The Dimensions of Culture

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The six dimensions of culture were first posited by Dutch social psychologist Geert Hofstede 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 behaviors of its members. 

The connection between each of these dimensions and their impact on the design process is not explicit. Contexts vary greatly from one situation to the next and cultures are never complete and static. As such, these dimensions should not be used to directly inform design decisions. Designers should not, for example, attempt to deduce the precise degree of Social Dependency in a culture and use these findings to design products based on personas defined by these characteristics. This would be a counter-productive activity that may actually serve to reinforce stereotypes rather than challenge them.

To utilize Hofstede’s cultural dimensions theory without allowing it to influence our perceptions, we must attempt to shift the goal from confirmation to disruption. Hofstede’s interpretations of qualitative cultural data were unavoidably made from the perspective of his own experience — that of a Dutch social psychologist. Similarly, we must understand that any attempts made by designers to classify the members of cultural groups into these six categories will be equally skewed by those designers’ personal experiences — and this is precisely the point.

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).

It must be made clear that I do not include this framework in The Design Anthropology Toolkit to validate Hofstede’s observations but rather to question their validity. If used uncritically, these dimensions of culture can be hierarchical (literally ranking cultures on a scale relative to one another) and reductive (based in stereotypes and the biases of the researcher). Instead, this model should be used as a kind of fly trap for biases, a method of openly capturing all our preconceptions in one glass jar so they may be observed, dissected, and disrupted.

For this framework to be a useful disruptor of biases, designers should use it not as a method of uncovering hidden truths about the members of a culture, but as a method of recording assumptions. This might take the form of a simple written list, where designers visit each dimension and write down as many assumptions as they can about stakeholder values. The act of considering and recording these assumptions is the first step toward acknowledging them, and the Participatory Design Thinking workflow is the next step toward disrupting them (see Chapter 6).

Interpreting cultures is like interpreting the structure of waves on the ocean. They are never fully formed and are perpetually shifting. Yet, I offer Hofstede’s dimensions as a point of (admittedly Western) reference in this task. 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 if we are to disrupt it.

The Dimensions of Culture
The Dimensions of Culture

The following outlines of each dimension are structured to briefly offer Hofstede’s observations as well questions for how we might challenge any inherent biases and personal preconceptions.

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 called a small power distance), while other cultures lean toward elitism, where a few members of society control the subordinate masses (a large power distance).

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

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. He observed that cultures with small power distances tended to be more democratic, had less income inequality, a larger middle class, those in power tended to be younger, and innovations were more frequently proposed by subordinate members. Conversely, cultures with large power distances tended by be more oligarchical, had greater income inequality, a small middle class, those in power tended to be older, and innovations necessitated support by the hierarchy.

! – Disrupt This

Power has become an incredibly central consideration in anthropology. The acceptance of Foucault’s philosophy and a notion of power as a diffuse force infusing all encounters and ways of thinking themselves is a key consideration. Some important questions to consider:

  • What institutions (particularly those that are not state sanctioned) hold/wield power in different contexts? How so?
  • What power differentials exist and how do they manifest?
  • How does power (or lack thereof) influence, reinforce, or create norms and ideas surrounding gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, class, age?
  • How do differentials of power impact collaborations or the generation of research?

It is important for designers to familiarize themselves the power structures in play within a culture so they can better understand the regulating bodies which drive cultural norms and the ways people react to this regulation. It also helps to know the proper channels through which design must be filtered.

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 themselves and their 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:

  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
  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. Hofstede found that individualist societies tended to be wealthier (placing a higher emphasis on profit), had a faster-paced lifestyle, had greater human rights, and a greater freedom of the press. Collectivist societies tended to be poorer (placing a higher emphasis on relationships), had 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 PDI, 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.

! – Disrupt This

Expanding this beyond a scale of individualism vs. collectivism, it would be useful to consider to what degree affiliation informs identity:

  • In what ways might a person’s self-identity conflict with their group-identity and sense of belonging?
  • Potential sub-dimensions to consider might include: national identity, political leaning, faith-based identity, ethnic and racial identity, pan-global identities of various kinds.

Importantly, people have multiple, overlapping communities they feel a part of, so assessing degrees of affiliation and the contexts of overrides is worth considering.

An understanding of stakeholders’ social interconnectedness is, at the very least, helpful in determining what research techniques should be administered when collaborating with the people of a given culture. If decisions are usually made by communal agreement, then singling out individuals for the purposes of user research may produce conflicting results. Conversely, if decisions are left to smaller family units, then it may be difficult to reach consensus when performing research on larger groups. It is also possible that this may carry over into design decisions, where a solution which relies on individuals working together may prove unfruitful (and vice versa).

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:

  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
  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. Hofstede measured this on the Masculinity Index (MAS) on a scale of 1-100, finding that cultures with greater femininity tended to be more literate, had fewer people below the poverty line, spent more on aid to poor countries, and had greater leisure time. Cultures with greater masculinity tended to be less literate, had more people below the poverty line, spent less on foreign aid, and spent more time working. He also observed 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.

! – Disrupt This

Our contemporary understanding of gender has undergone tremendous changes in recent years. LGBTQ and Women’s rights movements are continually calling into question the balance between sex, gender, and identity. We are more sensitive than ever to the social forces which reinforce gender norms and stereotypes. Because of this sensitivity, Hofstede’s take on gender roles will likely seem oddly binary. I believe this dimension would be more useful to practicing designers if we dispel Hofstede’s masculine/feminine terminology and instead focus on some fundamental questions like:

  • What fixed gender roles exist and what cultural expectations follow them?
  • How do people conform to or rebel against these roles, and what are the social ramifications for doing so?
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 to 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 automobile 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.

Hofstede measured this dimension 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.

! – Disrupt This

As Hofstede’s observations were aimed at defining national-level sentiments, it may take some mental gymnastics to scale this down to a level that is relevant to design research. Small-scale communities encounter much more sub-cultural overlap than do nations, and so some aspects (for example xenophobia) may be less applicable. It will likely be more helpful to consider the levels of diversity and openness within small-scale communities. For example:

  • How easy is it for new members to join the group?
  • How diverse is the member group?
  • To what extent is membership regulated? Are there extensive rules that must be followed to maintain membership, or is simple geography or race the defining factor?
  • Do meeting places exist across a broad range of socially diverse “third places,” or do members meet in relatively few locations (such as members’ homes) or even a single location (such as a high school gymnasium or religious building)?

Determining these factors may help designers understand to what extent people would be open to the possibility of bold, new design ideas versus traditional methods.

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)

Hofstede measured this dimension by the Long-Term Orientation Index (LTO) on a scale from 1-100. He observed that in short-term oriented cultures, economic growth in poor countries was more stagnant, secondary school students scored lower in math but rated themselves higher, and investors preferred to deal in shares and mutual funds. In long-term oriented cultures, economic growth progressed faster in poor countries, secondary school students scored higher in math but rated themselves lower, and investors preferred to deal in real-estate and family businesses.

! – Disrupt This

Time Orientation is something that has been convincingly argued as shifting globally over time at different moments rather than society to society. A few things to consider:

  • There’s always a class/socioeconomic dimension to this (who can afford to take risks and plan ahead?).
  • On what theological/cosmological timescales are people making decisions? An evangelical Christian will have a very particular time orientation compared to an environmental activist.

An understanding of the time orientation of stakeholders will likely affect the timeline of any relevant design solutions. For example, an infrastructure transition from fossil fuels toward renewable energies will require a much longer timeline (decades) compared to a program aimed at increasing retention rates of high school seniors (months). It should also be taken into consideration that different stakeholders may be working on different timelines.

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:

  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)
  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. Hofstede measured this by the Indulgence Versus Restraint Index (IVR) on a scale of 1-100. Restrained societies, in his comparison, tended 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, tended to have higher crime rates but smaller police forces, higher birth rates, higher obesity levels, and greater tolerance of foreign cultures. Restrained societies also placed a higher importance on maintaining order while indulgent societies place a higher importance on the freedom of speech.

Hofstede found that societies have become more indulgent worldwide over the years, but their scores relative to one another have stayed relatively the same, so this rating can be assumed to be stable over time.

! – Disrupt This

Perhaps the biggest red flag here is that what counts as a “basic and natural human desire” is context dependent rather than universal. For example, many nations mandate by law that employers offer new fathers several months of paternity leave, while others do not. On a much smaller scale, what constitutes a basic human desire for a church group might be very different from that of a darts league. As this is entirely subjective, designers should try not to get caught up in defining universal human rights and desires. Instead, try to focus on the opportunities stakeholders are given to pursue that which is important to them specifically.

  • What do stakeholders want/need at a basic level?
  • Are these wants/needs being fulfilled, and by whom (the stakeholders themselves, or a larger governing body)?
  • What degree of freedom is allowed for stakeholders to alter social norms to suit their individual needs, and what are the consequences for this?
  • How greatly do desires vary between individuals, and is there a median range that encompasses the group as a whole?

Understanding the wants and needs of individuals and how this relates to the wants and needs of the group may be an essential factor to defining the range of possible design solutions. Try comparing this with the dimension of Social Dependence. It may be that the best solution is one that suits the common denominator, or it may be that the best solution is found in examples of positive deviance from the norm.

More About these Dimensions

Hofstede’s research used 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 functioned, 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.

Alternative Voices

The following is a simple list of alternative voices for further reading which may offer very different models of cultural interpretation from that of Hofstede:

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