Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Infinite dimensions

As the initiated will know, there is a little controversy around Professor Hofstede and his research into Cultural Dimensions, first published in 1980.

For those who aren’t aware, Hofstede took survey results from IBM and from the identified 4 “dimensions of culture” (he later added a fifth), to distinguish between nationalities. There is a large amount of criticism aimed at his research methodology – not being an expert, I’m not really in a position to comment too much on that, however I can use an analogy and let people draw their own conclusion. There are 2 adults and 2 children in my family. Our average ages are 24.5. Can I therefore claim that the members of my family are around 24.5 years old? If I am unable to survey one member of the family, the average age will be significantly different. Hofstede took the average score across the various dimensions to be representative of a national cultural identity!

Please consider another situation. If an alien were to visit the earth to do some research into each nation, and were to ask humankind to choose a single specimen from each nation, what sort of person would you choose to represent Japan? (*Answer below)

One of the current views of culture that has gained a lot of credibility, especially among “social constructionists” is that we “do culture”. In other words, we create our own identity which is negotiated continually depending on the situational context. There are certainly national elements to this negotiation, but it is implausible to claim that the national is the most important feature in any context (in some it may be, however hard it might be to identify). Social constructionists and current interculturalists believe that an individual has an infinite number of cultural identities, none of which are fixed or stable, and represent all our past experiences, observations and perceptions. For example we behave very differently when we are with our children and/or parents than when we are at business meeting, and we will portray a very different worldview.

Hofstede presents a very practical, easy to use model of culture, and the alternative is infinitely harder to confine and present (especially if you’re an intercultural trainer trying to sell your services to business), however the intercultural model that pre-supposes infinite, negotiated, unstable cultural identities presents us with an approach that is of much wider benefit – instead of learning the dimension score for each “national culture” and devising a specific approach for each, we can start looking at a more universal approach that is not limited to one situation.

It’s an area I have only just come across (better late than never, I suppose) but after a strict diet of measurable and easily identifiable national culture, it is a fantastically interesting approach!

*Answer to the above “typical” Japanese – if you take just the statistical average, you would choose a 46 year old woman, with only high school education, living in a suburb, who has never joined a union, and probably works in retail


Kyle and Svet Keeton said...

You are correct it is a "fantastically interesting approach" It evens make sense to me. :)


PS: Your kids are 24.5 years old? Cool!

MattMacL said...

It's rather worrying though as sometimes they actually think they are 24!

I'll post more on this subject as soon as I can get my head round the implications!