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Indigenous or not indigenous…. that is the question

Today I listened to a really interesting talk by Peter Smith from Sussex Uni. He was presenting his work on social influence, including some of the new stuff on different indigenous social influence strategies such as the Chinese guanxi, Brazilian jeitinho, Middle Eastern wasta and Russian svasy. These are all local behaviours that individuals may adopt to solve problems in their environment, typically by relying on social relationships or their power (e.g., for a great example from the news this morning – the son of the Iraqi transportation minister forcing a plane to return to Beirut). Peter and his colleagues asked students and managers to come up with good examples of each local cultural strategy in their local culture. They then took the most representative scenarios from each culture, removed any identifying content and gave it to managers in other cultures. What they found was that the supposedly indigenous influence strategies were generally seen as typical even in other cultures. In other words, British ‘pulling strings’ was often as likely to be seen as applicable and typical in China and Saudi Arabia as in the original British context.
This clearly challenges notions that indigenous influence strategies are unique and distinct to a specific local context. Of course, he immediately got challenged by some people in the audience defending the indigenous approach, claiming that these wimpy scenarios miss the rich context and the social relationships that go with each style.
I think that there are subtle differences in how these influence strategies work and are employed (see for example our qualitative ethnographic work on Brazilian jeitinho here and a set of empirical studies where we also make some theoretical claims about jeitinho vs guanxi here). Yet, there are three major issues that I think the indigenous people are missing.

First, there are limited behavioural options for humans. We are live in social settings with a core family, extended family and a relatively stable set of limited contacts in an extended social network. All these networks are more or less hierarchically structured. We all need to negotiate these networks and there is only a limited set of behavioural strategies for any of us (e.g., ingratiation, calling in favors, returning favors, making compliments, breaking some rules, paying a bribe, giving some gifts… you name it). See work by David Ralston. We can not just come up with something completely different. It is all there. We are humans. Therefore, people in most contexts will be able to recognize and distinguish particular types of behaviours. Hence, people can call a spade a spade… even if it looks a bit funny shaped.

Second, the functions of all these behaviours are to solve problems. It is the functionality of these behaviors, even if not socially approved and even considered illegal (think of corruption or nepotism), it still gets things done. This is why they are so widespread and so similar in form. We made this argument and showed some data supporting this claim here.  Peter Smith and his colleagues also found similar results in their cross-national study. Think behaviours – think functions. And think power corrupts… probably as universal a function of human behaviour as there can be.

Third, many of these behaviours are locally embellished, discussed, criticized, analyzed, debated. By doing this, these behavioural strategies take a life on their own in the minds of concerned members of a community. Go to Brazil and talk to them about jeitinho – you will be listening to complaints for hours – hopefully while having some good cool caipirinhas. Go to Lebanon and ask somebody about wasta – and better have a good shisha or coffee next to you, because you are not going to move for a while. These behaviours are often recognized as problematic, but they are so damn useful and this is why they continue. At the same time, discussing and gossiping about them becomes a reinforcer of the social norm and therefore serves as an identity marker. The behaviour is not just a behaviour anymore, but has taken a cultural life of its own. Therefore, it has to be unique – you can’t say that another place has also something that really seems to be jeitinho… or wasta… or guanxi. It is what makes us who we are as people… So dare you say that somebody else may have come up with something similar.

So how does my claim that there are subtle differences fit in with that? I think the first and second point are the answer to that. There are a number of limited behaviours and strategies that people can use to solve problems. The nature and type of problems will differ slightly by context. Therefore, some behaviours will be more common or be expressed with greater force or variety than others. Hence, there is a matrix of behaviours which is latently present in all contexts, but then is expressed to slightly different degrees. Some patterns of the behavioural matrix may be missing or be expressed very weakly in some places. Others may take a particular form due to the different social relations- compare the loose social relations in Brazil which allows more flexibility in social norm bending with the still relatively strong family networks in China that may be less flexible. So what differentiates the various styles is how the matrix is filled with specific behaviours in a specific context. Jeitinho may be a bit more norm breaking, wasta a bit more relying on social hierarchy, guanxi a bit more social relationship harmony focused. But the matrix is there. It is recognizable. It has blends of the same ingredients. It is this matrix that makes us human and helps us to interact with anyone in the world. It is what makes us humans.

A Brazilian will recognize Chinese guanxi and know what it is all about. A Russian will painfully remember some personal experiences when hearing an example of wasta in Lebanon. We all can understand what happened in Beirut this morning – even though we may not want to do or can not do it ourselves (even though I have to admit it would be bloody awesome sometimes to force that damn train or bus to come back when I just missed it… Just saying… :).


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