SR article

4. Voluntarism, sequential time management, attitude towards labor


The three cultural values, topic 3,4,5, dealt with in this lecture all have a special relationship relationship towards the future and towards change. They are necessary to solve the tensions between past and future. Voluntarism means that my initiative and will (Latin: voluntas) brings a change of course and direction. If I take decision I cut off (literally the meaning of the word decide) part of the past that I am familiar with. I embark on a new future. That may take me out of my comfort zone and for that reason some sociologists do not speak of voluntarism, but of uncertainty avoidance or acceptance. The future, since it is unknown, implies uncertainty and risk, but without new initiatives, and therefore risk, there is no future. That means that entrepreneurship is not value free and not culturally neutral.

The opposite of voluntarism is fatalism: to go with the flow and continue the past. In traditional cultures (agricultural or nomadic) the unknown future is not welcomed. Some use the terms internalism versus externalism for the same phenomenon. Internalism then means that I take my inner self as a turning point for change. Externalism means that I consider myself to be dependent on external forces beyond my power, nature or tradition.

Something similar is the case with a sequential versus synchronic attitude to time. In a traditional society, where people go with the flow, the present is most important. You will not let a friend or neighbor wait if he knocks at your door, reasoning that you want to finish other work first. Instead you will respond to everything and everyone that calls for your attention at the present moment. Each moment in the present has its own quality and brings something important. That is the synchronic attitude, in which the different times, past, present, future, are not that much distinguished, because you do not experience yourself as heading for a different future. The picture changes if you want to bring about change. Whoever wants to reach a goal in the future will start using his time in an instrumental way, as if it is not a quality, but a quantity. The real life is in the future, not now! That is the attitude (very strange from the perspective of a traditional society). Now time is divided and measured. It becomes a “thing”. To forget time means not to treat time as a thing, but as a quality you are immersed in. Coming late home at night because you wasted your time at a party means having handled time in a synchronic way. You live in the present only. But in doing business you will have to be sequential in order to reach your targets.

Again, something similar is the case in the attitude towards labor. In traditional societies labor is a necessary evil. If you can, you will avoid it, for instance if you are a leader in the community who makes decisions. Your status will be derived from your position in the family or from an important office you may occupy. The alternative is to derive status from achievement but that implies labor. Just like in planning and sequential time management time is used in just an instrumental way, in labor we handle our bodies as a thing.

If somebody’s status is derived from position, then often also his subordinates will be more focused on the relationship with this high positioned person than on the work to be done. Often showing respect to the boss is more valued than good performance. That may mean that everybody stands up in the office to show respect to the boss who is coming in, but not much work is done after they sit down. If, however, also the boss derives his position from achievement and performance, including labor, it is more likely that he will value his subordinates accordingly. This may create a completely different business culture.

Again the relationship towards the future is decisive: if somebody wants change or improvement, and for that reason takes a voluntaristic attitude, then at the same time planning becomes necessary and at the same time labor becomes more important. That is the case both in more hierarchical and in more egalitarian societies.

An important issue is the relationship between technical and scientific progress and labor. In the PowerPoint there is a picture of a Delft professor, who wanted to have a piece of clay exactly at the point where the river and the land meet that is precisely in the mud. In his theory in past and present times the rivers had deposited arsenic at that place, coming from the Himalaya Mountains. The picture is made in Bihar, India, where the arsenic is pumped up with the drinking water – so it is a big problem. We were there with a group of those 10 people and everybody was standing around. Although he was in the lead he took off his shoes and socks and went into the mud. Later I used this picture in a talk on cultural differences and I asked the Indian students and professors, which Indian Prof. would have done the same. Everybody confirmed that he would have sent his student to do the job. However, for experimental work and research this value is mandatory: to immerse your own body in labor. If the intellectuals do not avoid labor, only then will they make inventions, find more easy ways to do the work, etc. They will be innovative.

In the same vein the monks in the Middle Ages in the European societies made all sorts of inventions in agriculture and technology and they shared those inventions immediately with each other, because they wanted to get the farmers out of poverty and in that way put an end to tribal cleavages and vendetta. The tradition of sharing inventions originated in Europe by that time. In all societies tribes or castes or families would keep their inventions secret in order to have a competitive advantage over the others. Their collectivist attitude would prevent cooperation.


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