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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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