What is Culture?


In most countries when popular media talks about culture, the focus is on art, literature, and music along with other tangibles. Don't get me wrong. The things surrounding us are also important factors when we do or don't feel at home. If everything you can buy is colorful and flowing or clinically functional - if it is not what you grew up with, things can influence your sense of alienation.

However, on this website when referring to culture, the focus is on values and attitudes, behaviors, and communication patterns. The definitions of culture cover "a collection of slowly changing norms, supported by group structures and rules" and "a collective programming of the mind, distinguishing one group from another" 1.

In "the good old days" the attitude among both immigrants and their hosts was along the line "When in Rome, do like the Romans." Obviously that is the easiest for the host population. But these days many sojourners are only staying in the host country for a short period of time, a semester as an exchange student, two years' transfer assignment; often too short a time to assimilate but long enough that your "foreignness" is no longer all charming. In these situations both guests and hosts have to be flexible.

Differences in cultures have been a subject of research since the 1950es, although a big part of the research has been on differences between two countries, not across the whole world. In the following sections of this website you can, however, in a condensed form find three culture models based on groups of surveys that have been conducted across a wide range of nations and have influenced how we think about culture differences.

The Dutch sociologist Geert Hofstede analyzed back in the 1970es over 100,000 IBM employees' work-related attitudes based on internal employee surveys. The result is described in the section Hofsteede's Cultural Dimensions. Many who have received "immigration training" have been exposed to at least part of Hofstede's model.

Shalom Schwartz, an Israeli sociologist, collected in the '90es information about students' and teachers' values from more or less all countries in the World and came up with two models, one for personal values and, based on country averages of these data, one for cultures. The latter is described in the section Schwartz's Culture Model. Some of the questions building on his theory are collected biannually in 26 European countries through the European Social Survey. (Links to reviews of the personal values model can be found on under Resources.)

The organization World Values Survey has since 1981 collected five sets of data and they also have a take on how cultures differ. More about this model can be found in the section World Values Survey.