In this post Sjoerd Beugelsdijk, Robbert Maseland, and André van Hoorn reflect on their award-winning GSJ article . Their work was selected as the winner of the Global Strategy Journal Best Paper Prize 2020 which is presented annually to honor substantial work that is published in the Global Strategy Journal.
Five years after publication of our paper, and after just being informed that we have been awarded the GSJ Best Paper Award, we feel that it is time for some reflection on its contents. To be sure, it is certainly an honor to be cited this much and we are proud and thankful for having been selected for this award. At the same time, we have grown increasingly uneasy about the ways in which our contribution is sometimes being cited.
Often, we are surprised to read what it is that we are supposed to have said. One of the assertions that we have most often come across is that our paper supposedly shows that Hofstede’s culture scores are stable over time, suggesting there is no need for scholars or practitioners to consider cultural change at all. This assertion is often levelled as a defense against criticism that one should not use Hofstede’s cultural scores anymore for the simple reason that they are too old by now. Neither of these two positions is warranted in our view.
So what is it that our paper claims? Our paper starts with the recognition that an important aspect of international strategy is managing cultural distance, or the degree of dissimilarity in cultural profiles. Although a plurality of cultural indicators is used, Hofstede’s cultural indices dominate the literature. Yet, Hofstede’s scores are based on measurements in the late 1960s. The world has changed since then. That raises the question: Are these measures still valid today? And if cultures have changed, what does this change imply for research or practice?
To address this question, we distinguish between three different scenarios of cultural change. In the first, a process of Modernization brings about predictable, uniform changes in values to all countries. Scenario two predicts convergence as a consequence of increased Global Interconnectedness. The third scenario is the default: non-systematic cultural change.
Looking at these trajectories, one of the things we see is that none of the first two scenarios would invalidate cultural distance scores just for the reason they are based on ‘outdated’ measurements. Each of them depicts a process of cultural change in which the relative distance of countries vis-à-vis each other is altogether unaffected. That being said, Scenario two indicates an overall shrinking of cultural differences, potentially implying a declining role of cultural distance in today’s global economy. Still, it is only non-systematic cultural change in the form of Scenario three that would pose a problem for researchers and managers seeking to use Hofstede’s measures.
Which scenario, then, described the real world in the best way? We answer this question by comparing various generational cohorts in their scores on Hofstede dimensions. In order to be able to do so, we first replicate Hofstede’s dimensions using items from the World Values Survey. Doing so, we find patterns that are mostly in line with the first scenario—strong, predictable cultural change in directions consistent with modernization theory. Countries all over the world have grown more individualistic, less tolerant of power distance, and more indulgent. Yet, correlations between cohorts are extremely high.
What does all this mean? It is perhaps easier to say what it does not mean. It does not mean that culture is static and that national culture scores obtained 50 years ago are still applicable today. On the contrary, our paper clearly shows that cultures have changed, and that they have changed in systematic ways. What is more, because these are overall patterns only, considering the specific trajectories of individual countries is a must for good research. Our findings also do not imply that the importance of cultural distance has not changed in the past decades. An increasing body of literature suggests that cultural identity and oppositions have become increasingly salient in today’s economy and society. Even if relative cultural differences have not changed, people seem to care more about them today. Finally, our findings show that changing the bathwater of culture on its own is no reason to throw out the distance-baby. Hofstede’s scores are certainly outdated. But that does not mean we cannot learn from them anymore.