Thursday, June 9, 2011

Using Culture As An Explanation Makes FLG Cringe

At the commencement, let FLG say that he doesn't deny the existence of culture nor cultural differences. Moreover, he thinks they're important. In fact, FLG is currently taking a look at the role, extent, and impact of Chinese business culture among ethnic Chinese throughout South East Asia. So, he gets it. The trouble is culture is a nebulous thing and is often used as a catchall for all kinds of touchy-feely gobbledygook and to cover up muddleheaded thinking.

For instance, at one end of the spectrum you'll hear advice that expatriate managers shouldn't show the soles of their shoes to people in the Middle East or wherever because it's some huge insult. As if, an unintentional gaff by an otherwise respectful and humble foreign executive would cause a profitable business deal to fall through. FLG doesn't think that's plausible. The times when something like that happens isn't because of the one intercultural gaff, but rather the proverbial straw breaking the camel's back.

At the other end of the spectrum you've highly structured, empirical findings like the Hofstede cultural dimensions. Academics, particularly those with a social science background, wet themselves over things like this, it's empirical dontyaknow, but it's damn near useless. So, FLG sees that Indonesia has a power distance measure of 78. Great. What the fuck does that tell him? (BTW, FLG has long had a huge problem with the approach to Long-term Orientation in the framework.) Oh, sure it says that the culture accepts greater inequality in authority, but how does that change how one should act as an employee, manager, client, etc? FLG has no fucking clue. Furthermore, it doesn't tell him anything about potential differences between genders or by age or really anything useful at all. You just can't quantify what is meaningful to people.

Anyway, that brings FLG, after a less than elegant segue, to a post over at LOG. James K is comparing the American presidential system of government with the parliamentary form, particularly the UK's. FLG was fine right up until James used the word cultural:
Other differences are more cultural. The party system is much stronger than it is in the US, and Members of Parliament are generally expected to vote with their party on all but a few issues. Members that consistently went rogue would find themselves without a political career, unless they were popular enough to go independent or start a new party. We also have a different ethos in our civil service. The civil service is politically neutral – it serves the government of the day, but does not takes sides in the partisan struggle between political parties. Consequently our civil service does not change leadership after an election, and officials of the civil service are not hired, promoted or fired by Cabinet Ministers.

First, the stronger party system can't just be thrown in the cultural bin and left at that. In a presidential system, you have to make a name for yourself to get ahead. Oftentimes the best way to make a name for yourself is to disagree with your party. Moreover, various parochial interests and the structure of the Senate conspire to make agreeing with the party less likely. In the UK, however, the way up the ladder isn't by making an name for yourself among the public, but within the party. In fact, your future it tied to your party. Your party is in power, then your party choose the prime minister and the cabinet. Party loyalty is how you move up the hierarchy. Moving up the hierarchy is how you move up the government hierarchy, given that your party is in power. Now, it's not quite as clear a path as somewhere where there's proportional representation and a party-based, rather than candidate-based vote. But the incentives created by the institutional arrangement are clear. Let's not lump it up into the nebulous culture explanation.

Second, on the civil service point, this is again more institutional, but the cultural point is a tad more valid. Here in the states ,there's a top layer of political appointments, but people often forget that there is a cadre of civil servants that doesn't change. Although, FLG will admit that American civil service is far more politically influenced than Whitehall.

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