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E-Commerce and Cultural Values

Editor: Theerasak Thanasankit
Publisher: Hershey, PA: Idea Group Publishing, 2003
Review Published: May 2005

 REVIEW 1: Kirk St.Amant

The world is rapidly shrinking. Today, online media allow many of us to connect quickly and directly with persons from other nations. As a result, traditional barriers of distance are becoming less restrictive as individuals and organizations use cyberspace to release information and products on a truly global scale. The leveling of distance, however, means that factors of culture become more important to online exchanges. For this reason, individuals need to understand the role culture can play in online discourse situations. This need is perhaps most acute with businesses that are now required to compete quickly and effectively on a global scale. Within this new paradigm, Theerasak Thanasankit's edited collection E-Commerce and Cultural Values can provide valuable insights on how cultural, political, economic, and educational factors can affect how different cultures engage in online interactions.

As Thanasankit explains in his preface, this anthology resulted from a series of discussions he had with international colleagues at information systems conferences. These discussions revealed that there was a growing interest in how cultural factors affect computing adoption and use. Moreover, this interest was arising in relation to developing nations that are often overlooked in discussions of online communication technologies. As a result, Thanasankit has brought together a wide range of opinions that represent computing and information technology (IT) use across a broad swath of cultures ranging from New Zealand to China to Tanzania. In so doing, Thanasankit's collection provides a relatively fresh perspective on international cyberspace -- one that deviates from the more traditional focus on the industrialized nations of Western Europe and North America.

Culture, as Varner and Beamer (1995) explain, can be thought of as a world view that affects how people evaluate and react to the word around them. A culture provides its members with systems of values and morals that guide attitudes and behaviors toward the things individuals encounter. As a result, the effects of culture are manifold and complex.

The complexities of culture can affect e-commerce adoption and use in a number of ways and thorough a variety of socially constructed (or culturally constructed) institutions. To provide readers with an appreciation for scale on which culture can affect technology use, Thanasankit divides the book into five major sections. Each section, in turn, examines how various aspects of e-commerce operations are affected by different facets of culture.

The book's first and perhaps most interesting section is "E-Commerce Policy and Indigenous Culture and Values." The four essays in this section provide a series of interesting perspectives on cultures and cultural factors that many might not consider when thinking about global e-commerce. First, the essays in this section reveal how the adoption of IT and the use of e-commerce models are often regulated by the governments of a region. As a result, borders still do matter in terms of online discourse, for those borders establish legal parameters that control if certain cultural groups will have access to online environments. Thus, the development of global IT systems should also be accompanied by global diplomacy campaigns that could persuade more "controlling" governments to allow freer access to the Internet and the Web. The reward for such "leniency" could be couched in terms of the increased economic prosperity such access could bring to a country -- as exemplified by nations such as Singapore or India.

Second, the essays in this section reveal the scope of cultures and nations that are poised to increase their online presence once certain political or educational issues have been addressed. Through contrasting e-commerce development in Thailand, Singapore, and Tanzania, the authors of this section reveal that interest in e-commerce and its related business models is not confined to large industrialized nations. Rather, such practices and models have a great deal to offer many developing and emerging nations. The benefits of such practices, moreover, can affect not only commercial endeavors but government administration and educational activities as well. For this reason, when individuals think of global e-commerce, they should consider more than just business transactions: They should also think of methods for using information technology to connect service providers (e.g., government organizations or educational institutions) with clients (e.g., citizens or students). Such a perspective allows individuals and organizations to view e-commerce approaches more holistically as methods for creating connections vs. exclusively as a means of generating profits.

The book's second section, "E-Commerce and Organizational Culture," examines how internal cultural factors -- namely those related to organizations -- affect if and how e-commerce approaches are adopted. While the essays in this section do examine different cultures, they also reveal what might be a universal norm: Organizations everywhere can be resistant to change. As a result, the three essays in this section examine problems and solutions related to organizational change in general as well as how those factors are affected by specific cultural expectations. Each essay therefore provides excellent information on how organizational factors can affect e-commerce adoption and use in a variety of institutions. The scope of this information makes the essays in this section a valuable resource for any organization contemplating the adoption of e-commerce practices or technologies.

"Business to Consumer E-Commerce and Cultural Values" -- the anthology's third section -- explores more specific kinds of e-commerce approaches and the effects cultural expectations can have on related interactions. In so doing, each essay familiarizes the reader with different "small level" details that can affect the global adoption of e-commerce models. The section's first entry, for example, examines how the Maori of New Zealand have adapted to e-commerce practices. Through this focus, the essay reveals the important yet often overlooked fact that nations are often comprised of different cultural groups. Thus, effective e-commerce adoption within a nation can often be a matter of addressing different cultural issues.

Similarly, the second entry in this section encourages the reader not to think of e-commerce in terms of large multi-nationals. Instead, such technologies and practices should be viewed as mechanisms that allow small and medium enterprises from around the world to compete on a global stage. The section's final entry follows up on this theme of size by revealing the importance of different levels of income in relation to global applications of e-commerce practices. Once this factor is recognized, e-commerce models can be adapted to include micro-payments (exchanges of relatively small levels of money for goods or services) that would allow more individuals and more businesses around the world to engage effectively in global cyberspace.

The book's fourth and fifth sections -- named "Learning and Cultural Values" and "E-Commerce and Interfaces" respectively -- each contain one essay that examines a particular aspect of how culture can affect use of online media. The entry in the fourth section examines how cultural expectations and cultural values can affect if and how online educational approaches are adopted by certain groups. Through examining how cultural factors have affected Thai adoption of online learning, the essay provides readers with important insights for using e-commerce approaches to deliver education globally. This examination reveals that the prospects of universal online education might be more elusive than many educators and administrators might think.

This theme of culture and use is continued in the final section. The single essay in this section explores how cultural expectations affect usability -- namely, an interface that might be easy-to-use in one culture might be confusing and counter-intuitive to another culture. Thus, just because one can use online media to deliver information to other cultures does not necessarily mean those cultures can access or use the information being provided. By examining this perspective, this final essay engenders a greater level of appreciation for how cultural factors can affect the uses of online communication technologies.

Online media are truly global media. But access to other regions and nations does not necessarily mean effective interactions with individuals in those areas. Rather, cultural factors can greatly affect the uses and the perceptions of e-commerce approaches. Texts like Theerasak Thanasankit's E-Commerce and Cultural Values can serve as a valuable resource for understanding such cultural situations. By examining different cultures and different cultural variables, the essays in this anthology provide readers with an effective overview of factors that could affect e-commerce adoption and IT adoption around the globe. It then becomes the task of the reader to build upon the research compiled in this collection in order to examine further how e-commerce concepts affect and are affected by cultural factors. Only though continuing this examination process can humans create an online environment in which participation are truly global.

Varner, I. & Beamer, L. (1995). Intercultural Communication in the Global Workplace. Boston: Irwin-McGraw Hill.

Kirk St.Amant:
Kirk St.Amant is an assistant professor of technical communication at Texas Tech University. His research interests include intercultural communication, international e-commerce, and global e-learning. He reviewed Communication and Cyberspace: Social Interaction in an Electronic Environment previously for RCCS.  <kirk.st-amant@ttu.edu>

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