How To Understand Cross-Cultural Analysis

by Rana Sinha - Date: 2007-01-06 - Word Count: 1065 Share This!

Cross-cultural analysis could be a very perplexing field to understand with many different viewpoints and and definitions of concepts. The origin of the word culture comes from the Latin verb colere = "tend, guard, cultivate, till". So it is a human construct rather than a product of nature.

The use of the English word in the sense of "cultivation through education" is first recorded in 1510. The use of the word to mean "the intellectual side of civilization" is from 1805; that of "collective customs and achievements of a people" is from 1867. The term Culture shock was first used in 1940. (Quotation adapted from The Online Etymology Dictionary.

How do we define culture?

There are literally hundreds of different definitions as writers have attempted to provide the all-encompassing definition.

Culture consists of language, ideas, beliefs, customs, taboos, codes, institutions, tools, techniques, works of art, rituals, ceremonies, and symbols. It has played a crucial role in human evolution, allowing human beings to adapt the environment to their own purposes rather than depend solely on natural selection to achieve adaptive success. Every human society has its own particular culture, or sociocultural system. (Adapted from source: Encyclopaedia Britannica)

Generally culture can be seen as consisting of three elements:

Values - Values are ideas that tell what in life is considered important.Norms - Norms consists of expectations of how people should behave in different situations.Artefacts - Things or material culture - reflects the culture's values and norms but are tangible and manufactured by man.

Archaeologists focus on material and tangible culture whereas cultural anthropologists focus on symbolic culture. Some sociobiologists try to understand the many aspects of culture in the light of the concept of the meme, first introduced by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. Dawkins suggests the existence of units of culture - memes - roughly analogous to genes in evolutionary biology. Although this view has gained some popular currency, anthropologists usually reject it.

Cross-cultural communication or intercultural communication looks at how people from differing cultural backgrounds endeavour to communicate. It also tries to produce some guidelines with the help of which people from different cultures can better communicate with each other. The main theories for cross-cultural communication are based on value differences among cultures. Edward T. Hall, Geert Hofstede, Fons Trompenaars, Shalom Schwartz and Clifford Geertz have been major contributors in this field.

It is a daunting challenge to convey the findings and discuss cross-cultural issues in diverse contexts such as corporate culture, workplace culture and intercultural competency as laypeople tend to use the word 'culture' to refer to something refined, artistic and exclusive to a certain group of "artists" who function in a separate sphere than ordinary people in the workplace. Some typical allusions to culture:

Culture is the section in the newspaper where they review theatre, dance performances or write book reviews etc. Culture is what parents teach their kids and grandparents teach their grandchildren. "You don't have any culture," is what people say to you when you put your feet on the table at lunchtime or spit in front of guests. "They just have a different culture," people say about those whose behaviour they don't understand but have to tolerate. At the most basic form, 'culture' consists of two levels: a visible level of people's behaviour or clothing or symbols and artefacts of some form and a level of values or an invisible level.

Different model of cross-cultural analysis

There are many models of cross-cultural analysis currently valid. The 'Iceberg' and the 'Onion' models are widely known. The popular 'iceberg model' of culture identifies a visible area as well as an area that is not immediately visible. This model of culture was developed in 1979, by French and Bell.

Trying to define as complex a phenomenon as culture with just two layers proved quite a challenge and the 'Onion' model arose.

Geert Hofstede (1991) proposes a set of four layers, each of which includes the lower level or is a result of the lower level. According to this view, 'culture' is like an onion that can be peeled, layer-by layer to reveal the content. 

He sees culture as "the collective programming of the mind which distinguishes the members of one group or category of people from another."

Trompenaars and Hampden-Turner (1997) adopt a similar onion-like model of culture. However, their model expands the core level of the very basic two-layered model, rather than the outer level. In their view, culture is made up of basic assumptions at the core level. These 'basic assumptions' are somewhat similar to 'values' in the Hofstede model.

Culture has an interpretative function for the members of a group, which share that particular culture. Although all members of a group or society share their culture, expressions of culture-resultant behaviour are modified by the individuals' personality, upbringing and life-experience to a considerable degree. Cross-cultural analysis aims to harness this utilitarian function of culture as a tool for increasing human adaptation and improving communication.

Cross-cultural management is seen as a discipline of international management focusing on cultural encounters between well-defined and homogeneous entities: the organization and the nation-state. The aim here is to discover tools to handle cultural differences, which are seen as sources of conflict or miscommunication.

Criticism of current models

One of the weaknesses of cross-cultural analysis has been the inability to transcend the tendency to equalize culture with the concept of the nation state. A nation state is a political unit consisting of an autonomous state inhabited predominantly by a people sharing a common culture, history, and language or languages. In real life, cultures do not have strict physical boundaries and borders like nation states. Its expression and even core beliefs can assume many permutations and combinations as we move across distances.

There is some criticism in the field that this approach is out of phase with global business today, with transnational companies facing the challenges of the management of global knowledge networks and multicultural project teams, interacting and collaborating across boundaries using new communication technologies.

Some writers like Nigel Holden (2001) suggest an alternative approach, which acknowledges the growing complexity of inter- and intra-organizational connections and identities, and offers theoretical concepts to think about organizations and multiple cultures in a globalizing business context.

Bibliography and suggested reading:

Dawkins, Richard (1976). The Selfish Gene. Oxford University Press French, W.L. and C.H. Bell (1979). Organization development. New Jersey: Prentice Hall. Hofstede, Geert "Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind", 1997 Holden, Nigel 2001, Cross-Cultural Management: A Knowledge Management Perspective, Financial Times Management

Related Tags: hall, cross-cultural analysis, cross-cultural management, cross-cultural theories, hofstede, trompenaars

Rana Sinha was born in India, studied and lived in many places and travelled in 80 countries, acquiring cross-cultural knowledge and building an extensive network of professionals. He has spent many years developing and delivering Cross-cultural Training, Professional Communications skills, Personal Development and Management solutions to all types of organizations and businesses. He now lives in Helsinki, Finland and runs, which specializes in human resource development as well as communication and management skills training with cross-cultural emphasis.

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