Broadening the horizons of cross cultural management studies: A theory of everything and everywhere

There are huge gaps in cross-cultural management scholarship. This may stem from a narrow and conservative perspective of the meaning of ‘culture’. It may be through a lack of ambition of how, and to what, our scholarship may contribute. It may also be through a lack of engagement with the wider social sciences, a lack of recognising how we fit into the wider social sciences and how we might contribute. Clearly our contribution is within the field of management, but the management of what? And, where? We tend to miss out much of the Majority World, areas such as the informal economy. This is missing a big chunk of where management is done while we concentrate on MNEs from the richer, mainly western-oriented countries and sometimes the ‘emerging’ nations. We should be broadening out our theories, expanding our horizons as we seek more fully to contribute to social science scholarship. Here I am approaching things from the nature of studies based on the social science disciplines our studies could make more use of, and what we can learn from disciplines outside the normal ambit of cross-cultural management studies.


I have long argued that our sub-discipline is trailing after the wider social and behavioural sciences. This is often because we don’t fully engage with the parent disciplines from which we could learn so much, and to which (as an applied social science engaged with real management and organisational issues) we have much to contribute. So, what are these scholarly disciplines we could learn from? Here are two that I believe would extend our studies to include everything and anything about management and organisations.

Anthropology and cross-cultural management: the study of everything

My initial experience of anthropology stems from my undergraduate studies in the 1970s. It was all about structural-functionalism in the British social anthropological tradition. I studied anthropologists like Radcliffe-Brown (Structure and Function in Primitive Society), Evans-Pritchard (writing on the Nuer of Southern Sudan), Malinowski (for the purist more accurately described as a ‘functionalist’, rather than a structural-functionalist, because he theorised that culture primarily met the needs of individuals, rather than the society directly) and Max Gluckman (who theorised that order came out of conflict, even, it seems from apartheid – ‘the colour-bar’ – in South Africa). These social anthropologists went into a ‘primitive’ society for a year or so, learned the language (I’m not sure how well), and documented the ‘culture’ through participant observation. These anthropologists were children of their time, of an imperial time, and reflected the values of these times and of their social class. They have been criticised for following an imperialist agenda, enabling a colonial administration to govern better, much the same as latter-day cross-cultural management scholars may be seen as enabling MNEs to operate more efficiently across the globe.

Everything in its place: an equilibrium theory

These early anthropologists may well have been working to a colonial agenda, but their studies and methods have value. They leave an important legacy and have useful lessons for cross-cultural management scholars today.

Malinowski among the Trobiand Islanders circa 1918
Malinowski among the Trobiand Islanders circa 1918

When they went into what they assumed was a society isolated from western civilisation, they documented the pattern of kinship, its structure and how it worked. They documented the society’s economy, how people exchanged goods and services. They looked at systems of law. They focused on belief systems and how religion related to other societal aspects such as social and hierarchical structures, kinship and legal systems. And of course they were interested in artefacts, things, and how they related to religion, law, the economy and social structure. They looked at the inter-relatedness of these different aspects of culture. They looked for meaning. They looked for the ways these systems and beliefs provided cohesion and equilibrium within the society. In fact equililbrium was the main precept of structural-functionalism, that a society can be seen like a living organism, with the parts contributing to the maintenance of the whole. Where there is a dysfunctional part, this can be removed or changed. In fact, this is the theory’s main concept of change, that dysfunction stimulates change or the organism (society) dies. That this is a recipe for conformity has been a major issue of criticism against structural-functionalism.

Everything human-made and belief systems

In that belief systems related to social structure and power relations within the society, this was suggestive of a concept of ideology going back to one of the early originators of sociology and social anthropology, Emile Durkheim. In his study of totemism among the indigenous societies of Australia and North America in The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. The members of each clan worshipped a particular animal (e.g. crow), which was also the name of the clan. He argued that the origins of the religious beliefs by which the lives of the people in each clan were governed were derived from the identification with the society (clan). The clan was seen to be greater and more powerful than the individuals within the clan. Ritual (associated, for example, with dancing around the totem pole) reinforced and drove these beliefs home. Thus the deep-seated beliefs that were acted upon unconsciously were no more than a set of implicit rules derived from the society in which the individual lived. There was a direct connection between things, social structures and belief and value systems, even though these connection were often hidden (as in current-day concepts of ideology that prevail mainly in critical sociology).

In other words, despite anthropology’s shortcomings and colonial connections (which themselves were mostly hidden within the scholarship of these early anthropologists), they looked at everything within a particular socio-cultural setting and how these all fitted together. That is, they looked at everything human-made. They also looked at the connections between what was not human-made (nature) and the human-made world (although these may be difficult to separate) through belief systems and the way human-beings interpret the natural world – todays equivalent would be our apparent belief that natural resources are everlasting and that they can be exploited for money (the capitalist system) with no consequences.


Although it is worth noting that much of the literature on indigeneity suggests a more harmonious connection of people with nature.

If, through this social anthropological tradition, we can take a view that culture relates to everything, we can learn from cultural geography that it is about everywhere.

Cultural geography and cross-cultural management: the study of everywhere

I first came across the notion of cultural geography, although I didn’t know it at the time, when I was researching my book Organizational Behaviour in International Management, in the early 1990s. I came across a practical and interesting book by Guy and Mattock. They suggested that the topography of a country has an influence on the culture, specifically through a sense of national identity. To illustrate, they suggested the following exercise (which I actually used in my teaching, with students from all over Europe, with great effect):

First, draw a simple sketch map of Spain, with its boundaries and show its capital city.

Next, do the same for Germany.

The assumption is that it is relatively easy to do this for Spain, but not so with Germany.

Source: Guy, V & Mattock, J (1991) The New International Manager, London: Kogan Page

Germany, so their argument went, has very few natural boundaries. Its political boundaries have constantly changed in modern history. Stretching their point they suggest that this can tell us much about the national identities of both countries. The Spanish have a very strong sense of what it means to be Spanish despite strong regional differences. Germany and ‘Germanness’ is something that can foster insecurities and doubts, and is not all that clear. They suggest that the topography of a country is a good starting point that may give insights into the nature of a national culture. National insecurity may give rise to a need for orderliness and uncertainty avoidance. This is where I begin to back off. The approach is contentious and certainly should be used with caution. The point is, look at a map. Look at ‘place’ as a starting point to understand something about a national culture.

I have recently been researching the nature and implications of the introduction of mobile money into African countries and its disruptive nature as a global technology and means of extracting wealth, set against endogenous ways of managing money in order to set up and expands micro-businesses within African communities. I came across a book on cultural geography, which had a chapter on the cultures of money. The book is called Handbook of Cultural Geography, and it is fascinating, although not a new book (2002). But for a succinct definition of what cultural geography is, I have had to turn to this one, on the research website of Dartmouth College:

The study of the relationship between culture and place. In broad terms, cultural geography examines the cultural values, practices, discursive and material expressions and artefacts of people, the cultural diversity and plurality of society, and how cultures are distributed over space, how places and identities are produced, how people make sense of places and build senses of place, and how people produce and communicate knowledge and meaning.

Like many disciplines within the social sciences (I loath to say that management studies may be an exception) this is a highly contested scholarly space and mainly a critical discipline. Certainly earlier cultural geography may have reflected the view that Guy and Mattock suggested, that physical geography is manifested in cultural identity. Yet this approach was mainly left behind in the late 19th century and early 20th century when it tended to be prevalent where ‘in common with anthropology, it aimed to understand cultural practices, social organizations, and indigenous knowledges, but gave emphasis to people’s connections with and use of place and nature’ (Dartmouth College).

For Anderson et al , in putting together their Handbook they realised that ‘..the field of cultural geography was better marked both by its disruption of the usual academic boundaries and by its insatiable enthusiasm for engaging new issues and ideas – whatever their source.’ I must admit that sometimes it appears that cultural geography leans heavily on social and cultural anthropology. Yet, to borrow a term once beloved by management consultants, it appears to take a ‘helicopter view’. It hovers above from a great height and zooms down to take a closer look, always bearing in mind the broader picture. It also tends to retain its critical posture as it does this. Returning to the example of mobile money, the neutrality of money (itself a cultural invention reflecting economic systems that themselves are considered natural and neutral in time and space) can be challenged by first looking at this from a great height: how does it fit into the global terrain of financial capital? And then zooming down into geographic areas where communities have ascribed different (social and cultural) meaning to money. Money assumes credit (a promise to pay in something other that paper, plastic or electronic transfer). Savings and credit facilities within local communities ascribe meaning to the nature of money within credit and savings unions.

Take the stokvels of South Africa, chamas of Kiswahili-speaking East Africa, or the tontines of French-speaking west Africa for example. These are savings or credit unions that grow out of local communities to satisfy local needs. They work through trusting relationship within the local community and reinforce social relations. The introduction of mobile money through global mobile phone MNEs such as Vodafone disrupt local initiatives and the social-supportive nature of stokvels and similar associations within the community (see also my previous post). Cultural geographical approaches seem to address such issues as the local meaning of money in relation to the global context.

Generally cross-cultural management studies appear not to be very good at taking this critical helicopter position: looking from a great height, taking in the geopolitical and geo-economic context, taking a view from everywhere and zooming in to take a closer look at how local space interacts with global space. We can learn from cultural geography and from social anthropology in taking a view of everything from everywhere. Our studies often have a very narrow perspective that do not take in a concept of the totality of the management of human endeavour. It often misses a large chunk of what constitutes ‘culture’, and large pieces of the geographic jigsaw of local and global interfaces. By doing so, and not taking note of the traditions of the wider social sciences as well as new and critical approaches within them, it fails to contribute back to developments in the social sciences. Cross-cultural management scholarship surely has far more to offer.

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