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Meet the author of... Cultural Differences in a Globalizing World

An interview with: Michael Minkov
Interview by: Margaret Adolphus

Options:     PDF Version - Meet the author of... Cultural Differences in a Globalizing World Print view

Photo: Michael Minkov.Michael Minkov is a Bulgarian academic whose studies and publications have been in the fields of ancient languages, anthropology, and management sciences.

He teaches cross-cultural awareness and organizational behaviour at the International University College, Sofia (on the University of Portsmouth Programme) and at the University of Sofia (on the master's programme in Scandinavian studies).

About the book

Such is the pervasiveness of globalization that many in the West believe that cultural differences have become less pronounced, while cultural diversity is celebrated as making our cities more exciting places and the workplace more creative.

Yet when an Italian newspaper reported on a horrifying incident on a Turkish beach, in which the prohibition on touching a woman who was not a close relative prevented men from saving a group of drowning girls, many, not only in the West, were shocked.

Cultural differences don’t normally show themselves in such a dramatic, and tragic way; they may be amusing, as in the case of the British manager who was told that driving a low-status car meant, because of the hierarchical society in which he was working, his subordinates would have to ride bicycles.

But they are real, and ignoring them leads to disasters in the political arena, as when it was assumed that the Iraqis would embrace Western democracy as soon as their dictator was overthrown. And lack of cultural understanding probably counts for a third of all failures of international business initiatives.

That cultural differences are real is the message of Cultural Differences in a Globalizing World, yet it is a scientific account, not a polemic. Minkov, who has had a long-standing close collaboration with Geert Hofstede, follows the latter’s research paradigm of clustering dimensions that emerged from a statistical analysis of a large cross-national data set.

The book builds on, and expands, the author's previous work, What Makes Us Different and Similar; A New Interpretation of the World Values Survey and other Cross-Cultural Data, published only in Bulgaria, but hailed by Hofstede as "the breakthrough we've been waiting for".


Editorial mission and objectives

Whom do you see as the audiences for this book, and how will it be used?

The book discusses crucial issues which affect the lives of all individuals in the modern world in various ways and are going to be increasingly important in the future. Therefore, the audience for a book on cultural differences across modern societies can be extremely broad. Yet, I expect that the book will mostly appeal to various intellectuals and students of social science and social psychology.

International managers and business consultants are also avid consumers of books on cultural differences. They often find them enlightening and practically useful for making sense of an unfamiliar cultural environment.

Ultimately, the utility of cross-cultural awareness can be felt by anyone who is involved in a cross-cultural relationship. After taking the course that I teach at my university, an Australian student of mine told me that he finally understood the puzzling world views and behaviours of his Bulgarian wife to whom he had been married for nearly ten years.

What were the cultural dimensions you identified, and how did they add to those of Hofstede (power distance index, individualism, masculinity, uncertainty avoidance index, long-term orientation)?

I have extracted two dimensions from the nationally representative World Values Survey and another two from national statistics provided by the United Nations and the World Health Organization:

  1. Industry versus indulgence reflects a value contrast: hard work and thrift in most of Asia and Eastern Europe versus leisure in the rich world and much of Latin America. I discovered that – in accordance with the theories of some development economists – nations that prioritize hard work and thrift over leisure tend to achieve faster economic growth, regardless of their initial national wealth. Unfortunately, this combination of values goes hand in hand with lower social tolerance and, ultimately, with lower happiness.
  2. Monumentalism versus flexumility differentiates cultures where the human self is proud and stable (invariant) like a monolithic monument from cultures where the focus is on humility and flexibility, as well as adaptability, and imitation. The most typical examples of the first type of society are some Arab nations where many people are strongly attached to their time-honoured values and beliefs and view any change of cultural or religious identity as treason. At the opposite extreme are the East Asian nations, where adoption of Western names, rituals, customs and other practices is rather fashionable. The monumentalist cultures experience problems in their relationship with some aspects of modernity, including Western education. On the bright side, they have the lowest suicide rates in the world: pride and self-stability seem to act as a societal suicide deterrent. Flexumility facilitates school success in mathematics and modern science. Hence, it may boost economic growth. On the downside, it is coupled with high suicide rates.
  3. Hypometropia versus prudence is about time horizon differences in reproduction and their consequences. In some segments of the African and Latin American populations, there is a sense that life is short and should be lived here and now even if this short-term vision entails significant risks to the individual. This results in strong mating competition expressed as high adolescent fertility, sexual networking and HIV proliferation, and high rape rates. As some evolutionary psychologists predict, this combination is coupled with high intracommunal violence, including murder and assault. At the opposite extreme are the East Asian nations where a prudent, long-term perspective is taken on these matters and all relevant statistics are lower. The rich European nations also gravitate toward East Asia in this respect, but so does the Arab world, where free mating competition cannot occur and HIV and murder rates are consequently low.
  4. Exclusionism versus universalism is a dimension derived from three national statistics. It depicts a contrast between the cultures of the least developed nations, where friends and relatives exchange various favours and privileges, but exclude strangers from this circle, and the cultures of the richest nations where people are not normally treated on the basis of what group they belong to. This explains why poor societies are invariably characterized by strong nepotism, corruption, and a relative lack of considerateness towards strangers, resulting in high road-death tolls, racist and sexist practices and other similar phenomena that Westerners consider abhorrent.

Of these four dimensions, only exclusionism seems to have an indisputable equivalent in Hofstede's model: it is statistically associated with his collectivism. I have chosen a different name for this dimension because many people have their own popular concepts of what collectivism and individualism should be about and completely misunderstand Hofstede's concept. It may be that monumentalism also has a sister dimension in Hofstede's model, but the evidence so far is less conclusive.

Methodology

Hofstede's original model of cultural dimensions was based on a research paradigm that used cross-national data sets (from a cross-national study of IBM employee values) and then clustered them into cross-national dimensions. Can you explain how your own research built on, and expanded, Hofstede's original doctrine, and why it was hailed by Hofstede as "the breakthrough we've been waiting for"?

What I borrowed from Hofstede is his method of reducing many national indicators to a few dimensions. This is a very popular research approach in psychology but psychologists most often work with individual measures and seek structures across individuals, not nations. There are various criticisms of the practice of using nations as units of cultural analyses. The points that they make are well taken but they do not invalidate the meaningfulness of the many nation-level studies that have been published so far.

I must also point out that Hofstede supervised, so to speak, my academic development for a decade; he was also one of the official reviewers of my PhD dissertation in social anthropology.

As far as my contribution to the expansion of Hofstede's model, I should mention two highlights. I discussed differences in the way that cultures regulate the gratification of some human desires: a domain that was missing in Hofstede's doctrine. That research resulted in a dimension of national culture, similar to industry versus indulgence, but in a version that was especially adapted to the Hofstede model and could be used for its expansion as it was not associated – either statistically or conceptually – with any of his previous dimensions.

Further, I showed how an analogue to Hofstede's fifth dimension (long-term orientation) could be found in the World Values Survey, across many nations. Because the original version of this dimension had emerged from a study that used a Chinese questionnaire, some scholars suspected that it could not be replicated in another way and was consequently a Chinese artefact of little utility outside the East Asian context. I showed that this is a universal dimension of national culture that is recoverable with Western research instruments and can be explained in terms of Western psychological theories.

"Indulgence versus restraint" and "long-term orientation" are discussed in the third edition of Culture and Organizations: Software of the Mind, which I co-authored with Geert and Gert Jan Hofstede, and which was published by McGraw-Hill in 2010.

My hypometropia dimension is also totally new and unrelated to anything in Hofstede. However, it is probably not recoverable through paper-and-pencil studies and that would make it the odd man out in Hofstede's model.

You approach the topic of cultural differences in a positivist manner, using statistical methods. Do you believe that this is a more scientific approach than ethnographic and interpretivist approaches?

Nobel prize winner Ernest Rutherford, considered the father of nuclear physics, once stated that "all science is either physics or stamp collecting". What he meant by this slightly exaggerated statement was that if a particular group of scholars, unlike physicists, cannot measure what they are studying and, again unlike physicists, cannot make verifiable quantified predictions on that basis, they are not scientists.

In fact, there are many debates in the domain of classic social anthropology as to whether it is a science or a humanity. The answer is simple: it depends on the approach. A purely interpretivist approach that does not use any quantification and statistical analyses cannot be a science. It is closer to literary criticism, journalism, art, or philosophy. These are honourable and useful human activities, but they are not sciences: those who practise them are usually unable to make any verifiable predictions. However, if one employs quantitative methods in a study of human societies, and knows how to do that properly, the results can quite often be used to predict other results, much like in physics, chemistry or medicine, although the degree of precision in social science may be lower.

The findings

According to Hofstede, you prioritize scientifically justified statements over Western political correctness. Do you envisage that some of your ideas will cause controversy, if so, which and how?

I have entered many sensitive domains: cultural differences in values that lead to differences in speed of economic development, in educational achievement, in attitudes towards modernity, in what is known as general intelligence (for which "mathematical intelligence" may be a better term), in sexual practices and intra-communal violence, in corruption and nepotism.

I argue that all these features are part and parcel of the cultures where they are observed; they were not created by governments – colonial or national – and are therefore resistant to change, although not absolutely immune to it. I argue that no matter where a certain culture is situated on these indicators, there are advantages in some respects and disadvantages in others; thus, there are no better or worse cultures in an abstract general sense. But I know from experience that some people will not be appeased by this relativist conclusion. It is easier to blame a country's educational underachievement or high homicide rate entirely on its former or present rulers; this is a good way to save face. The way a country is governed can make a difference, but there is only so much that the political leaders can do to overcome the strong effect of its culture.

I also raise the old issue concerning the potential links between biological differences and cultural differences. I am less bold and more sceptical in that respect than some other authors who have recently attempted to demonstrate such links. But I absolutely do not share the view that studying group-level biological differences is socially dangerous (as one of my article reviewers once put it). I do not agree that we should hide our heads in the sand and deny their existence or their potential implications for cultural differences even if these associations are not proven beyond reasonable doubt for the moment.

Given that cultural differences not only exist but are also deeply engrained in the psyches of particular groups, how can managers working in a cross-cultural situation deal with these differences in such a way as to encourage good teamworking, and generally ensure that the business venture is a success?

Most of the potentially negative effects of the observed cultural differences in a multicultural workplace can be overcome if there is enough goodwill for that. Usually there is goodwill if all parties involved are united by a strong common goal. This means that international managers should ensure that the company's goals are properly understood and endorsed by all team members.

This is a matter of motivation and managers need to be sensitive to what motivates people from different cultures. Once a strong common goal has been identified and embraced, the job is half-done. What remains to be done is for the team to work out a set of behavioural rules, compatible with the company's goals and acceptable to all team members, regardless of their cultural background.

Everybody must endorse these rules officially and publicly and adhere to them. In some cases, this means that people from diverse cultural environments should meet each other halfway, making some cultural sacrifices: they should give up part of their cultural identity if it dictates behaviours that are unacceptable to the majority of the team. It is a matter of narrowing the initially wide circle of diverse cultural practices that people bring to the workplace. Even if some team members remain unchanged internally by refusing to alter their deeply-held personal values and beliefs, they may have to suppress the outward behavioural expression of those internal traits or leave the team.

You argue that value systems, rather than inequality and poverty, are responsible for such things as high murder levels and low educational attainment. This may be the case, but economic inequality is structural and can (theoretically) be tackled, whereas cultural values are more implicit. How can social problems such as crime and indifference to education be dealt with if they are culturally determined?

I do not deny the effect of poverty, but I show that it is not a sufficient explanation. Why do children in the Baltic states achieve better scores on standardized math tests than those in the fabulously rich Gulf emirates? Why are Koreans and Chinese far ahead of Americans? As for inequality, it is not a good universal explanation of murder rates: among rich countries there is only a weak and statistically insignificant association between measures of inequality and homicide rates. On the other hand, the highest homicide rates are found precisely in the most egalitarian societies: those of hunter-gatherers. The social inequality theory is politically correct, but it does not stand up after scrutiny.

Nobody has a silver bullet for social problems such as crime and poor educational achievement. If there were a good medicine for them, it would be taken and they would disappear. It is a very complex equation that amounts to a vicious circle. Crime levels can be reduced and education can be enhanced through economic development and cultural change, but these are hard to achieve without strong education. This magic spell can only be broken by a new balance of threats and opportunities: old lifestyles should come under attack but there should be an attractive new opportunity on the horizon. That is what drives cultural change.

Although politicians cannot work miracles, they should come up with incentives for underprivileged families and children so that the latter stay in school, do the required work, graduate successfully, and then find decent jobs. However, we must not place our expectations too high. There will always be social winners and losers in all modern societies as individuals are simply not made equal by nature.

About the author

How did you first become interested in cultural differences?

After my childhood in Bulgaria, I spent my adolescence at a French school in Tunisia, where I made all sorts of friends: Arabs, French-speaking Tunisian Jews, French, Belgians, Americans, Germans. During my two-year military service in Bulgaria, I met some Roma Gypsies who opened yet another cultural world before my eyes.

As a student, I lived about two years in Norway, Iceland, the Faeroe Islands, the United Kingdom and the United States. This time, my friends were Norwegians, Danes, Icelanders, Faeroese, British, and Americans, as well as a small group of Ghanaians who were my room-mates at my Faeroese higher school. The cultural contrasts that I observed were enormous. I was still a linguist at that time, but I felt increasingly attracted to anthropology. In the 1990s, I spent three years working and studying management in Slovenia. During that period I realized the importance of cross-cultural awareness for international managers and started reading treatises on that topic. But, it was only after I read Hofstede's work in 1998 that I became a full convert and decided to follow in his footsteps.

Your long collaboration with Geert Hofstede has been very important to both of you. Can you tell us a bit about it – how it started, what you both value in it?

In 1998, my wife Maya Minkova was taking a psychology class at the New Bulgarian University. It was taught by Pawel Boski, a well-known Polish cross-cultural psychologist. She brought home excerpts from Hofstede's Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind which was required reading for that class. I was awestruck by that book. I had studied classic anthropology but this was something more powerful because it dealt with modern nations and it was based on hard statistics.

Using my rich cultural experience, I immediately made some associations that could be explained in terms of Hofstede's theory. I wrote him a letter and he answered that he was impressed by my observations. He asked me if I could find a Bulgarian publisher for Cultures and Organizations. I did and soon after that we met in person. Since that time we have been in regular contact.

However our contacts intensified and evolved into a full-blown academic partnership in 2007, after he read my book What Makes Us Different and Similar. He realized that some of the dimensions of culture that I discussed there could be used to enrich his model. He invited me to be a co-author of the third edition of Cultures and Organizations, written together with his eldest son Gert Jan Hofstede. We also wrote a number of articles in academic journals. Right now, we are writing an academic book on the methodology and controversies of cross-cultural analysis that will be published by Sage next year.

You teach in two places – International University College, Sofia and Sofia University. Can you explain your teaching commitments, particularly the link with the University of Portsmouth and your involvement with the master's in Scandinavian studies?

I teach on two programmes at International University, Sofia, which is not exactly a college anymore because we recently added a master's degree to our portfolio. We have a long-standing bachelor's programme, franchised to us by the University of Portsmouth in the UK. I teach three courses there: cross-cultural awareness, organizational behaviour, and business ethics. We also have an MBA programme, a franchise of the University of Wales Institute, Cardiff. I co-teach a hybrid course: a combination of organizational behaviour and human resource management with an international focus.

I am a regular guest-lecturer at the University of Sofia and its Department of Scandinavian studies, teaching cross-cultural differences, with a focus on the Scandinavian countries. In the past four years, I have also co-taught a summer seminar for PhD students in cross-cultural management, offered either at the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands or the University of Aarhus in Denmark. The other lecturers are Geert Hofstede, Mark Peterson, Mikael Sondergaard and Gert Jan Hofstede.

Your first book, What Makes Us Different and Similar: A New Interpretation of the World Values Survey and other Cross-Cultural Data, was considered important, but had little impact because it was not published outside Bulgaria. Do you think that this illustrates the difficulties of those working in countries without an international publishing network, and how can international publishers such as Emerald help such authors?

If your name is not Bill Clinton, or at least Geert Hofstede, you may find getting a book published by a renowned Western publisher a devilishly difficult job. But no serious Western publisher can be blamed for that. Why would they put their reputation on the line and take a financial risk with a name that nobody has heard of? So, I would paraphrase your question: what can authors in my position (rather than Emerald) do to help themselves?

First, they need a good command of English, at least in their academic field. This means reading tons of scientific literature in English. Second, they should get some interesting articles published in good academic journals so as to get spotted by the academic community. Geert Hofstede told me that the publication of his first book owed a lot to the support of renowned scholars in the field. Likewise, I owe a lot to his support and to the positive reviews of other scholars. Like any sensible publisher, Emerald just listened to their advice.

Publisher's note:

Michael Minkov was interviewed in May 2011

Visit the information page for: Cultural Differences in a Globalizing World.