Friday, October 14, 2005

7] "Clashing Worldviews"

Notes from a workshop on Conflict Resolution and Mediation at Teachers College, Columbia University, New York Azly Rahman Columbia Universuty Self-Reflective Journal#2 I liked the “Clashing Worldviews” role-playing session, which attempted to have us understand some of the basic concepts of the complexities of cultural dimensions. The discussions based on Hofstede’s work on the monochromic-polychronic, collectivist-individualist, feminine-masculine dimensions and of power distance and uncertainty avoidance (Raider and Coleman, p.115) ---- all these are helpful at the interpersonal level. They are also helpful for one’s initial understanding of cross-cultural communication in the corporate context. Hofstede, however, studied IBM executives making his sample problematic and his generalization spurious, leading to his modeling faulty. I can assume that the culture of IBM executives whether locally or internationally is the culture of the multinational corporation. Can the elements of a corporate culture with the “nice-ness and sugar-coated-ness” of liberal democracy be sufficient to describe what culture is? The culture of transnational corporation is an artificial culture in the anthropological and ethical sense of the word; it is a globalized cultured watered down and reduces the individual to cogs in the wheel of international oligopolistic capital. Theorists of culture will not agree with Hofstede entirely. Duranti (1997) wrote about the range of definitions of culture which has evolved and came to the conclusion that culture is a system of variegated meaning or “system of practices (p.43) and that ideology is a significant dimension in our attempt to define how cultural one may become. One can also say that culture is not so much of what one uses (tools) but what kind of house on inhabits (environment). Some globalization theorists would also disagree with Hostede’s nicely schematized notion of culture and instead speak of culture as a consequence of historical materialism. The notion of individualism and collectivism seems to me too artificial in our analysis of cultural differences. The shallowness lies in the idea that one cannot analyze anything these days without analyzing power relations and ideological framework factored into the whole notion of cultural differences. In relation to this, I like one political scientist’s notion of the clash of cultures in the context of “jihad versus McWorld” (Barber, in O’Meara et. al., ed. 2000) in which Barber analyzed the variegated but oppositional complexity of culture from the point of view of what has become of cultures in an age of globalization. Many a globalization theorist now speak of cultural differences not merely in the language of the interdependence of the global society and in terms of the mere respect of differences, but beyond this. They speak of the Balkanization of culture on the one hand and the homogenizing of it; bringing forth the notion of deadly clashes of civilization. How else might one explain the Palestinian and Israeli issue without a deep-rooted historical-materialistic understanding of “cultural differences” going beyond the shallowness of Hofstede’s model? Or, for that matter too “cultural clashes” between the Hutus and the Tutsi in Rwanda, or the massacre of the Bosnian Muslims by the cultured armed forces of Milosevic, the latter a poet himself? Can these be explain in terms of conflicts arising out of polychronic-monochronic disjuncture, individual-collectivistic systems of existence, power distances, masculine-feminine dichotomy, and the range of terms used by Hofstede particularly and Raider and Coleman in general? Analyses such as these, I believe, must be made more complex. Besides my disagreement with Hofstede, I am also beginning to feel that the strategies used in Conflict Resolution are meant as “damage control” rather than to prepare individuals to anticipate conflict by first analyzing one’s own metaphysical sanity. The contexts are negotiating “win-win” mainly in corporate and American and British styled institutional settings. The video clip shown in class on the American businessman in Japan showed the arrogance of Western multinational executives themselves in their pursuit of huge profits abroad. Typically, in these case studies, Cultural conflicts to be resolved are generally aimed at making the profit-making machinery run smooth so that more profits can be reaped uninterrupted. I do not think the case study video material is enough to have us conclude that “cultural difference” is what makes the American individual distressed and the Japanese stupefied. Beyond this, the line of inquiry can be framed to analyze the phenomena of international business, which actually displaces traditional cultures, and erode the spiritual-ethical basis of the Japanese, for example. Hence we read in Japanese history, the Nobel Laureate in Literature, Yukio Mishima performing the “cultural and honorable seppuku” (royal and Samurai-like suicide via disembowelment) the courtyard of the Japanese emperor in protest of the increasing Westernization of Japan --- amongst others by the increasing presence of American-based multinational corporations. I think modern cultural conflicts arise not so much out of the “clash of civilizations” or of the inability for the polychrons to come into terms with the monochrons or the inability for the collectivist to accept the new-found consciousness and hence rebellion of the individualist, or the spaces between the distances of power, and those dimensionalized by many a Conflict Resolutionist attempting to define culture; there is a major dimension to this: metaphysical disjuncture. Coleman, Raider, Hofstede, and many others would confidently analyze that what constitute conflicts is when traditional societies, the so-called “peoples of the polychrons” who measure time through the movement of the celestial bodies come into contact with societies of the monochron who calibrate time through the movements of the wheels of industry and labor capital. Perhaps upon deeper analysis, one may find the cultural roots to the issue. In cultural studies, there is a society called the “Malays” whose name has perhaps been evolved into the word “malaise” and whose character as a people is described by the colonial British as “lazy” since the Bristish could not make them to work as hard as the Chinese and Indian indentured slaves in the tin mines and rubber plantations respectively. The Malays are perfectly and happily polychronic whereas the British were hopelessly monochronic. The irony is that during the hundred year of British colonialism in Malaya, profits were vastly siphoned out of the labor of the Chinese and the Indians whereas the Malays who were in rice fields did not feel the need to produce rice for the world market. Their economy was based on the concept of “self-sufficiency” within the paradigm of the “moral-economy of the peasant society”. Tin and rubber industries were strategic ones during the early phase of Western (monochronic) industrialization. Hence the cultural conflict between the British and the native Malays in historical terms, if we take the view of the Conflict Resolution theorists such as Hofstede, Raider ,and Coleman cannot be attributed merely in terms of time management but more than this, through a systematic study of oppression and the development of stereotypes and xenophobia. So much for Hofstede’s model, I believe. And I think for the last two workshops, not enough of the complexities of cultural differences in the anthropological sense have been addressed. I would like to see more examples addressed not merely for corporate-business settings but in international and transcultural contexts primarily. I believe the participants are not entirely those who are employed by corporations. There are international-transculturalist educators too who must be given case studies close to their experiences.. References Duranti, A. (1997). Linguistic anthropology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Fisher, R.E., Ury, W. and Patton B. (1991). Getting to yes, 2d. ed. New York: Penguin Books Lewicki, R., Saunders, D., and Minton, J. W. (1994). Negotiation, 2d.ed. New York: Penguin Books Raider, E. and Coleman, S. (1987). Collaborative negotiation. Unpublished workshop materials

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AZLY RAHMAN is an educator, academic, international columnist, and author of nine books on Malaysia and Global Affairs. He grew up in Johor Bahru, Malaysia and holds a Columbia University doctorate in international education development and Master’s degrees in six areas: education, international affairs, peace studies communication, fiction and non-fiction writing. Twitter @azlyrahman.