The Nature Of Our Society

Last weekend I learned about a man named Geert Hofstede who conducted a massive survey of cultures between 1967 and 1973 of 40 countries; the survey was updated in 2001 to cover 74 countries. The Hofstede survey measured five dimensions of a country’s cultural paradigm: (1) Individualism (IDV), (2) Long-Term Orientation (LTO) (this category was not part of the original survey), (3) Masculinity (MAS), (4) Uncertainty Avoidance (UAI), and (5) Power Distance (PDI). The detailed definitions of these dimensions can be found at the depths (for iterative purposes) of this page.

The dimensions of many of the countries surveyed match the perception I have of them, including the U.S. One of the most interesting conclusions I drew from looking at the data about the U.S. has to do with the state of our society today. (1) For Individualism the U.S. ranks highest in the world with a score of 91 against an average of 43. This means we’re the country most focused on the individual and “individual rights are paramount within the society”. No surprise. (2) For Long-Term Orientation the U.S. ranks lowest in the world with a score of 29 against an average of 45. This indicates we do not “embrace, long-term devotion to traditional, forward thinking values” and that “change can occur more rapidly as long-term traditions and commitments do not become impediments to change”. Ain’t that the truth.

There’s nothing philosophically wrong with either of these categories in isolation, though the analysis of our culture gets more interesting as other dimensions are considered. (3) In regards to Masculinity the U.S. scores a 62 against a world average of 50. This “indicates the country experiences a high degree of gender differentiation. In these cultures, males dominate a significant portion of the society and power structure, with females being controlled by male domination”. I found this slightly surprising given our extreme position on individual rights . . . I guess it just matters what type of individual you are (some of us truly are created more equal than others). Regardless of the data, it’s evident the U.S. is pretty clearly dominated by males. Countries with many fewer freedoms and protected classes have had more females in leadership positions. (4) For Uncertainty Avoidance the U.S. scored a 46 against a world average of 64, which “is indicative of a society that has fewer rules and does not attempt to control all outcomes and results” – ignoring the paranoia of last few years of course.

All in all these measures pretty clearly describe the U.S. The fifth and final measure, Power Distance, is from where some enlightening conclusions stem. The U.S. scored a 40 against a world average of 55. The lower the number the greater the “equality between societal levels, including government, organizations, and even within families. This orientation reinforces a cooperative interaction across power levels and creates a more stable cultural environment”.

Is this true? Sure, on paper it is. But if our culture is truly dissected only the guise of what this dimension represents is true, but almost every one of us wants it to be true – and that’s the rub. Contradictions to the measure of Power Distance in the U.S. are not overt but they are prevelant. The extreme nature of our individualism and short-term orientation indirectly drive dichotomy in our society. Someone has to lose, no? Our acceptance of uncertainty allows us to stay calm about it while our masculine orientation keeps our entrenched systems in place, for better or for worse. A winning formula no doubt! But do we really have equality between societal levels and does our orientation reinforce cooperative interaction across power levels to create a more stable cultural environment? To this I would answer a resounding “no”. We claim to have equality by doing everything in our power to keep ourselves from witnessing the inequality all around us, not by acting to eliminate the inequality. We gentrify our schools, churches, neighborhoods and voting districts. We defiantly support our equal society in telephone polls and on the Internet but our behavior speaks more boldly. It shows our lack of comfort with the culture we’ve created but are too weak to change.

And so through all of this we turn a blind eye to the true deficiencies of our society. Surely there are palatable negative conditions which arise from the functioning of any system; that is the nature of life. But, the American culture is leaving too many people behind. The system worked when our country was less evolved and the overall strain on the fabric of society was bearable, but the systems protecting our social fabric weren’t intended to take this level of strain. We’re reaching a point where society will not be able to subsidize all the people its politicians (and voters) have left behind, if only through inaction. The next wave of leaders won’t be able to nudge the ship to quiet the masses.

Action Step(s): Read the information on Hofstede’s website. While the information isn’t perfectly descriptive it does explain a country’s culture fairly well. There are many other indicators out there, and I’m sure they hold their own. I only described this one because it is the one I was exposed to recently. So pick a country you think you understand and read about it’s cultural dimensions. Hell, pick a country you don’t know about and do the same. Hofstede’s findings will give you a better understanding of why certain cultures behave the way they do and why certain cultures have evolved the way they have. They will also allow you to better analyze your own environment and hopefully make more informed decisions in the future. I truly believe that if the general awareness of our population rose just marginally most of the evil-doers in our country would lose power within one election cycle. The time is nigh!

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