Journal Article Evaluation: Barinaga, E. (2007) ‘Cultural diversity’ at work: ‘National culture’ as a discourse organizing an international project group, Human Relations, 60(2): 315-340.
Ester Barinaga’s paper on multinational work teams and how they organize themselves using ‘national culture’ and ‘cultural diversity’ as discursive resources is critically discussed, with special attention paid to the limitations of her research approach. This review proceeds as follows. First, the theoretical framework is briefly outlined in which Barinaga embeds the specific angle of her research project. Then follows a critical description of the international team she followed, her chosen method of observation and the findings she presents. Finally, the potential implications of her conclusions and their relevance to broader settings are questioned, particularly in regard to personal experiences with international teamwork made during the course of this module.
Rather than agreeing with the current consensus in research that directly links the performance of international teams with cultural differences and assigns cultural diversity a positivist status, Barinaga argues that team members play a more active role in defining their national identity and in shaping their group work. They use the mental construct of ‘national culture’ and ‘cultural diversity’ as discursive tools to organize their multinational project.
To find support for her claims, Barinaga observed an international research group over a period of 17 months, being present and even involved as an interpreter at all of their workshops, and following e-mail correspondence between meetings. She then organized her body of collected data into categories and developed a framework for interpretation.
In her findings she points out the different ways team members used the discourse on ‘national culture’ and ‘cultural diversity’ on an everyday basis to organize their teamwork. They referred to their cultural differences in order to define their individual worth and set themselves apart from the group, as well as using this discourse as a convenient excuse for confusion and misunderstandings. Team members also drew on ‘cultural diversity’ to reinforce their mutual interdependency and justify the group’s existence by pointing out the value of multinational collaborations. Lastly, the same discourse was used to rationalize randomly taken decisions.
In establishing her theoretical framework, Barinaga broadly describes the line of arguments followed in previous research on multinational teamwork. Although no agreement on the definition of ‘culture’ has
been reached (Martin, 2002, in Barinaga, 2007), there is widespread consensus that national culture influences team performance (Cox et al., 1991; Earley, 1993, in Barinaga, 2007).
However, studies on whether cultural variety within a team affects its performance negatively or positively have yielded varied, inconclusive results. Differences between national cultures are assigned “explanatory authority” (Barinaga, 2007) as the shaping forces that dictates group members’ behaviour and therefore determines group performance. Barinaga criticises this positivist view on cultural diversity that is often taken in the field and points out its disregard for the freedom of action group members have and the active role they play in organizing their team.
She particularly refers to a study done by Ely and Thomas (2001) that examined the circumstances under which cultural diversity improves or impairs group performance. From these findings she draws the conclusion that ‘cultural diversity’ is a concept redefined by group members on an everyday basis, and the way in which it is utilized, rather than the actual nationalities present in the team, is what determines group performance.
This insight has been acknowledged in related research areas before, but not in the field of multinational...
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