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HOFSTEDE'S SIMPLICITY, OR REAL WORLD COMPLEXITY?

Updated: Aug 4, 2023

DB Roberts



Throughout the time I have taught in a British Business and Management Studies university department, I have never understood how this discipline has been so overwhelmingly influenced regarding the nature of culture and its relation with the Other by Geert Hofstede’s work. The field of cultural studies he seeks to claim for the discipline has been shaped by a century of scholarship in disciplines aimed solely at the interpretation of difference. His work, and much Business Studies scholarship, seems largely to ignore the seminal contributions to the field by key names in Culture and Anthropology like Homi Bhabha, Edward Said, Rachel Baskerville, Clifford Geertz, Margaret Mead, Franz Boas, Ruth Benedict, Ralph Linton and many more.




One of the key criticisms that may be directed at Hofstede’s work is conceptual: his work, it is argued, is binary, when in fact, the evidence shows that such reductionism is too simple to describe, or explain, the complex spaces that evolve when, for example, one group encounters another, when such groups have experienced relatively different, but overlapping, historical experiences, when the relationship appears to be asymmetrical in both directions at the same time. How we think about culture is shaped by what we have been taught, and it is quite astonishing that this discipline seems so blind to centuries of scholarship by people trained in the discipline. Business studies students are therefore too often shaped by a narrow, uncritical and convenient analysis that does no-one any favours, except in over-simplifying the complex world around us.

The new spaces and EM's that tempt Western capitalism in its efforts not to exhaust itself of both supply and demand and thereby inevitably, ultimately, collapse are more diverse than the usual more proximal suspects. Emerging Markets, Developing Economies and ‘Frontier’ States (the connotation is distasteful and ugly, since it speaks to the ‘ungoverned’ lands settled by Native Americans before their slaughter at the hands of the ‘Frontiersmen’) have mostly experienced the onslaught of imperial aggression and extraction. That process required the creation of a State apparatus capable of disciplining societies, encouraging and rewarding cooperation and punishing aberrance to ensure the extraction of that nation’s wealth for consumption elsewhere in the world.


That State apparatus ruled not by law but by dominance, through authoritarian non-elected networks the members of which received both private and professional reward for their work. That structure shaped the postcolonial governments that followed empire. Newly-independent leaders did not rule newly-independent states in newly-independent ways. Instead, the new postcolonial elites inherited and replicated the authoritarian, informally-structured, network-based systems that mirrored their own historical systems (and those of Europe in the era of Divine Right).



A modern digital take on discipline

These are the (mostly) postcolonial states that characterize Emerging Markets – the already hybrid locations of governance in which Western (and many other) businesses seek new corporate opportunity. But one consequence of their integration into the Western market system is that they are encountering another force that continues the centuries-long tradition of the West trying to reshape the Rest. Emerging Markets must bend to Western will once more if they wish to gain the spoils of capitalism. They must change their government structures and processes so they conform with Liberal dictat, if they wish to acquire loans from the IMF or other major banks. They must be ‘transparent’, they must reform the State to terminate the patronage and clientelist systems once used by the western Empires themselves to control them. They must adapt their economic systems, banking practices and market structures and principles. They must do what the west says, which is why many argue that empire never really ended; it just found new ways of doing old things via hegemonic international economic instruments and institutions.

Whether we think that’s reasonable or otherwise is less the case than how it defines the environment it creates. Emerging Markets, postconflict spaces and the rest of the labels we apply to economies playing catch up, or leapfrog, or wherever they are in the ‘race’, are characterized not as 2-dimensional spaces of ‘foreign’ and ‘local’ but by much more complex arenas constituting Homi Bhabha’s ‘Third Space’. These are liminal spaces of transition and change which, if we are honest about it, is increasingly everywhere, all the time, as the rate of globalization seems to accelerate unrelentingly. Globalization is complex and in a sense has been the history of people since we first sought to travel to barter and exchange. It is destined to become, and is becoming, the connection of everyone to everything. It is flavoured Liberal, even if Liberalism Iis on the decline, even in those proclaiming to be bastions of freedom like the US and Europe.


Liberal values, dominant in the West for perhaps two centuries and almost world-encompassing since 1989, are being challenged by the spread of authoritarian populism, with its profound meaning for global trade and tariff systems.



The idea of 'liminality', of being between two positions

The idea of a space in-between, a liminal space, is a far more accurate, and likely, expression of what happens when a European or American corporation go to a country on a new economic journey. We know what happens: each changes the other. We know because we’ve been there before. We know because it’s what happened to the Empires when they hijacked the ‘colonies’. Each changed the other in the Third Space each shared with the other. Victorian values changed women’s right to their sexual autonomy in Sub-Saharan Africa. White colonists took black wives. Asian men took posts in European administration, at home and abroad. White assimilated into black and black into white, asymmetrically and with different outcomes. Third Spaces were reproduced away from the colonies in Imperial homelands. It was the normal, everyday and inevitable process of culture-to-culture encounter and transformation resulting in hybrid spaces and places.

International business, especially in the new locales of Emerging Markets and Postconflict and ‘Frontier’ States is shaped not by the binary world Hofstede and his acolytes imagine, but by the persistence of the old and the insistence of the new as they meet to create hybrid from and function in rapidly-shifting environments. It’s more complicated than Hofstede’s account. But it is also much more realistic. If I’m tasked with making a profit somewhere, I’d rather deal with reality than a concocted and misguided simplicity that, frankly, has been allowed to persist in Business Studies far too long. Simplistic interpretation of a complex world only holds us back from understanding what we need to know, and do.

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