(even 17 years later Hoffstede’s research on cultural dimensions remains informative especially when combined with the Albion Seed insights, both discussed below. Really helped me understand how varied cultural dimensions can be and how deeply anchored those cultures can become based on first-mover effects ed. 11-5-2023)
Every once in a while you come across a theory or mode of thought that changes the way the world looks to you. Has anyone else read or worked with Geert Hofstede’s research on the dimensions of national culture? We went over his work last night in BUS 430 and my mind’s been churning ever since. This ranks up there with my coming to understand pragmaticism from Machiavelli, it is really opening up new avenues of looking at the world and evaluating/categorizing what we see.
Here’s the background, or you can skip the juicy what’s getting me excited stuff below.
For background, Hofstede did research on IBM employees in the late ’60s and early ’70s. He surveyed 116,000 employees across 60 countries measuring responses on four cultural continuums:
indicates the extent to which a society accepts (high score) or rejects (low score) the fact that power in institutions and organizations is distributed unequally
indicates the extent to which a society feels threatened (high score) or comfortable (low score) by uncertain and ambiguous situations, and tries to avoid these situations by establishing more formal rules and not tolerating deviant ideas and behaviors
- individualism (high score) implies a loosely knit social framework in which people take care of themselves and their immediate families while collectivism (low score) is characterized by a light social framework in which people distinguish between in-groups and out-groups which are supposed to look after them in exchange for loyalty
- expresses the extent to which the dominant values in society are “masculine” (high score): that is assertiveness, the acquisition of money and things and not caring for others. “Feminity” (low score) societies focus more on quality of life, people, and the environment.
The surveys establish a score within a range on these four dimensions for each country. Since the results are on a continuum the highs, lows, and means are not set on a strict 1-100 scale.
Power Distance (low is uncomfortable with inequality in power, high is accepting that there are segmentations based on merit/power/gender/race, etc. in institutions or society)
Lowest Austria at 11
Highest Malaysia 104
Uncertainty Avoidance (low = anything goes, it’s all good, high = a puritan’s dream)
Lowest Singapore 8 (aided by the fact that Singapore is a tri-cultural nation)
Highest Greece 112
Individualism/Collectivism (low = focus on the nuclear family and self-achievement, high = focus on extended family groups and collective concerns)
Lowest Guatemala 6
Highest USA 91
Masculinity (high = put ambition, progression, and success above the quality of life, work hours, environmental considerations, etc.)
Lowest Spain 5
Highest Japan 95
For example, the USA is below medium on Power Distance 40 (we tend to dislike unequal situations), below medium on Uncertainty Avoidance 46 (we generally don’t look to the laws to define social norms), extremely high on Individualism 91 (in fact the US is the highest score), and above average on Masculinity 62 (we focus on getting ahead more than we do on quality of life). The four scores taken as a whole create the national profile.
Later studies confirmed and validated Hofstede’s results and a specific effort was made by Asian researchers to ensure there was no “Western” bias on the findings by adding a Confucianism/Dynamism rating (which I don’t have information on).
Hofstede’s research, at least what we were looking at last night, is focused on business decisions. Understanding the cultural context of why in the US nepotism is illegal (high individualism) while in Mexico it’s not only common but considered a virtue (high collectivism). We did a brief test amongst all the students answering Hofstede’s questions and showed that despite age, gender, racial, and US regional upbringing differences we all scored within a standard deviation or two of the norm of the US.
THE COOL STUFF
Okay here is where it gets interesting. The professor is blathering on about cultural contexting and managing diverse workforces and my mind wanders while looking over the 60 country results. I remember that in HIS350 (Colonial Revolutionary America) we read extracts from “Albions Seed” which proposes that the primary colonizing group sets the cultural trend to come in the region they settle in. Specifically four “types” of colonial Americans (Massachusetts Bay, Virginian, Carolina Tidewaters, and Back-Country) can be tracked to demographic immigrations from very specific locations within England, and the shared folklores, perceptions of societal ideas, beliefs, values, and social norms remain the same from those original groups, even through today.
I checked the US, Australia, and Canada and found their national profiles are very close to Germany and England. Excited (I know I’m a dork) I checked Mexico, Brazil, and other South American countries with Spain and Portugal, again the profiles are very similar. This is powerful stuff. Why? Because the colonial possessions have been separated by at least a century in most cases, either isolated or exposed to more geographical proximate influences (US to Mexico) the national dimensions of culture still bear more similarity to their parent nations than they do their neighbors. I brought this up, and the teacher offhandedly remarked that Hofstede’s research actually found comparable profiles amongst cultures going BACK TO THE ROMAN EMPIRE!!
In other words, the profiles of western Roman holdings (France, Italy, England) have similar profiles compared to eastern Roman holdings (Turkey, Greece, Iran), and non-Roman barbaric areas have a different shared profile (Germany, Scandinavian countries) amongst them.
I don’t think the teacher got what I was thinking about. But from this point on I was no longer listening to the lecture. Consider the implications: despite the enormous changes in technology, travel, transportation, and idea sharing since 1776 our cultures bear more similarity to mother countries of Germany and Britain from 200 years ago than we do to immediate neighbors who may have been settled from different mother countries (Mexico). Furthermore, our US profile shares common themes of how we view Power Distance, Uncertainty Avoidance, Individualism, and Masculinity with our parent profile in the UK, which shares the same common profile with a common set of countries that shared a similar Roman experience from fifteen hundred years ago. This is like realizing Hadrian’s Wall hasn’t eroded at all in the last sixteen centuries. The cultural dimensions present in Greece and Turkey can be traced back to a shared Byzantine Experience.
Cultural dimensions are not changing, or if they are they are changing at a glacial pace. Invasions, rebellions, civil wars, enlightenments, and the renaissance as a whole do not adjust these cultural perceptions greatly in the comparatively short time spans they maintain, and neither does latter-day immigration. Albion’s Seed theory of primacy patterns holding true is validated.
I’ve always wanted to find a way to track the changes not in how humans live, but what they do in their lives and how they approach living. One theory I put out in the guise of a Witch NPC from the DBGS and later as Vladiimr in the Cam is that ages come and go, but human interaction remains the same. The methods of how we live change dramatically, but ultimately how we live our lives remains the same. Hofstede’s research is a scientific way of tracking those changes.
The implications are startling, and go WAAAY beyond how to manage a culturally diverse workforce. For example, if Hofstede’s research is valid, then it gives us an idea of how space colonization might evolve over a long period of time, especially even after being isolated from parent states. It has foreign policy implications in being able to evaluate and quantify the cultural differences and differences in thought between one country and another. He doesn’t have data on Iraq, but Iran (which he does have pre-Revolution data) shows a high collectivism, vs. the US’s high individualism. That is playing out in the ethnic sectionalization of the country there between Kurdish, Sunni, and Shiite. We may sit back and ask: “How can the Suuni continue fighting in a resistance when the end is obvious”. Well if they’re more highly collectivized then they identify their success with their families, and Saddam and the Iraq regime is/was of their extended family. This is a way of looking at power politics and anticipating future behavior that ranks to me on the same level as Machiavelli’s work on pragmaticism. There are a lot more applications that I won’t get into because this post is already long enough. But like Jeet Kun Do as I learn more about this method this becomes another tool in the tool belt when examining scenarios and situations.
I’m going to base at least my BUS 430 paper on Hofstede’s research, focusing on the EU countries. I doubt I can swing my Colonial or Latin America history classes using that research, but I want to figure out how to work it in. I’m hoping to pick up at least one of his books and read it cover to cover, to dig into the research and really see what he’s getting at as well as more current research and articles in the field. However last night I found something I would be more than happy to focus on studying in any MIA program (assuming I get accepted). And I know I’ll get only 1 or 2 comments because this isn’t a lemming or gaming post. Oh well, this journal is for important points and memories, maybe someone else reading it will get interested and pick up Hofstede’s book. Back to schoolwork/cleaning.
What are the implications for achieving cultural change?
There are theories at play that won’t be immediately born out as valid but appear, at least tangentially plausible dealing with change vectors. Both Albion Seed, Hofstede’s research, and in business what they call the “first mover” advantage seem to indicate that the primacy definers of a movement, institution, business, value set, or whatnot have a heavy impact on future generations.
If X, Y, and Z represent the “impact” successive leaders/groups have in defining organizational/cultural values in terms of impact X>Y+Z, perhaps even by a multiple factor. My mind is drawn to confirming scenarios (Peter has a more definitive influence on the Catholic Church than Aquinas, Luther on Protestantism than Calvin, Perot on the Independence Party than Ventura). Put another way has the success of the US remaining true to its founding ideals been in part that the primacy group signing the declaration and constitution held those values so important?
The downside, potentially, if there is one, is that cultural dimensions seem to change very very slowly. However, his cultural dimensions do not delve into normative value sets of the population, ethics or morality, just the way they perceive the four continuums. I’m ordering his books and doing a source review to see if there is additional information. As I find out more I’ll post it up.