In the last blog, we visited the bustling market square of Marrakesh and walked through 100 years of cultural research history together. Today, we will continue our journey where we left off, uncovering the shortcomings of past frameworks and exploring some recently developed frameworks that compensate some of the weaknesses of past research.
First, we take a look at the implications of analyzing cultures through fixed dimensions as depicted in the GLOBE study or in the study by Hofstede and elaborate how this leads to “sophisticated stereotyping”. Then, we introduce the perspective of culture archetypes to illuminate on a deeper level the problems surrounding sophisticated stereotyping. Lastly, we introduce the concept of “polyculturalism” to present a more nuanced perspective to understand and conceptualize culture.
The problem of categorizing cultures by nations
We encounter or use cultural stereotypes in our everyday lives. For example, we tend to think about the orientation towards collectivism when we talk about Chinese culture or the more individualistic values that we attribute to people from the United States. Cultural stereotypes represent a simplified idea of the values and behaviors we have when interacting with individuals from other countries. Although these stereotypes may contain some true features of the target culture, they can also be misleading. First of all, stereotypes are often focused on one singular aspect of a culture and do not account for variations among different generations, social milieus or interest groups existing in a country. Moreover, using cultural stereotypes when we think about other cultures strengthens the focus on what is different between cultures, thereby ignoring the similarities and shared values we also can find across cultures.
These stereotypes have also been partly strengthened by the results of Hofstede and the GLOBE study. Both studies analyzed data collected from different countries and elaborated average country scores for each respective cultural value dimension, such as power distance or collectivism. For example, according to Hofstede, Japan is one of the most masculine societies in the world and as claimed by GLOBE, the Colombian culture has been found to have one of the lowest levels of power distances worldwide. However, while these generalized findings allow comparing and differentiating one country’s culture from another, this doesn’t mean that it automatically applies to an individual from a given country. Thus, the results of Hofstede and the GLOBE study can produce stereotypes, which are referred to as “sophisticated stereotypes” by the academic literature. The reason these stereotypes are sophisticated is that they are backed up by empirical data and statistics. As a result, academic research that is supposed to increase our understanding about cultures may end up further deepening some of our stereotypical beliefs about other cultures, which can complicate intercultural interactions.
Then, how do we overcome these sophisticated stereotypes?
Overcoming sophisticated stereotypes
First of all, one should recognize the pitfalls of creating national culture models by summing up and averaging the scores of individual values one can find in a country. As cultural behavior is patterned and not randomly distributed, statistical techniques focusing on average scores are unable to fully represent it. Furthermore, the common assumption that culture is a homogeneous shared-values system within countries and heterogeneous across countries is also questionable. In recent studies, researchers took a closer look at the difference in values priorities within and across countries. In 2011, Fischer and Schwartz sought to answer the question “to what extent do values actually vary across societies and to what extent is there consensus”. They discovered that the majority of values were not part of what was assumed to be the constitution of culture. In fact, in-country consensus was moderate to low for most values and between-country comparisons showed little variance. Thus, it is hard to justify the use of values for comparing cultures when they show little in-country consensus and cross-country variance.
Subsequently, researchers began to operationalize and research cultures based on the theory of culture archetypes. A culture archetype is a hypothetical individual who embodies a configuration of values shared by a group of people (Venaik & Midgley, 2015). This provided a more comprehensive and precise understanding of culture than the earlier unidimensional perspective of aggregation.
To illustrate this, let’s take the example of U.S. and Japan again, which are commonly represented as the two opposing societies on the individualism and collectivism dimensions. Out of the five archetypes analyzed, although the two countries showed very different proportions of individuals with the archetype that solely values power, they shared similar proportions of the archetype that gives importance to benevolence, self-direction, stimulation and hedonism (Midgley et al., 2018). This shows that, contrary to stereotypical beliefs, both countries nevertheless have people with similar values. And it further proves the point that we should be viewing national cultures as diverse combinations of multiple values instead of a common set of values.
A new perspective on culture: Polyculturalism
Another research perspective that has recently gained momentum in cross-cultural research is called polyculturalism, which provides us with a new approach to understand how individuals engage with culture and how they are affected by it. Polyculturalism assumes that people have partial and plural engagements with different cultures (Morris et al., 2014). Partial engagement means that people only and always engage partially with a particular culture. Take, for instance, the sheer amount of TV shows that are produced in every country. It is virtually impossible to watch and thereby engage with all of them. In addition, we don’t only watch TV shows from our country, but also movies from the US or enjoy Yoga and meditation, which both originated in the eastern part of this world. The latter examples refer to the plural engagement with culture, which means that people are affected by more than one culture. Thus, polyculturalism conceives culture as a network, with each individual having a different combination of cultural influences.
Let’s sum up our journey through the development of culture paradigms. We began in the early 20thcentury with universalism. During this period, culture research treated cultural differences in a color blind way, and assumed that cultural identities were irrelevant to understanding psychology. This was succeeded by the multicultural perspective on culture depicting that people are deeply shaped by their culture of origin, and that cultural interactions and influences are static. The Hofstede and GLOBE studies are two prominent examples for this perspective on culture. However, we also saw how this could be problematic by drawing unnecessary boundaries between cultures, not recognizing diversity within a country, and deepening cultural stereotypes. Thus, we have finally arrived at polyculturalism. Polyculturalism, conversely, recognizes the dynamics of cultural interactions and that individuals undergo constant partial and plural contacts with multiple cultures. The analogy of culture archetypes helps us understand this network of culture more clearly.
Now that we have a much clearer understanding of culture, what’s next? In our next blog, we will explore together the different layers of culture and additional constructs to describe culture, such as schemata, stories, and rituals. And finally, we will take a look at the effects that the increasing digitalization and globalization might have on culture in the future.
Fischer, R., & Schwartz, S. (2011). Whence Differences in Value Priorities?: Individual, Cultural, or Artifactual Sources. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 42(7), 1127–1144. https://doi.org/10.1177/0022022110381429.
Midgley, J., Goodman, R., White, G. & Kwon, H. (1999). The East Asian Welfare Model: Welfare Orientalism and the State. The Journal of Asian Studies, 58(3), 778-779. https://doi.org/10.2307/2659122.
Midgley, D., Venaik, S. & Christopoulos, D. (2018). “Culture as a Configuration of Values: An Archetypal Perspective.” in Experimental Economics and Culture. https://doi.org/10.1108/S0193-230620180000020004.
Morris, M., Chiu, C. Y. & Liu, Z. (2014). Polycultural Psychology. Annual review of psychology. 66. 10.1146/annurev-psych-010814-015001.
Venaik, S., & Midgley, D., (2015), Mindscapes across landscapes: Archetypes of transnational and subnational culture, Journal of International Business Studies, 46(9), 1051-1079. https://EconPapers.repec.org/RePEc:pal:jintbs:v:46:y:2015:i:9:p:1051-1079.