image of the discipline as being “non-political” (Jackson, 2014: 3). Following Jackson (2013), this leads to a (presumably) neutral understanding of terms such as ‘indigenous’, which silences a critical analysis of race in cross-cultural management contexts.

From a critical perspective, cross-cultural management studies should reflect upon the processes by which race is constructed and the reasons why this is done. Critical intercultural communication studies, which have already linked diversity categories such as race, ethnicity and sexual orientation to cross-cultural interactions, might provide valuable insights (Romani and Claes, 2014; Halualani and Nakayama, 2010).

On a more general level, management research and practice differentiates between categories such as ‘expatriate’ and ‘migrant’. Whereas expatriates are implicitly thought of as white, skilled and as moving voluntarily from developed to developing countries or within developed countries, migrants are more often than not assumed to be non-white, low-skilled and compelled to move from developing to developed countries, due to the poor economic or political situation of their home country (Al Ariss and Crowley-Henrey, 2013). As a result of this implicit dichotomy, cross-cultural management research deals with ‘the expatriate’, whereas diversity research studies ‘the migrant’ (Berry and Bell, 2012). When these categories are challenged, terms such as ‘self-initiated expatriates’ or ‘skilled migrants’ are created (McKenna and Richardson, 2007; Chun and Al Ariss, 2015) which make sure of the supremacy of some, while still excluding the vast majority of those individual movements which take place outside the managerial sphere. In other words, cross-cultural management studies develops theories about individuals on the move (‘expatriates’) excluding a large body of research on migrants.

Context, culture and gender

Contexts are always a combination of several components intertwined with power dichotomies, and gender issues run across these components. For example, as Moore (2014) has observed, predominantly male managers in a multinational automotive joint venture are united in their firm belief ‘that production work is nothing for women’. This belief creates and institutionalizes power inequalities in the sense that it makes women ‘the cultural Other’ and perpetuates gender inequalities in global cross-cultural management. Likewise, top (male) executives describing national cultural differences at play in an international merger do so in a way that excludes women and thereby justifies the discrimination of women from top positions in the new organization (Tienari et al., 2005).

When the intersections between history, geopolitics, power, gender and race/ethnicity are investigated in context, the presumably ‘non-Western’ female Other faces multiple marginalizations (Mohanty, 2003) in current cross-cultural management.

For example, as Prasad (2006) argues, the headscarf is implicitly thought of as pre-modern and discriminatory, and it is not even considered that non-Muslim females might choose to wear it. The headscarf is a highly significant “stigma symbol” (Goffman, 1963), and is virtually impossible to wear in a power-free manner – as the great film divas of the 1950s and 1960s have done so glamorously.

Islam can be understood as one of the most prominent markers of ‘Otherness’ in current Western discourse (Ramm, 2010), and those practicing Islam risk raising suspicion (Mahadevan, 2012), but the power-laden mechanisms underpinning dominant discourse are by no means limited to a specific cultural context. Rather, any signs of ‘female non-Westerness’ might suffice, and these signs might not even be linked to the managerial task at hand. For example, Indian female managers wearing a Sari in a German company face double marginalization (Mahadevan, 2015). If they dress in a pant-suit, as expected by their German superiors, they lose status in the eyes of their local subordinates; if they dress in a Sari, they are perceived as ‘too traditional to be good managers’ by German headquarters. Likewise, Indian engineers adhering to a vegetarian diet risk being perceived as limiting themselves and not following the principles of global and presumably culture-free engineering in the eyes of their western counterparts (Mahadevan, 2012). This suggests that those interacting in specific contexts use those cultural interpretations available for plays of power, and in this process and due to specific configurations of power discrepancies, some lose and other win.

Language in cross-cultural management research

Language is receiving increasing attention in cross-cultural management (Lauring, 2008, Brannen et al, 2014; Mughan, 2015) and provides another illustration of the interplay of power implications and culture. Vaara et al. (2005) reveal how the use of Swedish as a corporate language in a Nordic merger leads to the empowerment or disempowerment of certain employees whose competences are perceived differently based on their individual language proficiencies. They also point out how the imposition of one language leads to the reification of post-colonial and neo-colonial organizational structures, constructing some as superior and others as inferior. Likewise, bicultural/bilingual individuals are thought of as culture savvy individuals and presented as important resources for organizations (Brannen & Thomas, 2010). Yet they can equally serve as gate keepers and sometimes, too, filter or block information to their advantage (Yagi & Kleinberg, 2011; Peltokorpi, 2010). By being language and culture savvy, bicultural individuals access distinctive status and networks and thus possess a different power-base (Neeley, 2013; Hinds et al., 2013).

Marschan-Piekkaria et al. (1999) show, for example, how employees with language skills build broad contact networks within a multinational corporation. Their investigation also reveals that language is often used as an informal source of expert power.

Power-blindness in cross-cultural studies

While cross-cultural management studies on language start to unveil how context is power laden, most other studies still suffer from power-blindness. Neglecting power discrepancies bears the risk of viewing individuals solely in terms of dominant categories, and to lose sight of diversity issues and related cultural dynamics. However, locating power in context is not an easy and mono-dimensional task, as the previous examples suggest. It is rather multiple influences that lead to the marginalization of certain individuals. To uncover these mechanisms, cross-cultural management research need to discard the assumption of being able to employ culturally-neutral perspectives and move beyond mono-level and power-blind macro-comparative research. It needs to investigate wider geopolitical frameworks, history, gender, race/ethnicity language and social class, and to link them back to specific contexts while considering power. The contributions to this special issue provide examples for doing so.

The Special Issue and future research

This special issue brings together six context-rich practice-based theoretically in- formed studies from four continents. They are all unique with regard to their different contextual sense making, but one important aspect stands out in every contribution: contextual power-laden elements are an integral part of every cross-cultural interaction. The historical, political, social, organizational and economic circumstances shape these contexts, and eventually the power position of the participants. This suggests that the very idea of what culture entails and how cultural borders become relevant in cross-cultural management needs to be reconsidered.

Rather than comparing national cultures and pre-imposing (ethnocentric) categories of difference, researchers and practitioners are invited to investigate the categories of cultural difference as they unfold from specific and power-laden con- texts, depending on the context studied and the intersections of wider geopolitical frameworks, history, gender, race/ethnicity, language and social class.

With this statement, we do not wish to imply that the whole of cross-cultural management is simplistic on a nationally comparative level. However, we wish to make the point that even those concepts which intend to uncover different and contrasting perspectives on specific cultural contexts are unsatisfying. For example, as Jackson (2014) has argued, the frequently used categories of emic and etic (Petersen and Pike, 2002), are biased as they remain unpolitical and do not ques- tion the dominant concept of presumably global ‘Western’ versus presumably local ‘indigenous’ management knowledge. Rather than using the emic/etic divide when talking about ‘Western’ versus ‘indigenous’ management, cross-cultural manage- ment researchers might better reflect upon researcher positioning and the pur- pose of the research conducted on indigenous management, such as outsider versus insider positioning or control versus resistance (Smith, 1999, also see Jack- son, 2014: 3) differentiated into control and resistance.

Based on the contributions from this special issue, we also suspect that the new categories of ‘cultural differences’ that unfold are linked to the ones in a position of power. If ethnicity/race is silenced as a category, it might be because the search consultants are from the dominant ethnic group. If social class emerges, it might be because the white expatriates are from a higher social class. If language emerges, it might be because the colonial languages are dominant. If age emerges as a relevant diversity category, it might be because top management feels that this is a category relevant to them. In other words, replacing pre-defined categories with emerging ones does not guarantee having more or fairer categor- ies. So, the question remains: What can or should be done? Can we – cross-cultural management researchers and practitioners – have categories at all? And how can we make sure that also the ‘anti’-category, developed to the best intentions and with the purpose of tracing power discrepancies in context, do not become a re- ified and dominant cultural containers at a certain point?

With this special issue, we come further than stating that power imbalances play a role in cross-cultural management practice (Mahadevan, 2012; 2015; Primecz, Romani and Sackmann, 2009; Romani et al., 2011). The articles investigate and exemplify the complexities of power discrepancies within and across specific cross-cultural management contexts. In other words, they show how the dynamics of power discrepancies actually work in context and provide a first basis for the de- velopment of critical cross-cultural management.


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