Cultural Dimensions

2005-11-29

Culture is one of those nebulous terms that are hard to define. We know it when we see it, but we don't know how to describe it. Thankfully, Dutch theorist Geert Hofstede has been thinking about cultures for a long time and has formulated five dimensions along which to measure various cultures. They are as follows (quoting from his helpful website):

  1. Power Distance Index (PDI) focuses on the degree of equality, or inequality, between people in the country's society. A High Power Distance ranking indicates that inequalities of power and wealth have been allowed to grow within the society. These societies are more likely to follow a caste system that does not allow significant upward mobility of its citizens. A Low Power Distance ranking indicates the society de-emphasizes the differences between citizen's power and wealth. In these societies equality and opportunity for everyone is stressed.

  2. Individualism (IDV) focuses on the degree the society reinforces individual or collective achievement and interpersonal relationships. A High Individualism ranking indicates that individuality and individual rights are paramount within the society. Individuals in these societies may tend to form a larger number of looser relationships. A Low Individualism ranking typifies societies of a more collectivist nature with close ties between individuals. These cultures reinforce extended families and collectives where everyone takes responsibility for fellow members of their group.

  3. Masculinity (MAS) focuses on the degree the society reinforces, or does not reinforce, the traditional masculine work role model of male achievement, control, and power. A High Masculinity ranking indicates the country experiences a high degree of gender differentiation. In these cultures, males dominate a significant portion of the society and power structure, with females being controlled by male domination. A Low Masculinity ranking indicates the country has a low level of differentiation and discrimination between genders. In these cultures, females are treated equally to males in all aspects of the society.

  4. Uncertainty Avoidance Index (UAI) focuses on the level of tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity within the society - i.e. unstructured situations. A High Uncertainty Avoidance ranking indicates the country has a low tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity. This creates a rule-oriented society that institutes laws, rules, regulations, and controls in order to reduce the amount of uncertainty. A Low Uncertainty Avoidance ranking indicates the country has less concern about ambiguity and uncertainty and has more tolerance for a variety of opinions. This is reflected in a society that is less rule-oriented, more readily accepts change, and takes more and greater risks.

  5. Long-Term Orientation (LTO) focuses on the degree the society embraces, or does not embrace, long-term devotion to traditional, forward thinking values. High Long-Term Orientation ranking indicates the country prescribes to the values of long-term commitments and respect for tradition. This is thought to support a strong work ethic where long-term rewards are expected as a result of today's hard work. However, business may take longer to develop in this society, particularly for an "outsider". A Low Long-Term Orientation ranking indicates the country does not reinforce the concept of long-term, traditional orientation. In this culture, change can occur more rapidly as long-term traditions and commitments do not become impediments to change.

Not surprisingly, cultures or nations that we think of as similar in fact are so. For example, the core Anglosphere nations of America, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the UK have extremely similar rankings: relatively low power distance, very high individualism, moderately high masculinity, low uncertainty avoidance, and very low long-term orientation. By contrast, France (and presumably other parts of the Francosphere) has high individualism but also high power distance and even higher uncertainty avoidance. China (and presumably other parts of the Sinosphere) has extremely high long-term orientation and power distance, extremely low individualism, middling masculinity, and lowish uncertainty avoidance. Spain, Argentina, Chile, Mexico, and other nations of the Hispanosphere tend to have very high uncertainty avoidance, moderately high power distance, relatively low individualism, and middling masculinity (Portugal and Brazil -- the Lusosphere -- are similar). The other nations of northwestern Europe (Denmark, Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands) share with the Anglosphere high individualism and low power distance but are much lower on masculinity. Places that are sometimes said to have similarities to the core Anglosphere nations may not be as close as some think: India has much higher power distance, much lower individualism, and much higher long-term orientation, the Philippines much higher power distance, much lower individualism, and much lower uncertainty avoidance, whereas Ireland and even South Africa are more similar to the core Anglosphere nations on these dimensions.

(Cross-posted at Albion's Seedlings.)


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