Can Marxist theory contribute to cross-cultural management scholarship? Part 2 – The Context

For me, cross-cultural management has a context. Understanding this context is important. The context is an increasingly globalised world that is dynamic. It is characterised by power relations that have been shown to underscore and affect cross-cultural management interactions. The overall context is the political-economic system of capitalism, which to a large extent determines these power relations. It is within this system that we all operate. In understanding this system we can better understand the nature of cross-cultural interactions and how we (think we) manage these interactions. One of the most acute, critical and geopolitically far reaching analyses of this system is Marxism.

I started exploring the idea that Marxism can inform cross-cultural management scholarship in my post of 17th October 2015 following a summer of fairly traumatic world events. I promised to follow that up, and to tease out some of the implications for cross-cultural management scholarship. This is part of a dual quest to stimulate a more critical cross-cultural management scholarship in an otherwise conservative sub-discipline, as well as mainstreaming such scholarship within management studies and, importantly for me, within the mainstream of social sciences, where it has its roots, but appears to make little original contribution.

Is Marxism still important?

Marxism has partially come back on the agenda following the ravishes of neoliberalism and its assumption of universalism, and particularly post-crash. I would argue that while capitalism exists as an economic system, and while we work within this system with implications of course for business and management and the way we view the world, Marxism represents its most acute criticism and is therefore relevant. Yet I have argued that Postcolonialism as a critical theory, is delimited by time and space, and is probably now out of date, surely I must apply this same logic to Marxism?

Yet there is a different logic applying here. Postcolonial theory became relevant as Marxism fell out of fashion, but academics still felt compelled to come up with a critical theory that challenged the status quo, and still brought to bear some of the theories of Marxism such as ideology and false consciousness, but without the radical political and economic implications: postcolonialism doesn’t appear to challenge capitalism as an economic system, nor the recent neoliberal orthodoxy. In short, it isn’t the best critical analysis of the capitalist system within which we work.

Why we need a critical analysis of this system within which we purport to understand how cross-cultural values and interaction work has become more apparent as we witness how globalisation under a capitalist system appears to affect our international and domestic interactions, and how for example assumptions of universalism and institutional isomorphism are being challenged by cross-cultural management scholars, but from a very weak theoretical base that needs a critical strengthening. This involves examining context. If we are looking at ‘culture’ we still have to consider any theory about it in context. As I said above, the context is capitalism, which not only forms a context but is integral to what we call culture.

A question of stability

In my formative student years in the 1970s Marxism was fashionable among us social science students. This was mainly as a radical scholarly critique, but also overtly political – I was an undergraduate at Swansea University at the time of the miners’ strikes and the picket lines needed all the help they could get (secondary picketing was not yet illegal).

In academic circles, within social anthropology and sociology, structural functionalism was the prevalent theory to debunk. In less critical times, and particularly within the rather conservative discipline of management studies, structural functionalism appears to have morphed into systems theory and then into institutional theory. The point about these conservative theories is they emphasise stability and harmony within a social system. Dysfunction is an aberration whereby the organism rallies around and either rejects the dysfunctioning part, or adapts to cope with it. The emphasis is on cohesion rather than conflict.

Even when the social anthropologist Max Gluckman set out to examine conflict in African societies it was within the general theory that there is a logic to this that is all part of maintaining the functioning of the whole.

Hence his thesis, writing in 1955, that ‘..conflicts in one set of relationships, over a wider range of society or through a longer period of time, lead to the re-establishment of social cohesion’ (page 2). His thesis is really stretched when he, originally from South Africa, argues (again in 1955) that the same may be applied to this racially divided society. He is working under the (structural functionalist) assumption that,

‘..the behaviour of men in society forms a system, which has a structure. This system, as Herbert Spencer pointed out long ago, is akin to an organic, rather than to a mechanical, system. We study in society both an anatomy and a physiology. And the idea of conflicts which are resolved within the overall system of the society, and which contribute to the continued operation of that system as a whole, has physiological parallels.’ (page 140-1).

His argument for cohesion through conflict for South Africa in the 1950s is rather convoluted and focuses on his studies of Zulu society, but appears to be a variation of divide and rule or ‘divide and cohere’ as he portrays it. He certainly acknowledges power relations, but doesn’t really examine them.

It wasn’t just a Marxist perspective that challenged this general thesis, yet this was the body of theory that appeared to be diametrically opposed to the view that societal forms aim for stability and harmony within the social structure and anything that came along to upset that was an aberration, but one that could ultimately be integrated to maintain this harmony.

The relevance to cross-cultural management studies

So, in a discipline that predominantly takes a comparative view of ‘cultures’, why is this all relevant? The reason is that as cross-cultural management studies frees itself up from the Hofstedian view of scholarship, it’s starting to look at other ways that the discipline may be useful, for example, looking at social processes. Social processes are an integral part of culture. Yet when we start to examine the nature of ‘culture’ from a more critical perspective, we can start to understand its stratified nature, its conflicted nature and its contested nature, as I pointed out in my original post on Marxism. We can start to understand where knowledge comes from, for example, including our knowledge and understanding of the social world.

An example is indigenous knowledge, which within world dynamics has been marginalised in the sense of either being ignored, or confined to locality and rendered irrelevent to the wider, globalised world and not contributing. In my previous post about indigeneity, I referred to the power dynamics within which this marginalization took place. Power dynamics relate to social stratification, potential social conflict and contested culture.

Culture comprises all meaningful action, structure, values and ideas among human society. The world context for this is a global capitalist system that needs to be understood as part of the culture that we study (in its interaction between, simplistically, global and local). Without understanding this context, which comprises culture, I fail to see how we can understand the phenomenon that we purport to study.

I agree with with the Marxist anthropologist Donald L. Donham that Marx’s scholarship does not appear to serve well as a model for socialism, but as an analysis of capitalism it excels. As such it should be integrated into our understanding of the context of our work, and form an integral part of it. So, how do we do this?

Integrating Marxism

In understanding culture, context is all! I have argued strenuously that the majority world – as an important 80 percent of the geographical context of our work – should be better integrated into our scholarship. Theoretically our assumptions about society should also be more embracing of reality. Stability in social context is assumed in our studies. Comparisons of national values assume a stable and unified society. Interaction studies assume an equal and stable basis for cross-cultural interaction. Marx account of socio-economic class based on the means of production seems outdated. Yet this is only because the means of production has changed. If ownership of the means of production has changed, this is only to concentrate it in the hands of fewer very high net worth individuals. One of the consequences of the 2007-8 economic crash is that fewer workers are actually directly employed in traditional employment – witness the growth of the gig economy. A recent McKinsey Global Institute report estimated that in the US and most of Europe up to 30% of the working population work this way. So, far from the wage labourer being a thing of the past, labour costs, as the main cost of the means of production, are being driven down by these measures, governments are mainly sanctioning them, and the difference between capital and labour is becoming more acute rather than fading away.

In cross-cultural management studies, this 30% is mainly missing. I have already mentioned the 80% of the Globe that is derogatively labelled ‘developing’ is missing. So, if cross-cultural scholars are mainly studying 70% (those organizations with regular employment) of 20% of the Globe, that appears to imply they are only studying about 14% of the real world. Of this, and this is only an assumption on my part, these are mostly multinational enterprise. So big organisations, rather than SMEs and smaller NGOs. If the aim is to understand how cross-cultural management can be more effective, then this is mainly aimed at the interests of big business. I’m not saying you have to be a Marxist to understand this, but integrating a Marxist analysis of the context of your work will certainly introduce a more critical awareness into your scholarship.

If we site cross-cultural management studies within the social sciences, where it belongs, like all social scientists we are contributing to an understanding of how (and why) society works. A critical Marxist analysis helps us to understand this, but also it helps us to understand why we are only studying this small section of Global society. What is our aim? What are we trying to understand? Our scholarly objectives may change if we introduce this type of critical analysis. Whose interests are we serving? Why is this relevant?

In the next post on Marxism in cross-cultural management, I’m looking more directly at how I think Marx, or Marxists, understand ‘culture’.


Can Marxist theory contribute to cross-cultural management scholarship? Part 1 – Some initial thoughts and rationale

Can Marxist theory contribute to cross-cultural management scholarship? Part 3 – Ideology and Culture

© Terence Jackson 2017

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