Bell Curve The Law Talking Guy Raised by Republicans U.S. West
Well, he's kind of had it in for me ever since I accidentally ran over his dog. Actually, replace "accidentally" with "repeatedly," and replace "dog" with "son."

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Understanding Culture with Hofstede

One of the things that I spent a great deal of time studying in grad school was Cross-cultural communications. I knew I would be working in an international environment and I thought it would be important for me to study this. It is knowledge that has served me well. I can't remember if I have discussed this before of not. So forgive me if I have posted on this at some point in the past. A little repetition never hurts.

Cross Cultural communications is one of those fringe interdisciplinary topics that you can find in business studies as well as the social sciences. I never encountered it as a topic until I studied international business. It was present to a degree in anthropology and to some degree in sociology but it is not widely considered in the political sciences and RBR will probably agree that most hard core political scientist would laugh at the mere mention of it. And they would be right because there isn't a whole lot to know; it isn't terribly hard to understand once it is explained, and it makes you seem smart and entertaining at cocktail parties and Rotary Club meetings, which is sort of irritating. But I am not hard core, and I am entertaining at cocktail parties in general (that dancing on the table thing I do goes over big- just kidding.), so I don't mind bringing it up in response to some of Dr.S's questions in the posting about Iraq.

The "father" of this topic (It isn't really a field and shouldn't be considered as one) was a Dutchman named Geert Hofsteade. He proposed that there are core cultural values that effect social organization and interaction. The five values are: power distance (i.e. the level of acceptance in a society of inequality), Individualism vs. Collectivism, Masculinity vs. Femininity (the distribution of roles within a society and to what extent "male" values such as competition dominate over "female" values such as cooperation), Uncertainty Avoidance (i.e. and its ramification on decision making), Time Orientation (long term vs. short term planning.)

He then tested his theory by studying IBM employees throughout the world. At the time, the late 1970's early 1980's, IBM was the largest transnational around with a presence in some 64 countries. What he found was that these core values are not only prevalent, but consistent over time. Now, the Hofstede Model should not be taken too literally. It was applied to societies not individuals and I do not believe the statistical models have been updated. As RBR points out, culture changes over time. But then, so does everything else including political economy and government. And generalizations must always be questioned.

If you map out the cultural dimensions (as the link above does) you will see some very interesting patterns emerge. For instance, the countries with the least power distance tend to be the wealthiest. Low power distance correlates with high individualism and that usually correlates with high masculinity. And you start to get a picture of the U.S. Because highly masculine cultures value competition and aggressiveness, they tend to have a short-term orientation and more tolerant of ambiguity.

On the other end of spectrum, you get collective cultures, which tend to be present in developing nations. They tend to have more power distance, high femininity, which corresponds with a long-term orientation.

Now that doesn't mean that the U.S. only values competition and aggressiveness. We do value team work and cooperation. But when you index it statistically, you see that those characteristics associated with men are more significant than the others. every society values everything to a certain extent. Nothing is mutually exclusive.

In addition to this, there is a difference between high context and low context cultures. In a high context culture, behavior and communication is largely dictated by the context and a shared understanding of the situation. In other words, a great deal of things are left unsaid, but presumed. Germany is a high context culture as is Japan and most other Asian nations. The U.S. and the U.K. are low context cultures. We don't have a huge difference in behavior or communication dependent much less on a shared understanding of the situation. We explain everything.

All of this had a much larger influence on my thinking than even I realize at times. When you mention Iraq to me, I immediately begin the sorting process. "High context, big power distance, great tolerance for Ambiguity, collective, medium on the masculinity index". And RBR is correct that if I were to stop there, then I would be lazy and possibly prone to stereotypes. But I am neither of those things. So if I use Hofestede as a starting point, I can begin making sense of things such as, "Why didn't they overthrow Saddam on their own?" Then I start thinking about their history. And then it all makes more sense to me. From there, I consider their geopolitical situation, and I cross reference that with what Iraqis have told me, and perhaps I read a few things written by knowledgeable people, and on and on it goes. A picture starts to emerge. For me, I want to understand why they are where they are so that I can figure out where they are headed. Not everyone thinks this way, nor should they. But it is my starting point and I figured it would be a good opportunity to explain it.


Raised By Republicans said...

First, from what I gather of US West's description of Hofstede's book, his study is mainly concerned with identifing correlations between these five cultural dimensions and various national identies (of course the study is limited to middle class, employed, probably educated IBM employees - so much for an unbiased sample - probably a fatal flaw in his research design). He's not trying to make the argument that any of these cultural dimensions are correlated with particular political institutions or behaviors.

Most of those catagories are highly sensative to economic and political factors.

For example, collectivism vs individualism has been shown to be extremely sensative to individual perceptions of the posibility of future cooperation - when two people think they are only going to interact for a short time, they won't cooperate (see work on iterated Prisoner's Dilemma:'s_dilemma). This is related to the economics of collective action which was first developed by Mancur Olson (

Even things like masculinity and feminity are sensative to economic features such as labor shortages for example (which bring women into the work force encouraging gender equity).

The short term vs long term view is also highly dependent on economic conditions. And it is intimately connected to the collectivism mentioned above.

So back to Iraq. Why aren't they making the compromises needed to establish something like a democratic government (doesn't have to look exactly like ours - probably best if it doesn't)? Part of the answer is that they don't expect their political opponents to stick to any agreements after the US leaves - and they all expect the US to leave sooner rather than later.

Also, the main thing about which they have disputes is oil revenue. That is very hard to distribute evenly. If they break up into three states, the Sunnis will be screwed. If they stay with a unitary state but keep a naive "one man one vote" definition of democracy, the Sunnis will be screwed - and maybe the Kurds too. Obviously some compromise is needed but they can't trust each to stick to the deal.

If there were alternative ways to make a living other than living off of the oil revenue, they'd have more opotions. They wouldn't mind so much if the Shia Arabs controlled 70% of the oil. But there aren't so it's all zero sum.

USWest said...

All that you say, RBR, is correct.

The reason Hofstede is used mostly in business is it is meant to help people who are conducting business negotiations or who are working together from other countries. So cooperation is a moot point since when two groups enter a business negotiation, they are doing to so in order to cooperate. Because he was looking at business, he was correct to use a middle class sample. I am not sure if anyone has tried to take it to the level of national culture and to validate it accordingly.

My use of Hofstede's dimensions goes beyond what he himself would have anticipated, I think. That is why you can't stop with his dimensions.

The Law Talking Guy said...

I wrote a long post yesterday that got timed out. I am interested and will reply again later. Thanks for this topic.