Defining cultural dimensions

A lot of international marketing research revolves around the idea of cultural dimensions, i.e. ways of categorizing different value sets within national or demographic groups.

Gorodnichenko and Roland (2011) describe the three cultural dimension frameworks that are used in most cultural theory research:

  • Geert Hoftstede – Hofstede initially studied IBM employees as a means to identify differences in corporate cultures around the world. His work identified four main cultural dimensions: individualism/collectivism, power distance, masculinity/femininity, and uncertainty avoidance.

Individualism is related to how a person values “individual freedom, opportunity, achievement, advancement, and recognition.” Conversely, collectivism is related to how a person identifies with and integrates with their groups (social, work, etc.)

Power distance measures the willingness of the culture to accept how power is distributed, e.g. very hierarchical vs. egalitarian structures. High power distance cultures accept a high degree of inequality in the power structures.

Masculinity is related to how male values, such as assertiveness and competition, dominate the culture. Again, conversely, femininity is related to caring and compassion as the dominant cultural values.

Finally, uncertainty avoidance is related to how comfortable a culture is with unknown situations. In a high uncertainty avoidance culture, laws, rules, and safety measures attempt to minimize areas of risk.

  • Schwartz – Schwartz surveyed over 75,000 schoolteachers and college students to identify a “core set of values that have common cross-cultural meanings.” His work identified automony/embeddedness, hierarchy/egalitarianism, and harmony/mastery.

Schwartz defines autonomy as “being encouraged to cultivate and express preferences, feelings, ideas, and abilities.” In terms of intellectual autonomy, people pursue “ideas and intellectual directions, without outside guidance.” In terms of affective autonomy, people pursue positive experiences. Conversely, embeddedness is when people value social relationships and striving towards shared group goals.

Hierarchy “focuses on the importance of hierarchy within a society and a political system that stabilizes power, tradition, and conformity.” This is in contrast to egalitarianism which focuses on equal rights for citizens.

Harmony is related to the avoidance of change and conflict, while mastery emphasizes achievement.

  • World Values Survey – Developed by professor Ronald Inglehart as a way of understanding the effect of cultural dimensions on economic outcomes. This work identified the following dimensions: hard work and thrift, tolerance, public good provision, equality, and market orientation.

These dimensions are aggregates developed from over 1000 questions related to “personal attitudes towards life, family and society; the environment; work; the importance of traditionalism; gender roles; democracy and government; health; education; religion, spirituality, and morality; and honesty.

While there isn’t one correct set of cultural dimensions to use when developing international marketing plans, it is critical to be aware that there are several schools of thought available on defining cultures and their values.


Gorodnichenko, Y. & Roland, G. (2011). “Which dimensions of culture matter for long-term growth?” American Economic Review: Papers & Proceedings 2011, 101 (3), pp. 492-498.


One thought on “Defining cultural dimensions

  1. Pingback: Does individualist advertising themes work in collectivist cultures? | twig street research

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