Universalism/Particularism Essay

Universalism and particularism together comprise one of seven “cultural dimensions” identified by the Dutch cross-cultural researcher, Fons Trompenaars, in his book Riding the Waves of Culture. (Other dimensions include Individualism/Collectivism, Neutral/Affective, Specific/Diffuse, Achieved Status/Ascribed Status, Internal/External, and Sequential/Synchronic and some are discussed elsewhere in this encyclopedia.)

Universalists and particularists differ in the priority they give to laws, rules, circumstances, and interpersonal relationships when making decisions. Universalists tend to emphasize rules and laws over relationships and circumstances while particularists tend to emphasize relationships and circumstances over rules and laws. Given this cultural dimension’s potentially strong influence on decision making, individuals, groups, and organizations engaging in business that spans cultures can benefit from understanding it.

In particularistic cultures, people view laws and rules as guidelines that help organize the way people relate to each other. They do not see laws and rules as ends in themselves or as artifacts of an “exemplary” culture, but rather the means to the end or ideal of human friendship and harmony. Emphasis is placed on friendship and looking at the particular situation to decide, based on that friendship, what is right or wrong, rather than looking to a general rule or code.

In universalistic cultures, people view laws and rules as the ideal or the end goal. They view these codes or values as immutable standards that uphold society, including all friendships and relationships. Great emphasis is placed on agreements, codes of law, formal contracts, and other forms of rules to decide what is right. The details of the situation or the nature of the relationship of the parties involved is less important to the universalist than following the rules and laws, at all times and in all places.

National And Individual Levels

It is useful to consider universalism/particularism at different levels, including national and individual levels. Although it is difficult to associate entire nations and cultures with either universalism or particularism (because of the significant variance on these dimensions within these nations and populations), it is possible to examine averages of nations and to sense general differences among cultures. (Fons Trompenaars [and Charles Hampden-Turner], for example, have suggested that Switzerland, Canada, the United States, Sweden, and the United Kingdom represent strong universalist cultures, while Venezuela, Korea, Russia, China, and Portugal represent strong particularist cultures.)

At the individual level, people who behave according to universalistic patterns are referred to as universalists and people who behave according to particularistic patterns are referred to as particularisms’. Although, obviously, not everyone can be classified as a particularist or a universalist, it is possible that many, if not most, people tend to subscribe more to one perspective than the other. To further illustrate the difference between a particularist and a universalist, we turn to a commonly used example:

Two close friends are driving down the street at a speed significantly over the legal limit. The driver of the car fails to see a pedestrian crossing the road and strikes him, resulting in a lawsuit.

Assuming no other form of evidence is available, the universalist would be more likely to testify in court that his or her friend was exceeding the speed limit than the particularist, because the universalist would place emphasis on the law (over the friendship) and the particularist would place emphasis on the friendship (over the law). Although this example is simple and perhaps an exaggeration of the expected behaviors of universalists and particularists, it succeeds in making the difference between the two clearer—the universalist’s loyalty tends to lie with rules and laws, while the particularist’s loyalty tends to lie with relationships and depend on situational specifics. So what does this mean for business?

Universalism/Particularism In Business

In the business context, universalists and particularists can behave quite differently because of the different emphasis they place on rules and relationships. For example, universalist managers and companies may tend to justify the allocation of rewards and resources (such as pay) based solely on the objective merits and work accomplishments of employees. However, particularists may be more likely to justify resource allocation based on the subjective consideration of functionally irrelevant characteristics, such as tenure, family size, and friendship. In the formation of agreements or contracts, universalists might expect or demand clarity, uniformity, and absolute dedication to the fulfillment of the contract, without option to back out. On the other hand, particularists may view an agreement or contract as fluid, changeable, and continually renegotiable, depending on changes that might occur in the relationship or environment.

Universalists and particularists are likely to differ in the way they make decisions involving moral issues. By way of the example provided above (with regard to the two friends who hit a pedestrian in a speeding car), it is clear that universalists and particularists may come to completely different decisions in identical circumstances, both believing their course of action to be correct and ethical. But referring again back to the speeding car example, are both courses of action always ethical? Part of the difference of opinion that can exist among universalists and particularists might stem from the reality that not all ethical decisions are obviously “black and white” and that not all rules apply equally well in all possible situations.

For example, we might consider a pure universalist claiming that some action is always wrong or unethical and a particularist simultaneously suggesting that the same action can indeed be wrong, but that it depends entirely on the surrounding circumstances and the people involved. (The “action” in question for this context might be anything that is questionably ethical— speeding, paying bribes, lying, abortion, doing special or secretive favors, impersonating, etc.) Considering the many topics or actions upon which a universalist and a pure particularist might therefore differ in their opinion about what is ethical, to the “neutral” observer, deciding who is actually morally right in a given situation is not always easy or clear, and strong feelings may even be associated with the differing positions.

Therefore, when people who are engaging in business across cultures are aware of the differences between universalist and particularist cultures, they can potentially be better prepared for differences when they arise. When preparation and education are absent, however, misunderstandings (or worse) can multiply, and business cooperation can subsequently suffer. Specifically, when particularists adhere to their perspectives too resolutely, blindly, and/or inconsiderately, they can find themselves isolated from any real global conversation or interaction—including profitable business opportunities. By the same token, overbearing universalists run the risk of ethnocentrism (being guilty of believing that their own culture, rules, laws, and systems are superior to all others), resulting in a similarly unfortunate and deprived situation. This reality underscores the importance of cross-cultural training, especially for repeat expatriate employees or employees who travel or plan to travel frequently to foreign countries as part of their jobs and careers.

Bibliography:

  1. Nancy J. Adler and Allison Gundersen, International Dimensions of Organizational Behavior (Thomson/South-Western, 2008);
  2. Helen Deresky, International Management: Managing Across Borders and Cultures (Pearson Prentice Hall, 2008);
  3. Oded Shenkar and Yadong Luo, International Business (Sage, 2008);
  4. Alfons Trompenaars and Charles Hampden-Turner, Riding the Waves of Culture: Understanding Cultural Diversity in Business (Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2002).

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