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


Being radical in international management studies normally means talking about postcolonial theory (PCT). I’ve argued elsewhere that within a changing global dynamic, PCT is becoming outdated. It is a theory sited in time and place. Yet the ongoing context of international business is the capitalist system. Marx was its most acute analyst and critic. After going out of fashion in the 1980s and ’90s as academic criticism, Marxism is yet again on the critical agenda. Its previous demise was not so much its lack of relevance, but its perceived inappropriateness in the wake of the demise of the Left and the fall of a system that was supposed to be based on Marx’s alternative to capitalism. Today, one of the most pertinent concepts to cross-cultural management studies that Marx dealt with is ideology. My view is that the focus of our study, culture, is in fact ideology. This is why.

The relationship between institutions and culture

I’ve long argued that there is an artificial divide between so-called institutionalist and culturalist theories. That institutions and culture can be separated is questionable in the British and European social anthropological tradition, as well as in the Marxist tradition.

Stuart Hall (Source: Open University)
Stuart Hall (Source: Open University)

Similarly Kelly points to the cultural differences theories of those such as Hofstede downplaying the role of ‘social structure and economic influences upon culture’ (p. 359). He points to Stuart Hall’s ‘reinterpretation of Marxism’. Here ‘..culture is the realm in which a contest of ideas takes place. These ideas are themselves influenced by the positioning of their proponents within the social structure’. This assertion indicates that to understand culture we need to understand the social context within which ideas are formulated. Factors such as social class, race and gender influence ideas, communication and culture.

Ideology and culture

Following on from Kelly’s account, it is important to comprehend Hall’s understanding of ideology before we go any further.

He writes:

By ideology I mean the mental frameworks—the languages, the concepts, categories, imagery of thought, and the systems of representation—which different classes and social groups deploy in order to make sense of, define, figure out and render intelligible the way society works. (Stuart Hall p.26)

The reference to mental frameworks is reminiscent of Hofstede’s ‘software of the mind’ or ‘culture as mental programming’, but Hofstede is talking about ‘culture’. Hall is talking about ‘ideology’. In this sense I believe they are talking about the same thing. But in the positivist view (i.e. Hofstede’s) we take culture as it is, what we can measure. In the critical, Marxist, view this thing Hofstede and others call ‘culture’ is only part of the totality of what I would call culture but should be subject to far more examination. For example, ‘individualism’ in a society is an ideology. But also Hofstede appears to be talking about a whole country, whereas Hall is speaking about ‘different classes and social groups’. Both may be right in a way when viewing this from a Marxist perspective as one class’s ideology may be accepted within the whole nation. In this sense ‘ideology’ is understood as the ‘false consciousness’ of Engels.

What Hofstede calls ‘culture’ is ‘ideology’ in the Marxist sense.

Hall remarks that no theory of ideology exists fully packaged in the works of Marx and Engels, where it had quite an ad hoc theorising, and that current understanding of this term is much wider: ‘We now use it to refer to all organised forms of social thinking’ (p.26)

Without understanding the Marxist concept of ideology, in this sense a politicised concept, it is difficult to understand the nature of ‘culture’, and by implication why a Marxist understanding of cross-cultural management studies is so important to the development of our field, a field that is (or should be) positioned within the (critical) social sciences.

One thing that I get from Marx is that there is an integral relationship (dialectic) between structure and ideas, between the social-economic and the ideological, between the institutional and ‘cultural’. And this isn’t purely a deterministic relationship. The realm of ideas does not deterministically follow the socio-economic. There is an interaction between the ideological and socio-economic, such that particularly the dominant ideas of the ruling class1 (e.g. neoliberalism) actually affect the socio-economic arrangement in a very real and practical way (austerity – with all its practical consequences couldn’t be enforced if people didn’t accept this dominant idea). Yet one way that ‘ideology’ may be conceived is as a universal truism: according to Hall, ‘Marx called them the eternalization of relations which are in fact historically specific; and the naturalization effect— treating what are the products of a specific historical development as if universally valid, and arising not through historical processes but, as it were, from Nature itself’. So, ideas and ‘culture’, are a product of time and space (there was life before, and hopefully after, neoliberalism – i.e. ultra-individualism).

Hence, in trying to conceptualise ‘national’ cultural there are certain issues. Hall points out that:

‘ a society like Britain, the idea of ‘nation’ has been consistently articulated towards the right. Ideas of ‘national identity’ and ‘national greatness’ are intimately bound up with imperial supremacy, tinged with racist connotations, and underpinned by a four- century-long history of colonization, world market supremacy, imperial expansion and global destiny over native peoples. (Hall, p. 42)

Hall remarks that it is difficult to break away from these notions of ‘Britain’ as this ideological terrain has been so powerfully structured by its previous history.

Cross-cultural management studies as ideology

Engels and Marx (source:
Engels and Marx (source:

I believe that most cross-cultural management scholars are not concerned with the political nature of their work, or indeed the political nature of management itself, and of cross-cultural management in particular. Of the social sciences, management studies must surely be one of the most conservative. After all, management largely supports the status quo, existing power structures within society, whereas cross-cultural management is designed to make the most effective use of those existing structures internationally. It supports the dominant ideology because that is its main focus – the dominant ‘culture’ within largely the dominant parts of the world. For Marx and Engels2:

The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas: i.e., the class which is the ruling material force of society is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, consequently also controls the means of mental production, so that the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are on the whole subject to it.

If we are at once studying ideology (i.e. ‘culture’) and supporting and reproducing that ideology, a critique of this needs to be incorporated into our scholarship. Hofstede warned that our own cultural background may colour the way we study culture and that we need to be introspective about this. We also need to be aware of the overall context of what we are studying and the accumulated knowledge of what we are studying. In simple terms this is the intrinsic relation between institutions and ideology. In more complex and critical terms this is the relationship between a political-economic structure and the dominant ideas about this.


  1. I haven’t used this term lightly. As 1 percent of the world population own 99 per cent of the wealth, I would say that there is a good chance that this one percent calls the shots in this society of ours. In other words the ruling class is a plutocracy.
  2. From Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, “The ruling class and the ruling ideas.” In Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels: Collected Works, vol. 5, pp. 59–62. Translated by Richard Dixon. New York: International Publishers, 1976.


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 2 – The Context

© Terence Jackson 2017

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