Understanding diversity primer: 7. Culture

By Gabriele Bammer


How can we begin to understand cultural diversity? How does culture affect how problems are framed, understood and responded to? How does culture affect how well those contributing to the research work together?

In this primer, the term ‘culture’ is used to describe the social behaviours and norms of groups in society. There is, therefore, overlap with values, but culture and values are not identical. Cultural differences are commonly thought of in relation to the inhabitants of different countries, but can also apply to occupations, religions, age-groups, members of different social classes and much more.

Geert Hofstede’s framework for measuring national cultures provides a useful starting point for understanding cultural diversity. I have used different labels for the six dimensions of the framework, each of which can be seen as a gradation. The dimensions also generally work for social groups other than nations. The 6 dimensions are:

  1. How hierarchies and inequalities in power are handled.
    At one extreme of the gradation are social groups where a hierarchical order, with inequalities in power, is accepted. At the other extreme are social groups that strive to equalize the distribution of power.
  2. Whether independence or interdependence is favoured.
    At one extreme is a loosely-knit social framework where individuals take care of themselves and their immediate family. At the other extreme is a tightly-knit social framework where each individual is enmeshed in a broader group.
  3. How achievement, competition and cooperation are handled.
    At one extreme are social groups that focus on achievement through competition, material rewards, assertiveness and heroism, with strong differentiation of male and female gender roles. At the other extreme are social groups that focus on consensus, modesty and caring for the weak, with low differentiation of gender roles.
  4. Tolerance of uncertainty and ambiguity.
    At one extreme are social groups that deal with anxiety and distrust in the face of the unknown by maintaining rigid controls of belief and behaviour, and penalising unorthodox behaviour and ideas. At the other extreme are social groups that accept that the future is unknown and cannot be controlled, and that tend to eschew fixed habits and rituals.
  5. Short-term versus long-term orientation.
    At one extreme are social groups that maintain strong links with their past, maintaining time-honoured traditions and norms, and treating societal change with suspicion. At the other extreme are social groups that are future- and change- focused. and looking to respond to a world in flux.
  6. Attitude to gratification of basic human drives.
    At one extreme are social groups that allow relatively free gratification of basic human drives as natural and central to enjoying life and having fun. At the other extreme are social groups that regulate the gratification of basic human drives through strict social norms.

Differences in culture and how problems are framed, understood and responded to

It is relatively straight-forward to see how those from different cultures would frame problems differently and focus on different kinds of responses. For example, some will define and respond to a problem in a way that accepts, and operates within, existing time-honoured traditions and norms, while others will use an approach to the problem that seeks to disrupt them.

Gaining a richer understanding of the problem and more options for action involves bringing together researchers and stakeholders with different cultural perspectives, for example, with different levels of tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity.

Similarly consideration needs to be given to the impacts of proposed actions on different cultural groups. It is important to question how a particular proposed action would affect, for example, those in a group with high or low tolerance of uncertainty and ambiguity and to examine if there are ways in which the proposed action could be modified to be more acceptable to people in groups at either end of the gradient.

Differences in culture and how well those contributing to the research work together

Culture influences many aspects of working together, as it affects behaviours and expectations about hierarchies in the project, working independently, speaking up, expressing disagreement, demonstrating respect, gender roles, punctuality, dress code, personal space, eye contact, politeness and much more. There is plenty of scope for misunderstandings and causing offence, as well as for joyous discovery, learning and appreciation.

Concluding notes

The global nature of many societal and environmental problems and the interconnectedness of the research world mean that differences in language, as well as the other aspects of culture considered above, require serious consideration.

Most commonly, research groups work in one language, which, while efficient, limits the research in at least two important ways:

  1. Important concepts that only find expression in a language that is not used by the project are most likely to be missed in considerations of how problems are framed, understood and responded to
  2. Those who are less proficient in the project’s working language tend to be limited in the contributions they can make, as well as in how seriously their contributions are taken, again meaning that important perspectives are not captured.

Anything to add?

Do you have additional perspectives to share about the role of understanding culture in research on complex societal and environmental problems? Is there other basic work on culture that you have found to be useful?

Particularly welcome are examples from your research about how culture was relevant and how you incorporated cultural differences in your work.

If you are new to this topic, is there anything else on understanding culture that would be useful?

Sources and references:

The main source is the work on culture by Geert Hofstede, who, in turn, drew on the work of others, described on the following websites:

Considerations of the importance of language were drawn from: Weber, T. (2018). Language matters in transdisciplinarity. Integration and Implementation Insights, October. (Online): http://i2insights.org/2018/10/02/language-matters/

Biography: Gabriele Bammer PhD is Professor of Integration and Implementation Sciences (i2S) at the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health at The Australian National University in Canberra. i2S provides theory and methods for tackling complex societal and environmental problems, especially for synthesis of disciplinary and stakeholder knowledge, understanding and managing diverse unknowns, and providing integrated research support for policy and practice change. She is also a member of blog partner PopulationHealthXchange.

The Understanding Diversity Primer comprises the following blog posts:

1. Why diversity? (April 21, 2022)
2. Mental models (April 28, 2022)
3. Perceptions of good research (May 5, 2022)
4. Power (May 12, 2022)
5. Values (May 19, 2022)
6. Interests (May 26, 2022)

This blog post:
7. Culture (June 2, 2022)

Still to come:
8. Personality (June 9, 2022)
9. Team roles (June 16, 2022)
10. Advanced considerations (June 23, 2022)

7 thoughts on “Understanding diversity primer: 7. Culture”

  1. First, want to thank you for your integration of the Hofstede Dimensions with such easily understandable examples. A model that first caused trouble for me when studying it the last year in a course about Intercultural Management with Heiko Smichdt. I want to add some nuances of other tools for understanding cultures that we have worked on in our research.

    Several ways for conceptualizing and understanding cultures have been developed over the years. Sometimes called models, tools, and even frameworks. By means of organizing dimensions and layers, as in Hofstede, 2005 and Meyer, 2014; and even by using culture metaphors as in Gannon & Pillai, 2016; academics of intercultural or cross-cultural management scholarship have tackled the problem of culture’s categorization and characterization.
    I would add that a framework, as presented here, can be understood as a tool for decodifying culture’s variables and then translating them into useful criteria, statements for decision-making instances, and even models for tracing values, practices, and beliefs in multicultural contexts. For instance, we can make such use of frameworks like those by bringing them into a strategy plan designing, specifically attending to issues like conflicts resolution caused for not sharing the same values in between the organization or project (i.e., concept of time, clothing, among others tagged by you).

    A powerful tool for making the understanding of cultures easier is the metaphor, not only as a rhetorical figure but mostly as a means for giving important information and data in an economic way. Cultural Metaphor is defined by Gannon and Pillai (2016) as “any activity, phenomenon or institution that members of a given culture consider important and with which they identify emotionally and/ or cognitively” (p. xxii). Therefore, they emphasize how it represents the values of a given culture. For instance, we can arrange a metaphor for this i2s community, considering the diversity characteristic of the community itself; like a rhizome or a multinodal net representing the complex and systemic thinking that features a common point in all of us (I am only generalizing to give an example).

    Just here I want to stop at a critical point: the problem of generalization and biasing of models, frameworks, and tools.

    One can wonder, How can frameworks for interpreting cultures be developed without stereotyping or generalizing?

    Is possible to underpin the interpretation of cultures in models without over-generalizations or stereotyping?

    Some authors in cross-cultural management scholarship have created their own approaches to tackle this problem in the organizational and businesses field, like Trompenaars & Hampden-Turner in 1998 or Meyer in 2014. However, such approaches have to deal with the problem of stereotyping or generalizing individuals of a culture, by classifying them into certain categories that are created from average data from a diverse group of people. Here is the importance of relational and relativistic approaches.

    I would like to further discuss posts on these issues. Thank you!

    • Many thanks for these thoughts and the rich array of references. Your description of cultural metaphor is intriguing and something I will explore further.

      I agree that the issue of understanding culture versus stereotyping is a critical one. My way of understanding this is based on the underlying principle that perfection is unattainable and that everything we do has benefits and costs. With this in mind, stereotypes drawn from generalisations about a culture are useful short-cuts that can alert us to things we should be aware of when working in a cross-cultural environment. But stereotypes should be applied with extreme caution in any individual case.

      As an example, some years ago I was involved in a team providing professional development and working with a group of leaders from a range of countries. Six intensive weeks culminated in a dinner, at the end of which we would go our separate ways, with the course participants flying home the next day. What was appropriate for this good-bye – shaking hands, hugging, no physical contact? For example, we knew that some participants came from cultures where physical contact between men and women was against religious principles, but we didn’t know how strongly our participants adhered to these principles. In the end we devised a ribbon system. Ribbons worn on the person’s right hand side were for saying goodbye to women, those on the left hand side for saying goodbye to men. A green ribbon was ‘hugging is OK’, a blue ribbon was ‘shaking hands is OK’, a red ribbon was ‘no physical contact please’. So at the end of the dinner, when everyone was saying goodbye to everyone else you had to look for the appropriate ribbon on the person you were fare-welling and take the action signalled by the least physical contact preferred. So if I was wearing a green ribbon on both sides, it signalled I was open to a farewell hug from men and women. If the man I was saying goodbye to had a blue ribbon on his right hand side, we shook hands; if he had a green ribbon we hugged; if he had a red ribbon we said nice words to each other. It sounds complicated but it worked very smoothly and allowed a diverse group to say good-bye in ways that felt appropriate for all of us with minimum fuss.

      For me then, stereotypes are useful, but have to be tested and applied with caution and creativity when interacting with real people.

      Very interested to hear more about your experiences, Daniel, as well as those of other readers.

      • Wow so Interesting experience! As you say, it sounds complicated, though. I was laughing (in a good sense) while reading this. In practice, it sounds pretty difficult to attend to every particular issue in the diversity of our teams. We can overload the projects with activities. I agree with the principle perfection is unattainable. I also look forward to discussing a relational approach here. Thank you for your response! :).

  2. Thanks to Gabriele for this very helpful post on the concept of culture. As a cultural/environmental anthropologist, culture has been at the center of my research and practice since graduate study days.

    The six dimensions of culture that are covered in this post are consistent with some approaches in anthropology that have defined culture in a very holistic way: it includes almost everything that is learned and transmitted through language, social interaction, rituals and institutions. This holistic and broad approach to understanding culture has been useful for general framing. It has also proved to be difficult to handle because of its scope and because it can lack analytical rigor.

    An alternative, at the other end of the spectrum, is a more cognitive approach to culture that focused on what people learn and transmit in order to make sense of the world and to solve life’s challenges and create opportunities. I wrote about this approach in a previous blog posting :https://i2insights.org/2016/03/04/cultural-models/. A cognitive or cultural model approach focuses attention on different patterns of knowledge, beliefs and values and how and why they vary across and within stakeholder groups, who might be working together or in conflict regarding some human issue.

    While I like both approaches to culture, I find the cognitive to be something that complements other social, economic and environmental approaches and thus offers opportunities to integrate a focus on culture in our collaborations. Regardless of one’s approach, a focus on culture is critical and you cannot look at any of our human challenges and not see the impact of culture. Above all else, we should be explicit about how we define it and evaluate the outcomes of different approaches. Thanks to Gabriele for this post.

    • Many thanks for your thoughtful response, Michael. The challenge for me is how to give non-anthropologists a quick way of appreciating culture, so that they see its importance and take it into account when tackling complex societal and environmental problems (hopefully by then working with someone with deep knowledge!) For me, the Hofstede 6 dimensions of culture provides such a useful quick overview of the complexity and importance of culture. As you say, though, it is rather unwieldy to use and your cultural models approach may be more beneficial to teams tackling complex problems, both to help understand differences in how people see problems and decide to act on them, and to help understand the challenges of working together in tackling such problems.

      Can you say something and/or point to some references about research that has used the cultural models approach to help diverse teams more effectively understand and act on problems and to more effectively work together?

  3. A cartilha é uma estratégia didática e conscientizadora muito interessante. O poroblema é como abordar as desigualdades visiveis no cotidiano dos grupos excluidos tendo como pano de fundo as desigualdades estruturais em decorrencia da organização da vida materail e o cotidiano que exige das pessoas a elaboração de estratégias de soibrevivência para minorar o sofrimento e ações de afirmação para pontuar suas existências caracterizadas pela exclusão de bens e serviços públicos. Como universalizar a cidadania discutindo as desigualdades?

    Editor: Google translate renders this as: The booklet is a very interesting didactic and awareness-raising strategy. The problem is how to approach the visible inequalities in the daily life of excluded groups against the background of structural inequalities resulting from the organization of material life and the daily life that requires people to develop survival strategies to alleviate suffering and affirmative actions to punctuate their existences characterized by the exclusion of public goods and services. How to universalize citizenship by discussing inequalities?

    • Many thanks for your comment. I share your impatience to get on with actually doing something about inequalities, which limit the life-chances of millions of people. Nevertheless in order to take effective action, it is helpful to understand how those in a position to act see the world and how diverse those perceptions are, as well as how their perceptions affect their willingness and ability to act on inequalities. And it’s also important to take into account how that diversity plays out in different cultural contexts and affect action in those contexts.


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