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Race, ethnicity and culture

Implicit and explicit cultural clashes

Dr Kevin Cheng watches 'American Factory' (Directors: Julia Reichert, Steven Bognar).

05 March 2020

The documentary American Factory is a story about China and America: it is therefore a story about cultural clashes. The clash between the titan that was, and the titan that is, at least for now. It follows events as the Chinese company Fuyao repurposes an old General Motors factory in Dayton, Ohio, to manufacture glass for cars.

The implicit and explicit clashes between Chinese and American values shown in the film reminded me of conflicts in the early 80s and 90s between America and Japan, when many enterprises in the US were taken under the management of the Japanese. Now there is China, an adversary in many ways, and a real superpower which is asserting its influences all over the world since becoming a member of the World Trade Organisation.

Workers' rights feature strongly in the film. Commitment to these run deep in both the USA and the People's Republic of China. The former values individuality (Rentfrow et al., 2013) while the latter places value on the common goals amongst ingroup members (Hui & Triandis, 1986). The struggle is between those who rule multi-national enterprises with an iron grip, and the ordinary people, and you don't get more hardcore about American values than in Ohio.

We see the CEO of Fuyao, C.T. Wong, instructing staff to pay attention to local customs, telling them, 'when in Rome, do what the Romans do'. However he is blinded to, or is fighting against, American values of collective power – the right to form a workers' union where power comes from the bottom up, rather than from the top down. The concepts of power distance and individualism-collectivism are played out between the Chinese and Americans, as the latter struggle to bring the union into the plant, and the former actively resist.

At times, I didn't see the difference in culture, because work conditions in the 1920s in the States resemble conditions in a lot of factories in China today. The film shows that workers across the two nations (or cultures, or value systems) share basic human needs, and a sense of obligation to care for loved ones.

But differences in the management of people and operations ring true to some of the ideas that cultural psychologists investigate. For example, awareness of workers' safety and wellbeing are salient in the US. This is not so much the case in China, where people can be sent to work in lonely, harsh and harmful situations. When some of the Americans visit Fuyao's Chinese factory, they are shocked to see elderly staff picking and sorting broken glass in the scrap yard without proper protective clothing. One of the Chinese interviewees recalls burning himself severely at work as he perfects the continuity of the conveyor operation.

Some things seem not to have changed. I was reminded of the Hollywood comedy Gung Ho (1986), about the takeover of an American car plant by a Japanese corporation. There is a scene where foreman Hunt (Michael Keaton) tries to mediate a conflict between Saito (Sab Shimono) and Buster (George Wendt). Buster values autonomy, while Saito values standardisation and doing things effectively and efficiently – the 'one way'. Over 30 years later, the same value struggle is played out in real life in American Factory, between Timi (a Furnace Technician) and Wong (a Furnace Supervisor). At this point, you may refer to the construct of uncertainty avoidance.

So has the world really not changed since the 80s? Have people become no more sensitive to cultural preference? Certainly the film is very balanced, and shows the frustrations on both sides. Many of the Chinese workers have been sent to America for two years, to work with the Americans who are less familiar with the glass-making process. They spend long hours in the factory. It is also metaphorically their home, since their dormitory is literally a few blocks away. They work 50 weeks through the year, and spend just two weeks with their family back in China during festival seasons.

Psychologists, and others in cultural studies, pride themselves in explaining and predicting differences in behaviours across ethnic, national or cultural divides. Since the 1950s, cultural dimensions have become the focus for multi-international companies (Hofstede, 1980; 2003), as they grasp the challenges in handling people with similar and vast differences in beliefs, customs, norms, values and ethics.

As a scientist working on and off of topics about cultural differences, I recognised some of the classic dimensions of Hofstede and Bond (1988) in American Factory. I even checked recent developments of these classic constructions, to see if they've been discredited or replaced. My brief audit found they have been justly criticised and challenged (Baskerville, 2003), but are still robust to this day.

This review is not intended to offer proof of current popular theories about cultural differences based on the documentary. But while scholars are arguing over the exact details at the theoretical level, I feel the audience would agree that there are undoubtedly differences in the way people influence and relate to each other across the cultural divide.

- Reviewed by Dr Kevin Cheng, an industrial and organisational psychologist at Regent's University London.


Baskerville, R.F. (2003). Hofstede never studied culture. Accounting, Organizations and Society28(1), 1-14.

Hosfede, G. (2003). Culture's consequences. Sage.

Hofstede, G. & Bond, M.H. (1988). The Confucius connection: From cultural roots to economic growth. Organizational Dynamics16(4), 5-21.

Hui, C.H. & Triandis, H.C. (1986). Individualism-collectivism: A study of cross-cultural researchers. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology17(2), 225-248.

Rentfrow, P.J., Gosling, S.D., Jokela, M. et al. (2013). Divided we stand: Three psychological regions of the United States and their political, economic, social, and health correlates. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology105(6), 996-1012.