Understanding values dimensions

This article provides an overview of leading values dimensions and frameworks developed by scholars to make sense of cultural differences. No matter what approach you use, each provides some important insights worth considering.

Values Theory: Sociocultural Dimensions and Frameworks

One of the greatest difficulties faced by psychologists or communication scholars in studying values is how best to compare or contrast them across cultural and linguistic barriers. Values are a primary motivational construct with great influence on human behavior at both the individual and collective level. But if the quality and quantity of influence varies across cultures, how can we accurately measure the differences? This article discusses in detail the ways that several key scholars have dealt with this difficulty.

We’ve already discussed the work of the Kluchkhohns and their team’s five specific Variations of Values Orientations (published in 1961)—human nature, man and the environment, time, activity, and social relationships. It is important to note that for each, the preferences of any given culture could spread across a range (they highlighted three positions) within each ‘orientation.’ Though insightful at a descriptive level, they were not easy for social scientists to measure or objectively compare.

You are also now aware that Geert Hofstede had access to an incredibly large multi-national data pool through his work with IBM and that he empirically generated first four (now six) binary dimensions in Culture’s Consequences (1980). The ‘Individualism/Collectivism’ dimension, for example, allows the scoring of cultures anywhere between those two poles, providing a statistically comparative tool for national level cultural analysis. Many base their studies on Hofstede’s dimensions, making him one of the most cited social science scholars. Others sought to build on his work.

Fons Trompenaars and colleagues like Charles Hampden-Turner gathered questionnaires to identify the domains that most influence cross-cultural challenges. They combined explanatory domains from Hall, Kluckhohn, and Hofstede.

Trompenaars’ 1997 book Riding the Waves of Culture posited seven dimensions:

  1. Universalism vs. particularism.
  2. Individualism vs. communitarianism.
  3. Specific vs. diffuse
  4. Neutral vs. emotional.
  5. Achievement vs. ascription.
  6. Sequential vs. synchronous time.
  7. Internal vs. outer direction. These contrasts are widely used in business training and consulting.

Robert House and others sought to update Hofstede’s work for their Global Leadership and Organizational Behavior Effectiveness (GLOBE) survey. They expanded Hofstede’s dimensions into nine and then analyzed each according to Milton Rokeach’s earlier distinction—as practices (“as is”), and as values (“as it should be,” the desired level), providing new dimensions and data for global business contexts.

Shalom Schwartz and his associates have worked at answering many criticisms of Hofstede’s work aiming to elicit a universal model of inter-related values. His comprehensive values theory (an a prior theoretical approach compared to Hofstede’s post-hoc analysis) pooled values items into broad types, and then integrated them in a continuum. Unlike Hofstede’s binaries, Schwartz created a circular model, in which 10 types emerging from multiple rounds of multi-national research—Self-direction, Stimulation, Hedonism, Achievement, Power, Security, Conformity, Tradition, Benevolence, and Universalism—were arranged like wedges in a pie. Opposing values were across from each other, and related values lay beside one another (with 57 specific values placed in those wedges). Schwartz’s separate individual- and cultural-level circumplex models and rigorous cross-cultural testing have been widely acclaimed and applied by researchers, but so far might appear too complex for training designs.

In short, much has been accomplished in creating dimensions and other tools for assessing human similarity and social variation across cultures. The individualism and collectivism dimension is the most studied, though not without adaptations by various scholars. Ongoing scholarly debates, new data analyses, and existing data-set re-analysis show that the endeavor to dimensionalize cultural values is still alive and well.

As an intercultural communicator (and perhaps eventually as a cross-cultural practitioner or analyst), we hope that you agree that it is important to know how specific dimensions and analysis tools were developed. Hopefully this reading has facilitated your observations or heightened your awareness of other cultures. You might want to reflect on one or two new insights gained through this weeks content.

Kulich, S. J. (2009). Values theory: Social-cultural dimensions and frameworks. In S. W. Littlejohn & K. A. Foss (Eds.), The encyclopedia of communication theory (Vol. 2. pp. 989-994). Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications. [Accessible at http://knowledge.sagepub.com/view/communicationtheory/n391.xml]

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Intercultural Communication

Shanghai International Studies University (SISU)