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Measuring Culture Is A Challenge, But Don’t Be Silly

It is obvious to even the most casual observer that measuring culture is a challenge. This hasn’t stopped people trying it. In many ways as a measurement person I appreciate this. Measurement challenges are great things to address.


My main problem with the activity is that the theory is silly, the methods employed seem ridiculous, and the uses made of the data vary between pointless and offensive. I like to keep an open mind. That said, on the topic of measuring culture I fear I have a closed mind. I could fairly be accused of thinking the whole idea of measuring national cultures is bullshit.


Let’s apply Occams’ razor. Namely that the simplest explanation that fits all the facts should be chosen. The simplest explanation is that people want to measure culture and so put up with any amount of nonsense. It makes everyone’s (some managers and a lot of academics) lives easier if we can explain complex phenomenon with a few numbers. Some people can even make money selling consultancy on the back of it. Overall, people are willing to overlook the many faults of measuring national cultures because they want the process to succeed.

First, the Nice Bit: Why Would People Want to Measure Culture?

I have a number of posts on measuring culture. One I particularly like is below. There is a bit in Yes Minister, a classic British TV show, that introduces the concept of the politician’s fallacy. The fallacy is doing something, however ridiculous, because you need to be seen to be doing something. The link to measuring culture is obvious. We want to describe culture. So we find someone with a measure. We use the measure without thinking whether it makes sense.

The Politician’s Fallacy

Link To My Blog Post On The Politcian’s Fallcy. Just Because People Want To Measure National Culture Doesn’t Mean They Should

To be fair I sympathize. Imagine you are a scholar who sees homo economicus used as a model by others. You, understandably, react to this. You want to show that culture matters. This is a reasonable desire because culture really does matter. Indeed, when I have discussed measures of culture there seem to be a lot of people who just repeat that culture does matter. They are right. Let us take that as given, culture matters. Yet, just because something matters doesn’t mean it’ll give you an easy number to plug into your regression. That something matters doesn’t mean we should adopt half-arsed measures of culture.

Measuring Culture Is A Challenge

Measuring culture is a challenge for a number of reasons. Measures work best when:

I would say that national measures of culture have none of these characteristics.

Defining Culture

To be fair it is really hard to define what culture is in general. It is not the sort of thing we can set up a nice mathematical model of. Your measures are only valid when you are clear about what you are measuring. (This is also a problem with brand measurement. I worry that we don’t always have an agreed idea of what brand is to measure it. That means we get a diverse array of numbers, see here.)

A central challenge with measuring culture is: what exactly are you measuring? Culture is shared between people. One person on their own can’t tell us exactly what their culture is. Theoretically, no individual can reliably describe a culture as it is something that exists outside themselves.

Furthermore, every individual is a member of numerous cultures. Each individual is, however, not an appropriate archetype of any of them. The problem of the ‘typical’ person has been raised in many contexts. (One concern is that men are sometimes seen as typical and things set up for them. This is obviously not ideal for all, see here). Given there is diversity within all cultures, can culture be described as an average? What does this mean exactly? If half the people in a group violently hate something and half will support it with their lives does that mean the culture overall is pretty much calm and middle of the road on the topic?

National Culture?

Furthermore, the idea of national culture is a pretty weird one. There are a large number of cultures within any national culture. Any cursory study of history will lead you to pretty soon conclude that nations are a bit of a ramshackle idea. This is obviously true where Europeans drew lines on the map in Africa. Yet all countries have these characteristics to a certain extent. Wars, monarchical successions, treaties, and any number of other events have left nations covering a patchwork of groups.

Belgium is clearly complex but that is only an obvious example of a pervasive phenomenon. Is Scotland the same culture as England? Is Wales? What about Cornwall? Despite being in England Cornwall has a long tradition of being seen as ‘different’ to the rest of the country. It even has had an independence movement. (My grandmother was Cornish).

The island of Ireland is clearly complex. How does Ulster fit into the national cultures? What about Canada? Even ignoring the obvious linguistic divide they are clearly other differences. How about between Atlantic Canada and Ontario? In Ontario what about the difference between the rural north and urban Toronto. How similar are the cultures of these?

Much of the idea of national culture tracks to political power. Did the culture of the Soviet Union change drastically after religion made a comeback? How do we even accept results from countries where only some answers will be acceptable to those in power? Freedom to answer surveys is far from universally felt.

Defining Measures Of Culture

National culture measures are often defined on dimensions like masculinity and collectivism. Why these dimensions? I assume they came from asking what stereotypes do people have and then trying to measure these.

You can certainly add more dimensions later so I guess the measues could get more sophisticated over time. Yet the more dimensions you have the more complex things get. Maybe we could get an understanding so complex it was valid but at that point what use would it be? It would likely be too complex to understand without immersing oneselves in the culture.

Survey Measures

Once you have an idea of what you are trying to measure, how can you do it? Can you interview people? Will they know what their culture is? Can you ask them directly about things like how much they care for their older people? What about social desirability bias?

Some of the measures I have seen seem extremely culturally specific. How can you make the questions less culturally specific? If they remain culturally specific how can you compare cultures using these questions?

As nations use different languages how can you translate measures without changing them in some way? How do culture and language interact? This is extremely confusing and messy. I haven’t seen any serious attempt to tackle the sheer magnitude of the challenge.

We all know how hard surveys are, see here. Given this, it is extremely important to take scientific samples of the population. How can you do this if you don’t have a clear idea of what you are measuring? There is a surprisingly simple answer. You can’t. The measures I have seen don’t meaningfully grapple with representativeness. This means they are not meaningful.

The US And Individualism

It might be helpful to give a few US examples to see why measuring culture is a challenge. What you say about any country is inherently political. There are political (big and small p) reasons why commentators might want to emphasize what they want the national culture to be seen as. To be clear this isn’t always party-political. Even when people use the same terms they may use them differently. In the US the Democrats and Republicans might work with the same national mythologies for differing aims.

The classic idea is that the US is the epitome of Individualism, see here. Yet there are many ways to see the US as less than individualistic. Many parts of the US have a strong public moral code. People should behave in certain ways for the good of the community/society. Try blasphemy in some parts of the US or ‘offensive’ speech in other parts. See how your ‘do your own thing’ approach goes down. I don’t mean this as a criticism. All societies constantly balance individual and group interests. My point is that the US simply isn’t chock-full full of rugged individualists eating beans and riding the range.

That the US doesn’t have universal healthcare is seen as evidence for indivdualism but there is clearly politics involved. It is late 2020 as I write and six million people more have voted for Joe Biden (and greater access to healthcare) than Donald Trump. Has the US suddenly become collectivistic? If Biden can’t make progress because he doesn’t have control of the senate does this mean the US is more individualistic than if he snuck a law through? Why exactly?

Guns And Race

An individual right to protect oneself is said to be central to the gun debate in the US. I agree that is likely to be a part. Still, it is hard to look at guns in the US and not see race as a factor in how people react to gun possession. I don’t want to get into a debate about guns or race but stating my perspective will help to make a point. It seems unlikely to me that a black man with a gun would be seen in exactly the same way as a white man with a gun. As such, it seems to me at least a reasonable hypothesis that the right to protect yourself, and thus the perceived limits of individualism, depends upon who you are.

What Is My Point?

Everyone seems to agree that race matters in the US. Even those who believe that reverse discrimination is the biggest problem by definition see race as an issue. What relevance has this? Well, the idea of race mattering is about as non-individualist a concept as you can get. Race is all about collective identities. People often feel a collective identity. They can also feel us versus them. Collective identities are also pushed onto people whether they want them or not. People have been/are still being treated badly because of the group they belong to. Collective identities matter a lot in the US (despite the perceived individualism).

My point is not that there are easy answers to questions everyone could agree about race (or guns). Or even that we will all agree on the nature of the problem. My point is that it is very easy to make counterarguments to the idea of the US being the epitome of individualism. It all depends upon how you define individualism, how you see the culture, and where you are coming from politically. And the people doing the national measures do a piss-poor job of engaging deeply with politics, or major cultural issues. What does it mean to be a minority in any national culture? Do you not count towards the culture? Do you count at exactly the percentage of your group’s representation? When you, as we all do, belong to multiple groups who defines your group?

What Does It Mean To Be Highly Individualistic While Celebrating Your Shared Identity? Perhaps Your Measures Aren’t Sophisticated Enough?

Measuring Culture Is A Challenge For Academics

One would think that anything that is so challenging must have a massive upside to success. Else why would people keep doing it? You might think that, yet, I would argue that isn’t the case.

So imagine you find your country scores x on individualism and a country you plan to launch a new product in scores 2x on that dimension. What do you do differently?

Of course, if you see large differences in a score this means that you should pay attention to cultural differences when you launch. This is good advice and you might think it shows the value of the measures.

Yet, if the scores between the countries are pretty similar my advice is that you should pay attention to cultural differences. Even if the countries are similar on a number of dimensions there will still be important cultural differences.

In essence, the advice is the same regardless of what the scores are. Measuring national culture is a giant rigmarole with little intellectual basis all for no obvious practical purpose.

Bad Cultural Measures Allow For Bad Adacemic Data Mining

The ‘best’ use I have seen national culture scores put to is getting publications for academics. Bad academic data miners looking for their next publication can data mine, adding national culture measures into their regressions and seeing what happens. ‘No we don’t need a proper theory, we have data. Just throw the data into the regression and see what comes out.’ Maybe collectivism will explain toaster sales because toasters are a family-related item. Perhaps individualism will explain toaster sales as people, even in families, often eat breakfast on their own. Either way, the bad academic data miner has a result to try and publish.

If the result chimes with the reviewer’s likely personal prejudice so much the better. For an example of this type of research see work on take-off of innovations. Apparently being protestant is great, see here. This is the sort of bollocks that people have been doing for years. As someone brought up a catholic I’ve seen enough of this nonsense. We simply don’t need any more of it. It adds nothing to our knowledge of the world, just making the world a worse place to live. Instead, my advice to academics is to give some proper thought to your work. Don’t just throw nonsense in the regression and make up a story to fit the results. Especially if that story is offensive as well as intellectually vacuous.

I have clear advice. If you are doing a business paper and you want to explain differences between countries do not in any circumstances use the Hofstede scores. Also do not do something that involves your particular religious bigotry. If you use such nonsense you can expect, if you get me as a reviewer, to hear that ‘your work is a disgrace and you should be ashamed of yourself’. To be fair we are supposed to be nice as a reviewer so I won’t write that. I’ll write the equivalent comment translated into academic speak: “the authors could do with thinking through their theory a bit more.”

To Be Clear Culture Matters

A challenge with criticizing national culture measures is that people will say ‘but culture matters’. I can only repeat, ‘yes it does’. I am very happy to echo calls for research in different cultural settings, see here.

That culture matters does not imply that measuring national culture is a valid activity. I think of these measures as something that appeals to people who want all the simplicities of bigotry without the nasty feeling that they are bad people. What might a person who likes these measures say? ‘Of course, the English person would say that his culture is …..’ Why not just do astrology if this sort of nonsense appeals to you? (BTW some might say the signs explain my crabby nature — I’m a cancer).


Measuring culture is challenging but some of the ways it is done are truly terrible.

Basically, you have a badly defined concept, applied to confusing groups, which is being measured in a poorly executed way. Furthermore, it is not clear how the results can be applied. Given this measuring national cultures has to be a leader in the category of nonsense ideas in management. It would be great if people just stopped doing it.

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