Culture spaces!


One of the blessings of love is what others bring into our life. Or rather, what others may leave lying on the coffee table for us to stumble across.

J. is doing something new this year–working with a program that encourages undergraduates to investigate the larger world. To that end, she acquired a book I’d heard about during the year we were living in Utrecht by Geert Hofstede.

The original context in which I’d encountered him was a discussion of the differences between Dutch and Flemish culture. J. met a scholar on a train who was talking about dealing across the cultural divide, despite the fact that the Dutch and the Flemish share a language. What I didn’t have was a way to map it, or think of mapping it. Until now….

Hofstede’s known for studying how values in the workplace are influenced by culture. The original research, done between ’67 and ’73 (to quote from his website):

“From 1967 to 1973, while working at IBM as a psychologist, he collected and analyzed data from over 100,000 individuals from 50 countries and 3 regions.

Subsequent studies validating the earlier results have included commercial airline pilots and students in 23 countries, civil service managers in 14 counties, ‘up-market’ consumers in 15 countries and ‘elites’ in 19 countries.

From the initial results, and later additions, Hofstede developed a model that identifies four primary Dimensions to assist in differentiating cultures….”

Later on, further research resulted in adding another dimension–apparently, the original set of parameters missed a bit of the framers’ cultural biases.

The results of the research show up in several books: the more general management-oriented Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind, and Culture’s Consequences: Comparing Values, Behaviors, Institutions and Organizations Across Nations–the one J. picked up. It’s huge and chock-full of graphs and charts and anecdotes and methodological stuff. While that might not interest you, I’ll cut to the chase: Here are are the dimensions Hofstede uses as an aid to describing a culture:

  • Power distance: the extent to which the less powerful members of organizations and institutions accept and expect that power is distributed unequally.
  • Uncertainty avoidance: the extent to which a culture trains its members to feel either uncomfortable or comfortable in unstructured situations.
  • Invididualism vs. collectivism: the extent to which individuals are supposed to look after themselves or remain integrated into groups.
  • Masculinity/feminity (obviously, a tricky one): the distribution of emotional roles between genders
  • Long term/short term; the extent to which cultures train their members to accept delayed gratifications of their material, social, and emotional needs. (That’s the one that got added later).

While cultural stereotyping is a pernicious thing to engage in, I find these axes an interesting way to begin thinking about how different sets of bias sets interact. I suppose it’s a side effect of my interest in parameter spaces.And lots of people seem interested in applying this stuff. Here is a practical version that dates from his earlier 4d mappings, with countries listed along with scores and how they might be understood. The lodestone is probably Hofstede’s own website, which contains the management skinny. Simply choose your country and read on.

As you might expect, the work isn’t without controversy. I suppose you can always expect that whenever cross-disciplinary or cross-cultural stuff is done. Turf-o-rama. So here’s an interesting take on the work – along with some critiques and supplementary readings. Interestingly, the best source for some pretty savage critique is to be found on a pro-Hofstede website here and here. Interesting, huh? Another interesting feature of the book’s success or predominance in the discourse was the discovery that virtually every “review” of it on the Amazon website was someone listing its failures and ranting about how much they despised the it and/or its methodology. So it’s the best of both worlds–something interesting to consider, and a possible future conversational gambit that could result in a little edification (simply ask the person who decides to diss the work the ever-popular why question and take notes).