The art of cultural conditioning: A query into Geert Hofstede’s early work into culture

Geert Hofstede fascinates me. As a young man, he took a trip to Indonesia and England. The first time out of his native country of Holland, he was struck with how different people behaved, and over the next fifteen years he developed his theory of culture based on the research he performed while serving as a director of personnel research at IBM. During that time, he traveled to various IBM sites around the world and conducted interviews; realizing the vast information bank of culture that IBM had, he asked them if they would be willing to open up that bank for the purpose of more in-depth cultural research. They told him no, so he left the company and joined both INSEAD and EIASM, two centers for academic business research.

Hofstede’s most well-known academic work, “Motivation, Leadership, and Organization: Do American Theories Apply Abroad?” (1980) is a classic, as his paper introduced the four cultural dimensions that have since been applied to almost every rigorous study of culture: power distance, uncertainty avoidance, individualism-collectivism, and masculinity. While many other researchers have expanded on the four (Javidan & House, 2001; Jackson, 2002; Trompenaars & Hampden-Turner, 1998), Hofstede was one of the first academics to create a toolbox that academics could use to deconstruct and reconstruct a culture using a few simple tools, an analytic process which he called “cultural conditioning.”

Cultural conditioning, according to Hofstede, is the collective programming of a people group, according to family structure, education, religion, government, associations, law, literature, settlement patterns, scientific theories, architecture and buildings. These cultural conditions act as variables that differentiate one culture from the next, resulting in stark divergences between how a society views class structure (power distance), strength of organization (uncertainty avoidance), strength of identity (individualism-collectivism), and societal progress (masculinity).

His research took place between 1967 and 1973, using a 150-question survey, with 60 of those questions related indirectly to values and beliefs. Based on the results from approximately 2200 participants in 20 different language groups, along with an additional 400 managers queried between 1971-1973 Hofstede collated the index data for each question for each of his four dimensions of culture, finding statistically significant correlation among 31 national indicators. While it would be impossible to discover the source of Hofstede’s four dimensions (without asking him, of course), I find the need to associate a discrepancy of bias to Hofstede’s results given his indexing method used in the initial data collection, as data was collected inductively rather than deductively and inductive studies represent a certain bias on the part of the researcher.

More importantly, however, are Hofstede’s identification of particular cultural variables (a research track that seems to be lost in his later research) with leadership, motivation, and organization. For example, Hofstede explores the differences between Freud’s self-obligation (Austria) and Maslow’s self-actualization (United States) as differences in national motivation. He goes on to present three different leadership practices based on significant scholarship: Machiavelli’s strategic manipulation (Italy), More’s strategic idealism (England), and McGregor’s strategic participation (United States) as indicators and value systems of leadership. Finally, Hofstede addresses differences in organizational theory, using the examples of Weber’s formal structure (Germany) and Mao’s mutualist structure (PRC) of organizational management.

Hofstede’s original question of the relevancy of American theories in other countries is valid and important, but sadly a question that he doesn’t seem to ask again in his later research. Hofstede’s later research plays on his four cultural dimensions to such an extent, that the beauty of his initial analysis of variables is lost, and he becomes stuck in the miasma of his own Dutch cultural conditioning of identification rather than observation. I am not dense enough to recognize that were it not for his study of the four dimensions he would not have recognized the cultural variables, but his initial study was tainted with bias. For example, his description of the four cultural dimensions could be classified with the following table:

  Weak Strong
Power distance Classless Hierarchical
Uncertainty avoidance Relativism (dissipation) Organizational strength
Individualism-collectivism Lack of self Strength in identity
Masculinity No progress Progress

In many ways, Hofstede is a spiritual successor of other Dutch philosophers such as Spinoza (who claimed that people could not deviate from their design), Huizinga (who argued that history’s primary variable was cultural artifacts rather than more traditional concepts like war and disease), and Romein (who wrote that history had to be integrated in order to be valid). Hofstede attended the university of Gronigen as did Huizinga, although Spinoza (in a less official capacity as a participant in their study groups), Huizinga, and Romein all taught at the University of Leiden. Nevertheless, the bias that Hofstede presents in his cultural dimensions (strength versus weakness) is inimitably visible. Hofstede misses the key difference in his bias: that sometimes weakness is strength, or sometimes perceived weakness has nothing to do with perceived strength. As a general frame of reference, the four dimensions of culture have the inherent danger of misinterpreting the paradigm of a culture as being somewhere it is not.

References

Hofstede, G. (1980). Motivation, leadership, and organization: Do American theories apply abroad? Organizational Dynamics: Summer:42-63.