Recognizing Culture

In my last post, I ended with the following statement: “Depicting development is a struggle, but we must always remain cognizant of culture and relational representations.” Understanding culture is necessary not only to depict development but also to enact development projects. This is understood as necessary and imperative for all development practitioners. An NGO that takes into account culture when implementing a project is more likely to have a higher success rate (other posts this semester will delve into how to measure success).

But what happens when a multinational corporation (MNC) is cognizant of culture? A common critique of globalization is that MNC’s charge into emerging markets exploiting labor and pushing their product onto people who have no agency. Furthermore, MNCs push their American/Western/Capitalist ideals on these individuals and turn them into consumers. A common fear of globalization is that all cities/towns will look alike with a Starbucks, McDonald’s, and Wal-Mart on every corner. In The Lexus and The Olive Tree, Friedman positions the debate and tensions of globalization between the Lexus (new, technologicsl, global) and the olive tree (the “ancient forces of culture, geography, tradition, and community”)Does this argument stand? Is culture constantly fighting against western globalization? Will MNCs trump culture in a fight for global supremacy?

Yet David Harvey, among others, has argued of the commodification of culture – that culture has partnered with globalization and become commodified and now participates in flows across the globe. Is culture a good? Disney is an MNC that represents wholesome American values, carefree fun where anyone can be a kid. But is Disney cognizant of other cultures as development organizations are told to be? Or is Disney a brutal MNC imposing dancing mice and princesses on a vulnerable population? Will Cinderella become the national allegory for every little girl?

With troubled openings in both Paris and Hong Kong, the case study of these two Disneyland parks reveal how lack of cultural awareness hindered business and led to a refusal by tourists to accept the American ideal as their own ideal. People in Paris wanted to be able to drink alcohol, people in Hong Kong desired more education based entertainment, “edutainment.” 

When American culture becomes commodified, is it easily accepted into different markets? In these cases, local culture does win out and is an equal force to globalization that needs to be reckoned with. Hong Kong Disney changed characters outfits and celebrated Chinese New Year with much fanfare. Disneyland Paris is the only Disney park that serves alcohol, and the Hong Kong park is trying to win back locals’ trust, reworking arrangements with tourist agents and reducing ticket prices. Disney is adapting to the local culture and listening to demands.

There is a tendency to say that all MNC’s are evil and all development organizations are ethical, positive, helpful organizations. But in this day and age, the lines between the two are becoming blurred.  Lessons can be learned from both not-for-profits and non-profits. Culture is not being run over  by Lexuses. Cultural recognition is possible on both business fronts.

Colleen Valentine

Colleen is a former CCT Graduate Student.