“Americans are loud, boisterous, and drive obnoxiously large cars. Australians give each other a fair go, are laidback, and will always help a mate. While Chinese people are smart and hold conservative attitudes towards social issues and the spending of money.”
At one point or another, the above claims about particular cultural groups were prominent features of popular discourse (see Barry, 2017; Garon, 2012; Johnson, 2010; OprahsBestFan, 2016). The discourse may have occurred in contexts that sought to caricature particular cultural groups for entertainment purposes, such as in film (see Henderson & Richards, 2018); while at other times, these claims may have been a feature of everyday talk between acquaintances or friends about how they see and interpret the world and the people in it. Some people may have responded positively to these claims through seeing them as being a source of comedy or being an instance of people blithely expressing the observations they have about the world (Barnes, Palmary, & Durrheim, 2001; Billig, 2001; Turner, Hogg, Oakes, Reicher, & Wetherell, 1987). Of course, on the flip side, some people may have responded negatively to these claims by seeing them to be generalised, egregious, or inaccurate descriptions of particular cultural groups (Billig, 2012; Crandall, Eshleman, & O'Brien, 2002).
Given that people are likely to have perceived and communicated their observations of the existence of differences in the thoughts and behaviours of particular groups of people, a question that may be asked is: “do these differences truly exist and if they do, what are the possible contributors for the existence of these differences?” To answer this question, I will be outlining a factor which may contribute to people in particular groups exhibiting particular thoughts and behaviours.
“Culture is the glue that binds people together”
A cursory online search reveals that in popular discourse, culture appears to be used to describe the pattern of shared thoughts, behaviours, values, beliefs and other such elements that are held by people in a variety of groups. These groups range from those in organisations, to occupations, and even entire nations (Hofstede, 1986; Schwartz, 2006; Warden, 2014). For our purposes, we will be examining culture at a national level.
Although culture is an intangible construct, it pervasively shapes people’s thoughts and behaviours (Schwartz, 2006, 2007). As such, it is likely that, you yourself, have been a participant of culture moderated related talk, symbols, or thoughts over the course of a typical week – even for the most mundane of situations. As an example, consider how you may welcome a visitor – do you (a) shake their hand? Or (b) smile, nod, and respectfully bow? Or (c) rub noses and touch foreheads while looking each other in the eyes? Another example may be the relative importance of the sources of opinions towards a person’s romantic partner and relationships. When making decisions about your own romantic relationship(s), to what extent do you take the opinions of others (e.g., immediate and extended family, friends) into consideration? Does family approval factor have a large influence on your decision making (Dion & Dion, 1996)? One possible contributing factor that has been conceptualised and been found to explain the mentioned manifest behaviours are the importance of particular values within a culture.
Cultural value orientations encapsulate the inclinations held by a particular culture towards the resolution of the fundamental problems that are considered to exist in all societies (Schwartz, 2006). The resolution of these higher-order problems (higher complexity) are influenced by cultural responses (Schwartz, 2006). Cultural responses may be thought of as lower-order elements (building blocks) of people’s thinking that serve to guide higher-order thinking. For example, the higher-order outcome of higher pressure parenting practices that push children to have high academic achievements may have resulted from lower-order elements, values, which emphasize ambition or success (Schwartz, 2006).
Despite the example being a possible explanation for why people may behave a particular way, it is important to understand that cultural values exist at the societal level, and not at the individual level (Schwartz, 2006). So, when seeking to understand the cultural values that people may hold and how these values may be different between people, cultural values can only be used in comparisons at the cultural level (i.e., between cultures) and not at the individual level (i.e., between individual people); as such, the use of cultural values to infer the values, beliefs, or attitudes held by a particular person is an invalid application. An example of the general ‘higher-order’ effects of a pattern of cultural value orientations that a society may hold is women’s equality.
Particular cultural value orientations are facilitative towards the equality of women with men in society (Schwartz, 2006). Cultural value orientations towards autonomy and individualism, egalitarianism and decreased hierarchy are conducive to women having independence, acquiring and developing their skills and knowledge, and pursuing their own goals (Schwartz, 2006). These cultural value orientation inclinations also have an increased likelihood of being prevalent in well-resourced and well-economically developed countries, as those values are also facilitative to socioeconomic development (Schwartz, 2006). As both cultural values and increased access to resources arising from socioeconomic development are related to women’s equality, it is necessary to consider whether increased women’s equality was due to increased resource access instead of cultural values. Following analysis, it was found that culture was indeed the primary determinant of the degree that women had equality (Schwartz, 2006). Examples of equality include being in high-level positions in organisations and having access to contraception (Lips, 2003; Schwartz, 2006; Social Policy and Population Section, 2004). If considering the distribution patterns of ‘outcome’ practices such as women’s equality and parenting practices around the world, it is likely that you have previously noticed that there appears to be distinct clusters of countries which people may consider to have similar practices (e.g., higher pressure parenting practices in Asia and less women’s equality in the Middle East). When the orientations of values held by people around the world was examined, it was found that there exists, distinct clusters of people in different countries who are oriented similarly on particular values (Schwartz, 2006).
Similarities between the values held by people in different countries have been observed to form transnational regions comprised of clusters of countries which have similar cultural values (Schwartz, 2006). The value orientations that are prevalent in these regions may be similar to what you yourself may have thought or encountered. An example of a popular perception of the values that a particular region endorses is that Eastern/Asian societies are low in egalitarianism and high in hierarchical tendencies (Schwartz, 2006), such a claim is not completely baseless. When the cultural values orientations of 76 cultural groups were examined, distinct regions emerged, these were: (a) West European countries, (b) English-speaking countries, (c) Latin American countries, (d) East European countries, (e) South Asian countries, (f) Confucian influenced countries, and (g) African and Middle Eastern countries (Schwartz, 2006). In-line with the popular perception example, South Asian countries can be thought of as generally endorsing values which result in higher levels of hierarchy and people finding meaning more through the groups that are a part of, which is accompanied by their own desires taking relatively lower importance than the desires of the collective (Schwartz, 2006).
With hindsight, it is easy to make retroactive postulations of the contributors to particular cultures having particular cultural value orientations and why there are clusters of societies which have cultural value orientation similarities. Examples of likely ‘common-sense’ contributors may include the societal effects of large scale disasters, changes in the level and distribution of wealth, ‘disruption’ by or adoption of technological advancements, and contact with other cultures. Some prominent examples of historical events that may come to mind when considering events that may have had considerable impacts to the cultural value orientations of a society are the Industrial Revolution, British contact with indigenous populations, the American Revolution, and the Chinese Cultural Revolution.
Despite the appeal of singling out a single historical event, or a combination of historical events in contributing to the prevailing cultural value orientations in the present, it is not easy nor appropriate to spotlight historical events as explanatory variables. Instead, we should be considering general variables which may be universal features that people, and events, share across locations and time (Gergen, 1973). So, in line with this reasoning, the Psychological literature largely does not appear to examine the impacts of particular historical events on present day societies or regard the occurrence of particular events to be capable of causing changes to universal psychological processes. In-accordance with this, a variable seen to be relevant to the inclinations of contemporary cultural value orientations that has previously been examined is socioeconomic development (Schwartz, 2006).
Socioeconomic development and cultural value orientations have a relationship of mutual influence (Schwartz, 2006). Socioeconomic development is facilitated by people in societies having diversity in their skills, knowledge, interests, and inclination towards innovation through enabling people to identify and act on opportunities that contribute to development (Schwartz, 2006). So, cultural value orientations inclined towards increased individual autonomy and individualism, increased egalitarianism, and decreased hierarchy increase the likelihood of the people within a society developing characteristics that facilitate socioeconomic development. Conversely, if the cultural value orientations of a society are inclined in the polar opposite direction, the likelihood of increased socioeconomic development is reduced. Undoubtedly, there are many other variables which may also have relationships of mutual influence with cultural value orientations, other related variables, or a combination of both. In light of this, hopefully the outlined example has provided a sufficient idea of the types of variables that may be relevant, so that you yourself may be able to have your own postulation of possible relevant variables.
In this introductory piece on culture, I briefly explored the idea of what culture is. This was done through providing an outline understanding of culture through cultural value orientations and examining (a) the role that cultural value orientations may have in affecting the behaviours of people in societies, (b) the differences and similarities that may exist between societies on cultural value orientations, and (c) the relationship of mutual influence between cultural value orientations and societal events. It was highlighted that cultural value variables are inclinations that all societies have and can be the starting point to understanding the similarities and differences that may exist between societies, and that these orientations have the capacity to account for the development trajectories of societies as well as accounting for the views that people within a society may hold. I hope that you found the article to be somewhat informative as a starting point to understanding a source of the variabilities in the thoughts and behaviours that people in the world may have and that you are able to identify potential applications for the concepts and relationships that were described.
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