Part C - Social Aspects


Define culture
Introduce one leading study that addressed cultural variations

"In 1952, Alfred Kroeber and Clyde Kluckhohn compiled a list of 164 definitions of "culture" in Culture: A Critical Review of Concepts and Definitions." (Wikipedia, 2009)

Insensitivity | Hofstede's Dimensions | Critiques | Exercises

The term culture was often used in the 19-th century to refer to the superiority of one social group over another.  Since then, 'culture' has acquired a much more comprehensive meaning.  With the diversification of social science into anthropology, sociology and psychology, culture is now defined positively as the complex of knowledge, belief, art, law, custom and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society (Tylor 1897) and negatively as all human phenomena not purely the result of human genetics. 

"Society refers to a group of people; culture refers to a pan-human capacity and the totality of non-genetic human phenomena. Societies are often clearly bounded; cultural traits are often mobile, and cultural boundaries, such as they are, are typically porous, permeable, and plural." (Bashkow, 2004)
The discipline that studies culture as a scientific concept is called cultural anthropology

People living in different places or under different circumstances develop different cultures.  Culture influences how a person thinks, what s/he expects and how s/he interprets their social relations.  With regard to human computer interfaces, culture influences what the user expects from their software and how the user interprets the interface to that software. 

In this chapter, we review the metrics proposed by Professor Geert Hofstede in his systematization of disparate data regarding culture.  The work that he published in the 1980s provides one reference for our modern understanding of culture.  He claimed that his work was of a paradigmic nature.  His work has attracted significant criticism.


There are numerous examples of cultural failures due to design insensitivity.  To name a few:

  • Nike's loss of sales to Adidas based on an ad campaign with "rebel" branding
    • The branding was interpreted as hooliganism. 
  • The failure of the Big 3 US auto makers to sell
    • left-hand drive autos in right-hand countries
    • English-sized parts in metric countries
    • cars with all writing in English in non-English speaking countries
  • Walmart's slow expansion into Latin America
    • culture did not translate
    • stores selling 110 volt electronics in 220 volt countries
  • The US Milk Council's "Got Milk?" campaign
    • This slogan translated as "Are you lactating?" in Hispanic markets.

Hofstede's Dimensions

Geert Hofstede proposed four dimensions for comparing cultures throughout the world.  He based his proposal on research done for a multinational corporation (IBM) across 64 countries between 1967 and 1973.  Further studies included students in 23 countries, elites in 19 countries, pilots in 23 countries, up-market consumers in 15 countries and civil service managers in 14 countries.  The four dimensions are:

  1. individualism versus collectivism
  2. power distance
  3. masculinity versus femininity
  4. uncertainty avoidance

Hofstede's dimensions address differences at national and organizational levels.  His original study is the most cited work in the European Social Citation Index and one of the most cited in the Social Sciences Citation Index. 

Michael Bond and his collaborators identified a fifth dimension - long-term orientation, also called Confusian dynamism.  Hofstede incorporated this dimension into his later work. 

  1. long-term orientation

In 2006, the Maastricht Unversity of the Netherlands created the Chair of Cultural Diversity in honour of Prof. Geert Hofstede.  Dr. Jo Ritzen, President of the University introduced Prof. Hofstede, who then introduced the first professor - Prof. Mark Peterson - to hold this chair in his name. 
Dr. Jo Ritzen's Introductory Remarks

Prof. Hofstede, in his introduction of Prof. Peterson, gave a short overview of cultural dimensioning.
Hofstede's Introduction

Power Distance

Power distance measures how well a group accepts large or small differences in power in a social hierarchy.  For example, does an employee of a large organization have easy, informal access to the boss of the organization.  Cultures with easy access to powerful figures are assigned a low power distance index. 

Here is Hofstede's explanation of power distance.

Collectivism versus Individualism

Collectivism versus individualism measures whether a culture favours individual achievement or group efforts.  A high collectivist rating is assigned to cultures which favour group efforts over individual ones. 

Here is Hofstede's explanation of collectivism and individualism.

Masculinity versus Femininity

Masculinity versus femininity measures the degree to which a culture separates traditional gender roles.  A traditional male role is that of a tough, task-oriented warrior.  A traditional feminine role is that of a tender, gentle hoe maker.  More male-oriented cultures score higher on this index.

Uncertainty Avoidance

Uncertainty avoidance measures the degree to which a culture is uncomfortable with and tries to reduce uncertainty.  Cultures which emphasize punctuality, formality, and explicit communication rate high in uncertainty avoidance. 

Long-Term Orientation

Long-term orientation is prevalent in cultures with Confusian thought, which emphasizes patience.  LTO is usually found in Asian cultures.  Higher values indicate more long term orientation.

Dimension Maps

The Clearly Cultural website includes maps that illustrate the results of Hofstede's work. 

Cultural Comparisons

Hofstede's website contains a listing of his results for the five dimensions and provides a simple interface for comparing different cultures at the national level.

Paul Gooderham and Odd Nordhaug

Paul Gooderham and Odd Nordhaug, both professors of the Norwegian School of Economics and Business Administration, surveyed students at European business school to find a significant convergence of national values. 

"Finally, there is the relative importance of gender. In terms of two of the dimensions our findings suggest that Italian women have more in common with their Swedish counterparts than with their fellow national males. It is not unreasonable to speculate that with the increasing importance of European Union political institutions some of the future political movements in Europe could reflect this divide."

Current Research

Prof. Peterson, in his inaugural address, summarized the history of the study of cultural diversity and identified some of the topics of current research interest.
Prof. Mark Peterson's Inaugural Address

Critiques of Hofstede's Research

Brendan McSweeney (2002)

Brendan McSweeney (2002), a professor of accounting, claims that Hofstede's work is based upon four flawed assumptions:

  1. every micro-location is typical of the national - surveys within each country revealed radical differences in the answers to the same questions
  2. respondents were already permanently 'mentally programmed' with three non-interacting cultures - only organisational (OrC); occupational (OcC) and national cultures (NC), were significant
  3. the main dimensions of a national culture can be identified by questionnaire response difference analysis - Shalom Schwartz (1994), for instance, found seven culture-level dimensions which were "quite different" from Hofstede's
  4. that 'identified' in the workplace is unaffected by location - other sections of national populations - the unemployed, full-time students, the self-employed, the retired, homeworkers, and others - were ignored

Hofstede's Rebuttal to McSweeney (2002)

Mikael Sondergaard (2002)

Mikael Sondergaard (2002), a professor at the University of Southern Denmark identified recurring five issues in debates on Hofstede's analysis and commented on McSweeney's critique:

  1. the unit of analysis of nations is not the best unit suited for studying culture
  2. one company can't provide information about entire national cultures
  3. the IBM data is old and obsolete
  4. surveys are inappropriate instruments to measure culture
  5. four dimensions can't tell the whole story

Donal Carbaug (2007)

Carbaugh notes that Hofstede's model defines culture as collective programming of the mind that manifests itself not only in values, but in more superficial ways: in symbols, heroes, and rituals.  He observes that Hofstede's introduction of abstract dimensions avoids ethnocentrism. 

Carbaugh proposes seven ideas that build on Hofstede's work and address the critique of Fougere and Moulettes

  • studies of culture that rely on methods beyond surveys
  • social units other than nations
  • dimensions that go beyond the internal process of cognition
  • culture as a discourse
  • culture tied inextricably to valued resources
  • honour the variety of ways active in the world