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What is subjective culture?

Cross-cultural psychologist Harry Triandis noted that culture can be divided into material or objective culture and subjective culture
© Shanghai International Studies University

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 is the intangible part of culture, which could include ideas, attitudes, assumptions, and beliefs.

Attitudes are ideas complicated by a mix of cognitive, emotional, and behavioural factors and they differ considerably across cultures.

Norms and roles are behavioural guidelines. The sequence of behaviours (i.e., tasks) can also vary across cultures.

Values as well as value orientations (a broader set) represent what is generally desirable in a culture.

Etic and Emic

We can study subjective culture using two lenses.

  1. Etic refers to the general categories that can be found in all cultures, which serve as common grounds for comparison.
  2. Emic means categories that might only make sense in a given culture, which makes cultures unique and meaningful to those who belong to it.

But researchers should be aware of some common methodological issues in cross-cultural comparisons.

First, one can not make a test, scale, or inventory “etic” simply by translating it into another language and using it in another culture.

Researchers must vigorously validate the constructs of interest. Also, it is recommended that both etic and emic items be included in an instrument designed for cross-cultural use, and that the sampling include people of diverse demographic groups.

In summary, subjective culture contains elements that reflect cultural differences , either as etic or emic items.

Cross-cultural studies require extra effort to validate constructs and eliminate alternative explanations.


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

© Shanghai International Studies University
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