Hofstede, Schwartz,… Why to learn them and when to forget them?
Many research teams have been interested in understanding and quantifying intercultural differences. Today, I propose you to (re)discover four of the most emblematic works about this topic: those of Geert Hofstede, Harry Triandis, Ronald Inglehart and Shalom Schwartz.
Their models, and Hofstede’s particularly, are references in the organizational world and are often seen as powerful tools for understanding cultural differences. Yet they can have dramatic consequences when they are misunderstood or misused by those working in a multicultural context. Let’s take a look at these models, before asking why and when to forget them.
Hofstede: six dimensions
Hostede’s first survey, in 1980 , was conducted among IBM employees and across 50 countries. On the basis of this data, the psychologist proposed four dimensions to explain intercultural differences. His subsequent work will add two more dimensions (long/short-term orientation; indulgence/restriction) .
· Individualism ↔ collectivism: This dimension corresponds to the relations maintained by individuals with the rest of the society. Individualistic societies are oriented around individuals. Collectivist societies tend to value the time spent for the group.
· Power distance (high ↔ low): his dimension corresponds to the perception of power inequalities and their acceptance.
· Uncertainty avoidance (high ↔ low): This dimension reflects the degree of control societies exercise in managing uncertainty concerning their future.
· Masculinity ↔ feminity: This dimension reflects the division of gender roles. “Male” societies favour self-assertion and material acquisition. “Female” societies favour social relations and quality of life.
· Long-term ↔ short-term orientation: This dimension corresponds to the concentration of the society’s efforts on the management of the immediate future or the preparation of a more distant future.
· Indulgence ↔ restraint: This dimension reflects the management of human pleasure and the liberty allowed to fulfil it.
This model is very successful, especially in the organizational world, which is certainly due to the support of IBM, but also to its great accessibility. The Hofstede Insight website makes it possible to easily and visually compare the countries of the world (https://www.hofstede-insights.com/product/compare-countries/), making Hofstede’s data usable by the greatest number of people. Despite its qualities, the model has been criticized for many years within the scientific community [3;4] and shows weaknesses concerning its validity and reliability .
Triandis: individualism and collectivism
Among the most well-known critics of Hofstede’s model is that of Harry Triandis. He considers that individualism and collectivism aren’t two poles of the same continuum. In his view, collectivism and individualism are broader concepts, which he describes as “cultural syndromes”, i.e. a set of shared elements within a social group . This suggest that there are several types of collectivism and individualism.
In particular, Triandis proposes to distinguish between them according to whether they are vertical, i.e., they emphasize hierarchy, or horizontal, i.e., they emphasize equality. In 1998, Harry Triandis and Michele Gelffand proposed four major cultural syndromes , as presented in Figure A.
[FIGURE A : Triandis]
Inglehart: world value map
In 1981, Ronald Inglehart and Christian Welzel proposed the World Value Survey (WVS http://www.worldvaluessurvey.org/), a tool for measuring cultural values. It has been used in many countries, on all continents until today [8;9].
The researchers proposed two dimensions: Survival ↔ Individual expression, Tradition ↔ Secularism-Rationality. These dimensions intersect to form a two-dimensional space on which the different countries of the world can be placed according to their scores, as in figure D. This makes it possible to construct cultural maps of the world that change according to time and illustrate the cultural evolution of the world over time (see the video below).
The two dimensions are describes as follow :
· Survival ↔ Individual expression: On the “survival” side, the emphasis is on economic and physical security. These cultures feel insecure in the face of novelty and change. On the “self-expression” side, the focus is more on well-being and quality of life: security is taken for granted, differences and change are accepted.
· Tradition ↔ Secularism and Rationality: For “traditional” cultures, religion, family and authority are important. For “secular-rational” cultures, these elements are of little importance.
The main advantage of this model is its great simplicity and its ability to represent the cultural evolution of the world. Indeed, it considers cultures to be dynamic, a view close to that of Schwartz or Triandis [7;10;12]. However, the WVS approach is quite criticisable from an ideological point of view. It suggests a rather Western-oriented vision of the world. Indeed, the more a country has theirs scores close to the poles of “individual expression” and “secular-rationality”, the more it is depicted as a “developed” country. In other words, development is based on criteria valued by the West.
Schwartz: human basic values
A few years after Hofstede, Schwartz proposes new dimensions to characterize intercultural differences . His research overcomes several limitations of Hofstede’s early work: his focus on IBM employees only, the non-exhaustiveness of the first four dimensions, the limited number of countries (neither China nor Soviet countries was in in the Hofstede’s initial study) and several methodological weaknesses .
Schwartz sought to identify universal values. These are values shared by all cultures of the world, but whose importance varies from one culture to another. The researcher sees these values as reflecting desirable goals for the survival and development of the group. They help in the communication and coordination of the group’s actions to achieve them.
The psychologist has a dynamic approach to cultural values. For him, they are linked to each other: the objectives that correspond to them are more or less in agreement. For example, seeking novelty may be opposed to protecting tradition. But protecting tradition is consistent with the seeking of conformity. Thus, the 10 values can be placed on a disc according to their degree of proximity, as shown in figure B below. This circular structure is supported by numerous studies using different measurement tools .
In 1992, Schwartz proposed 11 universal values : Autonomy, Stimulation, Hedonism, Success, Power, Security, Conformity, Tradition, Benevolence, Universalism and Spirituality. This last value will be withdrawn following further work, as it is too variable from one culture to another, reducing the count to 10 universal values.
This 10-valued version of the model is the best known. But in 2012, Schwartz and his team proposed a more complete version, with 19 values , as shown in Figure C. Here are the details of the 19 values. Each of them is defined by the objective to which it is directed, i.e., the goal it drives us to achieve.
· Self-Direction — thought: Freedom to maintain our own ideas and abilities
· Self-Direction — action: Freedom to choose our own shares
· Stimulation: Enthusiasm, novelty and change
· Hedonism: Pleasure and sensual gratification
· Achievement: Success (according to the social standards of the group)
· Power — dominance: Power through control of others
· Power — resources: Power through control of material and social resources
· Face: Maintaining our public image and avoiding humiliation
· Security — personal: Safety in our immediate environment
· Security — societal: Safety and stability in society at large
· Tradition: Maintenance and preservation of cultural, family or religious traditions
· Conformity — rules: Compliance with rules, laws and formal obligations
· Conformity — interpersonal: Avoidance of harm to others
· Humility: Recognition of our insignificance on a global scale
· Benevolence — dependability: To be a reliable and trusted member of our group
· Benevolence — attention: Devotion to the prosperity of our group members
· Universalism — consideration: Commitment to equality, justice and the protection of all people
· Universalism — nature: Preservation of the natural environment
· Universalism — tolerance: Acceptance and understanding of people who are different from us
To organize these values, the scientists propose to add axes to the disc. They help to give meaning and highlight the relationships between the values. The initial version of the model has two crossed axes: Self-Enhancement ↔ Self-Transcendance and Conservation ↔ Openness to change. Two new axes will be proposed in 2012: orientation towards the social world (Social Focus) ↔ towards oneself (Personal Focus) and motivation to Self-Protection ↔ Growth-Seeking.
Schwartz’s theory is certainly the most complex, but also the richest. It has often proved to be superior to the other theories and models presented here. For example, in an international study , it has been shown to be superior in explaining consumption behaviour than the models of Hofsede or Inglehart. Similarly, an Australian study  showed that it was superior to Hofstede’s theory in explaining trade relations between countries. It should be noted that on certain points, these two approaches overlap and are sometimes considered complementary .
Why and when to forget these models?
Approaches in terms of cultural values are very important for understanding cultures, but not for understanding people.
Indeed, we are all influenced by our culture. But we are not the culture itself. Our personal values can be very different from the values of our culture, even if it is undeniable that the latter have influenced the former.
Concerning this topic, an Israeli study  showed that there were more differences between individuals than between countries. Thus, it is not possible to determine precisely a person’s values based only on the values associated with his or her culture of origin. Each of us is influenced differently by our culture of origin. To understand this, let’s make an analogy with heads of state. All citizens of a country have the same head of state, but not all citizens share his or her views.
Thus, when we meet a foreign person, it is important to keep in mind that he or she is a unique member of his or her culture and that his or her personal values may be very different from those associated with their culture of origin.
Failure to take into account the uniqueness of the person opens to prejudice and stereotyping. This can lead to misunderstandings, conflicts, discrimination, etc. And it is us who will be the cause of this, because we have not been open to understanding the complexity of the other and we have attributed characteristics to him or her based on preconceived ideas.
Scientific work on cultural values is of great importance in understanding the complexity of the world’s cultures. But the models they have produced are better suited to understanding large cultural groups, rather than isolated individuals.
As each person is influenced differently by his or her culture, it is important to understand others in their uniqueness and not make the mistake of attributing to them characteristics inherited from a preconceived and global idea. Recognizing both the difference and the uniqueness of the other means being open to fruitful exchanges.
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