Sunday, December 18, 2022

Cultural Dimensions for Worldbuilders

One of the most used and studied Cultural Psychological theory, Greete Hofstede's cultural dimensions are a series of six aspects of culture which span across human nearly all human societies.  These dimensions act as an easy way to understand aspects of a culture and have been some of the most researched and best attested to theories in Cross-Cultural Psychology.

This is advantageous for worldbuilders because it provides them with new ways to think about the cultures they are building. Playing with these dimensions, along with histories, and the elements of culture can provide you with innumerable different cultures to populate your worlds. 

The cultural dimension are based on Numerical Scale of 1 to over a 100. For example, if a culture has an 80 on the individualism vs collectivism scale, the members of it will tend to be individualist in their thinking, while a culture that scores a 20 will be more collectavist, while those that score 40-60 would tend to be more in the middle of this cultural dimension.

As a cross-cultural psychologist I would ask that people avoid ethnic bias. It is a mistake to presume that any cultural dimension is better than another, the different dimensions have allowed those who display them to survive in different situations. This is why research has shown that people who grew rice and people who grew wheat have different cultures based on the requirements for growing these crops. That is Fiszbein, Jung, and Vollrath found in a comprehensive study of the US that farming higher labor-intensive crops was highly associated with collectivism, while low labor-intensive crops was associated individualism. So cultures that grow rice tend to be more collectivist because rice requires more labor and the management of complex waterworks which benefit a community; “Traditional rice farmers dealt with the labor demands by forming reciprocal labor exchanges. A legacy of rice production therefore yields collectivism, and a depressed drive to innovate... the close cooperation within a village suggests that benefits from innovation are rapidly adopted by the entire village. Thus, the benefits of innovation are largely external to the innovator, reducing the incentive to exert effort in this direction.” (Zhu, Ang, and Fredriksson) 

Wheat, on the other had tends to be a more individual activity and so encouraged individualist cultures. This is tendency is increased by the raising of cattle as a secondary source of food, for people would have to set out on their own or in small groups “to secure water and grass for the herd in distant locations. This increased their interaction with strangers and encouraged trade which fostered the exchange of ideas. Such exposure to novel ideas and the opportunity to trade new innovative products in larger markets should have heightened the focus on innovation effort. The lower labor input requirements also imply that wheat farmers are able to attend to their own plots with less help from other villagers than is the case for rice farmers.”

The Six Dimensions

Power distance index (PDI): This is the extent to which people accept an unequal distribution of power. That is, how much they accept control from their parents, a ruler, nobility, bosses, or others in positions of power. Workers in high power distant societies often want their managers to act as benevolent dictators, rather than as friends. Further, a lower number in this dimension indicates that people are far more likely to question authority. 

Individualism vs. collectivism (IDV): For many this is one of the most difficult dimensions to understand and a lot of mistaken ideas have sprung up about it so I caution you to be careful trying to apply this to the real world. 

Collectivist cultures have strong ties and loyalties to their families and ingroups, whom they seek to help, even to the detriment of those outside this group. 

Collectivist cultures are more likely put their family's and group's desires above their own desires, and as a result they would be more likely to take on the role their parents or other members of their group wished them too, rather than trying to express their own identity. 

Individualism, with its emphasis on 'self-actualization' may come in part due to more frequent encounters with strangers and members of an outgroup and less reliance on a large ingroup. This might explain a study by A study by Deborah Cai & Edward Fink which found that individualist cultures are more likely to attempt to avoid conflicts all together, while collectivist cultures are more likely to try to compromise. On the other hand, both are equally as likely to try domination as the way to get what they want when conflict arises.

In Short:

Collectivists will tend to put more emphasis on the rights of families and communities over those of individuals. They tend towards rules which promote unity and will seek to work and cooperate with others and tend to be self-sacrificing. 

Individualists see individual rights and the ability to choose the role one wants in society as important. They value their independence.  

Whether you mean to or not the themes of this cultural dimension are likely to creep into your story one way or another. Case and point, individualism can be thought of as the Disney Animation Values in which Ariel, Bell, Merida, etc. seek to follow their own dream, rather than accepting the role society, their parents, or both have placed on them. That is, these stories feature an individualist character stuck in a more collectivist society which they feel is repressing them. 

Of Disney's "Mulan" the researchers from Jining Medical University in China State that; 

The American version of Mulan adds some American individualistic features. When the emperor heard the news of the Xiongnu attack, he ordered the general to post a recruitment notice throughout the city, and said: "Small soldiers can also make great achievements." The emperor's words show the importance of personal ability and strength. In the battle with Chanyu, Mulan saved the emperor, at this time Mulan's personal strength surpassed the others, which proved that the small soldiers mentioned by the emperor could also make great achievements. The layout of this plot highlights the individualism of the United States. American individualism believes that competition is more exciting than cooperation, and individual glory transcends collective glory. During the battle with Chanyu, Mulan did not follow the orders of the general, adhered to her own point of view and finally won the war. American individualism emphasizes the consciousness of "oneself", the individual will transcend the collective will, and believes that the individual has the right to fight for the protection of his private ownership and to adhere to his own views and beliefs. This cultural feature focuses on individual will and achievements and respects individual decision-making. (Lei Wang, Bing Han, and Guofei Xu)

This isn't bad, per say, the best films and books reflect the culture which made them. Still, it can be useful when trying to depict different cultures in your story to realize that they would value different things. 

Uncertainty avoidance (UAI): This is societies willingness to accept uncertainty. Obviously, countries with a high uncertainty avoidance will tend to have strict codes of behavior and guidelines that dictate how one should think. They believe that there is one truth which dictates everything. Those with a low degree of uncertainty avoidance will accept differing ideas and are more accustomed to ambiguity.

Masculinity vs. femininity (MAS): Masculine societies in this case prefer heroism, assertiveness, and believe that one should be rewarded for their success. In counter to this are cultures which seek cooperation, modesty, and believe that those who have struggled should be cared for. 

Here again we see a clear connection between the environment people needed to survive in and the cultural traits they exhibited. In this case cultures in more temperate climates tended to be more masculine, while those in "In cooler climates with prolonged winter, meeting basic needs for food, safety, and security is much more demanding, which promotes intense parental care for the family." (Hofstede) Similarly, men in cultures in extremely hot climates such as that of the Aka pygmies and the Batek of Malaysia will provide a lot of fatherly care for their children. 

These differences might be accounted for by the fact that more extreme temperatures require parents to spend more time and resources caring for their children, as Hofstede proposes. On the other hand, war tends to be easier in moderate climates, thus the threat of raids might encourage masculine cultures. If true this dimension could be thought of as environmental vs physical dangers. 

It is important to realize that while many tend to think of the care giving and cooperative nature of femininity as akin to Collectivism, cultures like Sweden can be very Individualist and Feminine, while China is Collectivist and Masculine. 

Long-term orientation vs. short-term orientation (LTO): Cultures with a long-term view attempt to adapt and solve problems pragmatically. Those who have short-term orientation value traditions and steadfastness in the face of adversity. 

Indulgence vs. restraint (IND): Indulgent cultures allow people the freedom to gratify their natural desires, to enjoy life and have fun. While cultures that show restraint have strict social norms. 

Dimensions within a Fantasy World

Exactly how these dimensions work within the cultures of your fantasy world is obviously up to you and in many cases, it would be impossible to know exactly how a magical environment filled with vampires, demons, dragons, giants, etc. would impact people's culture. Would such creatures force people to stay closer to home, thus making them more nurturing, or would it force the parents to be 'tougher'? Obviously, only you can answer that question based on the nature of the threat and of course the story you are telling but asking the question will hopefully give you ideas for your world. 

In addition to human cultural dimensions, I have worked to create seperate elven, halfling, dwarf, goblin, and gnomish dimensions. Obviously, you are free to change, ignore, or use these as you want, it just could be useful to think of how their cultures might work.