Cross-Cultural Analysis

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Cross-cultural research has a long history in sociology (Armer and Grimshaw 1973; Kohn 1989; Miller-Loessi 1995). It most generally involves social research across societies or ethnic and subcultural groups within a society. Because a discussion of macro-level comparative historical research appears in another chapter of this encyclopedia, the focus here is primarily on cross-cultural analysis of social psychological processes. These include communicative and interactive processes within social institutions and more generally the relation between the individual and society and its institutions.

Although all sociological research is seen as comparative in nature, comparisons across subcultural or cultural groups have distinct advantages for generating and testing sociological theory. Specifically, cross-cultural research can help "distinguish between those regularities in social behavior that are system specific and those that are universal" (Grimshaw 1973, p. 5). In this way, sociologists can distinguish between generalizations that are true of all cultural groups and those that apply for one group at one point in time. The lack of cross-cultural research has often led to the inappropriate universal application of sociological concepts that imply an intermediate (one cultural group at one point in time) level (Bendix 1963).

In addition to documenting universal and system-specific patterns in social behavior, cross-cultural analysis can provide researchers with experimental treatments (independent variables) unavailable in their own culture. Thus, specific propositions can be investigated experimentally that would be impossible to establish in a laboratory in the researcher's own country (Strodtbeck 1964). Finally, cross-cultural analysis is beneficial for theory building in at least two respects. First, the documentation of differences in processes across cultures is often the first step in the refinement of existing theory and the generation of novel theoretical models. Second, cross-cultural analysis can lead to the discovery of unknown facts (behavioral patterns or interactive processes) that suggest new research problems that are the basis for theory refinement and construction.


Cross-cultural researchers face a number of challenging interpretive and inferential problems that are related to the methodological strategies they employ (Bollen, Entwisle, and Alderson 1993). For example, Charles Ragin (1989) argues that most cross-cultural research at the macro level involves either intensive studies of one or a small group of representative or theoretically decisive cases or the extensive analysis of a large number of cases. Not surprisingly, extensive studies tend to emphasize statistical regularities while intensive studies search for generalizations that are interpreted within a cultural or historical context. This same pattern also appears in most micro-level cross-cultural research, and it is clearly related to both theoretical orientation and methodological preferences.

Some scholars take the position that cultural regularities must always be interpreted in cultural and historical context, while others argue that what appear to be cross-cultural differences may really be explained by lawful regularities at a more general level of analysis. Those in the first group most often employ primarily qualitative research strategies (intensive ethnographic and historical analysis of a few cases), while those in the second usually rely on quantitative techniques (multivariate or other forms of statistical analysis of large data sets).


The wide variety of techniques employed in cross-cultural analysis reflect the training and disciplinary interests of their practitioners. We discuss the methods of anthropologists, psychologists, and sociologists in turn. Anthropologists generally rely on different types of ethnographic tools for data collection, analysis, and reporting. Ethnographic research has the dual task of cultural description and cultural interpretation. The first involves uncovering the "native's point of view" or the criteria the people under study use "to discriminate among things and how they respond to them and assign them meaning, including everything in their physical, behavioral, and social environments" (Goodenough 1980, pp. 31–32); while the second involves "stating, as explicitly as we can manage, what the knowledge thus attained demonstrates about the society in which it is found and, beyond that, about social life as such" (Geertz 1973, p. 27).

Three types of ethnographic approaches and methodological tools are generally employed in cross-cultural research. The first involves long-term participant observation and the thick description of the culture under study in line with Clifford Geertz's (1973) interpretive perspective of culture. From this perspective, culture is seen as "layered multiple networks of meaning carried by words, acts, conceptions and other symbolic forms" (Marcus and Fisher 1986, p. 29). Thus the metaphor of culture in the interpretive approach is that of a text to be discovered, described, and interpreted. The second involves methods of ethnoscience including elicitation tasks and interviews with key informants that yield data amenable to logical and statistical analysis to generate the "organizing principles underlying behavior" (Tyler 1969; also see Werner and Schoepfle 1987). Ethnoscience views these organizing principles as the "grammar of the culture" that is part of the mental competence of members. The final type of ethnographic research is more positivistic and comparative in orientation. In this approach cross-cultural analysis is specifically defined as the use of "data collected by anthropologists concerning the customs and characteristics of various peoples throughout the world to test hypotheses concerning human behavior" (Whiting 1968, p. 693).

All three types of ethnographic research generate data preserved in research monographs or data archives such as the Human Relations Area Files, the Ethnographic Atlas, and the ever-expanding World Cultures data set that has been constructed around George Murdock and Douglas White's (1968) Standard Cross Cultural Sample. A number of scholars (Barry 1980; Lagacé 1977; Murdock 1967; Whiting 1968; Levinson and Malone 1980) have provided detailed discussions of the contents, coding schemes, and methodological strengths and weaknesses of these archives as well as data analysis strategies and overviews of the variety of studies utilizing such data.

Most cross-cultural research in psychology involves the use of quasi-experimental methods. These include classical experimentation, clinical tests and projective techniques, systematic observation, and unobtrusive methods (see Berry, Poortinga, and Pandey, 1996; Triandis and Berry 1980). However, a number of psychologists have recently turned to observational and ethnographic methods in what has been termed "cultural psychology" (Shweder 1990). Much of the recent research in this area focuses on culture and human development and spans disciplinary boundaries and involves a wide variety of interpretive research methods (Greenfield and Suzuki 1998; Shweder et al. 1998).

Sociologists have made good use of intensive interviewing (Bertaux 1990) and ethnography (Corsaro 1988, 1994; Corsaro and Heise 1992) in cross-cultural analysis. However, they more frequently rely on the survey method in cross-cultural research and have contributed to the development of a number of archives of survey data (Kohn 1987; Lane 1990). The growth of such international surveys in recent years has been impressive. The World Fertility Survey (WFS) is an early example. In one of the first efforts of its kind, women in forty-two developing countries were interviewed between 1974 and 1982 about their fertility behavior, marital and work history, and other aspects of their background. The WFS spawned hundreds of comparative studies that have contributed greatly to the understanding of human fertility (see, for example, Bohgaarts and Watkins 1996; Kirk and Pillet 1998). The Demographic and Health Survey (DHS) largely took up where the WFS left off. In this ongoing project, begun in 1984, nationally representative samples of women aged 15–49 in forty-seven countries have been surveyed regarding lifetime reproduction, fertility preferences, family planning practices, and the health of their children. For some countries, detailed data are available for husbands also and, for a few countries, in-depth interview data are also available.

Less specialized is the international counterpart to the U.S. General Social Survey (GSS); the International Social Survey Program (ISSP). The ISSP got its start in 1984 as researchers in the United States, Germany, Britain, and Australia agreed to field common topical modules in the course of conducting their regular national surveys. Beginning 1985 with a survey of attitudes toward government in the four founding countries, the ISSP has expanded to include surveys on topics as diverse as social networks and social support and attitudes regarding family, religion, work, the environment, gender relations, and national identity. Some specific modules have been replicated and, overall, a large proportion of the items from earlier surveys are carried over to new modules, giving the ISSP both a cross-cultural and longitudinal dimension. At present, thirty-one nations are participating in the ISSP. A number of non-member nations have also replicated specific modules. An interesting offshoot of the ISSP is the International Survey of Economic Attitudes (ISEA). Building on an ISSP module concerning beliefs regarding social inequality, the ISEA collects a wide array of information on attitudes regarding income inequality, social class, and economic policy. The first round was carried out between 1991–1993 in three countries. A second round was carried out in five countries over the 1994–1997 period, and a third round is currently under way. Some of the important reports based on data from these surveys include Jones and Broyfield (1997), Kelley and Evans (1995), and Western (1994).

Also of general interest are the surveys undertaken under the auspices of the World Values Survey Group and Eurobarometer. The World Values Survey (WVS) (originally termed the "European Values Survey") began in 1981 as social scientists in nine Western European countries administered a common survey of social, political, moral, and religious values in their respective countries. Between 1981 and 1984, this survey was replicated in fourteen additional countries, including a number of non-European countries. In 1990–1993, a second wave of the World Values Survey was conducted in a broader group of forty-three nations and a third wave was undertaken in 1995–1996. In terms of content, the WVS is broadly organized around values and norms regarding work, family, the meaning and purpose of life, and topical social issues. Specifically, respondents are queried on everything from their views on good and evil to their general state of health, from their associational memberships to their opinions of the value of scientific discoveries (see Inglehart 1997; MacIntosh 1998). The Eurobarometer surveys began in 1974 as an extension of an earlier series of European Community surveys. Designed primarily to gauge public attitudes toward the Common Market and other EU institutions, the Eurobarometer surveys, carried out every Fall and Spring, have expanded to include a variety of special topics of interest to sociologists, ranging from attitudes regarding AIDS to beliefs about the role of women (see Pettigrew 1998; Quillian 1995).

Finally, there are two more specialized projects that are deserving of note for their scale and scope. Of interest to students of crime and deviance is the International Crime (Victim) Survey (IC(V)S). Begun in 1989 and carried out again in 1992 and 1996, the IC(V)S gathers reports of crime, in addition to surveying attitudes regarding the police and the criminal justice system, fear of crime, and crime prevention (see Alvazzi del Frate and Patrignani 1995; Zvekic 1996). At present, over fifty countries have participated in the IC(V)S. Scholars interested in cross-cultural dimensions of poverty and development have benefitted from the Living Standards Measurement Study (LSMS). In this World Bank-directed program of research, surveys have been conducted in over two dozen developing countries since 1980 with the aim of gauging the welfare of households, understanding household behavior, and assessing the impact of government policy on standards of living. The central instrument is a household questionnaire that details patterns of consumption. Other modules, collecting information regarding the local community, pricing, and schools and health facilities, have also been administered in a number of cases (see Grosh and Glewwe 1998; Stecklov 1997).


There are numerous methodological problems in cross-cultural research including: acquiring the needed linguistic and cultural skills and research funds; gaining access to field sites and data archives; defining and selecting comparable units; ensuring the representativeness of selected cases; and determining conceptual equivalence and measurement reliability and validity. These first two sets of problems are obvious, but not easily resolved. Cross-cultural analysis is costly in terms of time and money, and it usually demands at least a minimal level (and often much more) of education in the history, language, and culture of groups of people foreign to the researcher. The difficulties of gaining access to, and cooperation from, individuals and groups in cross-cultural research "are always experienced but rarely acknowledged by comparative researchers" (Armer 1973, pp. 58–59). Specific discussions of, and development of strategies for, gaining access are crucial because research can not begin without such access. Additionally, casual, insensitive, or ethnocentric presentation of self and research goals to foreign gatekeepers (officials, scholars, and those individuals directly studied) not only negatively affects the original study, but can also cause serious problems for others who plan future cross-cultural research (Form 1973; Portes 1973). Given the cultural isolation of many social scientists in the United States, it is not surprising that these practical problems have contributed to the lack of cross-cultural research in American sociology. However, the internationalization of the social sciences and the globalization of social and environmental issues are contributing to the gradual elimination of many of these practical problems (Sztompka 1988).

For the cross-cultural analysis of social psychological processes the unit of analysis is most often interactive events or individuals that are sampled from whole cultures or subunits such as communities or institutions (e.g., family, school, or workplace). The appropriateness of individuals as the basic unit of analysis has been a hotly debated issue in sociology. The problem is even more acute in cross-cultural analysis, especially in cultures "that lack the individualistic, participatory characteristics of Western societies" (Armer 1983, p. 62). In addition to the special difficulties of representative, theoretical, or random sampling of cases (Elder 1973; Van Meter 1990), cross-cultural researchers must also deal with "Galton's problem." According to the British statistician, Sir Francis Galton, "valid comparison requires mutually independent and isolated cases, and therefore cultural diffusion, cultural contact, culture clash or outright conquest—with their consequent borrowing, imitation, migrations etc.—invalidates the results of comparative studies" (Sztompka 1988, p. 213). Although several researchers have presented strategies for dealing with Galton's problem for correlational studies of data archives (see Naroll, Michik, and Naroll 1980), the problem of cultural diffusion is often overlooked in many quantitative and qualitative cross-cultural studies.

Undoubtedly, ensuring conceptual equivalence and achieving valid measures are the most challenging methodological problems of cross-cultural research. Central to these problems is the wide variation in language and meaning systems across cultural groups. Anthropologists have attempted to address the problem of conceptual equivalence with the distinction between "emic" and "etic." Emics refer to local (single culture) meaning, function and structure, while etics are culture-free (or at least operate in more than one culture) aspects of the world (Pike 1966). A major problem in cross-cultural analysis is the use of emic concepts of one culture to explain characteristics of another culture. In fact, many cross-cultural studies involve the use of "imposed etics," that is Euro-American emics that are "imposed blindly and even ethnocentrically on a set of phenomena which occur in other cultural systems" (Berry 1980, p.
12). A number of procedures have been developed to ensure emic-etic distinctions and to estimate the validity of such measures (Brislin 1980; Naroll, Michik, and Naroll 1980).

Addressing conceptual relevance in cross-cultural research does not, of course, ensure valid measures. All forms of data collection and analysis are dependent on implicit theories of language and communication (Cicourel 1964). As social scientists have come to learn more about communicative systems within and across cultures, there has been a growing awareness that problems related to language in cross-cultural analysis are not easily resolved. There is also a recognition that these problems go beyond the accurate translation of measurement instruments (Brislin 1970; Grimshaw 1973), to the incorporation of findings from studies on communicative competence across cultural groups into cross-cultural research (Briggs 1986; Gumperz 1982).


There is a solid basis for optimism regarding the future of cross-cultural analysis. Over the last twenty years there has been remarkable growth in international organizations and cooperation among international scholars in the social sciences. These developments have not only resulted in an increase in cross-cultural research, but also have led to necessary debates about the theoretical and methodological state of cross-cultural analysis (Øyen 1990; Kohn 1989).

Cooperation among international scholars in cross-cultural analysis has also contributed to the breaking down of disciplinary boundaries. In the area of childhood socialization and the sociology of childhood, for example, there have been a number of cross-cultural contributions to what can be termed "development in sociocultural context" by anthropologists (Heath 1983), psychologists (Rogoff 1990), sociologists (Corsaro 1997), and linguists (Ochs 1988). Developing interest in children and childhood in sociology has resulted in the establishment of a new research committee ("Sociology of Childhood") in the International Sociological Association (ISA) and a new journal titled Childhood: A Global Journal of Child Research, as well as the publication of several international reports and edited volumes (see Qvortrup, Bardy, Sgritta, and Wintersberger 1994). Less interdisciplinary, perhaps, but no less impressive, has been the degree of international cooperation that has developed around a number of other research committees of the ISA. The ISA Research Committee on Stratification, for instance, has had a long history of such collaboration. This has involved the development of a common agenda (official and unofficial) and the pursuit of a common program of research by scholars around the globe (Ganzeboom, Treiman, and Ultee 1991). In addition to these developments, the growth of international data sets and their ready availability due to the new technologies such as the Internet are also grounds for optimism regarding cross-cultural research.

Despite growing international and multi-discipline cooperation and recognition of the importance of comparative research, it is still fair to say that cross-cultural analysis remains at the periphery of American sociology and social psychology. Although there has been some reversal of the growing trend toward narrow specialization over the last ten years, such specialization is still apparent in the nature of publications and the training of graduate students in these disciplines. There is a clear need to instill a healthy skepticism regarding the cultural relativity of a great deal of theory and method in social psychology in future scholars. Only then will future sociologists and social psychologists come to appreciate fully the potential of cross-cultural analysis.


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Arthur S. Alderson

William A. Corsaro