In our shrinking world, the Values Gap persists

Posted: February 4, 2011 in Responsible business, Statistics
Tags: , , , , , ,

Pro-government demonstrators (front) face-off against anti-Mubarak supporters near Tahrir, 2 Feb 2011. Photo: Reuters/Mohamed Abdel Ghany

So many news stories result from differences in values. Just in the last few months we have seen front page stories about uprisings in the Arab world, Wikileaks and of course America’s Congressional elections.

It often comes up in the discussion of human rights, along the lines of “You are attempting to impose your values”. I might find child labour unacceptable but try telling that to a Bangladeshi family who rely on their children’s income to subsist.

The folks at World Values Survey have taken the trouble to illustrate how people in particular countries and even groups of countries really do tend to share certain values.

The graphs can seem a bit like a Magic Eye puzzle and may require a few moments’ stillness before they make sense, but the revelation is worth it.

Here are two that are quite startling:

In this first, the left axis measures people’s preference for traditional, what you might call “village” values (bottom) versus bureaucratic values like the rule of law (top).

The bottom axis measures preference for survival values (group cohesion, saving money) versus self-expressive, individualistic values such as entrepreneurialism and pluralism.

Of course the results are an average and there would be huge diversity of answers within national borders.

Nonetheless, countries with similar cultural histories average out to have similar scores. So the notion of ‘Asian Values’ has some empirical weight.

Sociologist Max Weber first identified this a century ago in his book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. He observed that the predominantly Protestant Northern European countries industrialised faster than the predominantly Catholic Southern European countries. If the Values Survey is to be believed, one might expect that Catholic countries inculcate more non-mercantile values such as:

  • traditional roles for women / large families / extended family ties
  • hierarchy
  • abstract learning (e.g. theology)

whereas Protestant countries inculcate values such as:

  • female suffragism
  • shared authority / egalitarianism
  • practical learning that can be used in building God’s Kingdom on earth

The latter values naturally lend themselves to economic advancement. What strikes me, though, is that the Catholic-Protestant divide is 500 years old. Happily relations between denominations have been more congenial in the last half-century, yet the differences in cultural values persist.

So it’s well and good to talk about ‘universal’ values set down in International law, but if a human rights agenda runs afoul of prevailing cultural values, it will go nowhere fast.

OK one more:

This one a little less subtle! Citizens who enjoy the most freedoms also report the greatest sense of ‘happiness and satisfaction with life as a whole’ (Someone should mention this to Egypt’s President Mubarak!)

China doesn’t follow the pattern though, and if the dots were displayed in proportion to population it would completely spoil the intended message of the chart. China’s score of zero on the freedom scale seems perhaps exaggerated … I think citizens of North Korea would have something to say about that, if they were able to see it … but is still striking that the Chinese report greater satisfaction with life than the Portugese and are even creeping up on the French.

  1. […] of Chinese cultural values, which generally rate community cohesion above personal well-being (see related post). Suffice to say, China is a very big place and these figures mask a lot of regional and […]

  2. […] In our shrinking world, the Values Gap persists […]

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