I was slowly walking across the Jemaa el-Fnaa, this famous market square right in the centre of Marrakesh, mesmerized by the various impressions that absorbed my senses. The spices you can buy at every corner around here have infiltrated the hot and dry air, enriching every breath with cinnamon, saffron or anise. I took another deep breath trying to figure out the olfactory nuances in the air, when the call to prayer from a mosque close by started the complimentary soundtrack for my experience. It was a truly enchanting moment that made me realize how different this environment was from my day to day experience at home in Berlin. And it was the starting point of an endeavor that would lead me to understand the intricacies of what we describe as culture.
Culture is something so clear and intuitive to experience when you go to other countries or regions of the world, but it is much harder to describe what exactly culture is.
Researchers have been struggling to answer this question for a long time. In an attempt to define culture, anthropologists Kroeber and Kluckhohn compiled a list of 164 definitions for the word “culture” as early as in 1952, which illustrates the complexity of defining what exactly culture is. There is no doubt that culture is a notoriously confusing word and concept. Therefore, before we take a deeper dive into the fascinating world of culture, let us first set the stage of our discussion.
In this three-part blog, I’ll invite you to accompany me on my journey into the depths of cross-cultural research in psychology and organizational behavior, from the early 1900s to its present developments, and into the future.
The early years of cultural research
Let’s start with how we got to our present understanding of culture. Research in culture in the field of psychology originated in the late 19thcentury and the early 20thcentury in Europe and the United States. This era marked the introduction of scientific management theories and their usage to improve economic efficiencies, also known as Taylorism. That became an inspiration for researchers to search for other scientific principles that were universally applicable to all individuals and circumstances. At the same time, the inflow of immigrants to the United States started to draw attention to individual and organizational differences, but attempts to understand culture were mainly focused on “Americanization of the alien”. At this point in time, cultural research in psychology was still to a large degree culture blind, which would later be known as the universalist view on culture. Cultural identities were perceived as unimportant and played a rather subordinate role in psychological research (Katzell & Austin, 1992).
Development during the mid-20thcentury
During the 1950s to 1970s, there were several significant advancements and discoveries in the field of cross-cultural psychology. There were many studies on culture and personality, perception, motivation, cognition, and mental abilities, which played a fundamental role in the development of modern organizational behavior theories. Most notable was also the discovery that basic psychological processes were not universal: A perspective on culture that is now known as multiculturalism began to develop, where culture was largely equated with country. This perspective also entailed the possibility of cultural variability in organizational behavior, which spurred the research interest in explaining observed differences across cultures. Hofstede’s concept of the five cultural dimensions was probably one of the most well-known from this period. He developed this framework in order to compare values among cultures. To do so, he analyzed the survey results of IBM employees worldwide starting in the 1960s, which was seminal at that point in time, because never before was a researcher able to use such a large cross-national dataset before for their research.
Overview of Hofstede’s research
This research led Hofstede to – as of to date – identify six cultural value dimensions: Power Distance, Individualism vs. Collectivism, Uncertainty Avoidance, Masculinity vs. Femininity, Long-term Orientation vs. Short-term Orientation, and Indulgence. Some dimensions are intriguing, but not quite intuitive. For example: Power Distance, which indicates the extent to which people value power inequalities, depicting people’s expectation and acceptance of unequally distributed power. Individualism, the typically mentioned difference between Eastern and Western cultures describes the degree to which people in a society are integrated into groups. And finally, Masculinity, which signifies people being driven by competition and achievements as opposed to Femininity, which favors consensus and quality of life.
Some interesting findings included, for example, that power distance index was high for Latin and Asian countries and low for Germanic countries. Masculinity was extremely low in Nordic countries, while it was significantly higher in countries like Germany or Japan. Finally, East Asia scored very high in long-term orientation.
The late 20thcentury
Subsequently, during the late 20thcentury, with the increasing mobility, the development of the internet, the opening up of China, and the economic development of the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa), globalization became the main driver to further understand cultural differences and similarities. Individuals and organizations encountered different cultures on a very common basis. Research during this period featured a much broader geographic region, as well as more diversity and sophistication in the utilized research methods. Most of the studies during this period concluded that, with some modifications, the cultural concepts would be applicable in other cultures as well.
Overview of GLOBE study
The most influential research of this era is the so-called GLOBE study, and together with the Hofstede study, it has become one of the most prominent studies in the history of cultural research. The GLOBE study (Global Leadership and Behavior Effectiveness) was started by Robert J. House in 1991 and conducted by 170 researchers from 62 countries. It addressed some of the underlying challenges of Hofstede’s study, including its datedness, limited scope of sample countries, and biased methodology. The GLOBE study represents the most recent large-scale study investigating cultural differences across countries and is even currently being updated to GLOBE 2020 encompassing even more countries and providing new data.
The GLOBE study identified the followingnine cultural dimensions: Performance Orientation, Assertiveness, Future Orientation, Humane Orientation, Institutional Collectivism, In-Group Collectivism,Gender Egalitarianism, Power Distance, and Uncertainty Avoidance. As you can see, some of the cultural dimensions are similar to Hofstede’s study, whereas others such as Institutional and In-Group Collectivism were classified as one single dimension by Hofstede. Apart from refining the cultural dimensions, researchers also outlined 10 culture clusters of countries that display similar value scores. For example, Denmark, Finland, and Sweden belong to the Nordiccluster (House et al., 2004).
After looking at the evolution of cross-cultural research in the past 100 years together, we have seen how significantly cross-cultural research has been influenced by current societal events, such as new management theories, immigration, economic development, and globalization. We have also witnessed the increasing scope, diversity, and sophistication of research methods and subjects primarily developing in the second half of the 20thcentury.
We saw how cultural research began with a perspective that cultural and ethnic identities are unimportant to understanding psychology. And we have figured out how this gradually evolved into multiculturalism, proposing that people are deeply molded by their culture of origin and that multiple cultures exist side by side without influencing each other substantially.
Thus, it seems by looking at the research introduced in this blog article, we now have a much better overview and tools and theories for analyzing, explaining, and comparing different cultures.
Or don’t we?
Can all the components of our cultures be simplified to just a few average values and individual dimensions? Is nationality the best way to differentiate between cultures? And how do we best identify and describe the dynamic nature of culture? In the next blog post, we will be talking more in-depth about the most current concepts in contemporary cultural research.
Kroeber, A.L., & Kluckhohn, C. (1952). Culture: A critical review of concepts and definitions. Harvard University Peabody Museum of American Archeology and Ethnology Papers,47.
Katzell, R. A., & Austin, J. T. (1992). From then to now: The development of industrial-organizational psychology in the United States. Journal of Applied Psychology, 77(6), 803–835. https://doi.org/10.1037/0021-9010.77.6.803
Hofstede, G. (1976). Nationality and espoused values of managers. Journal of Applied Psychology, 61(2), 148–155. https://doi.org/10.1037/0021-9010.61.2.148
Hofstede, G. (2001). Culture’s Consequences: Comparing Values, Behaviors, Institutions and Organizations Across Nations.Sage Publications. DOI: 10.1016/S0005-7967(02)00184-5
Gelfand, M. J., Aycan, Z., Erez, M., & Leung, K. (2017, February 16). Cross-Cultural Industrial Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior: A Hundred-Year Journey. Journal of Applied Psychology.http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/apl0000186
House, R. J., Hanges, P. J., Javidan M., Dorfman P. W., Gupta V. & GLOBE associates (2004). Leadership, culture and organizations: The GLOBE study of 62 nations. SAGE Publications.