Cultural distances

I was looking at something called the World Value Survey. It’s an attempt to measure cultural values and cultural proximity across the world.

The makers of the survey wanted to provide a measurement of all major areas of human concern “from religion to politics to economic and social life”, and found that two dimensions dominated the picture:  (1) Traditional/ Secular-rational and (2) Survival/Self-expression values.

The Traditional/Secular-rational values dimension

The Traditional/Secular-rational values dimension reflects the contrast between societies in which religion is very important and those in which it is not. A wide range of other orientations are closely linked with this dimension. Societies near the traditional pole emphasize the importance of parent-child ties and deference to authority, along with absolute standards and traditional family values, and reject divorce, abortion, euthanasia, and suicide. These societies have high levels of national pride, and a nationalistic outlook. Societies with secular-rational values have the opposite preferences on all of these topics.

The Survival/Self-expression values dimension

The second major dimension of cross-cultural variation is linked with the transition from industrial society to post-industrial societies-which brings a polarization between Survival and Self-expression values. The unprecedented wealth that has accumulated in advanced societies during the past generation means that an increasing share of the population has grown up taking survival for granted. Thus, priorities have shifted from an overwhelming emphasis on economic and physical security toward an increasing emphasis on subjective well-being, self-expression and quality of life. Self-expression is a cluster of values that include social toleration, life satisfaction, public expression and an aspiration to liberty.

The World Value Survey Cultural Map 2005-2008

Now, the Ivory Coast wasn’t included in the survey, but I would put it in the Africa area, maybe a bit higher than Ghana on the secular/rational axis due to there being no one dominant religion. Northern Ivory Coast would probably be where Mali and Burkina Faso are, and the city of Abidjan maybe a bit above that.

The striking thing here, as a Swede doing business in Africa, is that it seems I have maximised the cultural distance.   That Sweden is an extreme point is no surprise, and I’m pretty much in the top right corner myself so I’m fine with it.  Unlike the other protestant European countries, in Sweden there has long been some sort publically embraced strive for modernity which pretty much means top right corner.  Comedian Fredrik Lindtröm, who says the conclusion of the values study is that Swedes are narcissistic engineers, explains it all very well in “Världens modernaste land” with english subtitles.

However, looking at the people I usually meet when doing business in Abidjan, or my Ivorian friends on facebook, they are wealthier and have much stronger self expression values than average Ivorians, and while still having a strong national pride and family values they are a bit up on the secular/rational scale compared to other Ivorians.  In other words, it’s like doing business with Americans!

UPDATE:  I would actually predict that as African countries get wealthier they will move towards and into the bottom of the “English Speaking” area.  Despite being poor African countries have more self-expression values than wealthier China, Russia, Romania or Korea.  I’d guess sub-saharan Africans have intrinsically pretty strong self expression values (with Rwanda seemingly an exception), just held backed by poverty which forces survival values.  Once the African economies get momentum, we’ll see a rapid move to the right on the cultural map.

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