Culture 5 – The Whopping Effects of the Nonexistent Culture of Nations

While researching materials for the topic of the Culture of Nations, I discovered a very impressive book, one that I have now readily added to my Top Ten or More List of significant books (in this world there really needs to be room for more than ten, much more room). The book is The Central Liberal Truth, by Lawrence E. Harrison, and it has to do with, you guessed it, the Culture of Nations. The Introduction alone is one of the best essays I have ever read.

Why does This Matter? We’ve seen that culture has its roots in the individual and family and is nurtured by the people groups (s)he is part of, and that Regression to the Cultural Mean permits Behavioral Continuity to extend up into larger and larger groups. If Behavioral Continuity extends even to the Culture of Nations, then there is reason to expect Organizations to fit into this continuum. If culture does not matter to nations, then we are left with a more difficult explanation for culture in organizations, and the illogical predicament that organizational culture does not matter either.

For a reference point, albeit a generally obscure one, psychologist Geert Hofstede’s extensive analysis of national cultures and their effects on IBM’s worldwide organizations is well recognized within organizational psychology. While I have taught on his theory, it seems more academic and theoretical (read: great for researchers and difficult for managers and expatriates) and did not fully connect with the realities of observable cultural differences I have experienced overseas. But I only had my personal mental list of behaviors that, in practice, actually pinpointed a number of significantly real cultural differences. I was at a loss as to how to formulate this list into something practical and useable. Up to now the list had become the seeds of this concept of Practiced Behaviors and Professed Behaviors.

But back to the book: Now I knew I was onto something. It put data and documented examples to ideas that I had. I also knew it was potentially going to be a challenge. You already know that I would describe myself as either a Conserviberal or a Liberative, depending upon whether the half-full glass was being filled or emptied. More or Less Middle of the Bird but Comfortable Going Out on a Wing is my mantra. So, what were the clues that the book was going to be challenging? How about the following list of facts:

1) The title of the book is The Central Liberal Truth (yes, with “Liberal” boldly printed in Red);
2) The book review, entitled The Culture of Nations, was published on the Opinion page of The New York Times;
3) The author describes himself as a young socialist at one time, before realizing socialism didn’t work;
4) The thesis of the book is a quote (an aphorism) from Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the late American liberal politician and sociologist;
5) The quote itself is, The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.” (Clearly only one way to save the culture);
6) The vast majority of the data and information comes from various United Nations studies; and
7) The book is a synopsis of three different Culture Matters symposia (1999+) held at Harvard University.

Clearly I was heading into staunchly-much-more-than-Liberative territory. And it felt very good (hey, I can go out on a wing, even a left one) because vast realms of verifiable public data are used, they are discussed unemotionally, consistent conclusions are drawn, criticisms are calmly addressed, and a majority of the practical and observable cultural differences (“Behavioral Markers” I will called them) from my mental list were validated. I like very much nearly everything the book presents, from the data through to the conclusions and recommendations. It definitely deserves to be on a Top Ten and More List. I only wish it had been available when I went overseas to live and work.

A crux of the book’s thesis is that the culture of a nation is not an insignificant contributor and with other forces has a direct effect on the direction and success of a society’s development. The elements of its culture are planted at an individual’s birth and nurtured by family, clan, and the culture’s social institutions (that is, self-reinforced by the culture itself. In other words, Regression to the Cultural Mean).

The real impact for me came in seeing what the identified cultural Factors (“Behavioral Markers”) were, and what effects certain social institutions have upon them and how these institutions bring about their influence.

In the interests of brevity, the following table is reproduced from The Central Liberal Truth, with the Factors (“Behavioral Markers”) indicated along with their typically observable manifestations in different cultures. (Note: Yes, I was cheap and bought a used book that was described as “Gently used, some highlighting.” The bold, dark circles and underlines belong to the “previous gentle highlighting owner;” the penciled remarks are mine. Since the two of us, this previous owner and I, agreed on so many things, I didn’t have to highlight much.)

Table 2.1a

Table 2.1b

For comparison, Hofstede proposes six dimensions of cultural differences (more on these later when we get to the Cultures of Organizations), variable scales such as Individualism-Collectivism and Low Uncertainty Avoidance-High Uncertainty Avoidance, which seem to me to be more like deep Foundational Attitudes which then influence behavior. The Factors in the Table above seem more readily describable in terms of both Values/Beliefs/Attitudes (No.s 1-8) as well as Observable Behaviors (No.s 9-24), thus I went with the additional descriptor, Behavioral Markers.

The following are the main culturally different behaviors I had observed and had to learn to “live with” (my mental list), which are also found in the Table above:

Wealth (No. 4): Do behaviors indicate the belief that Wealth can be created (Positive Sum: +∑), or is fixed and must be fought over (Zero or Negative Sum: 0∑, -∑)?;

Ethics (No. 6): Is an ethical code foundational (drives behaviors), or merely a convenient façade?;

Education (No. 8): Is education seen as a means of self- and cultural improvement, or a waste of resources?;

Work (No. 9): Is work a vehicle through which wealth (as added value) can be created, or is it as waste of time and of little or no benefit?;

Rule of Law (No. 16): Is the Rule of Law foundational, or again merely a convenient façade? My experience in Eastern Europe significantly illuminated this Marker. A reasonable description of how we view the law is that it is the steel beams and structure that supports a skyscraper, driven down to a bedrock foundation. The floors and walls are open, however, so that we can design and construct a living and working space that meets our needs. In Eastern Europe, however, the law is viewed more as a concrete floor and ceiling, with four walls with no windows or doors whose purpose is to contain you and your behavior. Any way you can evade its effects (and not get caught) are culturally permitted. One time we were stopped at a traffic light at a major intersection with six full lanes of traffic, including left turn lanes. Just before our light turned green, a car pulled up on the sidewalk to our right, and as the opposing light turned yellow, bounced off the curb and accelerated diagonally across the intersection turning left across all six lanes of startled drivers. This didn’t happen often, but ‘often’ and ‘Right of Way’ are relative words…

Corruption also falls into this category. While most people we knew spoke strongly against corruption and the drag it had on life, the economy, and the culture, when it was felt necessary to use it to get something done, they freely participated;

Individual/Group (No. 20): Is individuality and individual thinking encouraged or discouraged?;

Authority (No. 21): Is authority established to maintain the greater good, or is it a reward, a position of power to be exploited?;

Women (Gender Relationships) (No. 24): How are women socially regarded and treated in the culture?

Those were my eight “most noticeable variable behaviors” from my overseas experiences. Some of the remaining 25 Factors from the book I could see incorporating as subcategories. The importance is, these culturally distinct attitudes and behaviors are hard to avoid noticing. And impossible not to have to adjust to when you’re living in that culture, an activity that can be tremendously draining both emotionally and physically.

The book also assumes that societal or cultural Progress is a desired goal. I posted earlier that bonsai trees need to be constantly growing and so do we as learning beings, so this seems a fair assumption. Toynbee (and following posts) also identifies cultural growth and further expands on the ebb and flow of progress and the sources of it within the longer cyclical lives of civilizations (societies and cultures).

The uphill battle for the thesis is that sociologists, historians, economists, and those in development circles generally disdain or attempt to refute that cultural values, beliefs, and attitudes can have any effect on a society’s (culture’s) progress, even despite compelling evidence to the contrary presented here. They prefer to place the blame for a culture’s lack of development on external forces, including geographic constraints, lack of resources, or interfering influence from outside (such as Dependency Theory).

One of the reasons for this, I feel, is the development of cultural relativism after the Second World War and its offspring in the US, Political Correctness. While the premise was to prevent denigrating comments to be made of a person or group (attributing nonexistent or outlier behaviors to the whole group, true ‘stereotyping’), it morphed into primarily preventing any comments the group considered negative, including honest recognition of behavior that represented the group’s actual desired behavioral norm (their Cultural Mean).

Following the tenets of Political Correctness, then, it is inappropriate to attempt to identify a culture’s (or group’s) contributions to its own lack of success or progress through practicing its own expected behaviors (to do so would be construed as racism, a form of “Blame the Victim”), as everything is relative, and thus the forces preventing success must be external.

Unfortunately, one of the major unintended consequences of the cultural relativism and Political Correctness approaches is that they therefore shield and prevent real problems and their sources from being clearly identified, thus preventing any progress in reaching real solutions.

The ultimate irony is that as Political Correctness attempts to block any attempt to identify deeper problems, it also prevents Political Correctness itself from being scrutinized. It has morphed itself into an idol.

Based upon my number of years of observations, it seems that the truth is more the following:

Political Correctness: when one person intimidates another into feeling guilty and abandoning their values and beliefs, so they can cram their values and beliefs down the other’s throat.

The book recognizes this issue when it states, “For culture to matter, there must first be a realization that it needs fixing.” The blind practice of Political Correctness seems intent on preventing a fair chance for that to occur.

One of the strongly supported conclusions from the book’s analyses is that religion has a pronounced effect on influencing a society’s culture. The surprise conclusion, and one running completely counter to Political Correctness, is that particular religions (historically and currently) are more Progress-Prone (Protestantism, Confucianism) or Progress-Resistant (Eastern Orthodoxy, Western Catholic, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam). This conclusion is also reflected in two of my earlier posts (here and here), but not directly, as that would not be Politically Correct.

I love what the book says, the issues it tackles, the data it presents, the counter arguments to critics, and the conclusions it draws. Where I have a (small) issue is in what it says too little of. Parenting and child rearing are indeed covered as institutions creating both values and beliefs, but the importance of these in influencing change in a culture seems to suffer compared to the importance placed on other “village” (as in, “It Takes A Village”) institutions, including education, religious organizations, government, development institutions, universities, the media, and the private sector. The latter all can no doubt be instrumental in furthering cultural change, but by the time they can begin to act on an individual, say from the age of 5 years onward, research has shown that much of values, beliefs and attitudes have already been cast in stone.

This places greater emphasis on the roles parenting and family play in creating cultural foundations, while the other institutions seem better suited to influencing the culture through their collective supportive effects on parents and heads of families, and not in an approach that replaces them by awarding the privilege to the state, regardless of how well intentioned.

The good news is that a major conclusion of the book is that cultural change must be catalyzed from inside the culture, and not by external forces or influences. Bye, bye Nation Building. This would seem to modify the impact of Moynihan’s aphorism, which as an either/or condemning statement does appear to be both naïve as well as arrogant.  It would be better off and more effective if understood as an and/and visionary motivation.


Next: Organizations


About Jim Edmonds

I am a husband, father, mentor, who once was a chemist turned physicist turned marketer turned executive turned missionary turned professor. And survived it all.
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One Response to Culture 5 – The Whopping Effects of the Nonexistent Culture of Nations

  1. WOW!

    This post stretches me in the right direction! Thank you!



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