Business as Usual

How Business Studies Thinks Culture

How to Cite

Degabriele, M. (2000). Business as Usual: How Business Studies Thinks Culture. M/C Journal, 3(2).
Vol. 3 No. 2 (2000): Culture
Published 2000-05-01

As a specialist in culture and communication studies, teaching in a school of business, I realised that the notion of interdisciplinarity is usually explored in the comfort of one's own discipline. Meanwhile, the practice of interdisciplinarity is something else. The very notion of disciplinarity implies a regime of discursive practices, but in the zone between disciplines, there is often no adequate language. This piece of writing is a brief analysis of an example of the language of business studies when business studies thinks about culture. It looks at how business studies approaches cultural difference in context of intercultural contact.

Geert Hofstede's Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind (1991)

This article is a brief and very selective critique of Geert Hofstede's notion of culture in Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind. Hofstede has been publishing his work on cross-cultural management since the 1960s. His work is routinely used in reference to cross/multi/intercultural issues in business studies (a term I use to include commerce, finance, management, and marketing). Before I begin, I must insist that Hofstede's Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind is a very useful text for business studies students, as it introduces them to useful concepts in relation to culture, like culture shock, acculturation (not enculturation -- I suppose managers are repatriated before that happens), and training for successful cross-cultural communication.

It is worth including here a brief note on the subtitle of Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind. This "software of the mind" is clearly analogous to computer programming. However, Hofstede disavows the analogy, which is central to his thesis, saying that people are not programmed the way computers are. So they are, but not really.

Hofstede claims that in order to learn something different, one "must unlearn ... (the) ... patterns of thinking, feeling, and potential acting which were learned throughout (one's) lifetime". And it is this thinking/feeling/acting function he calls the "software of the mind" (4). So, is the body the hardware? Thinking and feeling are abstract and could, with a flight of fancy, be seen as "software". However, acting is visible, tangible, and often visceral. I am suggesting that "acting" either represents or is just about all we have as culture. Acting (in the fullest sense, including speech, gesture, manners, textual production, etc.) is not evidence of culture, it is culture. Also, computer technology, like every other technology, is part of culture, as evident in this journal.


I share Clifford Geertz's concept of culture as a semiotic one, where interpretation is a search for meaning, and where meaning lies in social relations. Geertz writes that to claim that culture consists in brute patterns of behaviour in some identifiable community is to reduce it (the community and the notion of culture). Human behaviour is symbolic action. Culture is not just patterned conduct, a frame of mind which points to some sort of ontological status. Culture is public, social, relational, and contextual. To quote Geertz: "culture is not a power, something to which social events, behaviours, institutions, or processes can be causally attributed; it is a context" (14). Culture is not an ontological essence or set of behaviours. Culture is made up of webs of relationships. That Hofstede locates culture in the mind is probably the most problematic aspect of his writing.

Culture is difficult for any discipline to describe because different disciplines have their own view of social reality. They operate in their own paradigms. Hofstede uses a behaviourist psychological approach to culture, which looks at what he calls national character and typical behaviours. Even though Hofstede is aware of being, as an observer of human behaviour, an integral part of his object of analysis (other cultures), he nevertheless continuously equates the observed behaviour to particular kinds of national thinking and feeling where national is often collapsed into cultural. Hofstede uses an empirical behaviourist paradigm which measures certain behaviours, as if the observer is outside the cultural significance attributed to behaviours, and attributes them to culture.

Hofstede's Notion of Culture

Hofstede's work is based on quantitative data gathered from questionnaires administered to IBM corporation employees in various countries. He looked at 72 national subsidiaries, 38 occupations, 20 languages, and at two points in time (1968 and 1972), and continued his commentary on that data into the 1990s. He claims that because the entire sample has a common corporate culture, the only thing that can account for systematic and consistent differences between national groups within a homogeneous multinational organisation is nationality itself. It is as if corporate culture is outside, has nothing to do with, national culture (itself a complex and dynamic concept). Hofstede's work does not account for the fact that IBM is an American multinational corporation and, as such, whatever attributes are used to measure cultural difference, those found in American corporate culture will set the benchmark for whatever other cultures are measured. This view is supported in business studies in general where American management practices are seen as universal and normal, even when they are described as 'Western'.

The areas Hofstede's IBM survey looked at are:

  1. 1. Social inequality, including the relationship with authority (also described as power distance);
  2. 2. The relationship between the individual and the group (also described as individualism versus collectivism);
  3. 3. Concepts of masculinity and femininity: the social implications of having been born as a boy or a girl (also described as masculinity versus femininity);
  4. 4. Ways of dealing with uncertainty, relating to the control of aggression and the expression of emotions (also described as uncertainty avoidance).

These concepts are in themselves culturally specific and have become structurally embedded in organisational theory. Hofstede writes that these four dimensions of culture are aspects of culture that can be measured relative to other cultures. What these four dimensions actually do is not to combine to give us a four-dimensional (complex?) appreciation of culture. Rather, they map onto each other and reinforce a politically conservative, Eurocentric view of culture. Hofstede does admit to having had "a 'Western' way of thinking", but he inevitably goes back to "the mind" as a place or goal. He refers to a questionnaire composted by "Eastern', in this case Chinese minds ... [which] ... are programmed according to their own particular cultural framework" (171). So there is this constant reference to culturally programmed minds that determine certain behaviours.

In his justification of using typologies to categorise people and their behaviour (minds?) Hofstede also admits that most people / cultures are hybrids. And he admits that rules are made arbitrarily in order to classify people / cultures (minds?). However, he insists that the statistical clusters he ends up with are an empirical typology.

Such a reduction of "culture" to this kind of radical realism is absolutely anatomical and enumerative. And, the more Hofstede is quoted as an authority on doing business across cultures, the more truth value his work accrues. The sort of language Hofstede uses to describe culture attributes intrinsic meanings and, as a result, points to difference rather than diversity. Languages of difference are based on binaristic notions of masculine/feminine, East/West, active/passive, collective/individual, and so on. In this opposition of activity and passivity, the East (feminine, collectivist) is the weaker partner of the West (masculine, individualist). There is a nexus of knowledge and power that constructs cultural difference along such binaristic lines. While a language of diversity take multiplicity as a starting point, or the norm, Hofstede's hegemonic and instrumentalist language of difference sees multiplicity as problematic. This problem is flagged at the very start of Cultures and Organizations.

12 Angry Men: Hofstede Interprets Culture and Ignores Gender

In the opening page of Cultures and Organizations there is a brief passage from Reginald Rose's play 12 Angry Men (1955). (For a good review of the film see The film was recently remade.) Hofstede uses it as an example of how twelve different people with different cultural backgrounds "think, feel and act differently". The passage describes a confrontation between what Hofstede refers as "a garage owner" and "a European-born, probably Austrian, watchmaker". Such a comparison flags, right from the start, a particular way of categorising and distinguishing between two people, in terms of visible and audible signs and symbols. Both parties are described in terms of their occupation. But then the added qualification of one of the parties as being "European-born, probably Austrian" clearly indicates that the unqualified party places him in the broad category "American". In other words, the garage owner's apparently neutral ethnicity implies a normative "American", against which all markers of cultural difference are measured.

Hofstede is aware of this problem. He writes that "cultural relativism does not imply normlessness for oneself, nor for one's society" (7). However, he still uses the syntax of binaristic classification which repeats and perpetuates the very problems he is apparently addressing. One of the main factors that makes 12 Angry Men such a powerful drama is that each man carries / inscribes different aspects of American culture. And American culture is idealised in the justice system, where rationality and consensus overcomes prejudice and social pressure. Each man has a unique make-up, which includes class, occupation, ethnicity, personality, intelligence, style and experience. But 12 Angry Men is also an interesting exploration of masculinity. Because Hofstede has included a category of "masculine/feminine" in his study of national culture, it is an interesting oversight that he does not comment on this powerful element of the drama.

People identify along various lines, in terms of ethnicities, languages, histories, sexuality, politics and nationalism. Most people do have multiple and varied aspects to their identity. However, Hofstede sees multiple lines of identification as causing "conflicting mental programs". Hofstede claims that identification on the gender level of his hierarchy is determined "according to whether a person was born as a girl or as a boy" (10). Hofstede misses the crucial point that whilst whether one is born female or male determines one's sex, whether one is enculturated as and identifies as feminine or masculine indicates one's gender. Sex and gender are not the same thing. Sex is biological (natural) and gender is ideological (socially constructed and naturalised). This sort of blindness to the ideological component of identity is a fundamental flaw in Hofstede's thesis. Hofstede takes ideological constructions as given, as natural. For example, in endnote 1 of Chapter 4, "He, she, and (s)he", he writes "My choice of the terms (soft feminine and hard masculine) is based on what is in virtually all societies, not on what anybody thinks should be (107, his italics). He reinforces the notion of gendered essences, or essences which constitute national identity.

Indeed, the world is not made up of entities or essences that are masculine or feminine, Western or Eastern, active or passive. And the question is not so much about empirical accuracy along such lines, but rather what are the effects of always reinscribing cultures as Western or Eastern, masculine or feminine, collectivist or individualist. In an era of globalism and mass, interconnected communication, identities are multiple, and terms like East and West, masculine and feminine, active and passive, should be used as undecidable codes that, at the most, flag fragments of histories and ideologies.


East and West are concepts that did not come out of a political or cultural vacuum. They are categories, or concepts, that originated and flourished with European expansionism from the 17th century. They underwrote imperialism and colonisation. They are not inert labels that merely point to something "out there". East and West, like masculine and feminine or any other binary pair, indicate an imaginary relationship that prioritises one of the pair over the other. People and cultures cannot be separated into static Western and Eastern essences. Culture itself is always diverse and dynamic. It is marked by migration, diaspora, and exile, not to mention historical change. There are no "original" cultures. The sort of discourse Hofstede uses to describe cultures is based on an ontological and epistemological distinction made between East and West.

Culture is not something invisible or intangible. Culture is not something obscure that is in the mind (whatever or wherever that is) which manifests itself in peculiar behaviours. Culture is what and how we communicate, whether that takes the form of speech, gestures, novels, plays, architecture, style, or art. And, as such, communication includes the objects we produce and exchange and the symbols to which we give meaning. So, when Hofstede writes that the Austrian watchmaker acts the way he does because he

cannot behave otherwise. After many years in his new home country, he still behaves the way he was raised. He carries within himself an indelible pattern of behaviour

he is attributing a whole range of qualities which are frequently given by dominant cultures to their cultural "others" (1). Hofstede attributes politeness, tradition, and, above all, stasis, to the European-Austrian watchmaker. The phrase "after many years in his new home country" is contradictory. If so many years have passed, why is "home" still "new"? And, indeed, the watchmaker might still behave the way he was raised, but it would be safe to assume that the garage owner also behaves the way he was raised. One of the main points made in 12 Angry Men is that twelve American men are all very different to each other in terms of values and behaviour. All this is represented in the dialogue and behaviour of twelve men in a closed room.

If we are concerned with different kinds of social behaviour, and we are not concerned with pathological behaviour, then how can we know what anyone carries within themselves? Why do we want to know what anyone carries within themselves? From a cultural studies perspective, the last question is political. However, from a business studies perspective, that question is naïve. The radical economic rationalist would want to know as much as possible about cultural differences so that we can better target consumer groups and be more successful in cross-cultural negotiations.

In colonial days, foreigners often wielded absolute power in other societies and they could impose their rules on it [sic]. In these postcolonial days, foreigners who want to change something in another society will have to negotiate their interventions. (7)

Those who wielded absolute power in the colonies were the non-indigenous colonisers. It was precisely the self-legitimating step of making a place a colony that ensured an ongoing presence of the colonising power. The impetus behind learning about the Other in the colonial times was a combination of spiritual salvation (as in the "mission civilisatrice") and economic exploitation (colonies were seen as resources for the benefit of the European and later American centres). And now, the impetus behind learning about cultural difference is that "negotiation is more likely to succeed when the parties concerned understand the reasons for the differences in viewpoints" (7).

Culture as Commerce

What, in fact, happens, is that business studies simultaneously wants to "do" components of cross-cultural studies, as it is clearly profitable, while shunning the theoretical discipline of cultural studies. A fundamental flaw in a business studies perspective, which is based on Hofstede's work, is a blindness to the ideological and historical component of identity.

Business studies has picked up just enough orientalism, feminism, marxism, deconstruction and postcolonialism to thinly disavow any complicity with dominant (and dominating) discourses, while getting on with business-as-usual. Multiculturalism and gender are seen as modern categories to which one must pay lip service, only to be able to get on with business-as-usual. Negotiation, compromise and consensus are desired not for the sake of success in civil processes, but for the material value of global market presence, acceptance and share.

However, civil process and commercial interests are not easily separable. To refer to a cultural economy is not just to use a metaphor. The materiality of business, in the various forms of commercial transactions, is itself part of one's culture. That is, culture is the production, consumption and circulation of objects (including less easily definable objects, like performance, language, style and manners). Also, culture is produced and consumed socially (in the realm of the civil) and circulates through official and unofficial social and commercial mechanisms. Culture is a material and social phenomenon. It's not something hidden from view that only reveals itself in behaviours.

Hofstede rightly asserts that culture is learned and not inherited. Human nature is inherited. However, it is very difficult to determine exactly what human nature is. Most of what we consider to be human nature turns out to be, upon close inspection, ideological, naturalised. Hofstede writes that what one does with one's human nature is "modified by culture" (5). I would argue that whatever one does is cultural. And this includes taking part in commercial transactions. Even though commercial transactions (including the buying and selling of services) are material, they are also highly ritualistic and highly symbolic, involving complex forms of communication (verbal and nonverbal language).

Culture as Mental Programming

Hofstede's insistent ontological reference to 'the sources of one's mental programs' is problematic for many reasons. There is the constant ontological as well as epistemological distinction being made between cultures, as if there is a static core to each culture and that we can identify it, know what it is, and deal with it. It is as if culture itself is a knowable essence. Even though Hofstede pays lip service to culture as a social phenomenon, saying that "the sources of one's mental programs lie within the social environments in which one grew up and collected one's life experiences" (4), and that past theories of race have been largely responsible for massive genocides, he nevertheless implies a kind of biologism simply by turning the mind (a radical abstraction) into something as crude as computer software, where data can be stored, erased or reconfigured.

In explaining how culture is socially constructed and not biologically determined, Hofstede says that one's mental programming starts with the family and goes on through the neighbourhood, school, social groups, the work place, and the community. He says that "mental programs vary as much as the social environments in which they were acquired", which is nothing whatsoever like computer software (4-5). But he carries on to claim that "a customary term for such mental software is culture" (4, my italics).

Before the large-scale changes which took place in the second half of the twentieth century in disciplines like anthropology, history, linguistics, and psychology, culture was seen to be a recognisable, determined, contained, consistent way of living which had deep psychic roots. Today, any link between mental processes and culture (formerly referred to as "race") cannot be sustained. We must be cautious against presuming to understand the relationship between mental process and social life and also against concluding that the content of the mind in each racial (or, if you like, ethnic or cultural) group is of a peculiar kind, because it is this kind of reductionism that feeds stereotypes. And it is the accumulation of knowledge about cultural types that implies power over the very types that are thus created.


A genuinely interdisciplinary approach to communication, commerce and culture would make business studies more theoretical and more challenging. And it would make cultural studies take commerce more seriously, beyond a mere celebration of shopping. This article has attempted to reveal some of the cracks in how business studies accounts for cultural diversity in an age of global commercial ambitions. It has also looked at how Hofstede's writings, as exemplary of the business studies perspective, papers over those cracks with a very thin layer of pluralist cultural relativism. This article is an invitation to open up a critical dialogue which dares to go beyond disciplinary traditionalisms in order to examine how meaning, communication, culture, language and commerce are embedded in each other.

Author Biography

Maria Degabriele