What’s Missing in Cross-cultural Management Studies? Why Geopolitical Power Relations are Important in Cultural Crossvergence

There is a lot missing from mainstream cross-cultural management studies. This is something I’ve hinted at over the last few years. It would now seem opportune to write a series of short articles on these different aspects, in an attempt to get them more integrated into mainstream studies. An obvious starting point seems to be the issue of power, as this has led us to a major Special Issue in International Journal of Cross Cultural Management and a blog post by the editors Henriett Primecz, Jasmin Mahadevan and Laurence Romani. Scholars appear to conceptualise cultural crossvergence as a cosy integration of different cultures: a process that is untouched by global power dynamics.

Other issues or aspects that so far have been under-discussed and under-concepualized in the literature have been: indigeniety, how it is defined and contribution to knowledge; the majority world and its role in knowledge creation in cross-cultural management studies; knowledge sharing rather than knowledge transfer, again a topic that appears immune from global power relations; and balancing academic elitism and knowledge produced in the academia with access to and creation of unmediated knowledge through social media – a hot topic ignored by most cross-cultural management scholars. Yet there are other issues which have been heavily discussed, but possibly unconceptualized from a critical perspective such as cultural intelligence. And, the connection between values, so heavily discussed, and ethics – which has not really come under critical attention. Critical discussions on these areas, and others, are missing from cross cultural management studies and from our academic discourse generally. This is the first in this series.

Any scholarly study that involves concepts of ‘the other’, for example local staff or managers in an overseas subsidiary, is a product of an international dynamic that includes geopolitical power relations. Postcolonial Theory has provided a critique of these power dynamics initially within literary studies (Said’s, 1978, Orientalism is the landmark study), also in development studies (e.g. Mohan, 2002, provides an outline) and more recently in organization studies (Prasad, 2003; Jack and Westwood, 2009).

Mohan (2002: 157) puts it bluntly saying that ‘Postcolonial studies alerts us to the epistemic violence of Eurocentric discourses of the non-West and the possibilities of recovering the voices of the marginalized’.

Beyond etic and emic studies: representing ‘the other’ through epistemic violence

Postcolonial theory (Said, 1978; Bhabha, 1994; Spivak, 1996) proposes that the ‘developing’ world is represented in the eyes of the ‘developed’ world. Western imperialism, through Western culture has developed a systematic ‘body of theory and practice’ that constructs or represents the ‘Orient’ (in Said’s, 1978: 49, terms). In colonial times this portrayed images of the ‘noble savage’, the ‘wily oriental’, where Westerners were regarded as ‘rational, peaceful, liberal, logical…without natural suspicion and Easterners as irrational, degenerate, primitive, mystical, suspicious, sexually depraved….’. These representations are carried over to Western intellectual and cultural production including research, and management studies (for example Jackson, 2004, points to the derogatory light in which ‘African’ management is seen in the literature). The acceptance and internalization of such representations by the developing world, and other non-Western cultures themselves can mean two things.

Firstly, there is both an acceptance and challenging of these representations that constitute hybrid forms of presentation of the nature of people of non-Western countries.

Secondly, because this challenging itself grows out of the cultural and intellectual representations of Western discourse, this ‘contamination’ of the non-West means that they can never refer back to an ‘authentic’ identity of pre-colonial times. Any conceptualization of this identity would be by definition seen through the eyes of the colonizer’s representations (Kapoor, 2002).



Modernization and cultural reproduction

This is similar to the Dependency Theory critique of modernization theory: that the ‘developing’ world was created by imperialism (as a form of globalization) and does not exist apart from a developing-developed world dependency. Dependency theory (Frank, 1969) suggests that today’s Third World underdevelopment is the underside of the same globalizing conditions that led to the First World being developed. The latter’s development is dependent on the former’s underdevelopment. The prime mover in this is capital seeking profits, and this is easiest in countries where labour and resources are cheap and governments are weak.

The structural consequence of this is to reproduce the process, and to block local initiatives pursuing their own development paths (Schech and Haggis, 2000). This represents an economic or institutional theory, originally based on Marxist critique of modernization theory. Modernization theorists see the Third World as originally underdeveloped or untouched, and whose trajectory, and the aim of international development, is to modernize in the same direction as the First World. In a way modernization theory can be seen as a justification for globalization (or imperialism), and is reflected in many international management and international business texts. In fact, modernization theory appears to be tacitly accepted in international and cross-cultural management studies, and has not been specifically critiqued in the manner it has, for example in other social sciences such as sociology and development studies.
The ‘culturalist’ view, represented by Postcolonial Theory, brings us to the same point as Dependency Theory: a concept of purity of local or indigenous thought or practice in the Third World (and perhaps the Second World) does not exist apart from thought or practice in the First World. This causes problems when studying values and knowledge across cultures because rather than looking at ‘indigenous’ knowledge, we are really looking at a reflection of dominant ideologies, and often this dominant knowledge denigrates ‘local’ knowledge in whatever form this may still exist. Escobar (1995) sees the dominance of Western knowledge not through a privileged proximity to the truth but as a result of historical and geographic conditions coupled with the geopolitics of power. This questions whether there can ever really be a true ‘indigenous’ knowledge (Spivak, 1988) that isn’t trivialized and commoditized such as Ubuntu in South Africa (Mbigi, 1997) for a Western audience given the dominance of Western management practices through universalized management training and education.

The Taylorization of Japanese Management

This does not just apply to the Third World. Japanese management practices have been lauded in the West, particularly in the United States since the publication of Pascale and Athos’ (1981) The Art of Japanese Management, and similar texts around the same time period. Yet the view that there is something intriguingly (and exotically) unique about Japanese Management has been disabused in the more critical literature, for example, by Clegg and Kono (2002: 271), who tell us that

…. most of the characteristics of the Japanese management style were formed relatively recently, after the Second World War. Japanese management was a product of rational thinking; some of it introduced from America during the Occupation, some developed from earlier imports, such as Taylorism, moulded to the paternalism and cooperative traditions already established in Japan (Tsutsui, 1998). Many theories and business practices, such as management committees and quality controls, later to be seen as uniquely Japanese in application, were transplanted from the US or Europe .

The Isolationism of Management Studies

Much as disciplines such as management studies, organizational behaviour and industrial psychology would like to remain isolated from geopolitics, this is difficult as major world events and processes including world wars, imperialism and financial crises change things. To what extent is it possible to study ‘Japanese’ management, before first considering the influences on this, including the contributions from America after WWII? The same argument is applied to any international study, which involves focusing on ‘the other’ as noted above. The argument, however, goes deeper if we consider this from a Postcolonial Theory perspective: dominant geopolitical influences disparage local contributions, and this disparaging is internalized by local people. This discourages the articulating of local views, knowledge(s) and practices.

Cultural crossvergence: a monologue rather than a dialogue

Hybridity, through a process of cultural crossvergence is not the result of an equal dialogue, or a reasoned and equal negotiation. It occurs through a process involving ‘..the epistemic violence of Eurocentric discourses of the non-West..’ as we saw above (Mohan, 2002: 157). Concepts of crossvergence as discussed in international and cross-cultural management studies (Ralston et al, 1994; Priem et al, 2000) are inadequate in the way they treat this process without reference to power relations. The concept of cultural crossvergence is implicit within Postcolonial Theory. Bhabha’s (1994) concept of ‘mimicry’ applies predominantly to a colonizing power’s ability to get the colonized to mimic the colonizer, in order better to control the unfamiliar, and to gain acceptance of transferred-in knowledge. Yet as Frenkel, (2008) points out this is also a function of the acceptance that the colonizers are the natural repository of (technical and management) knowledge, and the colonized need this knowledge. This could equally be applied to what appears to have happened during the decades since the Soviet period in countries such as Russia: a perceived need to catch up, and to emulate the West, adopting Western management methods in the extreme, often the hard aspects of Human Resource Management for example.

Human Resource Management in the ‘Third Space’

In Bhabha’s (1994) view the process of mimicry leads to hybrid cultures as an ongoing process of colonial imposition and resistance from the colonized. It is never possible therefore to speak about an authentic or innate culture, and is an on-going product of a conflictual process between the powerful, and less powerful. The product of crossvergence, in Postcolonial Theory is the ‘Third Space’ (Bhabha, 1994). When we focus on human resource management around the world we are predominantly looking at this Third Space, or more accurately, Third Spaces.

In order to understand why Anglo-American HRM has tended to dominate in the world, and why HRM as a concept might not be appropriate in countries other than those that have similar cultures to the dominant American cultures from which this has arisen, it is necessary to understand the process of cultural crossvergence involving both a power dynamic, and its products in the form of cultural Third Spaces. Yet the dynamics that have led to these different hybrid cultural spaces, and indeed which gave rise to critical theories such as Postcolonial Theory, which themselves may be time-bound, are changing. Iconic (Western) brands such as Jaguar and Land Rover acquired by an Indian MNE, and IBM computers, taken over by the Chinese firm Lenovo, as well as other major investments by ‘emerging’ nations in countries that used to dominate the world’s economies, are indicative of these changes. Postcolonial Theory is predicated on concepts of a post-colonial world, with a dominance of Western economies, military powers, and ideological pre-eminence. This comes back to a major premise: wider geopolitical dynamics have a major impact on the nature of knowledge, the way knowledge is transferred internationally, and the nature of local knowledge resulting from and contributing to this dynamic.


Bhabha, H K (1994) The Location of Culture, New York: Routledge

Clegg S.and Kono, T (2002) Trends in Japanese Management: An Overview of Embedded Continuities and Disembedded Discontinuities, Asia Pacific Journal of Management, 19, 269–285

Escobar, A (1995) Encountering Development: The Making and Unmaking of the Third World, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press

Frank, A. G. (1969) Capitalism and Underdevelopment in Latin America, New York: Monthly Review Press.

Frenkel, M (2008) The multinational corporation as a third space: rethinking international management discourse on knowledge transfer through Homi Bhabha, Academy of Management Review, 33(4), 924–42.

Jack, G. and Westwood, R.. (2009) International and Cross-Cultural Management Studies: A Postcolonial Reading, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

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

Kapoor, I. (2002) Capitalism, culture, agency: dependency versus postcolonial theory, Third World Quarterly, 23(4), 647-64.

Mbigi, L (1997) Ubuntu: The African Dream in Management, Randburg, S. Africa: Knowledge Resources.

Mohan, G (2002) Beyond participation: strategies for deeper empowerment, in B. Cooke and U Kothari, Participation: The New Tyranny?, London: Zed Books, 2002: 153-167.

Prasad, A (ed) (2003) Postcolonial Theory and Organizational Analysis: A Critical Reader, London: Palgrave Macmillan

Said, Edward (1978/1995) Orientalism, London: Penguin

Schech, S. and Haggis, J. (2000) Culture and Development: A Critical Introduction, Oxford: Blackwell.

Spivak, G C (1988) Can the subaltern speak?, in C Nelson and L Grossberg (eds) Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, pp. 271-313 (Basingstoke, UK: MacMillan)

Tsutsui, W.M. (1998). Manufacturing Ideology: Scientific Management in Twentieth-Century Japan. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press

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