Critical Cross-cultural Management Studies: Ideology, Culture and History

I’ve just finished a chapter on Critical cross-cultural management studies for an edited book (Szkudlarek, B., Osland, J., Caprar, D. and Romani, L. (Eds) SAGE Handbook of Contemporary Cross-Cultural Management, London: Sage, to be published next year), and just started reading Yuval Noah Harari’s book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. As a historian he has captured well what ‘culture’ is, as he distinguishes modern humans from those they were in competition with a couple of hundred thousand years ago.

‘Without an ability to compose fiction, Neanderthals were unable to cooperate effectively in large numbers, nor could they adapt their social behaviour to rapidly changing challenges. (p. 34)

‘The immense diversity of imagined realities that Sapiens invented, and the resulting diversity of behaviour patterns, are the main components of what we call ‘cultures’. Once cultures appeared, they never ceased to change and develop, and these unstoppable alterations are what we call ‘history’. (P. 37)

Sapiens have thus been living in a dual reality. On the one hand, the objective reality of rivers, trees and lions; and on the other hand, the imagined reality of gods, nations and corporations. As time went by, the imagined reality became ever more powerful, so that today the very survival of rivers, trees and lions depends on the grace of imagined entities such as the United States and Google. (p.32)

(Harari, Yuval Noah, 2011, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, London: Random House. Kindle Edition)

Thus he captures ‘culture’ as a fiction: money, limited liability companies, states are fiction. This underlines what I was trying to say in my chapter, but I used the term ‘ideology’. I’ve only covered the first few chapters of Harari’s book, but from what I can tell from the index, he doesn’t use this term. Nor does he consider the class-based nature of these fictions, although he does discuss hierarchies in the opening chapters, and later in the book (p.120) where he sees a hierarchy as another fiction for keeping societies together (so, a classic structural-functionalist stance). Nor, I think, does he really understand the nature of class oppression when he states:

Since large-scale human cooperation is based on myths, the way people cooperate can be altered by changing the myths – by telling different stories. Under the right circumstances myths can change rapidly. In 1789 the French population switched almost overnight from believing in the myth of the divine right of kings to believing in the myth of the sovereignty of the people. (P.32)

I’m sure this didn’t change overnight but came as a result of centuries of oppression of one class over another, and the eventual overthrow of a particular ideology. But the point here is his perception of the real nature of institutions as culture, or ideology, and the need to understand this in the way history is made. As cross-cultural management scholars we forget this overriding aspect of the nature of what we study: that the content of what we study is also the context. This is the point I make in my chapter. The basis of a critical cross-cultural management studies is understanding the nature of culture.

What makes CCMS not critical is what it misses out. With a restrictive concept of culture, it is difficult to understand that the context of what we study is also the content: an issue that social scientists have grappled with for many years.

That ‘institutions’ can somehow be differentiated from ‘culture’ is a nonsense I’ve focused on previously. The multinational corporations that so many of our colleagues in CCMS focused on are ‘fictions’ in Harari’s terms. They are part of the culture we seek to study. They provide the context of our work. Yet, they also provide the content of what we study (or what we should study, as we purport to study culture). Similarly, a ‘nation’ is a fiction. It isn’t just that all nations have at some stage been invented by human beings, the term ‘England’ means different things to different people and changes over time, despite common agreement on the general geographical limits of this country. Continents, such as ‘Africa’, I have argued, were invented as were countries like ‘Nigeria’ invented as colonial administrative areas. The reification of social institutions has been an issue and critique against positivism in sociology and anthropology over the years. It certainly applies in mainstream management studies.

Money doesn't exist outside of the meaning that humans have attributed to it, and relates to an institution, such as the 'economy' - part of the context and contents of what CCM scholars should be studying
Money doesn’t exist outside of the meaning that humans have attributed to it, and relates to an institution, such as the ‘economy’ – part of the context and contents of what CCM scholars should be studying

In my chapter I have mainly gone with Herskovits’ (1948) definition of culture as the ‘human-made part of the environment’, or my version: ‘Culture comprises all that is made and imagined by the human race’. Certainly, artefacts could be included in this, but all human-made artefacts have a meaning to the person or people creating them, and relate to some invented institution which in turn relates to some form of human activity such as religion, art, government and so on. Without artefacts relating directly or indirectly to some kind of invented institution they are simply blocks of stone, wood or for example in the case of money, a piece of paper or plastic or metal. Ultimately I’ve gone with the following concept of culture and how it relates to a critical CCMS:

…culture comprises political and economic institutions, structures and processes, and the dynamics that have ensured the spread and dominance of certain geographically originated cultural forms throughout the globe. It comprises associated power relations, and those aspects that contribute towards the nature of those relations including economic, military and political factors. These are not part of the natural world. They have been, are being, created by human imagination, interaction and action. Our knowledge of the world, science, social science, cross-cultural management studies are all part of ‘culture’. This ‘content’ of culture is also the context within which we explore human thought and action (as meaningful behaviour) as social scientists, and through which we make sense of it. CCMS examines the management and organisation aspects of this. Critical CCMS makes sure that this is done inclusively and contextually. (Jackson, T., 2018)

Do have a look at this sneak preview of the pre-edited version of my chapter. I would welcome any feedback.

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