Every two years the countries of the world gather to try to set aside their differences and compete in a series of games in the winter or summer season.
We're talking about the Olympic games, of course, with the frozen version of these games currently taking place in Sochi, Russia.
While the athletic prowess of these Olympians is always captivating and at times awe inspiring in the classical sense of the word, what is of interest to sociologists is “why do different cultures value different traits and have different strengths?”
For instance, why is Norway so dominant in the winter games despite being a scarcely populated nation in northern Europe sixty three times less populous than the United States (US)? Or, why is Iran ascendant in the wrestling events at the summer games while the People’s Republic of China (PRC) routinely cleans up in the diving events?
Obviously, financial support for Olympians and the facilities at which they train play a big factor in success, however there has to be more to the explanation for success than just financial considerations.
If you explore factors beyond money, national prowess in specific areas can be explained. For instance, when one realizes that for a significant portion of the year Norway is a winter wonderland set against the Scandinavian Mountains, or that Iran has a several thousand year old tradition of wrestling it seems obvious why these nations are so successful in their respective events.
So by introducing the geographic and historical fondue of a country, we have a clearer picture! Yet if you dig deeper and exhume national cultures, a far richer and more detailed body of cultural strengths and weaknesses is revealed.
Hofstede’s Dimensions of Culture
Now that we've embarked on this cultural oddessy let's take a quick look at Dutch social psychologist Geert Hofstede’s cultural dimensions theory.
While the Siasto team would recommend reading Hofstede’s theory in its entirety, Hofstede tells us that national cultures can be explained by understanding six dimensions of culture. These dimensions of culture are as follows:
- Power distance index (PDI)
- Individualism (IDV) versus collectivism
- Masculinity versus femininity (MAS)
- Uncertainty avoidance (UAI)
- Pragmatic Versus Normative (PRA)
- Indulgence versus Restraint (IND)
This dimension expresses the degree to which the less powerful members of a society accept and expect that power is distributed unequally. The issue here is how a society handles inequalities among people. People in societies exhibiting a large degree of power distance accept a hierarchical order in which everybody has a place and which needs no further justification. In societies with low power distance, people strive to equalize the distribution of power and demand justification for inequalities of power.
The individualism side of this dimension, can be defined as a social framework in which individuals are expected to take care of themselves and their families, and little else. Its opposite, collectivism, is a framework in which individuals can expect their relatives, friends, and groups to look after them without question. A society's position on this dimension is reflected in whether people’s self-image is defined in terms of “I” or “we.
The masculinity side represents a preference in society for achievement, heroism, assertiveness and material rewards for success. Society at large is more competitive. Its opposite, femininity, stands for a preference for cooperation, modesty, caring for the weak and quality of life. Society at large is more consensus-oriented.
This dimension expresses the degree to which the members of a society feel uncomfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity. The fundamental issue here is how a society deals with the fact that the future can never be known: should we try to control the future or just let it happen? Countries exhibiting strong UAI maintain rigid codes of belief and behavior and are intolerant of unorthodox behavior and ideas. Weak UAI societies maintain a more relaxed attitude in which practice counts more than principles.
This describes how we relate to the fact that so much that happens around us cannot be explained. In societies with a normative orientation most people have a strong desire to explain as much as possible. People in such societies have a strong concern with establishing the absolute Truth; they are normative in their thinking. They exhibit great respect for traditions, a relatively small propensity to save for the future and a focus on achieving quick results.
In societies with a pragmatic orientation, people believe that truth depends very much on situation, context and time. They show an ability to adapt traditions easily to changed conditions, a strong propensity to save and invest, thriftiness and perseverance in achieving results.
Indulgence stands for a society that allows relatively free gratification of basic and natural human drives related to enjoying life and having fun. Restraint stands for a society that suppresses gratification of needs and regulates it by means of strict social norms.
China vs USA
With this understanding of how to evaluate varying cultures under an objective framework we can look at differences between the US and the PRC.
Keep in mind that these results are in the aggregate for the nation; meaning these traits do not necessarily apply to every individual. Instead they are the statistical significant indicator of culture as a whole. The results are as follows:
As can be seen in the graph, the US and China (PRC) are markedly opposed in four dimensions, loosely aligned in one dimension, and closely aligned in one dimension. To put it another way, only in the masculinity dimension does Chinese culture closely align with American culture under Hofstede’s framework.
With these observed results we now can examine just what this means for a practical business relationship when working in China.
Stay tuned for next week's post where these results are examined at an individual level. In the meantime enjoy the winter games while you wait for the results!