Life on planet Earth: a twenty-first century cultural narrative

Much has happened over the first two decades of the 21st century. Yet change has particularly accelerated over the last year. The events of 2020 have presented a context much different to that witnessed previously by cross-cultural management scholars. This is a context that must be integrated into our scholarship, not only as a backdrop but as the content of what we study and try to make sense of. Narratives of these events are created by social actors, particularly those in positions of power. These narratives are part of the social reality that we have to understand. Where necessary we have to create our own counter-narratives in order to address the issues of the day.

Shocks to the global economy such as the sub-prime crisis of 2008, leading to harsher free market-led policies and reforms and government cutbacks in most countries of the world, seem to have challenged social solidarity encapsulated in concepts of collectivism and the societal nurturing qualities contained in Hofstede’s concept of femininity values. These measures have perhaps reinforced GLOBE’s juxtaposed value dimension of assertiveness where individual competitiveness may have become closer to the norm not only in business contexts but even in academic ones where the now familiar metrics of ranking and rating often sets one individual, university or journal against another. Yet these dynamics may also have reinforced social solidarity in communities under pressure and suffering increased economic and social hardships. However, when communities fall apart this has stimulated increased migration from crisis and war zones, where for example migrants have been confronted with challenging national immigration policies after sometimes life-threatening journeys to reach their destinations where negatives narratives have been created by the more powerful. This in turn seems to have led to increased racism and xenophobia where, for example, a former British prime minister had described migrants coming into Europe as a ‘swarm’, and the present incumbent routinely making racist comments during the course of his career, including comparing Muslim women to ‘letterboxes’.

Technology has also had an impact over the last twenty years. The lowering of power distance through greater use of social media to inform, influence and campaign with the example of the Arab Spring may just be an illusion or diversion as tech giants such as Google and Facebook extend their influence and resources. New ways of doing business across the Globe through technology can be seen through mobile phone companies, such as Vodafone, setting up the mobile money industry particularly in Africa. This does not just challenge local community arrangements such as credit unions, but finds new ways of extracting wealth often from poorer communities, with the collusion of global aid agencies such as the UK Department for International Development who funded the original programme in East Africa and the Gates Foundation who continue to promote the benefits of greater access to banking facilities through their funding programmes. This appears to have the effect of breaking down community cohesion, without development agencies seemingly being aware of the cultural issues involved.

These examples of changes in social and cultural dynamics may not immediately reflect within the numerous cross-national studies undertaken among management populations in the name of cross-cultural management studies, but may have a profound effect on the human context, the cultures, of our global existence. Certainly, everyone is influenced by the way organisations are managed, and this changing context is part of the way international companies, governmental and non-government organisations are being managed and the narratives that are created around this.

As cross-cultural management scholars we are in the business of understanding, influencing and managing narratives, and where necessary creating counter-narratives. We are particularly concerned about the one-sidedness of ethnocentric narratives about the way people (managers and staffs) and organisations of various sorts go about their business. We are mindful of the way interactional dynamics, at interpersonal, inter-organisational, international and intercontinental levels, skewed by power relations, shape the meaning of those dynamics, influence the dialogue within the dynamic and construct the ‘reality’ of that dynamic. It is perhaps ironic that as cross-cultural scholars, still a minority among our peers working in the fields of management studies, international management and business, we have a relatively weak voice, particularly when it comes to influencing narratives that are important in international life in a highly globalised world.

A paradox of diverted attention

If things have changed over the last twenty years in a more gradual way, 2020 has provided further shocks to global economies, the ways we do business, and the effects on communities. At this time our highly globalised world has got us into trouble as the main international narrative has firmly focused on the coronavirus pandemic, its causes and consequences. Politically this narrative has diverted attention away from other important issues: poverty at domestic and international levels, Brexit in the UK, migration, the environmental crisis, even though it has rendered many of these other issues even more important. Since the advent of the coronavirus pandemic billionaires have reportedly increased their wealth by 27%. The pandemic has been good for international business particularly in the high-tech industries and healthcare supply industries. Yet extreme poverty has substantially increased during this time across the globe. While the sub-narratives around inequality and extreme poverty have gained in importance they have also been pushed into the background. Similarly, with the environmental issues that have been accentuated by the pandemic, the environment has become a sub-narrative rather than the main event. Greta Thunberg is no longer big news. Extinction Rebellion is given little mention. Infection and death rates, lockdown and even COVID-deniers command attention in daily news reports.

 

There is no denying however that COVID-19 has changed our everyday lives, no less our working lives, and perhaps this or the next new virus (if we can assume a connection between deforestation and increased human contact with exotic animal species as carriers of coronaviruses) has changed things forever. It may have changed the way we see the world, and therefore what we study and how we study it.

Understanding the narratives

It is difficult to separate the COVID-19 pandemic from the narratives about it. No more so than the origins of the virus and the implications of the perceptions and discourse around this. We have heard it described as the Chinese virus inflaming sometimes racial views and acts against Chinese people and those perceived as looking Chinese around the world (see Wikipedia’s list of connected racist incidents). Managing the narrative is an issue that should concern cross-cultural management scholars. Potentially this narrative is broad, and should be looked at well beyond the narrow interpretation of the virus’s purported origins in a wet market in Wuhan, China. This broader view involves understanding the interrelationship of indigenous and western knowledge, of the management of the environment and how we manage natural resources. It involves an understanding of the informal economy and its dynamic within local and global power relations. Cross-cultural management scholars have a role in influencing this narrative about the virus and the context of its origins, to be able to deal better with the current and future crises.

Managing the narrative on the origins of the virus

There has been outrage in some of the press at wet markets still being open or reopened in China and in neighbouring countries. This type of journalism fuels sinophobia, and rarely represents the reality of the situation. As with the informal economy in many countries across the globe, food markets are a vital part of the local economy, enabling small farmers to stay in business, and poorer populations having access to food. Despite being informal there are often strict regulations on hygiene, particularly in China.

This, for example, brings together two areas of my own research, both of which involve understanding often negative narratives around international management issues: views of the informal economy and their implications and; understanding the narrative of China as an economic threat, and now a viral threat, to western economies (again, in my research a view from the west on China’s engagement). Taking the latter first, it is important to understand the nature of the threat, not just economic, that China is perceived to pose.

In their article in The Conversation Lynteris and Fernley point out that:

…the Chinese model of development (the economic emergence of China in the 21st century) has been perceived in the West as a threat, both in political and cultural terms: China’s economic development because of its rapid nature and the competition this might pose to the US or EU economies; and culturally, because reforms seem incompatible with western expectations of modernisation. In short, rather than China adapting to capitalism, capitalism (in China) is adapting to China.

They argue that China’s food consumption is part of this. Although embracing supermarkets and pre-packaged food, economic development has not involved welcoming ‘European and American cultural norms of what is eatable and what is not’. What should not be overlooked is the implications of what these two authors call ‘orientalisation’ and ‘anti-Chinese sentiment’ to how cross-cultural management scholars integrate an understanding of racism into their work.

This certainly seems to be one of the factors in the way international cooperation has been managed in the face of this pandemic. This takes in the first aspect of the research mooted above that could be brought to bear, indigenous knowledge in the informal economy. ‘Indigenous’ refers to practices, knowledge and values that are related to, and grow out of, local and community circumstances. These often stand in contrast to international or global practices (read, ‘western’), knowledge and values. Hence, the anthropologists, Lynteris and Fernley believe that the knee-jerk reaction called by the press to close ‘wet markets’ in China fails to understand their local significance and importance. Firstly, they say, the image created and offered to the west by the accounts in the press is ‘highly flawed, not only because it relies on western sensitivities of what is eatable and what is not, and which portrays a modern form of Chinese food trade and consumption as “traditional”, but more practically, because it misrepresents the material and economic reality of these markets’. So called ‘wet markets’ are highly diverse and only a small portion of animals sold are poached from the wild. Where ‘wild’ animals are sold, these are mainly bred in captivity, such as mallard ducks, frogs and snakes.

 

At a time when small-scale farmers faced pressures from large-scale industrial food producers, and to meet consumer demand, they started to rear higher value produce such as wild geese in the late 1990s. This move provided a path towards a steady income when it became a struggle to live off the land when in the 1990s government policy turned to heavily capitalised ‘dragon enterprises’ — large-scale industrial food conglomerates.

Such informal economies that work from the so called ‘wet markets’ outside the huge conglomerates account for 30-59% of China’s food supplies. They involve huge numbers of small farmers, traders and consumers. When, in 2002, attempts were made to close these markets in response to SARS, and in 2013-14 in response to H7N9, black markets arose with no controls. Such measures lead to far greater risk to public and global health than existing regulated and legal markets.

The geopolitical narrative

Certainly, the West, in the form of ‘the most powerful nation in the world’, the United States, has failed to take a significant lead in fighting this virus as it had done for example in the Ebola crises under Obama, and many national leaders are either turning towards China for leadership, or turning against the Chinese leadership. This also involves President Trump’s apparent ambiguity towards China, both saying what a great guy President Xi is, then calling the coronavirus the ‘Chinese virus’ and Kung Flu, and then withdrawing contributions to the World Health Organisation because he says they are too pro-China. This is, very briefly and perhaps too narrowly, the geopolitical background to the narratives around the outbreak itself (a ‘Chinese virus’, or an American plot). The main point here is, far from the ‘fight’ (itself an emotive term, where some leaders are trying to frame the narrative as a wartime one) against the virus being a non-political one, it is highly politicised.

 

Social narratives have always been politicised where power relations are important to consider if we are to understand what we understand about social reality. Science does not stand above such narratives and counter-narratives, but are part of it. This has become very obvious over the last twenty years and particularly during the coronavirus crisis. As social scientists it is part of our job to understand these narratives and to incorporate this knowledge into our work.

Is it also part of our job to construct counter-narratives?

Coming back to Flyvbjerg, a social scientist I have cited a number of times in my work, and his reminder of the importance of Aristotle’s concept of phronesis or practical wisdom to the relevance of the social sciences, and to the relevance of cross-cultural management studies, I believe the answer is yes.

In my well-worn copy of Aristotle’s Ethics he defines ‘practical wisdom (phronesis)’ as ‘a rational faculty exercised for the attainment of truth in things that are humanly good and bad’ (In the Penguin 1953 version of Aristotle’s Ethics this is on page 177 – Book Six, Chapter five). Living in society involves making value judgements of good or bad encapsulated in the question: what should we do? As Flyvbjerg puts it (on page 60): ‘the principal objective for social science with a phonetic approach is to carry out analyses and interpretation of the status of values and interests in society aimed at social commentary and social action, i.e. praxis’.

We are well-placed to analyse and understand values in society, but we need to go further in critically analysing how these values arise, how power dynamics and vested interests influence values and how these interests give rise to narratives around issues such as international migration (a ‘swarm’, or fellow human beings), the wisdom of neoliberal economics and its outcomes, Africa (the ‘dark continent’/business opportunity), China (a geopolitical threat?) and recently COVID-19. Yet as social scientists we need to go further. We should be offering counter-narratives for the 21st century. Narratives are not universal truths. Hofstede countered the narrative that Anglo-American management techniques are applicable the world over.

It is arguable that cross-cultural management studies has come of age. It has matured and is somewhat different to the scholarship being published at the beginning of the 21st century. Certainly the human-made context (what I would call ‘culture’ and the subject of our scholarship) has been changing along with the narratives created around this context. As cross-cultural management scholars we are in a position to analyse this in a critical way and where appropriate to offer counter-narratives that have the potential to change the way policymakers and their publics think and act. Perhaps in the next twenty years cross-cultural management scholarship can lead the social sciences in offering cross-cultural counter-narratives that can address the issues of the day.

A version of this post was written as an editorial in International Journal of Cross Cultural Management volume 20, issue 3, December 2020, in part as a comment on 20 years of IJCCM

© Terence Jackson 2020

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