What’s Missing in Cross-cultural Management Studies? Why American Culture Can’t Be Assumed

This is the second in the series that looks at what is missing from extant cross-cultural management studies. Management studies in general tends to be a conservative discipline, often lagging behind developments in the wider social sciences. I don’t believe international and cross-cultural management studies is any different to this. It has got stuck in a rut. It is largely immune from more critical scholarly developments. It often fails to examine in depth its own cultural origins. It makes assumptions about its own methodologies and conceptualisations. It replicates studies and in doing so often reinforces its own cultural assumptions. It largely ignores the majority world. It assumes the minority world.


The invisibility of American culture

‘American culture’ is often taken for granted in management studies of organizations in America, with an assumption that this is what is done everywhere. In cross-cultural management studies such an assumption may be questioned by work that investigates if particular (American) theories, principles or practices work in other countries. Yet ‘American-ness’ is still very much taken for granted. Explanations in cross-cultural management studies may put more weight on why the situation in other countries may be different typically by referring to Hofstede’s (1980) work which designated the United States as an Individualistic rather than a Collectivist, medium Power Distance, fairly high Feminine rather than Masculine, and reasonably low Uncertainty Avoidance society. There are also few studies by management scholars from other countries that specifically examine American management from a cross-cultural perspective. In other words, American culture is largely ‘invisible’.

Its history is firstly as a collection of small nations comprising native populations relatively undisturbed by outside interference for many centuries; as a colony and aggressor towards the indigenous populations; as a refuge from persecution from European countries and an independent country; as a magnet for immigrants attracted by the ‘American dream’; as a ‘melting pot’ for different national and religious cultures; as a mostly economically successful nation based on a free market economy; as a one-time reluctant and then relatively aggressive economic and military world super-power; as an often socially and culturally divisive society from time to time accentuated by economic recessions (Jackson, 2011). It has been shaped by almost continuous immigration, first mainly from Britain (also heralding enforced immigrants from Africa), then other European countries (the 1924 Immigration Act favoured immigrants from Northern Europe), then from other parts of the world. The metaphor of a ‘melting pot’ to describe an assumed integration of immigrants to the United States appears also to shape self-identity.

The homogeneity of America culture

One of the few studies that specifically examine American culture, that of Stewart and Bennett (1991, p. 129), describes American culture as an entity.

The American self-concept is the integral assumption of the culture. Americans naturally assume that each person is not only a separate biological entity, but also a unique psychological being and a singular member of the social order. Deeply ingrained and seldom questioned, the dominant American self, in the form of individualism, pervades action and intrudes into each domain of activity.

The assumption of cultural homogeneity is certainly problematic and is criticized more recently in the area of Whiteness studies. McDermott & Samson (2005, p. 248) tell us that:

Although many nonwhites, especially African Americans, are confronted with their race on a daily basis ……many whites do not think of themselves as really having a race at all. In this respect, white is an unmarked identity, such as heterosexual or middle-aged.

Hence the connection between being white and privileged is one that often is not made by many whites. McDermott & Samson (2005) contend that this lack of connection is due to non-obvious legacies of structural advantage, or in some cases from a desire to accentuate individual achievement.

Stewart and Bennett (1991) were originally writing in 1972 and revised their work in 1991. They were likely to be from white middleclass backgrounds, and although Stewart states he is from a bicultural family, he, like his co-author Bennett, with experience of living abroad are likely be aware of their cultural identities vis-a-vis non-American cultures, rather than in relation to other American (e.g. black) cultural groups. Yet Frankenberg (2001) notes that changes in American society have brought racial groups more into contact with each other, which may change perceptions.

Like Britain and countries in Western Europe, America has changed over the last few decades, rendering both the concept of one American identity, and the basis of cross-cultural studies such as Hofstede’s, GLOBE and others almost facile. It is interesting that in the more recent GLOBE study, South African samples are taken of both White and Black, and in Canada samples are taken from English and French speakers, yet the much larger USA is taken as one sample (House, et al, 2004).

In the 2000 US census, out of a total population of nearly 249 million, 75.1 per cent said they were white or Caucasian, 21.36 per cent (60 million) claimed German descent, 12.3 per cent said they were black or of African America descent, and 12.5 per cent Hispanic. Three point six per cent were Asian (US Census Bureau, 2009).

When one focuses specifically on management groups, it may be true what Carroll and Gannon (1997) claimed, that there is far less diversity in the ranks of management at the top of organizations as there is at lower levels. Yet surely this is an indictment of the lack of success of both the American Dream and melting pot concept. Carroll and Gannon are not simply claiming a racial homogeneity for managers, but a homogeneity through socialization through the education system and American literature, and through recruitment and selection processes which favour such traits as ‘decisiveness, persistence, social dominance, emotional stability/stress tolerance, self-confidence, dependability and assertiveness [which] have often been identified as important to managerial success’ (p.148).

Performance appraisal and compensation systems further reinforce these types of traits. However, from the US 2000 census results it does appear to be the case that more blacks and Hispanics live in poverty than whites, fewer graduate from high school, and fewer hold bachelor’s degrees (US Census Bureau, 2000) hence fewer become managers. For example, James (2000) reported a slower promotion rate for black managers in a survey in a Fortune 500 service firm.

The unidimensional nature of studies on American identity

Schildkraut (2007) suggests that multidimensional studies of American identity are lacking, and are only focused on two components: ‘liberalism (America as a land of freedom and opportunity) and ethnoculturalism (America as a nation of white Protestants)’ (p.597). Following an empirical study undertaken by telephone interviews of Black (n=300), White (n=1633), Latino (n=441) and Asian (n=299) groups, Schildkraut (2007) concludes that no majority of one racial group comes to a different substantive conclusion than another about what constitutes the norms of American identity and points to a high level of shared identity norms among different racial groups in America, appearing to support the melting pot thesis.

However, other studies point to substantive differences in the perception of American versus minority group identity. Massey and Sanchez (2007) for example point to differences in the perception towards American and Latino identity. Latin American immigrants appear to see a great contrast in the content of the two identities viewing American identity as involving bigness and power, and seeing (white) Americans as being in constant motion and in a hurry, competitive, commercial, cold, distant and impersonal; and, seeing Latino (American) identity as focused on people and on intimate social relationships, and seeing the building blocks of Latino identity as work, home and Latin American symbols.

Yet the commonalities, which Carroll and Gannon (1997) point to, appear to arise from the US educational process that emphasises individual performance, and competitive performance against one’s peers. They suggest that there is not the stress on cooperation and sharing as may be found, for example, in the Japanese educational system. They assert that America students are taught

..about the superiority of Americans as a people and America as a nation of destiny, compared to most others in the world. This seems to have produced a marked ethnocentrism. It has been said that this gives Americans a certain arrogance toward other peoples and their ideas…

This is then reinforced by constant depressing news of other countries as being volatile, violent and miserable, with little positive features being constantly highlighted by the media (Gannon & Associates, 1994, p. 144)

In this earlier work by Gannon (Gannon and Associates, 1994) they apply the metaphor of the American football game to American culture: a high level of individualism and competitive specialization is combined with ‘huddling’ and the ceremonial celebration of perfection. American culture celebrates the high achieving individual and denigrates failure, but also favours collegiality. This is different from the often assumed antithesis of American culture, collectivism or communalism (Hofstede, 1980; Triandis, 1990) described in the literature. It is more akin to Schwartz’s (1994) egalitarian commitment. Although as in American football ‘huddling’ or team play is important, one only comes together on a voluntary basis to solve particular problems, and then goes away again to compete on one’s own initiative. Huddling is quite unlike the Japanese sense of community within the corporation. It is often seen as a necessity but not an obligation. Hence cooperation, rather than working as a loner, is sought. As a result of a short-term perspective and always in a hurry to get things done (‘time is money’) these associations can be superficial and not lasting (Gannon and Associates, 1994).

The values that are repeated in the literature and appear to typify American culture as described by Gannon & Associates (1994) are equality of opportunity, independence, initiative and self-reliance. Yet competitive specialization can be taken to the extremes of emotional intensity and aggression with the United States having one of the highest rates of incarceration in the world. American football rules seek to enhance competition on the field and the league. So does U.S. legislation such as anti-trust laws. Technology, which is developed at a fantastic rate in the United States, plays a key role in competitive specialization (both on the field and in corporate life). The team in American football is divided into squads to which players identify more readily, as they do to the nuclear family rather than to the extended family. Children are raised in the nuclear family to believe that they can achieve anything if they avail themselves of the opportunities offered.

The short term perspective that this cultural analysis suggests may also lead to standardization of work processes (such as Taylorism) and the quick fix approach (the ‘one-minute-manager’). An emphasis on the ‘bottom-line’ and the achievement of results often leads to the standardized ranking of individuals and teams (students against their class-mates, ranking of quarter-backs, and teams in the league). Judgements are therefore standardized and objective and this is often reflected in corporate practices such as Management by Objectives and identification of competencies of managers and key workers.

Making American cultures apparent

But I have been scratching around in the management literature to find anything that passes this superficial level of analysis of ‘American culture’, that provides a multidimensional analysis, and an understanding of the heterogeneity of American cultures. I have turned to the wider social science literature, but can find little of this being applied in cross-cultural management studies. American management culture is assumed as the the standard and therefore invisible among the cross-cultural studies I receive as a journal editor. The onus on authors is always to explain and contextualise Thai, Malaysian or Nigeria management practices (often citing Hofstede or GLOBE) but never American practices. Like Thai, Malaysian and Nigerian societal culture, American culture is riven by class, gender, race and geography. Yet within the American context, within management studies most of this is invisible. In any serious cross-cultural study these aspects need to be fully discussed, and brought within full range of scholarly perceptions.


Carroll, S J & Gannon, M J (1997) Ethical Dimensions of International Management, Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage

Frankenberg R. (2001). Mirage of an unmarked whiteness, in B.B. Rasmussen, E. Klinenberg, I.J. Nexica, M. Wray M, (eds). 2001. The Making and Unmaking of Whiteness. Durham, NC: Duke Univ. Press, pp. 72-96

Gannon, M J & Associates (1994) Understanding Global Cultures: Metaphorical Journeys Through 17 Countries, Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage

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. (2011) International Management Ethics: A Critical, Cross-Cultural Perspective, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

James, E. H. (2000) Race-related differences in promotions and support: underlying effects of human and social capital, Organizational Science, 11(5), 493-508.

McDermott, M. & Samson, F. L. (2005) White racial and ethnic identity in the United States, Annual Review of Sociology, 31:245–61

Massey, D. S. and Sanchez, M. R. (2007) Latino and American identities as perceived by immigrants, Quarterly Sociology, 30(1): 81-107

Schildkraut, D. J. (2007) Defining American Identity in the Twenty-First Century: How Much “There” is There?, The Journal of Politics, 69 (3), August 2007, pp. 597–615

Schwartz, S. H.(1994) Beyond individualism/collectivism: new cultural dimensions of values, in U. Kim, Triandis, H. C., Kâğitçibaşi, Ç., Choi, S-C, and Yoon, G. Individualism and Collectivism: Theory, Method and Application, Beverly Hills, CA: Sage, pp. 85-119.7

Stewart, E. C. and Bennett, M. J. (1991) American Cultural Patterns: A Cross-Cultural Perspective, 2nd Edition, Boston: Intercultural Press

Triandis, H. C., Brislin, R. and Hui, C. H. (1988) ‘Cross-cultural training across the individualism–collectivism divide’, International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 12: 269–89.

US Census Bureau (2000) US Census 2000, http://www.census.gov/main/www/cen2000.html (accessed 14/07/016)

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