Exploring Culture: Exercises, Stories and Synthetic Cultures – Book Review

Exploring Culture: Exercises, Stories and Synthetic Cultures.
Author:  Gert Jan Hofstede, Paul B. Pedersen & Geert Hofstede
Publisher:  Intercultural Press, 2002
ISBN:  1877864900

Book Review by  Dr Jonathan Ingleby, Editor of Encounters and Former Head of Mission Studies, Redcliffe College.

I am sure that many of us who have taught cross cultural courses have used Geert Hofstede’s Culture and Organizations [1] (published now more than a decade ago) and this book, Exploring Culture, is a follow up and companion to that volume. Its principal author is Geert Hofstede’s son, Gert Jan, but the name of a fellow scholar, Paul Pederson, and of father as well as son are on the cover. This is significant because the book works with Hofstede senior’s research on national cultures, and adds to it Pederson’s concept of ‘synthetic cultures’. Hofstede junior’s major contribution is to widen Pederson’s taxonomy and then to turn the material as a whole into a book which is as much about practice as theory, with plenty of illustrations and exercises. (Part I and Part III consist almost entirely of this sort of material.)

Hofstede junior also claims that he is adding a global dimension to his predecessors’ studies but to some extent this book assumes that globalisation is not as important as it has often been made out to be. The authors emphatically do not think that the world is a global village, that it would be better if we had some sort of uniform global culture, that it is no longer necessary to learn other cultures, or that cultures are converging. Of course, one could be cynical and take a ‘they would say that, wouldn’t they?’ approach, given that they are committed to teaching and enabling cross cultural communication, and have all written books on the subject. Indeed, I wonder whether they do tend to underrate the power of the new ‘global culture’ whereby, for example, youngsters in New York, Mumbai and Tokyo are all listening to the same music and wearing the same sort of clothes.

Nevertheless, I feel that the authors’ central thesis stands, and I say this partly from personal experience. I worked in a College for many years where there were always people from many different nationalities and it was impossible to ignore national differences. Quite recently, we had to make an extra effort to include ‘team work’ as a discrete aspect of the curriculum. This was because our clients – international mission agencies – complained that multicultural teams, while increasingly a feature of the missions scene, were not working well. On that evidence, at least, it seems that we still have to give national cultural differences our careful attention.

To return to the book, however: the chief building blocks of the authors’ cultural analysis are fivefold – identity, hierarchy, gender, truth and virtue.

I am not sure that these are very good headings, perhaps because they are shorthand for longer ones (familiar from Culture and Organizations) namely: individualism and collectivism, power distance, masculine and feminine, uncertainty avoidance and uncertainty tolerance, and finally short and long-term orientation. These concepts are supported by a huge amount of research and have stood the test of time; I have used all of them in my teaching and found them most helpful. My only (slight) criticism is that the list of five is slightly reductive. Fons Trompenaars and Christopher Hampden-Turner in another excellent book about cultural differences, Riding the Waves of Culture [2] suggest a number of other possible antinomies, such as neutral and affective (whether we separate and/or exhibit emotion in public discourse) or specific and diffuse (whether we interact with people at one, clearly defined, level or whether our interactions with others are complex and diffuse), and these seem to me equally useful.

In any case, as I have said, the strength of Exploring Culture is its wealth of illustrations and proposed activities. If it is theory you want try Cultures and Organizations and Riding the Waves of Culture. But if you want to make theory stick, this is the book. In my experience, finding good role plays, simulations, small-group exercises and the like is the hardest part of preparing for teaching. This book is a huge help in that area.

Back toIssue 15

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