Does country equate with culture? Beyond geography in the search for cultural boundaries.

VerfasserTaras, Vas

Abstract Traditionally, cultures have been treated as though they reside exclusively within, or perfectly overlap with countries. Indeed, the terms "country" and "culture" are often used interchangeably. As evidence mounts for substantial within-country cultural variation, and often between-country similarities, the problem with equating country and culture becomes more apparent. To help resolve the country-culture conundrum, we evaluate the extent to which political boundaries are suitable for clustering cultures based on a meta-analysis of 558 studies that used Hofstede's (Culture's consequences: international differences in work-related values. Sage Publications, Beverly Hills, 1980) cultural values framework. The results reveal that approximately 80% of variation in cultural values resides within countries, confirming that country is often a poor proxy for culture. We also evaluate the relative suitability of other demographic and environmental characteristics, such as occupation, socio-economic status, wealth, freedom, globalization, and instability. Our results suggest that it may be more appropriate to talk about cultures of professions, socio-economic classes, and free versus oppressed societies, than about cultures of countries.

Keywords Culture * Cultural values * Cultural regions * Cross-cultural management

1 Introduction

Traditionally, cultures have been assumed to reside within countries. From the earliest studies of cultural differences dating back over two centuries (Darton 1790, see Fig. 1) to more recent research by Hofstede (1980) and the GLOBE team (House et al. 2004), the unit of analysis in cross-cultural studies has typically been country. The focus on national cultures has appropriate applications, but its dominance in research has led to a lack of attention to other plausible organizing units of culture. Equating cultures with countries and using country of origin and individual culture interchangeably became a common practice (Brewer and Venaik 2012). However, the appropriateness of this trend depends on answers to two questions, including: (1) are countries good proxies for cultures, and (2) could other factors be superior for describing boundaries of cultural regions or groups of people who display similar cultural values?

Culture is a multi-faceted construct. First, the word culture has many meanings, from a collective of people who share a common history, language and traditions, to characteristics of such a collective in terms of its artifacts, practices, and value systems. Illustrating the pervasiveness and possibly ambiguity of the term "culture," a Google search for "culture" and its derivatives returns 1.5 billion hits, making it one of the most popular words on the Web. More than 60 years ago, Kroeber and Kluckhohn (1952) found 164 distinct definitions of culture. Despite the variety of definitions, several elements are common across most of them, principally that culture is: (1) a relatively stable, (2) multi-level construct comprised of values, beliefs, norms, traditions, and artifacts that (3) are shared in a given population (cf. Taras et al. 2009). Early empirical research on cross-cultural differences has been largely qualitative and focused on describing artifacts, rituals, and social institutions. However, following the publication of Hofstede's (1980) seminal book, Culture's Consequences, the focus shifted to cultural values. As noted by Taras et al. (2009), "culture is values" has become one of the commandments of cross-cultural management research.


The almost exclusive focus on cultural values is often justified, but also problematic and limiting in many ways, particularly if measured using Hofstede's (1980) framework, one that was developed based on a survey not actually originally intended for cultural analysis (cf. Baskerville 2003; McSweeney 2002; Taras and Steel 2009 for reviews of problems with Hofstede's framework in general and for studying "culture" in particular). For the purpose of the present study, however, the question of whether or not the Hofstede's framework is suitable for studying culture due to its limitations is secondary because most empirical research on culture over the past 35 years has relied on Hofstede's framework. As Taras and Steel (2009) concluded, since the publication of Culture's Consequences (Hofstede 1980), research on culture effectively became research on values.

Indeed, reviews of cross-cultural research published in management, psychology and related disciplines confirm that empirical measurement of what is called "culture" has almost exclusively focused on assessing cultural values, usually by the means of self-response questionnaires (Caprar et al. 2015). Subsequent models following Hofstede's work primarily refined his framework (e.g., House et al. 2004 (GLOBE); Schwartz 1994) rather than substantively altering it. Even though this work changed the wording of items and the list of the dimensions, the underlying practices remained the same and are subject to the same limitations (McSweeney 2013). Accordingly, the outcome of just about every major cross-cultural comparative study has been a set of national cultural means and country rankings along dimensions of cultural values (Taras et al. 2009). Thus, to settle the culture-versus-country debate, we rely on the approach to culture that is at the foundation of most of the empirical literature on the topic.

Interpreting culture as inherently inseparable from country has become popular enough that the two terms often are used synonymously. For example, the word "culture" has been routinely included in titles of publications that provided cross-country (but not culture) comparisons, as in "The Perception of Distributive Justice in Two Cultures" (Marin 1982), "Rules for Social Relationships in Four Cultures" (Argyle 1986), "The Effect of Culture on the Curvilinear Relationship between Performance and Turnover" (Sturman et al. 2012), "A Cross-Cultural Examination of Self-Leadership" (Houghton et al. 2014), and many others (e.g., Bagozzi et al. 2003; Cialdini et al. 1999; Goodwin and Plaza 2000). Similarly, there are numerous examples when nationality or country of residence are used as proxies for cultural values, as illustrated by such quotes as "cultural background was measured by the current citizenship (passport status) of each of the managers" (Offermann and Hellmann 1997, p. 346), "Individualism-collectivism was operationalized by the respondent's native culture (country of origin)" (Trubisky et al. 1991, p. 73), or "participants were divided into high and low Power Distance groups by county-of-origin" (Eylon and Au 1999, p. 378), and "across two cultures (the U.S. and Korea)" (Lee et al. 2014, p. 692).

This is not to say that the interest of cross-cultural management and psychology researchers in values is misplaced. Indeed, it is primarily the core values and beliefs, not the external cultural artifacts, that affect organizational behaviors and attitudes, and the effect of cultural values on work-related outcomes appears to be significantly stronger than that of other commonly used predictors, such as demographics or personality (for meta-analytic reviews see Fischer and Smith 2003; Stahl et al. 2010; Taras et al. 2010). Measuring tacit values and beliefs, however, is no easy task. Self-response questionnaire has been the method of choice, but the efficacy of this approach has inherent limitations (Riordan and Vandenberg 1994; Taras et al. 2009; Taras and Steel 2009). As a result, it would be very convenient and advantageous if one's country of origin was actually a good proxy of cultural values. But, the question remains: Is it?

This question has an extended history. The problem of equating country and culture has been recognized and sharply criticized for at least three decades, though attempts to address the problem have been predominantly theoretical, and much of the criticism has gone unheeded in subsequent research. As for empirical investigations, the evidence has typically targeted assessing within-country variation in cultural values, demonstrating that nations are imperfect indicators of its individual citizen's values (e.g., Coon and Kemmelmeier 2001; Kaasa et al. 2014; Lenartowicz et al. 2003). The present study moves beyond confirming whether country is a good proxy for culture. By directly comparing within- and between-country variance in cultural values in a large global sample, we provide a new level of precision by assessing the exact extent to which national borders are suitable as boundaries for cultures. In addition to potentially pointing out that, yet again, cultures do not neatly compartmentalize between countries, we theorize what could be better ways to think about cultural clusters and empirically test the comparative worth of a number of alternatives, providing a foundation for moving forward on this long debated issue.

2 Theoretical Background

2.1 A Brief Review of the Culture vs. Country Discussion

Thinking about cultures and countries as overlapping concepts appears to date as far back as the construct of country itself. Consistent with the fundamental cognitive bias of group stereotypes, here based on country of origin (Verlegh and Steenkamp 1999), we have an innate readiness to equate country with culture and have done so for centuries (e.g., Darton 1790). Given this inclination to conflate, Hofstede's work providing country-averages for cultural values only made it more convenient to equate the two. His readily-available sets of national cultural indices provided a practical, low-cost and consequently attractive option for empirical research on culture.

As Hofstede's national cultural indices gained in popularity, the debate around the assumption that cultures are contained within countries was becoming increasingly pervasive. Even though the problem was identified early on, the discussion revolved...

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