Schwartz's Culture Model

The Israeli sociologist Shalom Schwartz developed in the '90es a model for cultural values and a map of where different parts of the world belong in this context. He asked people in almost every country about how important all the values his international team could think of were to them.1

When we think of values and attitudes it is not a given that a definition from one culture translates into another culture. The value or attitude itself may be idiosyncratic to the culture in which it is found, or it may be in one family of values in one culture and a totally different family in another. An example is attitudes towards work. In some cultures the work domain is seen as an arena where you can gain power, in other cultures focus is on work as a contribution to society or an arena for human connections.Machismo is in South America more a description of showing feelings in general; in the US only display of "manly" feelings is included in the concept. In Hungary they can't agree about what agreeableness is - or if it is good or bad.

Values that don't share their conceptual meaning across all examined cultures are not included in Schwartz's model 2, 3. So something important to your culture may not be reflected in the model.

When Schwartz analyzed the averages of data from each country he found that they fell into seven different clusters:

Embeddedness
Status quo; avoid inclinations of individuals that might disturb the traditional order.
Harmony
Protection of environment, world at peace.
Egalitarian Commitment
Transcendence of selfish interests; helpfulness, social justice, and world at peace; equality.
Intellectual Autonomy
Creativity, curiosity.
Affective Autonomy
Stimulation, excitement.
Mastery
Active efforts to modify one's surroundings and get ahead of other people.
Hierarchy
Legitimacy of hierarchical role and resource allocation.

The values clusters could be drawn in a circle where opposing values would not be strong at the same time. Ex. In countries where curiosity was highly valued there was not strong support for maintaining the status quo.

In the figure there are three clear juxtapositions:

  1. Hierarchy vs. Egalitarianism
  2. Mastery vs. Harmony
  3. Embeddedness vs. Autonomy

The circle structure doesn't just delineate these three "axes". Cultures normally don't "cross-over", so you will not find cultures that are simultaneously high on Harmony, Hierarchy, and Autonomy. Neither are Embeddedness, Mastery, and Egalitarianism likely combinations.

In most cases countries on the same continent would come out close to each other on the map.

South American cultures typically clustered right in the middle of the figure.

The English speaking countries highly valued Mastery and had higher values on Hierarchy than on Egalitarianism. This does not mean that they didn't value Autonomy or Embeddedness but that on average the populations didn't have a clear preference for either.

The rest of Western European countries were mainly in area around Egalitarianism and Intellectual Autonomy.

Eastern Europe also favored Egalitarianism but is a little more towards Embeddedness than Western Europe, and

The Middle East and most of Asia Embeddedness and Hierarchy were dominating.

Mind you, these were averages and averages can cover a big spread.

To an expat the model gives some clues to which aspects of the culture or interactions with members of the local population might cause friction or pause. The model explained for example to me why I, having grown up in a highly egalitarian society, didn't feel comfortable with the strong value on competition so prevalent in the US culture; an aspect belonging to the Mastery cluster.

For people coming from cultures with high value on Hierarchy the tone in egalitarian cultures may seem disrespectful, even when this is not intended, and a person reacting to this perceived slight may in return seem full of himself.

How do you compare your own culture with that of your host country? For Hierarchy/Egalitarianism an indicator can be if the numbers of uniformed personnel you see in the streets differ much from your home experience - and obviously the tax code can also give a hint. Differences in Harmony/Mastery values can be gauged by looking at the local recycling and conservation procedures. Differences in Embeddedness/Autonomy show up in for ex. family structures.

As much as the model gives some pointers to areas where cultures may clash, it is important to remember that cultures change over time. When looking at the values of the younger respondents vs the older respondents to Schwartz's questionnaire there were differences between the generations larger than the differences between neighboring countries. So averages can cover broad spans.

Just as important are big changes in social and economic factors. There is no doubt in my mind, that the cultures in the Middle East after the Arab Spring will have changed compared to Schwartz's data. Not only because the new generation differs from older but also because there is a tendency, particularly in nations high on embeddedness, to reply to questionnaires like these with values that are more aligned with the "publicly accepted norms" than with how the individual really feels and behaves. Perhaps a sense of freedom will result in less biased responses. China and India are going through such dramatic changes economically that we can expect changes to their cultures as well.