Considering “subjective culture”

Harry Triandis examines culture as either material or subjective. Subjective culture includes ideas, attitudes, beliefs, and is the primary focus of the interculturalist. This article explains the concepts, elements, and methods for study

Subjective Culture (Summary)

The influential cross-cultural psychologist Harry Triandis noted that culture can be divided into material or objective culture and subjective culture.

  • Material culture refers to products made by man, such as dress and tools.
  • Subjective culture, on the contrary, is the intangible part of culture, which could include ideas, attitudes, assumptions, and beliefs.
  • Subjective culture is “a society’s characteristic way of perceiving its social environment”.

We can begin by taking either an etic or emic approach to studying these subjective elements. “Etic” refers to the general categories that can be found in all cultures, which serve as common grounds for comparison. “Emic” means categories that only make sense in a given culture, which makes cultures unique.

Triandis then explains that some elements of subjective culture can be very useful for the analysis of cultures. You can easily find cultural variations in how things are categorized and what a specific category includes or implies. What is associated with which category is also a rich mine for discovering cultural differences.

Such associations often reveal the beliefs, which most people from that culture hold. Attitudes are ideas complicated by a mix of cognitive, emotional, and behavioral factors and they differ considerably across cultures. Norms and roles are behavioral guidelines. Cultures may differ in the rules and also in how strict the regulation is. The sequence of behaviors (i.e., tasks) could also be a source for differences when compared between cultures. Values as well as value orientations (a broader set of values) represent what, for most people in a culture, is desirable in general. Some cultures share the same values and others may be in sharp contrast in what things or ideas they think are worth fighting for, should be forbidden, or are important to pass down.

A researcher can choose any element of the subjective culture in his or her study and try to understand it from both a culture-general and a culture-specific perspectives. But researchers should be aware of some common methodological issues.

First, one can not make a test, scale, or inventory “etic” simply by translating it into another language and using it in another culture. Therefore, it is important to always validate the constructs of interest vigorously. It is recommended that both etic and emic items be included in an instrument designed for cross-cultural use. It is also recommended that people of diverse demographic groups be sampled in research if scientifically stratified samples are not easily obtainable.

In the end, Triandis cautions people who study culture that it is risky to claim that all the differences observed between two groups of people are caused by cultural differences and provides ten alternative explanations as an example.

In summary, subjective culture contains elements that reflect cultural differences. They can be carefully studied with instruments that combine both etic and emic items. Such studies require extra effort to validate cross-cultural constructs and eliminate alternative explanations.

Triandis, H. C. (2002). Subjective Culture. Online Readings in Psychology and Culture, 2(2).

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This article is from the free online course:

Intercultural Communication

Shanghai International Studies University (SISU)