Cross-cultural management scholarship: Should counter-narratives be our output?

Cross-cultural management scholarship is multi-paradigmatic in nature. Rather than trying to shift paradigms we should be focusing on shifting narratives as an end product of our research. All scholarship should be critical in some sense, and cross-cultural management studies started off life as critical of an existing narrative, within the positivist tradition. This counter-narrative ended up in the mainstream of international management and business studies. It challenged the idea that American management precepts apply anywhere. In extant studies counter-narratives are few and far between, yet such counter-narratives should be our stock-in-trade.

When Geert Hofstede produced his seminal work in the 1980s, he was creating a counter-narrative (although he didn’t articulate it as such). He was presenting a counter to the dominant post-war narrative that American management principles and practices can be applied anywhere in the world. I would call this a content or output narrative. He disabused what we thought we knew about international management, but not necessarily how we knew it. In other words, he stuck with the prevailing logical empiricism and positivism in management research rather than introducing a new narrative about how we should research international management. Here, I want to focus on counter-narratives (an alternative story or stories) as an output of cross-cultural management scholarship, rather than to delve into a detailed methodological discussion about how to do this.

I believe this may be a way of ‘mainstreaming’ cross-cultural research and to make a real contribution to the wider social and behavioural sciences. In this way our sub-discipline could make the next big step forward, following its original heritage, in positioning itself as a critical voice while maintaining its multi-paradigmatic tradition.

Narratives as part of a hierarchy

Narratives are part of a hierarchy. According to Harré, Clarke and de Carlo’s 1985 work all psycho-social actions are part of a hierarchy. Actions are meaningful behaviours. They have meaning for their actors and others. Without these meanings that we attach to what we do, behaviours are simply instinctive. We do things because we have a purpose, and we perceive that we have the necessary skills and knowledge: baking a cake, fixing a car, riding a bicycle, going to work, leading a meeting, managing a company (although those actions at the end of the list require multiple sets of actions). The point is that the things we do that constitute behavioural routines are right at the bottom of the hierarchy. Our conscious awareness, or explanations for what we do, sits somewhere in the middle of the hierarchy. What takes a superordinate position within the hierarchy comprises what Harré et describes as ‘deep structure of mind’ and also corresponds with the ‘social order’. Harré and colleagues came up with these concepts in the 1970s. I’m not sure if they were aware of developments in personal construct psychology at the time, which was also interested in hierarchies of constructs, or the way people construe themselves and others, and their actions (the meanings they ascribe to behaviours). Within this traditions, Burr and Butt (1992) discuss the technique of ‘laddering’ in order to uncover this hierarchy.

This, by the way, is a useful technique in research interviewing in order to better understand how things are done (behavioural routines), as well as why they are done (values, motives). Asking ‘why?’ questions, and ‘how?’ questions is briefly described here. Fransella and Bannister in their 1977 A Manual for Repertory Grid Technique (p.6) describe this technique in more detail.

Harré et al describe similar questions in elucidating their hierarchy: Why do we act like we do? What is it we do? How do we do it? (P.30). A good example of this hierarchy is what Phillip Yan describes as the societal narrative of the American Dream. From an historical perspective ‘the narrative of the American Dream had a tangible impact on creating and propagating a culture expecting inexhaustible and inevitable economic growth alongside a culture that deeply embraced consumerism’. The American Dream is a dominant narrative that is deep set in both the structure of the mind and in the types of social order that have been prevalent in the USA (laissez-faire, (neo)liberalism, individualism, achievement/masculinity orientation) and the types of institutions that reflect these values (although this may also be connected more fully with those factors that are of interest to Whiteness Studies scholars in the United States).

This may be translated into conscious awareness through aspects such as striving for home ownership, consumer acquisition, political opinions and activism: individuals making sense of their own actions and those of others. At the bottom of the hierarchy, behavioural routines provide the day to day means to put these motivations and attitudes into actions. These are what people (psychologists?) see and try to make sense of (no doubt through their own narrative lenses).

It is at these different hierarchical levels that different social scientific paradigms focus. For example, in a new article in International Journal of Cross Cultural Management Grosskopf and Barmeyer describe three distinct paradigms: functionalist, interpretive and critical. They argue for multi-paradigm research. My suggestion would be that at the bottom of the hierarchy described by Harré and colleagues, behavioural routines, is the province of the functionalist/positivist. Harré et all note that this is the sphere of cognitive psychology: focusing at the level at which ‘plans are executed and actions are actually brought off’ (p.viii). For the cross-cultural management researcher this is where quantitative methods and comparison makes most sense, in order to make sense of what people do. The middle level, conscious awareness, is the province of the interpretivist, trying to make sense of the meaning of actions. At the higher, superordinate level of deep structure of mind/social orders, the critical social scientist will be most at home, focusing on the higher societal reasons of people’s actions. Yet there is much overlap here between the three paradigms that makes me question the usefulness of such paradigmatic distinctions. I laud the approach taken by Grosskopf and Barmeyer in arguing for a multi-paradigm approach to research. Yet, I believe a focus on a counter-narrative outcome of cross-cultural management research may diminish the distinction between these paradigms while achieving the same goal that Grosskopf and Barmeyer and others have proposed.

Narrative as part of culture

The problem with this hierarchical schema, in both personal construct psychology and Harré’s et al formulation, is that often the ‘deep structure of mind/social order’ is often obscured and normally implicit. It marries up with what can be referred to as ideology/culture. I’ve argued that these are one and the same: the mental frameworks that make up culture in Hofstede’s definition are the same as the mental frameworks in Stuart Hall’s definition of ideology (although Hall emphasises different social classes rather than different countries).

I’ve also referred previous to the work of historian Yuval Harari who puts it slightly differently, but in the same vein. He sees ‘culture’ as a fiction comprising myths: the myths of money, limited liability companies, national states. These ‘imagined realities’ are the components of cultures and ‘Once cultures appeared, they never ceased to change and develop, and these unstoppable alterations are what we call “history”’. (P. 37). Again, what we have is a hierarchy: history (I would call this in Harré’s terms, deep structure of the mind); culture(s); fictions/myths/stories.

It is the ‘history’ or what constitutes temporally Harré social order/deep structure of the mind that is of interest here. The slave trade, colonialism, migration, as well as how social structure has been constituted over the years through class divisions, inequalities, distribution of wealth, all manifest in what we call culture in one way or another, including the social meaning of money, the way race is socially constituted, the beliefs in institutions. Fictions, myths and stories around such institutions and beliefs create the narratives that are so important to our everyday lives. Let me give some example of topics that cross-cultural management scholars could usefully engage with.

Africa. This is the new kid on the block as far as international management studies is concerned, but its discovery (other than by its own inhabitants, and according to ‘history’) goes back to the 15th century by European explorers. The dominant narrative on Africa from mainstream international management scholars, who now have an interest in this, is that of modernisation theory: Africa is backward and we need to introduce modern management, less corruption, less inefficiencies, more motivated employees (this may contrast, for example, with the narrative of the American Dream where there are endless opportunities). The history behind this is of course the slave trade, colonialism and missionaries, globalisation by MNE’s, NGOs and international institutions, and more recently very wealthy philanthropists.

Africa, the ‘other’, is part of the culture/ideology of western nations. The concept of ‘Africa’ is a counter-point to the way western nations define their national identity (by what we are not). We have nothing to learn from Africa! This narrative is propagated and reinforced in the age of mass media by TV documentaries and international NGO advertising for funding (look at those poor Africa children!), as well as news reports on mass migration from Africa. These are the individual ‘stories’ that contribute to the dominant narrative that may be picked up by management scholars and subsumed into their scholarship. This is the dominant narrative that, through critical scholarship (which starts at the top of the hierarchy, with the ‘why?’ question). Then, focusing down the hierarchy to the ‘what?’ and then the ‘how?’ questions (‘conscious awareness’ and then ‘behavioural routines’ in Harré formulation) we can start to focus on the more ominous consequences of such a narrative.

Race and racism. I have argued elsewhere that ‘race’ is a cultural product: ‘Race is an idea not a fact’ (in the words of the historian Nell Irvin Painter). It comes from somewhere (and interested scholars can interrogate this by asking the question ‘why?’). Above I have suggested that ‘Africa’ (as well as other ‘developing’ regions) forms part of the national identity of western nations (it is who we are not; the ‘other’). It is an unexplored (by international management scholars) part of our culture, but an important one, not least because ‘the west was built on racism’. An interesting elucidation of narratives around race can be found in an article by Chris Vasantkumar where he argues that the debate has changed back to again essentializing race as ‘mistaking what is historical and cultural for what is natural, biological, and genetic’ in his quoting of Stuart Hall. This may be a result of a narrative created by a deliberate policy of the British government to break down alliances between different communities by sponsoring a specific version of multiculturalism, which was focused on ethnic identities, towards ethnic identities ‘recasting black as a natural category’.

There are of course many topics that cross-cultural management scholars are interested in, and I have taken just two of my own interests to illustrate the importance of an analysis of the ‘grand narrative’ as being at the top of a hierarchy of culture and social action. Often scholars focus on what can be told and what can be seen as a theory of cultural values and social behaviour. Harré, for example sees this as part of a hierarchy that culminates in a theory of social action, where ‘action’ is a key term that denotes meaningful behaviour as a springboard to analysing this hierarchy. This will involve a dominant story-line or narrative that influences the way scholars approach their subject-matter, and the way actors that they study perceive their actions, what they do, and how they do it.

In cross-cultural management studies we try to tell a story that may be contrary to the dominant story-line, particularly within mainstream international management and business studies. This doesn’t relate to a particular paradigm or methodology. Yet I would call it critical, in that all scholarship should be critical. Good social science scholarship does not relate to the status quo. In producing new knowledge it disrupts what we previously ‘know’ about what we know about. I admit that much of what we produce as cross-cultural management scholars simply seeks to confirm what we already know. Numerous confirmatory studies of Hofstede’s original work abounds. Numerous studies seek to tweak his value dimensions or to offer something a bit different. Such confirmatory studies proliferate in the sciences as a whole. We need such studies to tell us that certain vaccines work, or to tell us that certain expatriate policies reduce expatriate failure. Yet we may also need narrative-shifting studies that tell us why there is a bigger resistance to having a vaccine in some countries compared to others; or, why expatriate failure isn’t as great as previous studies have shown.

Cross-cultural management scholars have a key role to play in shifting, not the existing paradigms, but the dominant narrative by producing well researched counter-narratives (sometimes across paradigms), while different paradigmatic viewpoints can help focus on different parts of the hierarchy. This is where our main contributions may be made, as social and behavioural scholars and cross-cultural management specialists

© Terence Jackson 2021


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