Activity 10: Critical reflections on Hofstede
Allow 60 minutes for this activity.
You have spent most of this course working with Hofstede's ideas. He is one of the pioneers of the study of national culture and its impact on organisations, and his work has been very influential.
My aim so far has been to help you understand Hofstede's cultural dimensions and to become familiar with how they can be used to analyse one of the main environments within which organisations operate. National culture is also one of the factors which influence the way organisations evolve.
However, I will finish the week by taking a critical look at Hofstede's work. It is tempting to get drawn in by Hofstede's way of thinking. But his work does raise some questions and this activity is about a critique of Hofstede's ideas. The following task will help you to begin the process of criticising those ideas.
Task A: Listening to a discussion between Kristen Reid and Proches Ngatuni
This task involves listening to Kristen Reid (lecturer in work-based learning) and Proches Ngatuni (Visiting International Teaching Fellow, OU Tanzania) discussing Hofstede's theory with reference to their national cultural backgrounds (the USA and Tanzania, respectively). As you listen to the audio linked below, pay attention to how they are using Hofstede's ideas to understand their experience. To what extent do you think they are in agreement with those ideas?
Click play to listen (13 minutes).
Transcript: Discussion between Kristen Reid and Proches Ngatuni
Task B: Questioning Hofstede's arguments
Thinking critically about theories is an important academic skill – but not always an easy one. Like many things, most people get better at it with practice. One way of developing the skill is to get into the habit of asking questions about the theories and ideas that you come across.
I am going to ask you to respond to some questions which may help you think critically about Hofstede. Write a short response to each of the following questions. You may find it helpful to consult the notes you have made throughout the course as you do this:
- What do you think about making generalisations about national culture?
- Have you seen cultural norms in your national culture that seem to be different from those that Hofstede finds?
- Do you think Hofstede takes account of gender differences?
- Do you think that Hofstede is right to argue that organisations should take national culture as a given?
My thoughts about the questions were as follows:
It seems to me that there are dangers about making generalisations about national culture. I thought about the fact that Hofstede groups Tanzania with other countries in East Africa. I did wonder that this approach might gloss over what could be important differences between countries. I was also reminded of work by Williamson (2002) – which you would not be expected to know. Williamson highlights the danger of assuming cultural uniformity, and of seeing individuals' values and behaviour as being wholly determined by their cultural background; we cannot predict individuals' values and behaviour merely from data about their culture. Overall I thought it is sensible to question the notion of national cultures – does it really do justice to the rich cultural mix that can be experienced in many places in a country like the UK, for example? I also thought back to the idea of layers of culture and wondered how far Hofstede took account of this.
There appear to be some cultural norms in the UK that do not seem to fit with what Hofstede argues. Of course, these will reflect my perceptions. I am not at all convinced, for example, that change is likely to be easy in the UK because of the low long-term orientation. Your perceptions are likely to have led to different examples.
I was reminded that a common criticism of Hofstede's analysis is that it is gendered – he makes assumptions about masculine and feminine qualities, and focuses mainly on masculine aspects of culture.
It may be overstating the case to say that Hofstede is wrong to see national culture as a given that organisations have to work within. But it is valid, I think, to question this view. There may be more of a two-way process than Hofstede seems to acknowledge. It may well be possible for organisations to influence national culture. One example is a multinational corporation like McDonalds. Its menus do reflect different national tastes (which may be influenced by national culture), but the company's fast-food ethos and working practices could, in turn, have an effect on the national culture of the countries in which it operates. In other words, McDonalds could be influencing prevailing norms and values.