A Chinese Context Challenges ‘Western’ Theory of Power

Xiaoyan Liang Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University and Jeremy St. John of Monash University answer questions regarding their paper, “Faceless power and voiceless resistance: How a Chinese context challenges a ‘western’ theory of power,” published in the International Journal of Cross Cultural Management. The abstract for the paper appears below followed by Liang and St. John’s observations.

This article examines the applicability to the Chinese context of a western power typology by [Peter] Fleming and [André] Spicer. In particular, we extend this power framework to exploring the relationship between language policies and organizational power. Drawing from 30 interviews in addition to 6-months of participant observation in a multinational corporation’s subsidiary in China, we question the separability of the different faces of power, and observe the absence of certain corresponding forms of resistance – most notably that of voice. We found Fleming and Spicer’s faces of power to prioritize individualistic and active as opposed to more collectivist and passive dynamics, potentially indicating cultural bias. Drawing on defaced account of the structures of power, we highlight the absence of an adequate emphasis on sociocultural and historical context in power discourse and expand the traditional conceptualization of power to a more multifactorial understanding of the interaction between faced and defaced structures of power as influenced by the historical, economic, socio-cultural and organizational reality of our lived experiences.

Caution wet floor sandwich-board sign in English and Chinese

What has been the most challenging aspect of conducting your research? Were there any surprising findings?

The most challenging aspect of conducting this research has definitely been the intellectualization stage.  Gaining fieldwork access, gathering interviews as a participant observer for six months, transcribing and coding were all enjoyable compared with the subsequent challenge of making sense of all the data in light of the most relevant management theories. There could be over a dozen stories coming out of the ethnographic experience and the voluminous data, entertaining and educational, but often too descriptive and only telling part of the whole story. Some earlier examples of stories we considered telling from the data included leadership styles of expatriate managers, headquarters–subsidiary (HQS) relationships, internationalization, and organizational change. But further attempts to pursue these angles were soon met with the realization that they would not mesh with the data.

By oscillating between reading extensively from the Englishization literature and looking over and over again through our data, we were able to pinpoint the core issues at the center of the series of events that had happened –power and resistance in the Chinese organization and culture. We consulted literature on this topic, and located the faces of power theory by Fleming and Spicer as the theoretical basis. During this process of sense making, Dr. St. John’s ‘Western’ perspective balanced well with my arguably ‘Chinese’ interpretation of the field data (set in China) to minimize researcher bias and enhance the validity of our analysis. We have internalized our findings during years of working towards them, hence, they are no longer surprising to us. However, readers might be surprised that the faces of power theory many presume to be universally applicable actually indicate cultural bias, as they prioritize individualistic and active as opposed to more collectivist and passive dynamics.

What advice would you give to new scholars and incoming researchers in this particular field of study?

It is very intellectually rewarding to embark on a research journey of similar nature – theorizing Englishization and power using some grounded techniques. However, be prepared for intensive fieldwork, and the likely prolonged intellectual ‘trial and error’ sense-making process. It helps to distance yourself from your data for a while if you are stuck. Writing a journal of the possible ‘trajectories’ for your analysis is useful. It is also recommended to have a co-author to share the workload, boost the morale, and more importantly, to brainstorm and deliberate with you to minimize individual researcher bias. Researchers are like midwives of knowledge, may we all have smooth delivery processes.

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Xiaoyan Liang and Jeremy St John

Xiaoyan (Christiana) Liang is an Assistant Professor at Xi’an Jiaotong Liverpool University (XJTLU), and an Adjunct Lecturer of Central Queensland University (CQUniversity), Australia.

Jeremy St. John is a lecturer of Business Ethics in Global Environments at Monash University.

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