Saturday, 1 October 2011

The Politics of Cultural Inclinations

Can we predict which countries in the world are more likely to embrace open, cooperative political arrangements, and which would more probably stick with rigid, hierarchical systems? It would appear so. I have looked at data compiled and analysed by Geert Hofstede and colleagues over the last forty years (see Hofstede, G., Hofstede, GJ, and Minov, M, Cultures and Organizations, New York: McGaw Hill, 2010), and I have detected an interesting correlation between a set of cultural inclinations and political manifestations.

On what I call the ‘Democratic Continuum’, countries range from those whose residents most ready to deal with problems by engaging others as equals in open, cooperative deliberations, through to countries least prepared to deviate from hierarchical or traditionally established arrangements in determining what should be done in society. These may be referred to as the ‘Open’ and ‘Closed’ poles of the continuum.

To map countries’ cultural inclinations, I draw on Hofstede’s data under four sets of comparisons. These are based on contrasting the countries with the highest and lowest proportions of their populations who (assessed by their questionnaire responses) are inclined to favour:
1. Power Distance (those who prefer important decisions affecting them to be left to people higher up than them v those who prefer such decisions to be made by people who will listen to and discuss options with them)
2. Communal Bonds (those who strongly differentiate between members of exclusive communal groups and outsiders v those who view all those in their country as deserving equal respect)
3. Traditional Masculinity (those who believe that the ‘masculine’ approach of being assertive and dominant should prevail in society, while the ‘feminine’ caring approach should be reserved for females at home v those who believe that males and females should alike be caring and mutually supportive wherever they are)
4. Avoidance of Uncertainty (those who want to minimise uncertainty in responding to situations by having rigid arrangements indicating who or what procedures are in place for resolving problems v those who welcome uncertainty in situations as something they will explore on a case by case basis for a response)

Are there countries that cluster at either end of all or most of these four sets of comparisons (the top/bottom 15 countries in the world)? And can we deduce anything about their likely ‘Open’ or ‘Closed’ political status?

Five countries are found to be in the least favour end of most of the listed factors, and not in the most favour end of any of them. Sweden and Denmark are in all four, and Canada, Norway and the Netherlands are in three. A higher proportion of people in these countries reject ‘power distance’, ‘communal bonds’, ‘traditional masculinity’ and ‘avoidance of uncertainty’ as outlined above. And few would dispute that they are likely to be included on any list of the most open, democratic countries in the world.

The UK and Ireland curiously are in the least favour end in relation to ‘power distance’, ‘communal bonds’, and ‘avoidance of uncertainty’, but are both found in the most favour end of ‘traditional masculinity’. My hypothesis is that although the UK and Ireland have cultural tendencies that largely support their democratic institutions, they suffer from retaining a ‘macho’ outlook which holds them back from being as open and democratic as they should be. The first-past-the-post voting system, the unelected House of Lords, the infantile debates of Prime Minister Question Time are all oddities which, I believe, will one day vanish when the wider cultural attachment to ‘traditional masculinity’ declines.

What about the US? It only appears under the least favour end of ‘communal bonds’, and ‘avoidance of uncertainty’. A more revealing picture might be found if we had the Hofstede data segregated by states in the US. I suspect the predominantly Republican states would tend to favour three or all four of the listed factors, while the strongly Democrat states would be amongst the least favour in relation to all of them. And the political practices and institutions established in these states would be more ‘Open’ or ‘Closed’ depending on their cultural inclinations.

As for countries which feature in the most favour end of the different categories, none appeared in all four and only Guatemala and Venezuela featured on three. Both these countries have struggled for decades with dictatorial regimes, and like the rest of Latin America are only able to function with more democratic arrangements relatively recently. It remains to be seen if their prevailing cultural inclinations would make it more difficult for them to make the transition to a fully open and democratic society than their neighbours.

In conclusion I would stress that the relationship of cause and effect is never simple. We cannot say that cultural changes must precede political changes, or political reforms are necessary for cultural shifts. They affect and in time reinforce each other. But we can say that culture change can help to reshape politics.

To promote the cause of democracy, therefore, I think more should be done to alter people’s attitudes about key features of their daily working experience. For example, what’s it like when we can have more of a say about the decisions that affect us and not have them dictated to us; what’s it like to be excluded, overlooked, penalised at work just because one doesn’t belong to some closed communal group; what’s it like when we have less testosterone-fuelled lone wolves and more collaborative colleagues at work; what’s it like to learn through cooperation and experience how to cope with new situations rather than having everything prescribed, depriving us of the opportunity for initiative or innovation.

As more people become more averse to ‘power distance’, ‘communal bonds’, ‘traditional masculinity’ and ‘avoidance of uncertainty’, they will more likely back the advancement towards a more open and democratic society.

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