Cultural knowledge: An ethical deconstruction of the concept as a foundation for respect for cultural differences from a post-colonial and Levinasian perspective

Katharina Pilhofer

Student thesis: Master thesis


This paper engages in a critical reading of cultural knowledge. By cultural knowledge I refer to cultural dimensions as introduced by Geert Hofstede, Edward T. Hall and Fons Trompenaars. Their research has manifold been taught to individuals who will face an intercultural setting in their business career at some point in the future. It aims to create understanding for cultural differences in order to decrease emotional discomfort and enhance (business) success of those who acquire the knowledge. At the same time it claims to present a foundation for respect for cultural differences since it gives (an imaginative) room to them. If one studies the knowledge (s)he will be aware of cultural differences and therefore treat them with respect. In this paper I critically reflect on the outlined claim. In that regard it contributes to Critical Management Research and employs deconstruction, in particular ethical deconstruction as introduced by Simon Critchley. Deconstruction was firstly conceptualized by Jacques Derrida. It aims to uncover oppositions in a text in order to open it up to new perspectives. The opposition is assumed to be in consensus, deconstruction however points at an inherent hierarchical structure. In the study of cultural knowledge it becomes obvious throughout the paper that the claim saying that understanding at the same time leads to respect is very much limited. The former has taken priority over to the latter for the sake of control. The deconstruction is composed of two perspectives on cultural knowledge. In a first step the paper turns to post-colonial theory. Post-colonialism argues how a Western perspective has framed cultural identities and how these representations are flawed by colonial thinking. In a second step a Levinasian perspective is taken on cultural knowledge. The French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas was deeply concerned with our way of approaching the Other. He understood the Other to be incomprehensible to our understanding. The Other’s otherness cannot be „grasped“ by framing her/him into categories. He argued that every encounter is of ethical nature and encouraged each individual to show infinite re-sponsibility (responsebility) towards the Other that is not confined by any pre-knowledge. The post-colonial perspective on cultural knowledge reveals that cultural differences are understood as a threat since they might lead to miscommunication and conflicts. In this regard positive aspects such as enrichment and mutual learning are not mentioned. Further it is explained how cultural dimensions are conceptualized in binary oppositions and lead to good versus bad comparisons. Their one-sidedness and ethnocentrism creates a negative perception on cultural differences in those who acquire the knowledge. After which the paper is concerned with homogenization, simplification and fixation. Students of cultural knowledge only gain a very limited and simplified picture of cultural differences. These limitations indicate how cultural knowledge cannot account for a respectful representation of cultures. Consequently it is limited and biased as a foundation for respect for cultural differences. Post-colonial theory sees the cause for these limitations in the West’s interest to control and remain (capitalist) power hegemony. The analysis in this paper confirms this argument since understanding for the sake of control has led to compromises in terms of respectful representations. Cross-cultural scholars such as Hofstede, Hall and Trompenaars become agents of Western power interest. Furthermore students of cultural knowledge indirectly support these interests if they are not (made) aware of limitations cultural knowledge entails. The Levinasian perspective on cultural knowledge reveals how responsibility has been shifted from the individual towards knowledge systems. Since one is advised to adhere to cultural knowledge in order to prevent any “problems” in intercultural settings, (s)he is taken the responsibility and freedom to openly react to the counterpart’s otherness and the specificity of the situation. Levinas further considers knowledge systems such as cultural knowledge as totalities. They represent a closed system where the Other is framed in one’s own categories. Both limitations lead to a hampered openness towards the Other. Furthermore the application of cultural knowledge without any awareness of its limitations may jeopardize humanity, tolerance and respect. Cultural knowledge is analyzed in terms of its reflection of the arguments made by post-colonial theory and Levinasian ethics. In order to give more weight to the arguments made I illustrate how the limitations are translated into practice. Here qualitative data was gathered: four semistructured interviews and five questionnaires were conducted. Most of the interviewees were familiar with cultural knowledge and shared experiences of its application in their daily working life. Hence data in two forms is used to support the process of deconstruction: cultural knowledge constitutes the actual data analyzed while qualitative data gathered by conducting interviews and questionnaires serves as illustrations. The paper concludes that cultural knowledge has been exposed to significant limitations. These limitations are mainly a product of control interests. Individuals who acquire cultural knowledge and are not (made) aware of its limitations face consequences that may compromise their respect for cultural differences. Even though cultural knowledge presents itself as foundation for respect, it prioritizes understanding for the sake of control. As a consequence respectful representations are not given and respect for cultural differences is only supported as long as it does not threaten control. Ultimately, this paper shall present a plea for trainers and teachers of cultural knowledge to become acquainted with the limitations, reflect on them and forward this knowledge to their students. It shall also encourage researchers of cultural differences and other scholars to reflect and perhaps improve on it. Suggestions for future research are given

EducationsMSc in Business, Language and Culture, (Graduate Programme) Final Thesis
Publication date2010
Number of pages81