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How To Understand Cross-Cultural Analysis

by Shain David
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How To Understand Cross-Cultural Analysis

How do we define culture?

There are literally hundreds of different definitions as writers have attempted to provide the all-encompassing definition.

Culture consists of language, ideas, beliefs, customs, taboos, codes, institutions, tools, techniques, works of art, rituals, ceremonies and symbols. It has played a crucial role in human evolution, allowing human beings to adapt the environment to their own purposes rather than depend solely on natural selection to achieve adaptive success. Every human society has its own particular culture, or sociocultural system. (Adapted from source: Encyclopaedia Britannica)

Generally culture can be seen as consisting of three elements:


  • Values – Values are ideas that tell what in life is considered important.
  • Norms – Norms consists of expectations of how people should behave in different situations.
  • Artefacts – Things or material culture – reflects the culture’s values and norms but are tangible and manufactured by man.


Origins and evolution of Cross-cultural analysis

The first cross-cultural analyzes done in the West, were by anthropologists like Edward Burnett Tylor and Lewis H Morgan in the 19th century. Anthropology and Social Anthropology have come a long way since the belief in a gradual climb from stages of lower savagery to civilization, epitomized by Victorian England. Nowadays the concept of “culture” is in part a reaction against such earlier Western concepts and anthropologists argue that culture is “human nature,” and that all people have a capacity to classify experiences, encode classifications symbolically and communicate such abstractions to others.

Typically anthropologists and social scientists tend to study people and human behavior among exotic tribes and cultures living in far off places rather than do field work among white-collared literate adults in modern cities. Advances in communication and technology and socio-political changes started transforming the modern workplace yet there were no guidelines based on research to help people interact with other people from other cultures. To address this gap arose the discipline of cross-cultural analysis or cross-cultural communication. The main theories of cross-cultural communication draw from the fields of anthropology, sociology, communication and psychology and are based on value differences among cultures. Edward T. Hall, Geert Hofstede, Fons Trompenaars, Shalom Schwartz and Clifford Geertz are some of the major contributors in this field.

How the social sciences study and analyze culture

Cultural anthropologists focus on symbolic culture whereas archaeologists focus on material and tangible culture. Sociobiologists study instinctive behavior in trying to explain the similarities, rather than the differences between cultures. They believe that human behavior cannot be satisfactorily explained entirely by ‘cultural’, ‘environmental’ or ‘ethnic‘ factors. Some sociobiologists try to understand the many aspects of culture in the light of the concept of the meme, first introduced by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. Dawkins suggests the existence of units of culture – memes – roughly analogous to genes in evolutionary biology. Although this view has gained some popular currency, other anthropologists generally reject it.

Different types of cross-cultural comparison methods

Nowadays there are many types of Cross-cultural comparisons. One method is comparison of case studies. Controlled comparison among variants of a common derivation is another form of comparison. Typically anthropologists and other social scientists favor the third type called Cross-cultural studies, which uses field data from many societies to examine the scope of human behaviour and to test hypotheses about human behavior and culture.

Controlled comparison examines similar characteristics of a few societies while cross-cultural studies uses a sufficiently large sample that statistical analysis can be made to show relationships or lack of relationships between certain traits in question. The anthropological method of holocultural analysis or worldwide cross-cultural analysis is designed to test or develop a proposition through the statistical analysis of data on a sample of ten or more non literate societies from three or more geographical regions of the world. In this approach, cultural traits are taken out of the context of the whole culture and are compared with cultural traits in widely diverse cultures to determine patterns of regularities and differences within the broad base of the study.

Aims of cross-cultural analysis

Cross-cultural communication or inter cultural communication looks at how people from different cultural backgrounds try to communicate. It also tries to produce some guidelines, which help people from different cultures to better communicate with each other.

Culture has an interpretative function for the members of a group, which share that particular culture. Although all members of a group or society might share their culture, expressions of culture-resultant behaviour are modified by the individuals’ personality, upbringing and life-experience to a considerable degree. Cross-cultural analysis aims at harnessing this utilitarian function of culture as a tool for increasing human adaptation and improving communication.

Cross-cultural management is seen as a discipline of international management focusing on cultural encounters, which aims to discover tools to handle cultural differences seen as sources of conflict or miscommunication.

How laypersons see culture

It is a daunting challenge to convey the findings of research and field work and discuss cross-cultural issues in diverse contexts such as corporate culture, workplace culture and inter cultural competency as laypeople tend to use the word ‘culture‘ to refer to something refined, artistic and exclusive to a certain group of “artists” who function in a separate sphere than ordinary people in the workplace. Some typical allusions to culture:


Culture is the section in the newspaper where they review theatre, dance performances or write book reviews etc.

Culture is what parents teach their kids and grandparents teach their grandchildren.

“You don’t have any culture,” is what people say to you when you put your feet on the table at lunchtime or spit in front of guests.

“They just have a different culture,” people say about those whose behaviour they don’t understand but have to tolerate.


Different models of cross-cultural analysis


There are many models of cross-cultural analysis currently valid. The ‘Iceberg‘ and the ‘Onion‘ models are widely known. The popular ‘Iceberg model’ of culture developed by Selfridge and Sokolik, 1975 and W.L. French and C.H. Bell in 1979, identifies a visible area consisting of behaviour or clothing or symbols and artifacts of some form and a level of values or an invisible level.

Trying to define as complex a phenomenon as culture with just two layers proved quite a challenge and the ‘Onion‘ model arose. Geert Hofstede (1991) proposed a set of four layers, each of which includes the lower level or is a result of the lower level. According to this view, ‘culture‘ is like an onion that can be peeled, layer-by layer to reveal the content. Hofstede sees culture as “the collective programming of the mind which distinguishes the members of one group or category of people from another.”

Cross-cultural analysis often plots ‘dimensions‘ such as orientation to time, space, communication, competitiveness, power etc., as complimentary pairs of attributes and different cultures are positioned in a continuum between these.



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