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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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:
- 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
- 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:
- https://geerthofstede.com/, especially https://geerthofstede.com/culture-geert-hofstede-gert-jan-hofstede/6d-model-of-national-culture
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)