At the beginning of February 2020, the world lost a great researcher and practitioner; a man who could have shone a very insightful light on how cultures and societies respond to a drastic event, like the current pandemic, and how such responses tend to be value-laden.
The person in question is: Geert Hofstede.
His professional life was largely devoted to the development and application of a model that attempts to explain the behaviour of groups of persons that share the same national background. This model was initially grounded in four cultural dimensions in order to explain differences between Western cultures: Uncertainty avoidance (UAI), Power distance (PDI), Individualism (IDV) and Masculinity (MAS). They allow characterizing and comparing group preferences and behaviour in function of the scores that the national culture -to which the members of a group belong- obtains on each of these dimensions. Consequently, the model enables explaining why different cultures come up with distinct solutions for the same problem or react/behave differently when faced with the same situation.
Given that the current Corona crisis is a truly worldwide phenomenon, it provides a basis to put such differences into perspective.
Clearly, the way that national governments across the globe have reacted to the pandemic shows a broad variety. As can be seen here, the severity and width of the measures implemented vary considerably across countries. At the same time, the reaction of the respective populations to the measures they were subjected to hasn’t been the same either.
In reference to the Hofstede model, one can postulate that both the approach and measures proposed by national governments to deal with the health and economic crisis, as well as the subsequent behavior of citizens can be viewed as an expression of what is culturally considered to be an adequate or acceptable response to the issue at stake.
In what follows we’ll try to make sense of this by (1) reviewing the initial cultural dimensions of Hofstede’s model, and (2) the scores on these dimensions on behalf of three countries (Austria, Germany and Spain) that took central stage in Orkestra’s “European regions in the face of COVID-19: a comparative look at politicy measures”:
Uncertainty avoidance is defined as "a society's tolerance for ambiguity". Societies that obtain a high score on the UAI tend to feel uncomfortable in the wake of ambiguity and assume that there is (or must be) an absolute truth to determine what is correct behavior. Cultures with a low tolerance for ambiguity can, therefore, show a tendency to quibble and debate to come to definitions of what can/should be done and what is not tolerated. They tend to prefer unequivocal and one-size-fits all solutions. Cultures with a higher tolerance for ambiguity, instead, tend to act more relaxed when confronted with uncertainty. Assuming that an absolute truth or a definitive solution to a problem is out of reach, they tend to move into uncharted territory with a more contingent mindset.
The next dimension is power distance, which refers to the way that power is distributed among layers of society and how the better positioned members of society make use of their discretionary power. This translates e.g. into whether power is broken down in an egalitarian manner or in a hierarchical manner. In addition, it becomes visible through the behavior of people at the helm of hierarchical lines of command: “will they delegate, consensuate or share decision-power; involve other (lower) echelons, or pull the strings towards them in given situations?”
Instinctively, one may tend to relate this dimension to the degree of (de)centralization of political power in territories. However, this feature only has relative explanatory power to understand PDI in societies. In fact, (institutional) structures and (attitudinal) strategies displayed by those in charge can be quite opposed.
Take Spain for example. When referring to the theoretical construct of political decentralization, Spain obtains a high score, both compared to the other two countries under consideration and in general. This is at odds with its considerable PDI score. Nevertheless, a closer look reveals that this decentralization is rather asymmetric and only a few of its comunidades autonomas enjoy broad-based autonomy, which is already more in line with its PDI score. Moreover, when the pandemic irrupted the central government was rather quick to establish a central command, something which it has tried to hold on to (also more in line with its pronounced PDI).
Also in the case of Austria, its highly centralized political structure appears not be consistent with its low PDI score. However, its corporativistic culture led to a rather collegial and mutually endorsed problem addressing, something that matches with its low score on the power distance index.
Germany is at face value the most coherent case. It has a moderate PDI, while its political landscape is indeed characterized by pronounced decentralization. In fact, during the crisis this led to distinct economic and sanitary measures at the level of its respective regions (or: Länder). Likewise, as its respective regions are endowed with their own economic buffers (cfr. the Landesbanken), this enabled a swift and decentralized alleviation of (business) needs. Moreover, this country is also characterized by an outspoken corporativistic culture (cfr. Mitbestimmung).
Next in line is the individualism dimension, which refers to the "degree to which persons in a country prefer to act as individuals rather than as members of groups”; following own rules instead of common rules suggested to or imposed on all.
It also forms an indicator of how (openly) affectionate people are, and how “touchy” (in the good/neutral sense of the term). Hence, cultures that are fonder of human contact and who salute each other more heartily, tend to score lower on the IDV dimension as an expression of more collectivistic values. In such cultures, people also feel less uncomfortable when personal space is limited and when guarding distance is complicated.
As regards the IDV dimension, Spain has the lowest score, which situates it most on the side of a collectivistic culture. This country has also been the most categorical in applying rules that are not open to interpretation (this also resonates with its UAI score). I.e., rules that concede little power to individual citizens for making their own judgments as to when to protect oneself in public by wearing masks and social distancing. Germany and Austria, conversely, have held on much longer to “lenient” rules regarding how to behave in public space (with or without mouth caps and distancing). This (partial) devolving of such judgment and responsibility to individual members of society in function of a given context is rather characteristic for societies with a higher score on the IDV dimension.
Interestingly, Spain’s score on this dimension also implies that it could (have) run the highest health risk if social distancing would not be imposed, which provides further back-up for its decision to adopt indiscriminate measures.
Finally, the masculinity dimension (MAS) refers to the degree with which “tough” values like assertiveness, performance and competition prevail in a society. These are values that tend to be associated with the role (or nature) of men, as opposed to tender values like the quality of life, maintaining warm personal relationships, service, care for the weak, and solidarity, which tend to be associated with femininity. Among the three countries considered, Austria clearly has the most masculine result on this dimension, whereas Spain displays the most feminine score.
A salient discussion that has been held during the early stages of the pandemic, and which can be related to this dimension, has been the one on: “what is essential activity; what type of business has to keep functioning by all means?” In places where industry was marked as “not essential”, production and supply activities came to a kind of collective halt, while there have also been places where governments warranted the continuation of industrial activity. Clearly, the countries under consideration have answered in a different manner to this question. I.e., Spain restricted production activities more than Germany and Austria, certainly during the early stages of the pandemic. This is in line with the respective scores that these countries obtain on the Masculine dimension of the Hofstede model.
Conversely, and although initiatives to produce sanitizing gels and protective equipment, etc. have popped up all over Europe, the activity displayed in this regard on behalf of Spanish manufacturing companies and industrial clusters has been truly remarkable, and forms an illustration of its (feminine) vocation of solidarity.
In conclusion: the Hofstede model allows giving relief to the ways in which respective (national) cultures respond to a common phenomenon or situation. In fact, the Austrian, German and Spanish scores align fairly well with revealed behaviour and decisions that can be related to questions of uncertainty avoidance, individualism and masculinity. In addition, when taking into account that power distance should not be identified with the application of subsidiarity principles or other manifestations of political (de)centralization, also the respective country scores on the power distance index make sense.
Bart Kamp is Principal Investigator in the focus area of Business Internationalisation and Servitization at Orkestra-Institute of Basque Competitiveness. His research centres on competitive strategies that enable firms to be leaders in their niches on the international market and on servitization processes between manufacturing firms.