Comparative cultural research

from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Every encounter with foreign cultures requires respect from both sides and consciously or unconsciously leads to a cultural comparison. This applies to vacationers, business travelers, adventurers and scientists alike. (Tourist with the Maasai)

Comparative cultural research or cultural comparison for short is a collective term for studies in the social or social sciences that compare aspects of human behavior , forms of representation or values from different societies . Comparisons between cultures play an important role, especially in ethnology (ethnology), sociology , psychology , economics and political science . In the broadest sense, ( interdisciplinary ) cross-cultural considerations can be found in almost all research areas.


Hippie scene: own culture or subculture ?

"The question about the peculiarities of collectives - about the consciousness, character, identity, mentality of large groups such as peoples, nations or ethnic communities - is as old as the history of civilization."

- Heinz-Günther Vester

It is part of human nature to involuntarily make comparisons when in contact with strangers in order to judge the person or the group, to put it casually: to “put in a drawer” (see personal categorization ). At the level of earlier societies, this appraisal and classification of foreign cultures can be seen as a vital practice, because one had to decide whether it was a question of friend or foe. Such categorizations polarize , are extremely subjective and therefore deliver erroneous and distorted images of "the others". Nevertheless, it was precisely this confrontation with other people's thoughts and actions that was the actual driving force behind any cultural change .

There were masterminds for a more objective view already in antiquity . The scientifically based cultural comparison begins with the 19th century, when field studies began to be carried out among the colonized peoples. In this context, Alexander von Humboldt was one of the few researchers of this time who did not regard foreign cultures as savages. Comparative cultural research was particularly popular in the 1940s and 50s - certainly not least in the context of coming to terms with the Second World War. Until the 1970s, interest in it was rather low, before it has increased steadily again since the 1980s against the background of the major global political changes. However, very few cross-cultural studies have been published in Germany so far.

A catchy example of the cultural comparison since 2000 are the well-known PISA studies on the performance level of students who have both an educational policy and a social science background.

The concept of culture

The romanticizing image of the “noble savage” shows the effects of cross-cultural research on the population of the early modern period: They served people's longing for a free life in undisturbed nature

A fundamental difficulty in understanding the results of cross-cultural social research is the broad meaning of the term culture , for which very different definitions exist even within the human sciences . Most regulations are either based on a totalist approach and apply to the whole way of life of a people in a comprehensive way, or they are based on a mentalist approach and concern only the thoughts, ideas and values ​​of a people.


Most of the reviews are about the central questions:

  • Are cultures equal, or are they at different stages of development?
  • Are some cultures more developed than others?
  • Do some cultures have to develop where others are?

Although most scientists try not to make any assessments, a certain psychological bias towards foreign cultures ( ethnocentrism ) can hardly be avoided simply by the terminology used in Western science (see also Eurocentrism , evolutionism ).

Ethnologists in particular criticize an overly careless global generalization of the results of individual studies that were carried out, for example, with managers or students from different countries. This would create the impression that these are behaviors that apply to all people, although they actually only say something about national cultures, but not about indigenous cultures , for example .

Demarcation problem

For every cross-cultural study, it must first be determined which social groups are to be examined and compared. In the case of ethnological studies that examine, for example, indigenous peoples living spatially far apart , the delimitation is quite simple. It becomes more difficult subcultures clearly delineate (see subculture demarcation problems ). It causes bigger problems if the study is to compare the differences in the value culture of all social classes in several countries, for example . Can these layers be clearly defined and compared with one another? Can the cultural influences of migrants be filtered out? Is there a particularly strong focus on religion in a country that could falsify the results? A comparative cultural scientist must ask himself many questions in this regard before starting his work, and many critics will ask him after his publication.

Some sociologists - such as the Norwegian Stein Rokkan or the American Melvin Kohn - consider the results of studies that were only obtained by comparing different societies of Western culture to be unsuitable for drawing general conclusions from them. They advocate always including “traditional cultures that are not influenced by the West” in order to develop meaningful theories.

Ultimately, any cultural comparison is inevitably based on the point of view of the cultural context to which the scientist himself belongs.


Data collection

Do you recognize the dangers of this fictitious (not meant seriously) questionnaire for hunters and gatherers, which was unmistakably developed by a person with a western influence?
The ethnologist Frances Densmore makes sound recordings with the Blackfoot chief Mountain Chief (1916)

The original method was to record observed behaviors among alien peoples. At the time of social Darwinism there were also large-scale anatomical surveying activities (e.g. craniometry ). It was assumed that culture also lies in people's genes and therefore tried to prove this using typical body measurements of the various races of people . It is not surprising that most comparative cultural studies of the 19th century were written from the perspective of a supposedly superior European culture.

Modern anthropologists must avoid any evaluation of foreign behavior if their data collections are to be used for comparative studies - as far as this is possible in view of the researchers' own “cultural heritage”. In addition, members of traditional cultures who have had little contact with the western world can be influenced by visiting scientists, so that on the one hand the results are falsified and on the other hand an unwanted cultural change can occur. It therefore requires a high degree of respect for the unfamiliar way of life and a willingness to adapt.

Cross-cultural research within the western cultural area is mostly based on surveys.

The HRAF project

In 1949 the American anthropologist George P. Murdock (1897–1985) founded a large-scale database for holistic cultural comparisons at Yale University , which is now called "Human Relations Area Files" (HRAF or eHRAF ​​for the online version) running. HRAF would like to provide a complete overview of the diversity of all cultures, which makes data comparable and statistically evaluable for research. For this purpose, the world was divided into 60 cultural areas (macro-culture areas) and 88 overarching cultural categories were created, which in turn are subdivided in many ways. The initial data of the 400 or so peoples recorded come from a large number of different ethnologists. Today HRAF has 300 member organizations from the USA and 20 other countries. The HRAF represents an important basis for cross-cultural work and with the help of the database a large number of publications on a wide variety of aspects have already been produced.

Cultural standards

Common Tai Chi in public: Even if this is a well-known image from China, is it a “typical Chinese behavior” - a so-called cultural standard ?

The psychologist Alexander Thomas introduced the term “cultural standards”, which is used for comparative behavioral studies and for the acquisition of intercultural competence . Thomas understands culture as the orientation framework of a society that determines the feelings, thoughts and actions of its members. Accordingly, it requires competent empathy and knowledge of the respective standards in order to be able to communicate without prejudice and understandably with people from other cultures. The cultural standards are intended to express the mentality of a population in words.

“Cultural standards are understood to mean all types of perception , thinking , valuing and acting that the majority of members of a certain culture regard as normal , self-evident, typical and binding for themselves and others . The behavior of one's own and that of others is judged on the basis of these cultural standards. "

First and foremost, it is an attempt to describe the typical behavior patterns of the majority of members of a cultural area or a national culture in certain situations. In order to achieve meaningful results, the self-statements of the examined group are compared with the statements of members of another cultural area about the examined group: How well do self-image and external image match? If this investigation is carried out alternately, a relative comparison of the standards of two cultures or cultural areas emerges . Relatively because it does not show whether the recorded cultural standards exist in all human cultures, i.e. whether they can be traced back to universal human behavioral dimensions. A qualification and classification is therefore not yet possible with this consideration; the investigation ends with the “concept formation”.

Because one is born into a certain culture, the typical behavioral repertoire of one's own group is unconsciously internalized in the formative childhood years. According to Thomas, cultural standards consist of a central norm and a tolerance range. The norm specifies the ideal value, the tolerance range includes the still acceptable deviations from the norm value. Behaviors that go beyond these limits are, according to the theory, rejected by other people and possibly sanctioned. Central cultural standards change only very slowly, even under changed living conditions.

An example of a cultural standard: Germans usually (supposedly) try to deal openly with existing conflicts by addressing them directly. In some Asian countries this would only be possible to a limited extent, as there an open argument would cause the other person to lose face. Other examples of cultural standards are “authority thinking”, “physical closeness”, “sense of duty”, “individuality” and “family ties.” The following table gives a very simplified overview for some countries.

Although cultural standards certainly describe behavior to be expected with a certain degree of probability, and are therefore popular and are disseminated, for example, by the chambers of commerce and industry, they harbor the risk of stereotypes and prejudices being formed. This obscures the view of reality, which is full of deviations from such greatly reduced and limiting terms! (see also points of criticism under the table)

Germany United States Peru India China
People strive for Self-realization and personal responsibility Individualism, equal opportunities, initiative Social recognition, mutual help * Family orientation, recognition by certain people Social recognition and group membership
Areas of life Separation of work and private life Identification with work, connection with private life Mixing work and personal life Mixing work and personal life Unity and community building in all areas of life
Initial contacts distant, stiff, sober, impersonal (played) happy, sociable, approachable, "arrogant" friendly, but suspicious * , appraising * , verbose polite, respectful, emotional, easily vulnerable polite, respectful, humorous, harmonious
Behavior in the event of a conflict Direct pronunciation, sincerity Indirect contact, harmony Indirectly, search for third-party debt * , suffering * Indirect contact, harmony Indirect handling, "save face"
Rules and principles give clear orientation, are irrefutable are handled flexibly, non-interference takes priority are measured against the situation, serve only as rough guidelines are of little importance, are subject to the cosmic order are measured against the situation, serve only as rough guidelines
Relationship to authorities critical, skeptical patriotic, loyal suspicious * , stubborn * submissive, aspiring submissive, appreciative
Think and act goal-oriented, systematic, analytical, not very spontaneous pragmatic, systematic, analytical, willing to take risks, spontaneous passive * , mythical-holistic * , flexible, spontaneous adaptable, holistic, innovative, flexible, spontaneous improvising, holistic, flexible, spontaneous
Work ethic Performance against payment or recognition, impatience, short-term goals Performance only against payment and recognition, serenity, action orientation Collaborative effort * , bountiful aid commitments * , patience, diligence Obedience to care, mutual assistance, willingness to change Obedience to caring, mutual assistance, patience, long term goals
Dealing with time strictly planned and leisure-oriented loosely planned and performance-oriented unplanned and present * all at the same time all at the same time
Collective self-image "We are popular, but ..." "We are the world power" "Together we are strong" * "It will go on" "Everyone else is barbarian"
* : These cultural standards in Peru clearly show the intermingling of indigenous culture with European. The centuries of oppression and exploitation of the Indians, whose share is still 31% (+ 44% mestizo ), has led to the great distrust of foreigners. The behavior in conflict situations has been completely reversed, because at the time of the Inca, direct pronunciation and absolute honesty were considered a great virtue.

The model of cultural standards is often used in the context of economic globalization to prepare employees who go abroad for the mentality typical of the country.

Despite the popularity of the model, there are some serious criticisms:

  • Culture would be viewed too strongly as an unchangeable constant, even though people can actively and consciously create their culture at any time
  • Standardization requires clearly delimited, unaffected pure cultures. In reality, however, these would not exist, as the boundaries are becoming increasingly blurred, especially in times of globalization
  • The data mostly come from questionnaires and interviews. However, since more than 50% of all statements would be mere lip service without real implementation, the meaningfulness of the results is limited

In view of these criticisms, cultural standards are not viewed as an irrefutable truth, but only as an indication with a certain probability!


If one compares the “relationship to nature” of the members of a very traditional ( Yanomami ) and a very modern people ( Germans ), the research results of various cross-cultural disciplines are congruent

"Whatever a classification may look like, it is better than no classification"

The personal categorization mentioned in the introduction is carried out more or less consciously by every person when they meet strangers. This central component of interpersonal behavior leads to a collective perception of demarcation through comparison with the impressions of other members of one's own society. The strangers are - depending on which of their own values ​​they correspond to or contradict - classified and usually squeezed into a very simplified pair of terms of "we in contrast to the others": We keep our society z. B. for being honest, hardworking and responsible - and the others are portrayed as dishonest, lazy and irresponsible (whether justified or not). This tendency can already be seen in the fact that the self-designation of very many peoples simply means “people” - in the sense of “the only true people” ( e.g. Khoikhoi , Runakuna , Slavs , N'de , Nenets ).

Depiction of a scalping (around 1800) that uses the image of the “barbaric savage”. In fact, white settlers, scalp hunters, and Mexicans also carried out this cruel practice, often encouraged by official scalp awards.

In ancient literature, the barbarians (uneducated) are distinguished from the civilized (Greco-Roman educated). In the Middle Ages, it was mainly Christians who were compared to pagans . During the European expansion since the 15th century, a particularly Eurocentric perspective established itself , which differentiated between the “progressive, educated and Christian Europeans” and the “underdeveloped, uneducated and non-missionary savages”. In order to justify the violent conquests of foreign countries and to refute the contradictions to Christian charity, the foreign peoples were ascribed every conceivable negative attribute that should ultimately reduce them to "human-like animals" whose destruction is not a sin.

In the Age of Enlightenment , efforts arose in science to reinterpret the previously negative classification of savage and civilized. Socially critical philosophers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau postulated the “naturally good person” whose character would only be corrupted by culture. The peoples living close to nature were raised to the status of “ noble savages ” - in stark contrast to the degradation of these cultures that was prevalent at the time.

With the beginning of scientific ethnology in the 19th century, knowledge about foreign cultures increased, so that the way to a more differentiated view between “barbarians and noble savages” was paved. For a long time (under the influence of Darwin's theory of evolution), however, was as a model for all investigations still a distinction between civilized nations and indigenous people (in the sense of "culture -less made people"), which thus continues to be based on a pejorative term for the traditional cultures ( Pejorative ). It only changed slowly after the Second World War.

Even in modern cross-cultural research, pairs of terms are still used for classification, but no longer in the sense of incompatible opposites ( dichotomies ), but as polar opposites that allow the results to be sorted side by side on correspondingly defined scales between the two poles.

The following are two examples of such classifications:

Cold and hot cultures and options

Dancing Prairie Indians in Münster: Traditional “cold” folklore in a modernized “hot” culture?

The Anthropology is a comparative discipline and as a methodological strategy of cultural comparison is its central component. He is at the beginning of ethnological research. So it is not surprising that the earliest classification systems for cultures came from ethnologists.

With the distinction between cold and hot cultures, originally intended as a dichotomy , the ethnologist Claude Lévi-Strauss introduced a neutral classification for the first time to differentiate between modern and traditional (nature-adapted) cultures, which avoided the pejorative terms barbaric, savage, uncivilized or primitive. Lévi-Strauss recognized that any society could be classified according to its ideological attitude towards cultural change .

He called “cold cultures” societies in which all thinking and acting consciously and unconsciously aim to prevent any changes in traditionally fixed structures (provided that there is no imperative or external influences). The trust is in nature; human activity is generally considered imperfect. The so-called isolated peoples , who mostly deliberately avoid contact with the western world, are today's representatives of cold societies.

Shuar indigenous people on their way to washing by the river: Modern “hot” plastic objects in traditional “cold” culture?

“Hot cultures” are the exact opposite: They trust human innovation and are optimistic about being able to adapt nature to their needs. Hence, all of their striving is directed towards progress and change. Even if this primarily improves the living conditions of the privileged, the lower classes are often the mainspring of development. The modern, western-oriented consumer society is the prototype of hot culture.

From Lévi-Strauss, some ethnologists, but also sociologists, anthropologists, cultural historians and various fields of cultural studies adopted this classification. However, cold and hot were no longer an irreconcilable pair of opposites, but poles in different spectrums of different areas of culture. Accordingly, there are more or less cooling and heating options in all cultures , so that a wide range of different conditions exist between very cold and very hot societies.

There are a number of other approaches that gain their insights from a comparison of the most traditional and modern cultures - the “poles of the human cultural spectrum”. Although they use different terminology, they come to results that agree well with the characteristics of hot and cold societies.

Cultural dimensions

A similar classification method as for the cold / hot spectrum is hidden behind the term “cultural dimension”. The attempt is made to trace the mentality of people from different cultural areas back to basic human behavioral patterns in order to then be able to compare the cultural standards on a scale between two poles. An example for a better understanding:

If one came to the conclusion that "dealing with the hierarchy in companies" is a fundamental cultural dimension of humanity, the respective cultural standards would be in the order "very collegial" in Denmark - "rather collegial" in Germany - "authoritarian" in Japan - Can be ordered “very authoritarian” in France.

Various cultural scientists, anthropologists and sociologists have devoted themselves to this idea and tried to find and name the basic cultural dimensions. By far the most extensive - but also most controversial - study comes from the Dutchman Geert Hofstede . Basically, the same points of criticism apply to all dimensions models as to the cultural standards. In addition, the question is asked whether the results actually represent cultural patterns that persist over time or are only snapshots at the time of the study. In contrast to ethnology, these studies deal exclusively with “excerpts” of modern Western culture, which are characterized by a great deal of heterogeneity , enormous fluctuations and a large number of subcultures .

To counter such allegations, the French social philosopher Jacques Demorgon developed a differentiated cultural theory in which a model of universal cultural dimensions is embedded. This also applies to the classic models by Kluckhohn / Strodtbeck and Edward T. Hall , which are still frequently cited. The models by Fons Trompenaars , Shalom H. Schwartz and the Project-GLOBE (Global Leadership and Organizational Behavior Effectiveness Research Project) are also accepted and motivated by an improvement in Hofstede's results . However, they are limited to certain groups within the cultures, in particular to employees and managers, and are therefore not necessarily transferable to the overall culture.

The following table shows, in a very simplified manner, some universal cultural dimensions from various authors. Their suitability for a universal classification is illustrated by the comparison of segmented , traditionally nature-adapted cultures with modern consumer society . (This representation is also well suited for a comparison with the spectrum of cold and hot societies and options)

Cultural dimension lowest expression strongest expression Author (s)
Segmentary, traditional companies Democratic, modern societies
Relationship with nature Subordination, harmony Control, dominance Kluckhohn / Strodtbeck u. Trompenaars
Individualism / collectivism very collectivist very individualistic Hofstede
Activity of man Be Act Kluckhohn / Strodtbeck
Understanding of time and organization of action polychronic (personal contacts ahead of schedule; many tasks simultaneously) monochronous (schedule before personal contacts; task completion one after the other) ET Hall et al. Demorgon
Time orientation past future Kluckhohn / Strodtbeck
Long-term orientation high, traditional, binding low, nostalgic, non-binding Hofstede
decisions more often consensus-oriented more often dissent-oriented Demorgon
Privacy / public Mixing of all areas of life clear separation of all areas of life Trompenaars

Note: In the case of cultural dimensions not mentioned here, such as "human nature", "relationship to other people" (Kluckhohn / Strodtbeck), "understanding of space", "high or low context" (Edward T. Hall) or "power distance", " Uncertainty avoidance ”(Hofstede) u. a. are the compared “extreme cultures” not at the poles of the cultural dimensions.


Significant cross-cultural research comes from the following scientists:


  • Susanne Rippl, Christian Seipel (Hrsg.): Methods of comparative cultural social research: An introduction. Springer VS, Wiesbaden 2008.
  • Petia Genkova, Tobias Ringsisen and Frederick TL Leong (eds.): Handbook Stress and Culture: Intercultural and cross-cultural perspectives. Springer VS, Wiesbaden 2012.
  • Rainer Alsheimer, Alois Moosmüller, Klaus Roth (eds.): Local cultures in a globalizing world: Perspectives on intercultural areas of tension. Waxmann, Münster 2000.
  • Heinz Hahn (Ed.): Cultural differences: interdisciplinary concepts for collective identities and mentalities. Iko, Frankfurt 1999, ISBN 3-88939-477-9 .
  • Dietmar Treichel, Claude-Hélène Mayer (Hrsg.): Textbook Culture: Teaching and learning materials for imparting cultural skills. Waxmann, Münster 2011.
  • Reinhold Zippelius : Behavior control through law and central cultural ideas. Duncker & Humblot, Berlin 2004, ISBN 3-428-11456-6 .

Individual evidence

  1. Heinz-Günther Vester: Collective Identities and Mentalities: From Ethnic Psychology to Comparative Sociology and Intercultural Communication. Iko, Frankfurt 1996, ISBN 3-88939-319-5 , p. 11.
  2. Alois Moosmüller: The difficulty with the concept of culture in intercultural communication. In: Rainer Alsheimer (Hrsg.): Local cultures in a globalizing world. Perspectives on intercultural areas of tension. Waxmann, Münster 2000, ISBN 3-89325-926-0 , pp. 15–32, here pp. ?? ..
  3. History of HRAF project: History and Development of the HRAF Collections . In: Human Relations Area Files - Cultural information for education and research . New Haven CT, USA, undated, accessed November 3, 2018.
  4. ^ Dieter Haller : Dtv-Atlas Ethnologie . 2nd Edition. dtv, Munich 2010, p. 149.
  5. Alexander Thomas (Ed.): Psychology of intercultural action . Hogrefe, Göttingen 1996. ISBN 3-8017-0668-0
  6. D. Kumbier et al. F. Schulz von Thun: Intercultural communication: methods, models, examples. 3rd edition, Rowohlt Verlag GmbH, Reinbek bei Hamburg 2009, pp. 74-75.
  7. Google search for “Culture Standards Industry and Commerce” . Retrieved July 28, 2013.
  8. a b c Accessed on July 25, 2013
  9. a b slide (without author): Culture and cultural standards: developments and functions. ( Memento from September 28, 2014 in the Internet Archive ) (PDF: 520 kB, 16 pages) In: Undated, accessed September 7, 2019.
  10. Stefan Schmid, slide: American cultural standards (from a German perspective) ( Memento from March 4, 2016 in the Internet Archive ) (PDF: 2.4 MB, 22 pages) In: Undated, accessed September 7, 2019.
  11. Wilfried Dreyer, Ulrich Hössler (ed. If necessary): Perspektiven Interkultureller Kompetenz. Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen 2011.
  12. Retrieved on July 26, 2013.
  13. ^ Claude Lévi-Strauss: The wild thinking. Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt am Main 1968.
  14. Petia Genkova, Tobias Ringsisen, Frederick TL Leong (ed. If necessary): Handbook Stress and Culture: Intercultural and Comparative Perspectives. Springer VS, Wiesbaden 2013.
  15. Annett Reimer: The importance of Geert Hofstede's cultural theory for international management. In “Wismar Discussion Papers”, Wismar University - Faculty of Business, Issue 20/2005.