Monday, April 07, 2008

163] Economic basis of cultural conflicts

Economic basis of cultural conflicts?
Azly Rahman | Apr 7, 08 11:16am

(Notes from a workshop on Conflict
Resolution and Mediation at Columbia
University, in the City of New York)

I once sat in a ‘cross-cultural’ training workshop at Teachers College, Columbia University. The participants were mainly New Yorkers from the educational and corporate industry, essentially from Wall Street. They were mainly middle-class Caucasians.

We went through several weekend sessions to study the concept of conflict resolution and mediation. I was one of the few non-Caucasian participants and I think I shared so much transcultural experience with the participants.

There was a role-playing session called ‘Clashing Worldviews’ which interest me and here is my journal reflection on it. It showed the different approaches of the American and Japanese cross-cultural management styles. It concerns, essentially of corporate culture situated within ‘culture’ as a location of contestation and the struggle for power and dominance.

The role-play session attempted to have us understand some of the basic concepts of the complexities of cultural dimensions. The discussions based on Hofstede's work on the monochromic-polychronic, collectivist-individualist, feminine-masculine dimensions and of power distance and uncertainty avoidance (Raider and Coleman, p115) - all these are helpful at the interpersonal level. They are also helpful for one's initial understanding of cross-cultural communication in the corporate context.

Hofstede, however, studied IBM executives making his sample problematic and his generalisation spurious, leading to his faulty modeling. I can assume that the culture of IBM executives whether locally or internationally is the culture of the multinational corporation.

budget2004 trade and businessCan the elements of a corporate culture with the niceties and sugar-coating of liberal democracy be sufficient to describe what culture is? The culture of transnational corporation is an artificial culture in the anthropological and ethical sense of the word; it is a globalised cultured watered down and reduces the individual to cogs in the wheel of international oligopolistic capital.

Theorists of culture will not entirely agree with Hofstede. Duranti (1997) wrote about the range of definitions of culture which has evolved and came to the conclusion that culture is a system of variegated meaning or "system of practices” (p43) and that ideology is a significant dimension in our attempt to define how cultural one may become.

One can also say that culture is not so much of what one uses (tools) but what kind of house on inhabits (environment). Some globalisation theorists would also disagree with Hostede's nicely schematised notion of culture and instead speak of culture as a consequence of historical materialism.

Beyond interdependence

The notion of individualism and collectivism seems to me too artificial in our analysis of cultural differences. The shallowness lies in the idea that one cannot analyse anything these days without analysing power relations and ideological framework factored into the whole notion of cultural differences.

In relation to this, I like one political scientist's notion of the clash of cultures in the context of "jihad versus McWorld" (Barber, in O'Meara et al, ed 2000) in which Barber analysed the variegated but oppositional complexity of culture from the point of view of what has become of cultures in an age of globalisation.

Many a globalisation theorist now speaks of cultural differences not merely in the language of the interdependence of the global society and in terms of the mere respect of differences, but beyond this. They speak of the Balkanisation of culture on the one hand and the homogenising of it; bringing forth the notion of deadly clashes of civilisation. How else might one explain the Palestinian and Israeli issue without a deep-rooted historical-materialistic understanding of ‘cultural differences’ going beyond the shallowness of Hofstede's model?

Or, for that matter too ‘cultural clashes’ between the Hutu and the Tutsi in Rwanda, or the massacre of the Bosnian Muslims by the cultured armed forces of Milosevic, the latter a poet himself? Can these be explain in terms of conflicts arising out of polychronic-monochronic disjuncture, individual-collectivistic systems of existence, power distances, masculine-feminine dichotomy, and the range of terms used by Hofstede particularly and Raider and Coleman in general? Analyses such as these, I believe, must be made more complex.

Besides my disagreement with Hofstede, I am also felt that the strategies used in conflict resolution are meant as damage control rather than to prepare individuals to anticipate conflict by first analysing one's own metaphysical sanity. The contexts are negotiating win-win mainly in corporate and American and British styled institutional settings.

america and japan flagsThe video clip shown in class on the American businessman in Japan depicted the arrogance of Western multinational executives themselves in their pursuit of huge profits abroad. Typically, in these case studies, cultural conflicts to be resolved are generally aimed at making the profit-making machinery run smooth so that more profits can be reaped uninterrupted.

I do not think the case study video material is enough to have us conclude that ‘cultural difference’ is what makes the American individual distressed and the Japanese stupefied. Beyond this, the line of inquiry can be framed to analyse the phenomena of international business, which actually displaces traditional cultures, and erode the spiritual-ethical basis of the Japanese, for example.

Hence we read in Japanese history, the Nobel Laureate in Literature, Yukio Mishima performing the "cultural and honorable seppuku" (royal and Samurai-like suicide via disembowelment) the courtyard of the Japanese emperor in protest of the increasing Westernisation of Japan - among others by the increasing presence of American-based multinational corporations.

Profile of conflicts

I think modern cultural conflicts arise not so much out of the ‘clash of civilisations’ or of the inability for the polychrons to come into terms with the monochrons or the inability for the collectivist to accept the new-found consciousness and hence rebellion of the individualist, or the spaces between the distances of power, and those dimensionalised by many a conflict resolutionist attempting to define culture; there is a major dimension to this: metaphysical disjuncture.

Coleman, Raider, Hofstede, and many others would confidently analys that what constitutes a conflict is when traditional societies, the so-called "peoples of the polychrons" who measure time through the movement of the celestial bodies come into contact with societies of the monochron who calibrate time through the movements of the wheels of industry and labour capital.

Perhaps upon deeper analysis, one may find the cultural roots to the issue. In cultural studies, there is a society called the Malays whose name has perhaps been evolved into the word ‘malaise’ and whose character as a people is described by the colonial British as ‘lazy’ since the British could not make them to work as hard as the Chinese and Indian indentured servants in the tin mines and rubber plantations respectively. The Malays are perfectly and happily polychronic whereas the British were hopelessly monochronic.

The irony is that during the 100 years of British colonisation of Malaya, profits were vastly siphoned out of the labour of the Chinese and the Indians whereas the Malays who were in rice fields did not feel the need to produce rice for the world market. Their economy was based on the concept of self-sufficiency within the paradigm of the “moral-economy of the peasant society".

indian rubber plantation worker 030905Tin and rubber industries were strategic ones during the early phase of Western (monochronic) industrialisation. Hence the cultural conflict between the British and the native Malays in historical terms, if we take the view of the conflict resolution theorists such as Hofstede, Raider and Coleman cannot be attributed merely in terms of time management but more than this, through a systematic study of oppression and the development of stereotypes and xenophobia.

So much for Hofstede's model, I believe. And I think for the last two workshops, not enough of the complexities of cultural differences in the anthropological sense have been addressed. I would like to see more examples addressed not merely for corporate-business settings but in international and transcultural contexts primarily.

I believe the participants are not entirely those who are employed by corporations. There are international-transculturalist educators too who must be given case studies close to their experiences.

1 comment:

Mahathirism said...


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