Culture "Personalities"

Dr. C. George Boeree

Culture obviously has a huge influence on us as individuals.  People within a single culture (and especially if they are in the same social class, the same racial group, the same gender...) will tend to have many things in common, and tend to be somewhat different from the people in another culture with which they have little interaction.  It would help us, therefore, if we were able to describe a culture in the same way we try to describe personalities.  Then we might be able to investigate more precisely how our cultures influence us.

This chapter will take a look at a few schemes for classifying culture "personalities."

One of the most influential cultural personality schemes is that devised by the Dutch researcher, Geert Hofstede.  Focussing on the ways in which cultures impact on organizations, he has done extensive research which has led to five dimensions:

1.  Power distance.  Power distance is the degree to which less powerful parts of a society "accept and expect that power is distributed unequally."  Some cultures see all their members as equal in value, even despite clear differences in wealth, power, education, what have you.  In other cultures, everyone is very aware of these differences, and there may be considerable dissatisfaction or even class warfare.  High power distance is also associated with violent politics and income inequality.

In the U.S., the culture has a large power distance, i.e. there is a great distance between the haves and the have-nots, and many people are very dissatisfied with that gap.  Hofstede's research has shown that power distance scores are high for Latin American, Asian, and African countries, and smaller for Germanic countries.

2.  Individualism vs. collectivism.  Individualism is found in societies where "ties between individuals are loose" and "everyone is expected to look after him/herself and his/her immediate family."  Collectivist societies are those wherein "people from birth onwards are integrated into strong, cohesive in-groups, often extended families... which continue protecting them in exchange for unquestioning loyalty."   This dimension has been discussed for decades.

The U.S. is a highly individualistic society.  Most western countries are individualistic, while less developed countries and most Asian countries are collectivistic.  Japan falls somewhere in the middle.

3.  Masculinity vs. femininity.  This is perhaps an unfortunate set of words for this dimension, but here's the explanation:  In some societies, both men and women tend to be rather modest and peaceful, and show considerable nurturance or caring for others - i.e. feminine values.  In other societies, assertive and competitive - even aggressive - values are the most admired - i.e. masculine values.  In those societies, women tend to still remain relatively modest and caring, but can often show a degree of assertiveness and competitive qualities as well.  Perhaps this dimension would be better named "assertive vs. nurturant."

The U.S. is a somewhat masculine society.  Japan and German-speaking countries are masculine, while Scandinavian countries and Holland are more feminine.  Asian and Latin countries tend to be moderately feminine.

4.  Uncertainty avoidance vs. tolerance for uncertainty.  In some cultures, uncertainty and ambiguity are seen as painful and to be avoided at all costs.  Other cultures seem to find uncertainty and ambiguity quite tolerable, even pleasurable.  Uncertainty avoiding societies rely on "strict laws and rules, safety and security measures, and... a belief in absolute Truth."  People in these cultures tend to be more emotional and nervous.  In other societies, people are "more tolerant of opinions different from what they are used to; they try to have as few rules as possible, and... are relativist and allow many currents to flow side by side."  In these societies, people tend to be more contemplative and tend not to express emotion openly.  "Tolerant vs rigid" might be another name for this dimension, and perhaps it relates to the temperament of openess.

Generally the U.S. is moderately tolerant of uncertainty, but there are many groups within the U.S. that are clearly not.    Uncertainty avoidance is higher in Latin countries, German-speaking countries, and Japan, and lower in English-speaking countries, Scandinavia, and China.

5.  Long-term vs. short-term orientation.  This dimension originated in research done by Chinese researchers, and reflects Chinese philosophical contrasts.  Long-term societies value perseverance and thrift.  Short-term societies value tradition, social obligations, and protecting "face."  Perhaps this dimension relates to people's ability to delay gratification?

Long-term orientation is found in east Asian countries, especially China, Japan, and Korea.  It is correlated with national growth over the last 25 years, likely due to their citizens' emphasis on thrift and perseverance!

There are, of course, any number of alternative culture-personality models.  The team of Fons Trompenaars and Charles Hampden-Turner developed one with seven dimensions:

1.  Universalism vs. particularism.  What is more valued in the society:  Rules or relationships?  Perhaps this has a little in common with Hofstede's masculine-feminine.

2.  Individualism vs. communitarianism.  As with Hofstede's similarly named dimension, this one revolves around whether we function more are independent individuals or as part of a strong social group such as an extended family.

3.  Neutral vs. affective.  Partially tapping into the same ideas as uncertainty avoidance, the question here is do we or do we not show our emotions openly?

4.  Specific vs. diffuse.  To what degree do we get involved in our larger society?  Or do we prefer to stay local?

5.  Achieved status vs ascribed status.  Do we get our status in society given to us, perhaps at birth, due to family, ethnic group, gender, etc.?  Or do we achieve our status by proving ourselves?  This seems to me to be a variation on individualism vs. communalism.

6.  Internal vs external orientation.  This relates to our relationship with nature as well as with our culture:  Do we control our environment, or do we work with it?  The latter can be a matter of impotence or a matter of harmony.

7.  Time orientation.  This dimension is based on the work of anthropologist Edward Hall, who coined the term polychronic for societies that expect many things to happen at the same time (such as socializing and work), and monochronic to societies that do things one at a time.  Western society is monochronic, and we schedule our time carefully, always keep track of it, try not to be late, are concerned with saving time, not wasting time, and getting time "off."  In other parts of the world, things go at an easier pace, appointments are made and unmade, you are taken care of in regards to your status rather than being first in line, and so on.

Trompenaars and Hampden-Turner add to this dimension concerns about whether a society is past-, present-, or future-oriented.  As you can imagine, monochronic societies tend to be future-oriented and progressive, while polychronic societies tend to be past-oriented and conservative.

I am a fan of the work of Richard Castillo, who used three very traditional culture dimensions in discussing multicultural psychopathology and therapy.

1.  Sociocentric vs. egocentric.  This is, of course, very similar to collectivism vs. individualism.  In the sociocentric society, a person gets his or her identity from the group, traditionally, the extended family.  Your status comes from your position within the group, and the group's position in the larger society.  People rarely try to move beyond the group, since that means a loss of identity.  In fact, being "excommunicated" is the strongest punishment the group can apply.

In an egocentric society, a person's identity is independent of the group.  Even when there remain socially stigmatized individuals and groups, the egocentric society maintains an ideal that says you are what you make of yourself, rather than what class, race, or gender you were born into.  Being dependent on others, on the other hand, is frowned upon.  The down side is that you have much less of a safety net in egocentric societies.

2.  Dominance hierarchies vs. egalitarianism.  This is similar to Hofstede's Power distance.  In societies with prominent dominance hierarchies, people at lower levels of the hierarchy are perceived as having less value and are stigmatized.  This leads them to develop low self-esteem, which in turn leads them to accept the situation as deserved and appropriate.  These people see their social environment as hostile and respond to it in various ways:  They may simply submit to their plight; they may attempt to "pass" as members of higher status groups, they may imitate their "betters," or they may resist their plight with violence.

Egalitarian societies tend to view all people as having similar value, even when that may not be entirely true of the society.  Equality is at very least held up as an ideal to aspire to.  People in egalitarian societies tend to prefer negotiation over conflict, informal leadership based on abilities as opposed to authoritarian structures, consensus over division.  People are much less likely to resort to violence.

Another set of terms are authoritarianism vs. egalitarianism.  This relates this cultural dimension back to the traditional idea of the authoritarian personality.

3.  Premodern vs. modern.  Premodern societies have a relatively low level of technology.  They tend to have a subsistence economy with little specialization.  Kinship systems are the predominant basis for social organizations, and authority tends to be located in the family or in religion.  And supernatural causes are assumed for many things.

Modern societies are basically those that have passed into an industrial economy, or at least a high-level agricultural level with a significant urban population.  Social organizations other than the family are common and significant, and, while religion may still have a powerful influence, scientific and technical solutions to problems are commonly sought.

This last dimension is clearly oversimplified, although it serves well enough in the modern world for psychology's purposes.  The classification of societies on the basis of degree of technological and economic progress is, of course, old as the hills, and was particularly important to Karl Marx and the many social scientists he influenced.

Perhaps the most common scheme is the one developed by anthropologists Morton H. Fried and Elman Service, which has four levels of society:

1.  Hunter-gatherer bands - very small population density, an economy based on (of course) hunting and gathering, with the tasks divided approximately on the basis of sex and age, and an otherwise egalitarian set of relationships.

2.  Tribal societies - low population density, an economy based on simple agriculture and some domestication of animals, and a moderate amount of social stratification and specialization.

3.  Stratified societies - moderate populations, with formal hierarchies and assigned statuses.  There are firmly established classes with defined rank.  Agriculture is sophisticated, the society may develop strong pastoral habits, and there is considerable specialization, especially among artisans.  Villages are large, sometimes including wide-ranging alliances, and serious warfare raises its ugly head.

4.  Civilization - high populations, with considerable urban concentration.  Multiple hierarchies, considerable authoritarianism, much social stratification, including layers of leadership at the top, and peasants, serf, and slaves at the bottom.

Of course, civilizations can vary hugely.  The ancient Romans were certainly civilized, and yet few of us living in western societies (or even most nonwestern ones) would enjoy living in such a society.  Something happened in the last few hundred years, that has led us to at very least strive for a degree of liberty, equality, and even fraternity.

In addition, in those same few hundred years, technology has evolved at a breakneck speed, taking the factory system that we even find in ancient Rome and transforming it into modern industry.  Add steam engines, the automobile, electricity, mass communication, and the computer, and you have a society that would no doubt appear magical to those ancient Romans.

This latter differentiation - just subsets of civilization - is actually the one that Castillo is referring to when he differentiates premodern from modern!

© Copyright 2007, C. George Boeree