Universalism vs Identity - Intercultural Insights
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Universalism vs Identity
January 19, 2017

Can the company be a place where we find synergy between modernity and tradition?

Philippe d'IribarneA high civil servant and “Management and Society” director at the CNRS, Philippe d’Iribarne has been published worldwide and is internationally renowned, in particular for his work in the field of intercultural management. A keen observer of the dividing line between “Modernists” and “Traditionalists”, in this interview he proposes a means of reconciling these concepts, with the company being a major source of inspiration.

What is the common aspect running through all of your work?

A central aspect of my work is the observation that the “Modernists” are certain that modernity, with its overriding goal of reshaping the world will succeed so well at building a society that it will not be bound by particular culture or relgion. However, we can’t ignore the fact that company staff, and more widely members of society, are American, Chinese or French, any more than we can overlook the fact that they are Christians, Muslims or Buddhists, due to the impact this has on their relationship to the world, to power, doubt and conflict, etc.

Whether I am working on company matters or on the struggle for influence between “Modernists” and “Traditionalists” in Christianity, the subject which interests me is the same: the way human beings live together according to their imaginations. Take for example La logique de l’honneur (the logic of honour): this book combines an interest in the company with an interest in something transcending the company: the way human beings live together according to the way they experience the human condition.

In what way has using the company as a subject for study helped you differentiate your work from previous studies?

Work focused on the company is largely seen by “intellectuals” as irrelevant when it comes to understanding how we live in society. One of my colleagues who teaches political philosophy explained to me that when he talks about my work concerning the company to students, they find it difficult to see how this clarifies issues concerning how we live in society. When I mention non-company-related subjects, people ask me why. The fact is though, via the company I’m interested in questions which, although particularly affecting companies, nevertheless extend far beyond them.

In fact, in a company we encounter all problems, all issues and questions which characterise that meeting point between modernity and global diversity. The company becomes the scene for a synergy between this project and this diversity.

Why is it, despite the fact that it is perfectly legitimate to display an interest in cultural differences in a corporate environment, as I have done with La Logique de l’honneur for example, the moment we put this forward as a means of understanding social issues, we run straight into a wall? Why are people so afraid of addressing differences?

For those purists who believe fully in the modern political project, the company is seen as a place of domination resisting plans to build a society of equals. That existence of cultural differences is fully in keeping with the company’s impure nature. Outside this environment, taking an interest in these differences immediately brings us straight to the debate of the moment: universalism versus identity.

Those who see themselves as the “goodies”, the purists (if we follow the modernist logic) state that extorting national identities in the way the populist movements are doing is to refuse the universalist ideal, and is consequently “nauseating”. As long as we remain within the scope of the company, we remain outside this debate but we encounter it the moment we step outside the corporate umbrella.

In a world in which some people feel that we have done away with religion, we have to admit that modernity is creating a new one. It promises us a return to a religion in the most primitive form: the pure (universal) as opposed to the impure (anything which constitutes roots).

If the universalist ideal makes no effort to take account of the reality and diversity of the world, it runs the risk of being rejected, with the return to a more hardline logic focused on national and cultural identity, which is what we are seeing today.

To what extent can the company help us move this debate forward and find solutions?

The company is an excellent laboratory for the successful interaction between the universal and the local, between modernity and the diversity of traditions. We can therefore learn a lot by watching what happens in companies as closely as possible, to see how this interaction works in practice, and how synergy between modernity and traditional logic has been achieved.

Success doesn’t entail copying someone else but instead recognising what in practice constitutes universal values, such as respect for other people, and what is specific to a culture when conveying such values.

Seeing that in a company there is no real opposition between modernity and tradition may, in my view, reassure those who are afraid that taking account of cultural diversity would derail the universalist ideal. I hope so.

By Philippe d’Iribarne, interviewed by Mehdi Clément and Charles Rostand for Akteos


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About author

Philippe d'Iribarne

Philippe d'Iribarne

A high civil servant and researcher, Philippe d'Iribarne is "Management and Society" director at the CNRS. His work focuses on the influence of national cultures upon the way organisations operate and he has written numerous books. An opinion leader and a reference in France in the intercultural field, he has considerably enriched this discipline by distinguishing himself from other researchers thanks to his use of resolutely novel approaches. His areas of investigation are focused on the company but also the cultural and spiritual aspects of our cultures with an openness to the rest of the world.

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