Onion to Ocean

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Tony Fang is assistant professor of international business at Stockholm University, SE-106 91 Stockholm, Sweden (tel.: +46 8 163063; fax: +46 8 674 74 40; e-mail: tony.fang@fek.su.se). The author thanks Urapa Joy Watanachote (Thailand), Joost Stel (Netherlands), George Kakhadze (Georgia), Satu Penttinen (Finland), and Gabriel de Mello Pratellesi (Brazil) for personal communications about their respective countries discussed in this paper. The author also thanks Dr. Anton Kriz and many others, including the editor of ISMO and this issue’s guest editors, for their valuable comments on an earlier version of this paper.

Int. Studies of Mgt. & Org., vol. 35, no. 4, Winter 2005–6, pp. 71–90. © 2006 M.E. Sharpe, Inc. All rights reserved.
ISSN 0020–8825 / 2006 $9.50 + 0.00.
From “Onion” to “Ocean”
Paradox and Change in National Cultures
Abstract: Differing from the dominant bipolar paradigm of analyzing national cultures, this paper champions a dialectical approach that sees each national culture as having a life of its own full of dynamics and paradoxes. The paper calls for shifting our mindset from the Cold War “onion” way of analyzing culture to a new “ocean” way of understanding culture to capture the dynamics of national cultures and international cross-cultural management in the age of globalization. For decades, the field of international cross-cultural management has been dominated by a functionalist bipolar or dimensional paradigm of analyzing national cultures (e.g., Hofstede 1980, 1991, 2001; House et al. 2004; Trompenaars 1994). Two profound perspectives have prevailed in this paradigm. First, national cultures are divided into individualist or collectivist, feminine or masculine, and so forth. As Hofstede stated: “The vast majority of people in our world live in societies in which the interest of the group prevails over the interest of the individual. I will call these societies collectivist. . . . A minority of people in our world live in societies in which the interests of the individual prevail over the interests of the group, societies which I will call individualist” (1991, 50). Second, the paradigm represents a static and deterministic vision of culture. As Hofstede put it: “Cultures, especially national cultures, are 72 TONY FANG (SWEDEN)

extremely stable over time . . . Differences between national cultures at the end of the last century were already recognizable in the years 1900, 1800, and 1700, if not earlier. There is no reason they should not remain recognizable until at least 2100” (2001, 34–36).

The bipolar paradigm rests on a number of assumptions: Complexity is tackled through simplification; nationality or nation-state forms the basic unit of analysis; the focus is on cultural differences; values determine behavior, not vice versa; values are stable over time; and national cultures are difficult to change. The strength of this paradigm lies in its clarity and consistency in identifying cultural dimensions and juxtaposing one culture against another along these dimensions to facilitate cross-cultural comparisons. Though useful to some extent (e.g., for testing hypotheses and for giving “the first best guess” about certain characteristics of national cultures), this dominant paradigm looks increasingly at odds with today’s global cross-cultural management environment. On the practical side, managers are increasingly frustrated by cultural paradoxes they encounter that do not accord with famous cross-cultural manuals (Osland and Bird 2000). The borderless globalization of industries, technology, capital, human resources, and information is fostering unprecedented changes in most societies. Such changes have significant implications for theory rebuilding. On the academic side, the cross-cultural research front has witnessed growing critiques of the Hofstede paradigm (e.g., Fang 2003; McSweeney 2002). A more dynamic vision of national culture seems overdue....
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