Hofstede’s Five Dimensions

1 January 2017

Geert Hofstede was born in 1928 in the Netherlands. He had an interesting life pretty much filled with cultural shocks. Around his twentieth birthday, he decided to leave his native Netherlands and go to explore other places in the world. He went to do an internship as an assistant ship’s engineer in Indonesia; this was his first time out of the country and it proved to be his first cultural shock. Being immersed in a completely different culture, he was keen to observe and compare the cultural differences between the Netherlands and his new host country.

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Following his work experience in Indonesia, he followed his heart – a girl – to England, where he experienced his second cultural shock. This greatly influenced his career path, and led him to study cross-cultures. Later on in life, he became a renowned researcher in cross-cultural differences, and even created a model which could be applied to the various cultures, to help understand their behaviours.

Hofstede’s “Five Cultural Dimensions” include Power Distance (which focuses on the degree of equality, or inequality, between people in the country’s society); Individualism (which focuses on the degree the society reinforces individual or collective achievement and interpersonal relationships); Masculinity (which focuses on the degree the society reinforces, or does not reinforce, the traditional masculine work role model of male achievement, control, and power);

Uncertainty Avoidance (which focuses on the level of tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity within the society – i. . unstructured situations); and last but not least, Long-Term Orientation (which focuses on the degree the society embraces, or does not embrace, long-term devotion to traditional, forward-thinking values). Although Geert Hofstede’s model was innovative, he was not the first cultural researcher to propose a model describing ways in which cultures can be analysed. Edward Twitchell Hall, Jr. (born in 1914 and died in 2009) was also an anthropologist – like Hofstede. He developed a concept that described the way people behave in “personal spaces” – called Proxemics.

In the 1950s, E. T. Hall taught inter-cultural communications skills, wrote several books, and developed the concepts of high- and low- context cultures (saying what you mean, as opposed to adorning your sentences, and letting the setting explain the meaning of the statement). “He is considered a founding father of intercultural communication as an academic area of study”. Although Geert Hofstede did not, per se, base himself on E. T. Hall’s model and books on cross-cultural differences, we see that both researchers are fascinated by the same thing: foreign culture analysis.

Both were amazed at the cultural differences even within the same geographical zones; when Hofstede went to England, he was shocked by the behaviour of the people there compared to his native country, the Netherlands. After receiving his PhD, Hall continued to study and analyse countries ranging from Europe, through the Middle East, and Asia – never tiring of the richness in the differences of the cultures he encountered. G. Hofstede’s work is not an “extension” of Hall’s proxemics, but his dimensions brought Hall’s analyses a step further.

Many critics say that Hofstede’s dimensions are superficial, that they are not applicable to all situations and contexts. However, in my view, they have the benefit of being well defined and can be used as a tool to further our understanding of what makes us different. This understanding is obviously an advantage, especially in the professional world, which crosses so many frontiers in today’s globalized context. It might seem simplistic to read too much into a greeting, a handshake, dress codes, etc. ut many a business relationship can be built or fail due to the lack of proper etiquette. Hofstede’s five dimensions aim to steer the uninitiated through the maze of cultural differences that can so easily trip up the inexperienced professional traveller. A manager from an Anglo-Saxon country where there is a low Power Distance Index, for example, needs to keep his “respectful” distance when dealing with companies in a country where there is a high Power Distance Index. If he is too familiar, he can be considered insulting.

In Asian cultures, this is particularly noticeable. Similarly, in a society with a high degree of Masculinity, such as in the Middle East, Hofstede’s dimension tools are useful to define and better avoid the pitfalls of monochromic behaviour. Male domination can lead to an over ridged step-by-step approach, lacking in the colourful multi-tasking, more feminine way of achieving objectives. The same can be said for Individualism. In many cultures, such as southern European / Latin cultures, collectivism is much more pronounced than individualism.

This also leads to a fundamentally different approach to getting things done, the former spreading the responsibilities throughout the group, the latter demonstrating individuals looking for personal rather than collective achievement (for example German citizens). Where Uncertainty Avoidance is concerned, according to Hofstede’s ranking, a Low Uncertainty Avoidance indicates that the culture in question is not concerned about ambiguity, and is tolerant of a large variety of opinions.

This is the opposite of a society which, in order to reduce or rule out uncertainty, establishes a multitude of rules and regulations to control every situation. These societies are the “yes or no” cultures; they don’t accept “maybe”. Finally Hofstede’s fifth dimension, the Long-Term Orientation dimension, which he added to the first four five years afterwards, focussed on the Confucian dynamism scale. He found that negotiating with the Chinese as a race was frustrating, as their long-term vision hindered them from making rapid decisions within an urgent timeline.

Many criticisms have been voiced about Hofstede’s “Five Cultural Dimensions”, many “irritated, condescending, or ridiculing reviews (e. g. Cooper, 1982; Roberts & Boyacigiller, 1984)”. These comments were not the only, or the harshest, of the reviews Hofstede received – his most frequent and negative critique is Brendan McSweeney, PhD, and his most serious and noteworthy critique is Nigel Holden. Professor B. McSweeny criticises the fact that Hofstede’s work relies on fundamentally flawed assumptions. One of Hofstede’s assumptions for example is: “every micro-location is typical of the national”.

This assumption is built on the hypothesis that there is a “uniform national culture”, based on findings gleaned from a group of people working at IBM. McSweeney puts this assumption in doubt, claiming that this does not reflect a proper representation of the supposed “national uniformity”. McSweeney pertains that Hofstede’s surveys cannot be used to measure culture, because they are unsuitable and fundamentally flawed. He says that we would need a “leap of faith” to believe that Hofstede actually identified the cultures he studied.

Hofstede based his research on nations as units of analysis, which was not the most appropriate in McSweeney’s view. Nations in general do not regroup only the nationalities of the country itself, indeed there may be populations of many immigrant groups from all types of other countries also, and culture cannot be calculated in such a way. According to Gary Ferraro, “Culture is a code of attitudes, norms and values” which by definition, goes way beyond the simplistic dimensions described by Hofstede.

Geert Hofstede worked for IBM when he first sent out the survey from which he gathered the information to construct his “five dimensions” model. Thus it was relatively easy and uncomplicated for him to collect the information: he had no fees to pay, no people to find, and he knew that he would receive answers from all of the employees (over 116,000 replies, from 66 national subsidiaries). Although IBM is an immense company, it should not have been presumed however that the information gathered was fully representative.

Certainly not every culture was present and moreover, of the cultures represented, some had a much larger head count pool than others. In my view it is also an error to restrict the information source to employees of one company as, it takes a certain type of individual to work with a company such as IBM, and therefore the results cannot avoid a certain bias. Nigel Holden argues that Hofstede’s methods are similar to the chemical regrouping of the elements, classifying cultures in social “periodic tables”.

Moreover, he suggests that things have changed over time, comportment and values in the workplace have evolved, politics have changed, and Hofstede’s dimensions are no longer valid. He says that a more correct approach must be “related to managerial activity in the new geo-economy with its emphasis on global networking, organizational learning and knowledge management”. Holden adds that he finds Hofstede’s dimensions “intellectually numbing”. Hofstede doesn’t take all this criticism lying down of course.

In an interesting rebuttal in his book entitled “Culture’s consequences” (second edition) he argues, in the section “Support and Criticisms of the Approach Followed” that such a novel approach is bound to meet with strong resistance and scepticism. He claims to have made a paradigm shift in the studies of different cultures and how they interact thereby provoking an initial outcry from a host of experts in the field. In his self-defence, Hofstede also refers to Malcolm Chapman – a British anthropologist, and not, as he underlines, an accountant (! who said “. . .

Hofstede’s work became a dominant in? uence and set a fruitful agenda. There is perhaps no other contemporary framework in the general ? eld of “culture and business” that is so general, so broad, so alluring, and so inviting to argument and fruitful disagreement. . . .” A loyal admirer, Chapman, also points out that Hofstede is a genuine self-critic and argues that even if his work is based on potentially flawed methodology, Hofstede makes up for this through his experience and expertise.

Chapman argues that Hofstede’s work is useful even if it has a high level of generalization. So, is Hofstede’s work pertinent, relevant and a useful tool to use in cross-cultural analyses? Certainly, if one is to take into consideration the superficiality and generalizations that result from the application of the five dimensions, then – Yes. Moreover Hofstetde’s work was quite ground breaking at the time and it deserves merit if even for its novelty. It must not be taken however for the absolute truth.

As Professor Barry Gerhart (University of Wisconsin-Madison) and Professor Meiyu Fang (National Central University, Taiwan) point out another problem with Hofstede’s research is that the variance explained by cultural and national differences, shown by the results, is only from 2 to 4 percent. So 96 to 98 percent is due to something else! None the less, Hofstede’s body of work is certainly a good place to start for anyone curious to make a first step into the fascinating world of cross cultures!

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