17 May 2013

Culturalists versus Institutionalists: A False Debate?

Recently published as the Editorial in IJCCM 13(1) April 2013

Do please contribute to the discussion by leaving a comment.
There appears to be a continuing debate between ‘culturists’ and ‘institutionalists’. Differences across nations are either attributed to institutional arrangements, which are seen as fundament; or, differences are attributed to cultural factors or, in Hofstedian parlance, to differences in the ‘software of the mind’. Sorge (2004) believes that the two approaches should be complementary. He cites Giddens (1986) in saying that individual behaviour and social structure are reciprocally constituted: that is, normative customs that are instituted to be binding are kept in place by acting individuals. Sorge (2004) believes that such an integrative approach will consider both the construction of actors, that is people with values, preferences and knowledge, and the construction of social and societal systems as reciprocally related to an extent that they cannot be separated from each other. However, to see culturalist approaches as focusing ‘on the mind of the individual as the place where differences reside’, and institutionalist approaches focusing ‘on wider norms and standards supported or enforced by institutional machineries’ (p.119) may in itself be seeing the issue from an institutionalist perspective.

Jack Goody (1994), a prominent British social anthropologist, points to the dichotomy in the American tradition of cultural anthropology between ‘cultural studies’ concerned with symbols and meaning, and the social (social structures, organizations). He maintains that in the European tradition, of social anthropology this dichotomy is not readily accepted, and has tended to treat these two categories as virtually synonymous. Certainly this is reflected in Tylor’s (1871) classic definition of culture constituting: ‘that complex whole which involves knowledge, beliefs, art, morals, law, customs and other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society’, and for example Firth’s (1951) view where culture is seen as the content of social relations, not as some distinct entity. Hence the institutional context both shapes meaning, and is shaped by it. Both are what can be described as culture. Institutions are cultural constructs with rules that are applied in society, and they also shape and are shaped by values, which are part of the meaning systems of society. This is different, for example, from the conceptualization of the American cultural anthropologist Geertz (1973:89) who sees culture as ‘an historically transmitted pattern of meaning embodied in symbols of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means which men communicate’, and distinguishes between cultural symbols as ‘vehicles of thought’ and social structure as ‘forms of human association’ with a ‘reciprocal interplay’ occurring between them. Goody (1994: 252) therefore maintains that ‘..attempts to differentiate the cultural from the social, or the symbolic from other forms of human interaction, seem open to question. The terms may serve as general signposts to areas of interest within a wider field of social action..’ In terms of this debate Hofstede seems to be firmly in the American camp, distinguishing ‘the software of the mind’ as meaning/value systems and juxtaposing himself to the institutionalists.

However, integrating the cultural and the institutional is not as straightforward as that. In societies that were colonized by Europeans, there appears to be a clear distinction between imposed institutions and local cultures. For example, Dia (1996) takes the view that institutions were imposed on African societies during the colonial period. They have largely remained and evolved through the post-colonial period, and mostly are seen as still inappropriate to African societies and their context. Here, rules seem to be at odds with values; institutions appear to be at odds with symbolic culture.

The introduction of colonial institutions into Africa appear to involve a number of elements: firstly the (cultural) background of the colonizing countries; secondly the interaction of colonizers with colonized societies and institutions (for example African institutions such as chiefdoms were integrated into colonial administrations to enlist the help of local chiefs to keep law and order and to collect taxes: Gluckman, 1956/1970); and thirdly the wielding of (economic, military and then ideological) power by the colonizers within the interactions with local communities. There is no doubt also that these institutions have an influence on African communities today, and that they have helped to shape modern and urban African cultures. Through interactions these institutions have also been shaped by African cultural influences that include African institutions (Ayitter, 1991). This does not just apply to Africa, as so much of the Globe had interactions with colonial powers, including today’s emerging powers such as China, India, Brazil; and indeed continue to have interactions with global powers that may be imposing ‘global’ institutions on local communities.

So, is this a false debate? Is there really a distinction between institutions and culture? Anyone schooled in British social anthropology may perhaps argue, as Goody, that there is not. Yet my main point would be that as cross-cultural management scholars we perhaps do not spend as much time as we ought in thinking about and conceptualizing the ideas that we work with. The growing literature in the area of international management appears to accentuate this dichotomy between ‘institutions’ and ‘culture’, to the extent that we appear almost afraid of treading on each other’s toes, that we feel we cannot borrow from each other’s literature. This dichotomizing might itself have a cultural (and/or indeed an institutional) root, in the way subject disciplines have evolved slightly differently in Western Europe and in North America, and cross-cultural management may have taken, from the beginning, a distinctly North America turn.


Ayittey, G. B. N. (1991) Indigenous African Institutions, New York: Transnational Publishers.
Dia, M. (1996) Africa’s Management in the 1990s and Beyond, Washington DC: World Bank.
Firth, R (1951) Elements of Social Organization, London:Watts
Geertz, C (1973) The Interpretation of Cultures, New York: Basic Books.
Giddens, A (1986) The Constitution of Society,Berkeley and Los Angeles:University of California Press.
Gluckman, M. (1956/1970) Custom and Conflict in Africa, Oxford: Basil Blackwell
Goody, J. (1994) Culture and its boundaries: a European perspective, in R. Borofsky (ed) Assessing Cultural Anthropology,New York: McGraw-Hill, pp. 250-61.
Jackson, T. (2011) From Cultural Values to Cross-cultural Interfaces: Hofstede Goes to Africa, Journal of Organization Change Management24(4): 532-58
Sorge, A (2004) Cross-national differences in human resources and organization, Chapter 5 in  A-W Harzing and J Van Ruysseveldt, International Human Resource Management, London: Sage, 2004, pp.117-140.
Tylor, E B (1871) Primitive Culture, cited in C Levi-Strauss (1963) (Trans. Jacobson, C and B G Schoel), Structural Anthropology, Harmondsworth: Penguin

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