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Is National Culture A Myth A critique of the claims of Geert Hofstede


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Title: Is National Culture A Myth A critique of the claims of Geert Hofstede

Is National Culture A Myth?A critique of the
claims of Geert Hofstede
  • Research Seminar 12 November 2003 at Royal
  • Professor Brendan McSweeney
  • School of Management
  • Royal Holloway
  • University of London
  • The data obtained from within a single MNC does
    have the power to uncover the secrets of entire
    national cultures
  • Geert
    Hofstede, 198044
  • Tread softly for you tread on my dreams W. B.

The notion of the enduring uniqueness of each
nation people has a long history
  • In 1797 the French counter-revolutionary Joseph
    de Maistre declared I have seen Frenchmen,
    Italians, Russians. But for man, I declare I have
    never in my life met him.
  • W. B. Yeats claimed that there was a national
    "Collective Unconscious or Anima Mundi of the
    race" (1922)
  • Immigrants seem to be flooding into Germany
    nowadays I dont know why, because history
    suggests that if they wait around long enough,
    Germany will come to them Jay Leno, Tonight
  • The problem with Hitler was that he was German
    A.J. P. Taylor (in Davies, 1999)

so too has rejection
  • Samuel Beckett repudiated Yeats notion of
    "collective unconscious" as "sanctimonious
  • Slater says that the idea of an individual or a
    group as a monolithic totality is delusional
    and ridiculous (1970)
  • Benedict Anderson has vividly described nations
    as imagined communities (1991)
  • Anthropologists Akhil Gupta and James Ferguson
    (1992) have written "we are now recognising that
    the territorially distinct cultures
    anthropologists claimed they were studying were
    never as autonomous as they imagined".
  • Philip Bock unhesitatingly states We must
    conclude that the uniformity assumption is false

Wider Significance
  • In most arenas attributing unity and continuity
    to race is no longer acceptable it has been
    replaced with the notion of national culture.
  • W. W. M. Eiselen the intellectual architect of
    apartheid - stated in 1929 that culture not race
    was the true basis of difference, the sign of
  • The policy and analytical significance of
    national culture largely depends on what degree
    of causal power is attributed to it - from a mere
    epiphenomenon, a powerless superstructure to, at
    the other extreme, a supremely independent
    variable, the superordinate power in society.
  • The homogenizing effects or not of
  • Potential for transnational developments e.g. EU
  • Basis for acceptance as a citizen
  • Education policy
  • Universal human rights
  • Conceptions of national identity
  • National guilt
  • Etc.
  • Multiple organizational management, locational,
    and marketing implications

Significance of Hofstede
  • A National Cultural Determinist little or no
    causal role for other cultural or non-cultural
    factors. It shapes everything Hickson and Pugh
    (1995 90).
  • Claims to have
  • Demonstrated the existence of, and measured, and
    compared enduring and systematically causal
    national cultures in scores of nations i.e.
  • Shown how multiple characteristics of those
    countries (educational systems, ways of doing
    business, architecture, cuisine, etc.) reflect
    and can be understood through the relevant
    national culture
  • To have done so scientifically (117,000
    questionnaires, etc.)
  • Huge Following
  • Significant following in all management
  • Widely used by management training companies
  • The most cited non-US author in the entire Social
    Science Citation Index
  • By 1998 Hofstede was able to claim that a true
    paradigm shift has occurred

  • Briefly describe Hofstede's claims about national
    cultures including the sense in which he uses the
    notion of culture and national culture
  • Describe and critique his identification
  • Describe and critique his attempts to illustrate
    the explanatory value/usefulness/predictive
    ability of his national cultural descriptions

Hofstedes Conception of National Culture
  • Territorially Unique
  • Nationally Shared (common component or
    statistical average (central tendency)
    inconsistently applied)
  • Subjective software of the mind mental programs
  • Determinate (not merely an influence, but the
  • Identifiable Characteristics and Predictable
  • Enduring (for many centuries past and to come)

The dimensions used by Hofstede
  • The dimensions can be useful in structuring
    analysis they have a long history in the social
  • They are thus not Hofstedes dimensions but the
    dimensions he uses
  • Discussed at length in the 1952 magisterial
    review of the anthropological conception of
    culture by Alfred Kroeber (Berkley) and Clyde
    Kluckhohn (Harvard)(a legacy unacknowledged by
  • More extensive and subtle (not bi-polar)
    dimensions in the literature (e.g. Schwartzs

117,000 IBM questionnaires
  • Not as many used as is suggested
  • Combined figure for two surveys
  • 66 countries, but only 40 yielded scores
  • As a result, the number of IBM employees whose
    responses were used less than one-third of
  • Unrepresentative
  • In only 6 (out of the 66) countries were there
    more than 1,000 in both surveys
  • In 15 countries reported on - less than 200
  • First survey in Pakistan 37 employees and second
  • Only surveys in Hong Kong, Taiwan (pop. 23m) and
    Singapore 88, 71 and 58 respectively

IBM questionnaires
  • Not designed to identify national culture but
    by IBM for corporate purposes in response to its
    concern with declining morale
  • Not independently administered
  • Often completed in groups without confidentiality
  • Respondents knew of possible consequences of
    their answers for them therefore gaming
  • Blue collar workers responses excluded
    marketing and sales staff only

5 Crucial Assumptions (each necessary each
  • Every micro-location is typical of the national
  • Every respondent had already been permanently
    programmed with three non-interactive cultural
  • National culture creates response differences
  • National culture can be identified through the
    response differences
  • Its the same in every situation in a nation

1. National Identifiable from the local

1. National Identifiable in the Local
  • Version 1 (the national is uniform) presupposes
    that every national individual carries the same
    national culture - what is to be found is
    presupposed (catastrophic circularity) Something
    is presupposed and imposed, and yet depicted as
    an empirical achievement.
  • Version 2 (an average tendency is the average
  • In principle there is always an average tendency
    e.g. in the world, continent, country, region,
    cycling club, brothel or whatever but why assume
    that an average tendency in one micro-location is
    the national tendency? Would anyone seriously
    suggest that the central tendency in one of
    Australias 573 Aboriginal societies the same as
    the Australian national culture (as measured in
    IBM Australia by Hofstede)?
  • Atypicality of IBM

Assumption 2 Every respondent had already been
permanently programmed with three non-interactive
  • Only one organizational culture in any and every
    IBM subsidiary
  • So a cultural monopoly, no harmonious,
    dissenting, emergent, contradictory,
    organizational cultures in IBM
  • One global occupational culture for each
  • No interaction between the three cultures
  • No other cultural (or other) influences on the
  • (OrC OcC NC1) (OrC OcC NC2) NC1 -

  • (OrC OcC NC1) (OrC OcC NC2) NC1 - NC2
  • (OrC OcC NC1) (OrC OcC NC2) NC1 - NC2
  • Very convenient! But reductive, mechanical,
    impoverished, and absurd

2. Cont. Three distinctive Components
  • Organizational There is only one inter and intra
    subsidiary organizational culture (not cultures)
    in IBM (Hofstede) Plausible? Dogmatic!
    Pronounced to exist. Hofstede fails to engage
    with extensive multiple organizational cultures
  • Occupational Throughout the world members of the
    same occupation share an identical world-wide
    occupational culture (Hofstede). Matching
    desirable (mundane), but criticism of
    implications drawn occupational culture of
    Turkish laboratory clerk same as Texan laboratory
    clerk British accountant German accountant
    etc. Nil effect of different accounting courses
    professions (ICAEW CIMA, ACCA CIPFA ICAS,
    etc.) different types and significance of
    capital markets post qualifying courses and
  • Individuals as cultural blotting paper who have
    been immersed in homogeneous occupational fluid
    (Fraber, 1950)

2. Three distinctive Components Cont.
  • Values are acquired in ones early youth, mainly
    in the family and in the neighbourhood, and later
    at school. By the time a child is 10 years old,
    most of its basic values have been programmed
    into its mind For occupational values the place
    of socialisation is the school or university, and
    the time is in between childhood and adulthood
    (Hofstede, 1991182)
  • My criticism is not of the possible enduring
    impact early influences but of the claims that
    (a) these experience alone are significant, and
    (b) that the content and impact of occupational
    experiences are globally uniform and unchanging

3. National Culture Creates Questionnaire
Response Differences
  • Classification Nationally classified data is not
    evidence of national causality. Almost every
    classification would produce difference - but
    what is that status of such differences?
  • Where the unexplained variance is rather large
    we can easily fool ourselves into believing that
    we know something simply because we have a name
    for it Jim March, 196669
  • Dopes Individuals as mere relays of national
  • Q. To which one of the above types described
    would you say your superior most closely
  • Completion often in groups and with foreknowledge
    that managers were expected to develop corrective
    actions. Would confidential research undertaken
    by independent researchers have obtained the same

4. National Culture Can Be Identified By Response
Difference Analysis
  • Assumption 3 is a necessary but not sufficient
    condition of 4
  • The links between the questions analysed and the
    dimension they are supposed to indicate are often
    unclear, sometimes bizarre. Robinson (1983)
    describes the dimensions as hodgepodge of items
    few of which relate to the intended construct
    (See Dorfman Howell, 1988 Bond, 2002, also)
  • Different questions have revealed different
    dimensions e.g. Schwartz identified seven
    dimensions quite different than Hofstedes
  • Bi-polarity of dimensions e.g. either
    individualism or collectivism but the two can
    coexist and are simply emphasised more or less
    depending on the situation Harry Triandis,

5. Situationally Specific i.e. its the same
everywhere within a nation
  • Claims to have identified national culture (or
    differences) that are nationally pervasive in
    the family, at school, at work, in politics
    (1992) hence his claim that just about every
    human construct (institution, architecture, etc.)
    are consequences of national culture
  • Survey (with all its other limitations) was only
    of employees, indeed only some categories of
    employees undertaken within the workplace which
    was in a specific location within each country
    the question were almost entirely work-related
    they were administered within the
  • No parallel surveys were undertaken in
  • Ironically Hofstede is committed to one
    situational specificity the nation, but blind
    about all others

  • Hofstede peppers his books and articles with
    descriptions of events which he employs to
    validate his measurements of national
    cultures and to demonstrate that they affect
    human thinking, feeling, and acting, as well as
    organizations and institutions, in predictable
    ways (2001 xix).
  • No part of our lives is exempt (1991170)
  • Again methodological critique

  • If descriptions of historical/contemporary
    events are to serve as validity tests of
    determining influence they should meet the
    following criteria
  • (a) no counter events in the same country
  • (b) the occurrence of similar events - and no
    counter-events - in other countries with
    comparable Hofstedeian cultural configurations
  • (c) no similar events in countries with very
    dissimilar cultural configurations.
  • Hofstede did not apply these tests in conducting
    his research and his stories fail these tests

  • Freud was an Austrian and there are good
    reasons in the culture profile of Austria in the
    IBM data why his theory would be conceived in
    Austrian rather than elsewhere Feelings of
    guilt and anxiety develop according to Freud
    when the ego is felt to be giving in to the id.
    The Austrian culture is characterized by the
    combination of a very low power distance with a
    fairly high uncertainty avoidance. The low power
    distance means that there is no powerful superior
    who will take away our uncertainties for us One
    has to carry these oneself. Freuds superego is
    an inner uncertainty-absorbing device, an
    interiorized boss
  • Austria's very high MAS masculinity score
    sheds some light on Freuds concern with sex
    (Hofstede, 2001385)(emphasis added).

No uniform attitude to authority in Austrian
  • Some Austrian Writers were/are suspicious of
    authority but some are very supportive
  • The Austrian Hitler urged complete submission to
    a powerful superior in Mein Kampf
  • As did the Viennese born prolific and influential
    writer Guido von List whom in Der Unbesiegbare
    (The Invincible) and other books prohesised and
    unquestioningly supported the arrival of the
    'strong man from above'.
  • In 1905 Freud published Three Essays on the
    Theory of Sexuality. Around the same time
    Austrian writer Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's novel
    Venus im Pelz (Venus in Furs) which focused on
    voluntary submission to humiliations administered
    by fur-clad women and the ultimate fantasy of
    submission to the all powerful man - was
  • Hitler lived in Austria until he was 24 years
    old long after Hofstede claims that an individual
    has indelibly acquired a national culture

The Austrian low power distance means that
there is no powerful superior who will take away
our uncertainties for us (Hofstede, 2001385)
  • 90 of Austrians voted for unification with
    fascist Germany in the 1938 Anschluss and so to
    be under the control of a powerful leader

  • Fellow Austrian, Felix Salten, wrote the
    pornographic best-seller Josefine Mutzenbacher
    Die Lebensgeschichte einer weinerischen Dirne,
    von ihr selbst erzählt (Josefine Mutzenbacher A
    Viennese Whore's Life Story, Told By Herself).
    This is further validation in Hofstede's terms,
    but like the rest of his stories it's just an
    isolated untested anecdote.
  • Many Austrian writers - contrary to the
    implication in Hofstede's story - are not
    'concerned with sex' (Hofstede, 2001385).
    There is, for instance, little mention of sex in
    Austrian Adolph Hitler's Mein Kampf or in the
    writings of the Austrian Ludwig Wittgenstein, and
    Felix Salten also wrote the extremely successful
    asexual animal novel Bambi - later adopted by
    Walt Disney.
  • Countries with radically different Hofstedian
    MAS scores from Austria (2nd most masculine) -
    such as Sweden (the least masculine) produce just
    as much literature about sex as does Austria.

Seeking to explain the sources of someone's
scholarly ideas is challenging mechanically
attributing them to some alleged characteristics
in a national culture is startlingly stupid.
  • A genuinely open exploration of the
    conditions of possibility and the possible
    influences on Freud's theories would surely
    consider - amongst many other possible factors -
    his birth and early years in Moravia (then part
    of the Austro-Hungarian Empire but now in the
    Czech Republic) his family and school
    backgrounds his later education his class his
    Jewishness the extensive anti-Semitism in
    Vienna, his relationship with his wife and
    children those he analysed his network of
    friends - Austrian and non-Austrian the
    significant age gap between his parents his
    non-religious upbringing in a turbulent turn of
    the century imperial city (Vienna) the decline
    of the Austro-Hungarian Empire what he read his
    mentors, and so on, and so on.
  • Linking a national cultural dimension with
    the views of a writer is an easy but facile
    'game' to play. It is as intellectually spurious
    and equally invalid as the statement that Freud
    developed his theories because he was born on 6th
    May and therefore a Taurus.

Another Example
  • In masculine cultures like the UK and the
    Republic of Ireland there is a feeling that
    conflicts should be resolved by a good fight ...
    The industrial relations scene in these countries
    is marked by such fights. If possible management
    tries to avoid having to deal with labor unions
    at all, the labor union behaviour justifies this
    aversion Hofstede (199192)
  • Ranking in Hofstedes Masculinity Index Ireland
    (joint 7th) GB (9th)
  • Only one section (labor unions) are said to
    influenced by that which is supposed to be
  • Management is treated as immune to n.c. and
    influenced by something non-cultural
  • In Hofstede's 'masculinity' index, Japan is the
    most masculine country and Germany has the same
    score as Great Britain, yet throughout the
    post-2nd -World War period their industrial
    relations has been the exemplar of co-operation.
  • Roche and Geary (2000) found 'team-working in
    57 of Irish workplaces direct employee
    participation in one-third of them and that
    Ireland is in the top league for employee

Working Days lost in industrial disputes per 1000
employees (annual averages)
  • 1961-65
    1966-70 1971-75
  • Masculine Ireland 337.5
    625.6 292.7
  • Masculine GB 127.0
    222.6 538.6
  • Feminine Spain 14.1
    37.1 95.6
  • Source ILO Labour Relations Yearbook
  • So Hofstede is correct!!!??
  • Ranking Ireland 7th
  • GB 8th
  • Spain 30th

Working Days lost in industrial disputes per 1000
employees (annual averages)
  • 1961-65
    1966-70 1971-75
  • Masculine Ireland 337.5
    625.6 292.7
  • Masculine GB 127.0
    222.6 538.6
  • Feminine Spain 14.1
    37.1 95.6
  • 1976-80
    1981-85 1986-90
  • Masculine Ireland 716.1 360.6
  • Masculine GB 521.7
    387.4 117.5
  • Feminine Spain 1,089.8 400.9
  • Source ILO Labour Relations Yearbook

Steps towards a real analysis
  • Even a preliminary analysis of industrial
    relations 'masculine' Ireland would need to
    consider the common educational background of
    many of the employees and managers the dominant
    position of one trade union the series of
    national pay agreements and partnership deals
    between government, employers and trade unions
    employee appointment of one third of the main
    board of state companies the effects of changes
    in fiscal policy on take-home pay the rivalries
    between craft unions wholly based in Ireland and
    those with continuing affiliations to largely UK
    based trade unions and so forth.  

Hofstedes chronic a proiriismVindicating not
  • He fails to look for counter-evidence.
    Consciously or not he fits a very partial account
    of events to a particular national culture
    depiction. His stories are mere dogmatic fitting
    to what he already knows
  • Karl Popper states that so long as a theory
    withstands detailed and severe tests we may say
    that it has proved its mettle or that it is
    corroborated. Hofstedes stories cannot
    withstand even the mildest testing
  • The only serious question left re Hofstedes work
    is why has his nonsense been treated seriously in
    the management disciplines?

3 Further Criticisms
  • The influence of other cultures
  • Non-cultural influences
  • Change

1. The influence of other cultures
  • If culture is theorized as influential why
    should such influence be restricted to national
  • If other cultures are accepted as potentially
    influential how can uniform national
    actions/practices (across time and space) be
    their consequence?

2. Non-cultural influences
  • Why should cultural-causation (national or
    non-national) be privileged over administrative,
    coercive means of social action? Hitlers New
    Order was an order (Gellner, 1987).
  • Would it have been meaningful, for example, to
    talk of the religiosity of the Spaniards without
    a description of the monopolistic position of the
    Catholic church in Spain under Franco, or of
    the irreligiosity of the Russians without
    considering the attitude of the Soviet government
    towards religion Maurice Farmer (1950301)

3. Temporal variability
  • Hofstede claims that the national cultural
    configurations he found will last for a long
    time, at least for some centuries (199147)
  • His Evidence to pronounce upon centuries past
    and future? Comparison of two IBM surveys not
    for all of the countries and maximum gap of 4
    years i.e. BA
  • Yet again, Hofstede just knows but thats not
    good enough! And there are counter-indications,
  • Is the national culture of Germany the same now
    as it was during the Nazi period despite defeat,
    destruction, division and awareness of the
    horrors of the Holocaust.
  • The national culture of Ireland is the same as it
    was prior to the Great Famine (pop. 9 m.) as it
    is now among the 3m. Celtic Tigers. In the
    dark 1950s Louis McNiece said that the Irish
    lacked commercial culture by the late 1990s it
    had the highest growth rate in Europe

Conclusion 1
  • Extreme, singular, theories, such as
    Hofstede's model of national culture are
    profoundly problematic. His conflation and
    uni-level analysis precludes consideration of
    interplay between macroscopic and microscopic
    cultural levels and between the cultural and the
    non-cultural (whatever we chose to call it).

Conclusion 2
  • Scholarship, requires of its practitioners a
    vital minimum of intellectual independence - the
    capacity to achieve some distance from ones
    prejudices to discard previously held
    interpretations that do not pass tests of
    evidence the unwillingness to ignore available
    counter-evidence and the readiness to enter into
    and openly engage with rival views. Hofstede's
    writings and his antagonistic, partisan promotion
    of his work repeatedly fail these tests.

Conclusion 3
  • We may think about national culture we may
    believe in national culture we may act in the
    name of national culture but it has not been
    plausibly demonstrated that national culture is
    how we think.
  • Instead of seeking an explanation for assumed
    national uniformity from the conceptual lacuna
    that is the essentialist notion of national
    culture, we need to engage with and use theories
    of action which can cope with change, power,
    variety, multiple influences - including the
    non-national - and the complexity and situational
    variability of the individual subject.

Is national culture a myth?
  • Functionalist, symbolist and structural uses
  • Yes in the performative sense that as an
    invented tradition it has been central in the
    construction and maintenance of national identity
  • Yes in the sense that it is unreal or its
    existence has not been validly demonstrated
  • In this presentation I have sought to show
    that Hofstedes claims to have identified and
    measured distinctive, enduring, and
    systematically causal national cultures rely on
    fundamentally flawed assumptions and the evidence
    of the predictive capacity of those depictions is
    contrived (confirming not validating).

Further reading
  • McSweeney, B., 'Hofstede's Identification of
    National Cultural Differences and Their
    Consequences A Triumph of Faith - A Failure of
    Analysis, Human Relations, 55(1), 2002, 89-118.
  • Hofstede, G. Dimensions Do Not Exist A
    Reply to McSweeney, Human Relations, 55(11), 2002
  • McSweeney, B., 'The Essentials of Scholarship
    A Reply to Hofstede' Human Relations, 55(11),
    2002, 1363-1372.