The Dimensions of Culture

The framework for the methods found in this toolkit is built upon the six dimensions of culture posited by Dutch social psychologist Geert Hofstede, which were first introduced in his seminal book, Culture’s Consequences, in 1983. Hofstede’s cultural dimensions theory describes the reciprocal effects of a society’s culture on the values and behavior of its members. 

Of course, humans are infinitely complex, but this is simply a model that we lay on top of that complexity to give us some insight. Holding a mirror up to an English person or an Egyptian person, for example, might show them how English or Egyptian they are and allow them to see that perhaps their way of doing things is not the only way.

(Hofstede)

To utilize the structure of his theory while also examining our biases, we must attempt to shift the focus from confirmation to disruption. Hofstede’s way of interpreting culture is not the only way. His analyses were unavoidably made from the perspective of his own experience (that of a Dutch social psychologist). The ways a dutchman interprets qualitative data from non-dutch cultures will naturally be very different from the ways a Ghanaian or a Peruvian might interpret the same data. 

A criticism of these dimensions might be that they create, through its scoring system, a hierarchy of cultures — literally ranking them on a scale relative to one another. It can also be reductive, and if used uncritically, can increase the stereotypes and biases that the researcher already holds. The following explanations of each dimension are structured to offer Hofstede’s definitions as well as questions for disrupting the biases that might be associated with them

The Dimensions of Culture
Hofstede’s Dimension of Culture
Power Distance
the extent to which members of institutions and organizations expect and accept that power is distributed unequally

The way in which power is distributed varies from culture to culture, with some cultures exhibiting a much greater separation between those with power and those without. To quote George Orwell’s Animal Farm, “all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.” Some cultures lean toward egalitarianism and equality (what Hofstede referred to as a small power distance), while other cultures lean toward elitism, where a few members of society control the subordinate masses (a large power distance). Hofstede measured Power Distance on what he called the Power Distance Index (PDI), which ranged from 1-100, 1 representing cultures with small power distances and 100 representing cultures with large power distances.

Below is a comparison of some of the characteristics found in cultures with small versus large power distances:

Small Power Distance

  1. Inequality is wrong and should be reduced if possible
  2. Hierarchy is needed to maintain order, but not permanent
  3. Power should be used legitimately and everyone is under the same rules of law
  4. Independence (from parents)
  5. Decentralization
  6. Subordinate workers expect to be consulted
Large Power Distance

  1. Inequality is considered a normal part of society
  2. Superiors are a different (superior) kind of people
  3. Power comes first, good/evil comes after
  4. Respect (for parents)
  5. Centralization
  6. Subordinate workers expect to be told what to do

Cultures with small power distances tend to be more Democratic, have less income inequality, a larger middle class, those in power tend to be younger, and innovations are more frequently proposed by subordinate members. Conversely, cultures with large power distances tend by be more Oligarchical, have greater income inequality, a small middle class, those in power tend to be older, and innovations must be supported by the hierarchy.

Social Dependence
the extent to which members of a society are dependent upon others and are obligated to maintain social connections

The social ties which bind the members of a society to one another vary from culture to culture. Many cultures lean toward individualism—where the ties between individuals are loose and everyone is expected to look after oneself and one’s immediate family (father, mother, children). Conversely, many societies lean toward collectivism—where individuals are part of strong in-groups (including the family, extended family, and sometimes entire villages). A culture’s Social Dependence is a measure of the extent to which individuals are dependent upon community ties.

Below is a comparison of some of the characteristics found in individualist versus collectivist societies:

Individualist

  1. “I”
  2. Universalism (others classified as individuals)
  3. Individuals
  4. Tasks come first, relationships after
  5. Low-context communication (things must be specified and communication is more lengthy)
  6. Confrontations can do no harm and can sometimes be healthy
Collectivist

  1. “We”
  2. Exclusionist (in or out group)
  3. Tribes
  4. Relationships come first, task seconds
  5. High-context communication (things are obvious, and communication can be kept short)
  6. Harmony exists to keep community/society from falling apart

The measurement of a culture’s Individualism Values (IDV) again ranges from 1-100 and can only be measured relative to other societies. Individualist societies tend to be wealthier (placing a higher emphasis on profit), have a faster-paced lifestyle, have greater human rights, and a greater freedom of the press. Collectivist societies tend to be poorer (placing a higher emphasis on relationships), have slower-paced lifestyles, fewer human rights, and a lower freedom of the press. It is also worth noting the greater use of the word “I” in the language systems of individualist cultures. English, for example, is the only language that capitalizes the word “I.”

There is a correlation between a culture’s IDV and its Power Distance, where countries with smaller power distances tend to be more individualistic and vice versa. This turns out to be mainly an effect of the distribution of wealth.

Gender Roles
the differences in emotional meanings and societal expectations between those born male and those born female

This dimension can be a bit tricky, and it is essential to understand the distinction here between gender and sex. Gender (how a person identifies on the spectrum of masculinity versus femininity) is not to be confused with a person’s physiological birth sex (male versus female). This distinction allows the possibility for men to be feminine and women to be masculine (or any other combination).

To make this perhaps more confusing, Hofstede uses the terms “feminine” and “masculine” to refer to the amount of separation in emotional meaning between those born male or female. For example, a masculine society is one in which emotional gender roles are more distinct (there is a large separation between what it means to be male versus female), and a feminine society is one in which emotional gender roles are less distinct (the lines are blurred between what is expected of males and females).

Below is a comparison of some of the characteristics found in feminine versus masculine cultures:

Feminine

  1. Emphasis on Work/life balance
  2. Both parents deal with feelings
  3. Jealousy of the strong
  4. Sympathy for the weak
  5. No one should fight / either gender can cry
  6. Religion – focus on fellow human beings
  7. Sexuality as a means for couples to relate to one another
Masculine

  1. Work takes precedence over family
  2. Father should deal with facts, Mother with feelings
  3. Admiration for the strong
  4. Disdain for the weak
  5. Boys fight and should not cry
  6. Religion – God the Authoritarian father
  7. Sexuality as a means to perform (man as subject, woman as object)

Much like Social Dependence, a culture’s gender roles can only be measured in relation to other cultures. This is measured by the Masculinity Index (MAS) on a scale of 1-100. Cultures with greater femininity tend to be more literate, have fewer people below the poverty line, spend more on aid to poor countries, and have greater leisure time. Cultures with greater masculinity tend to be less literate, have more people below the poverty line, spend less on foreign aid, and spend more time working. There is also a difference in the perception of poverty, with masculine societies perceiving poverty as the result of laziness and feminine societies perceiving it as the result of bad luck. However, there appears to be no relationship between masculinity and degree of wealth. It is also worth noting that this is the only data set where Hofstede’s results differed when polling men versus women.

Uncertainty Avoidance
the extent to which members of a society tend to feel threatened by ambiguous and unknown situations

The dimension of Uncertainty Avoidance holds many implications related cultural xenophobia, the strictness of rules and regulations, and the level of tolerance toward people’s differences. A culture is generally accepting of uncertainty if its people are open to change and new experiences. Conversely, a culture is generally avoiding of uncertainty if its people are hesitant or closed to these things.

Below is a comparison of some of the characteristics found in uncertainty accepting versus uncertainty avoiding cultures:

Uncertainty Accepting

  1. Uncertainty is novel and life should be taken as it comes
  2. Less stress and anxiety
  3. Emotions should be controlled
  4. Curious about differences
  5. Want fewer rules, rules may be broken in case of necessity
  6. De-regulation
  7. Innovations adopted more quickly
  8. Changing of jobs is more easily done
  9. Tolerance toward others
Uncertainty Avoiding

  1. Uncertainty is a threat that must be avoided
  2. More implied stress and anxiety
  3. Emotions may sometimes be vented
  4. Afraid of differences
  5. Need for rules, even if impractical
  6. Regulation
  7. Innovations are adopted slowly
  8. People stay in same job as long as possible
  9. Xenophobia

Some fascinating correlations occur between Uncertainty Accepting and Avoiding cultures: Accepting societies tend to have less alcoholism, fewer doctors, slower drivers, more humor in advertising and a perception of the wealthy as less corrupt. Conversely, Avoiding societies tend to have more alcoholism, more doctors, faster drivers, more authority figures in advertising, and a perception of the wealthy as being corrupt.

This dimension is measured by the Uncertainty Avoidance Index (UAI) on a scale of 1-100. There appears to be an oscillation in scores over time worldwide, with scores going up during periods of crisis/war and going down during periods of peace/stability.

Time Orientation
the extent to which a society fosters pragmatic virtues oriented toward short-term or long-term rewards and obligations

Time Orientation, as a dimension of culture, was added in 1991 to Hofstede’s original four dimensions. In collaboration with Michael Bond at the University of Hong Kong, additional insights were collected from questionnaires made by Chinese scholars which revealed additional cultural trends from 23 countries. Years later, using data collected by Dr. Michael Minkov from the 1994-2004 World Value Survey, the number of countries from which data was collected jumped from 23 to 93, further solidifying these patterns.

As a scale of measure, Time Orientation refers to a society’s focus on short-term versus long-term goals. If a culture is short-term oriented, it fosters virtues related to the past and present, such as conservatism, nationalism, and tradition. If a culture is long-term oriented, it fosters virtues oriented toward future rewards, such as perseverance, saving, thriftiness, and adaptability to changing circumstances.

Below is a comparison of some of the characteristics found in short-term versus long-term oriented cultures:

Short-term Orientation

  1. Good/evil are absolute and always the same
  2. Fixed norms always apply
  3. A superior person is always the same
  4. We seek positive affirmation about ourselves
  5. Proud of our own country
  6. Traditions are sacrosanct
  7. Always a contradiction between oppositions
  8. Fundamentalism, choosing the extreme
Long-term Orientation

  1. Good/evil are relative
  2. Which norms apply depend on the situation
  3. A superior person knows how to adapt
  4. We should be humble
  5. Desire to learn from other countries
  6. Traditions can be changed
  7. When two truths oppose, they may be integrated
  8. Use of common sense to resolve problems (Occam’s razer)

This is measured by the Long-Term Orientation Index (LTO) on a scale from 1-100. In short-term oriented cultures, economic growth in poor countries is more stagnant, secondary school students score lower in math but rate themselves higher, and investors prefer to deal in shares and mutual funds. In long-term oriented cultures, economic growth goes faster in poor countries, secondary school students score higher in math but rate themselves lower, and investors prefer to deal in real-estate and family businesses.

These traits are usually transferred from parents to their children and rarely change into adulthood. LTO scores also appear to remain stable over time, in spite of enormous technological changes and globalization.

Indulgence
the extent to which societies encourage or discourage the gratification of basic and natural human desires

Also influenced by the data contributed by Dr. Minkov and the World Value Survey, the dimension of Indulgence was added to the previous five dimensions by the year 2004. This data uncovered patterns which so far had not been found in the previous dimensions regarding the level of restraint versus indulgence exhibited by the members of societies. Restrained societies, it was found, tended to suppress the gratification of basic human desires by strict regulations and social norms. Indulgent societies, conversely, tended to allow relatively free gratification of human desires, emphasizing the need to have fun and enjoy life.

Below is a comparison of some of the characteristics found in restrained versus indulgent cultures:

Restrained

  1. People tend to feel less happy and less healthy
  2. Perception that events are out of personal control
  3. Stronger work ethic
  4. Pessimistic, Cynical attitude
  5. Introversion
  6. Friendships are less important
  7. Less active participation in sports
  8. Stricter moral discipline (also applies to sexual mores)
Indulgent

  1. People tend to feel healthier and happier
  2. Perception individuals have control over their personal lives
  3. Stronger leisure ethic
  4. Optimistic, Positive attitude
  5. Extroversion
  6. Friendships are more important
  7. More active participation in sports
  8. Less moral discipline and looser sexual mores

There is no absolute standard by which to judge a culture’s level of indulgence, and so this can only be judged by comparing one society to another. This is done by the Indulgence Versus Restraint Index (IVR) on a scale of 1-100. Restrained societies, in this comparison, tend to have lower crime rates but larger police forces, lower birth rates, less obesity, and a propensity toward nationalism. Indulgent societies, on the other hand, tend to have higher crime rates but smaller police forces, higher birth rates, higher obesity levels, and greater tolerance of foreign cultures. Restrained societies also place a higher importance on maintaining order while indulgent societies place a higher importance on the freedom of speech.

Societies have become more indulgent worldwide over the years, but have stayed relatively the same, so this rating can be assumed to be stable over time.

More About these Dimensions

Hofstede’s research uses the statistical method of factor analysis — a process of condensing complex data into correlated variables. From 1967-1973, Hofstede conducted over 120 thousand surveys of cultural values from the employees of IBM International from 72 countries in 25 languages. The results of these surveys elucidated the way these cultures function, laying the groundwork for the Western understanding of cross-cultural psychology and communication. Hofstede identified several patterns inherent in all cultures which have been formed into six unique factors (or dimensions). I have taken the liberty of renaming these dimensions slightly for the sake of simplicity and continuity.

It must be made clear that I do not base the framework for The Design Anthropology Toolkit upon Hofstede’s dimensions in order to validate them but rather to question their validity. Interpreting cultures is like interpreting the structure of waves on the ocean. They are never fully formed and are perpetually shifting. The best we can hope for is a snapshot. Yet, to begin the process of disrupting our preconceptions about other cultures, I offer Hofstede’s dimensions as a point of (admittedly Western) reference. If we are to disrupt our preconceptions, we must first understand what those preconceptions are. If the Western way of understanding “the other” is by questioning, ranking, and categorizing him, then we must begin with that understanding in order to disrupt it.

It is with this sentiment that I hope to use Hofstede’s dimensions. By understanding and critiquing the ways Westerners think about other cultures, we can disrupt the preconceptions designers may bring to the design process.

Alternative Voices

Arjun Appadurai

Dori Tunstall

Talal Asad

Terri Irwin

Victor Papanek

Avner Ben-Zaken

Klukhohn and Strodtbeck

Arturo Escobar

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