New findings hint at sharp changes in Arab cultural values

A limited survey suggests that some dimension of Arab culture may be undergoing important changes.

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Has the UAE's rapid economic progress eroded the indigenous cultural values of Arab and Islamic tradition? This concern is often expressed, and there is lots of anecdotal evidence for and against the idea. But there is very little quantitative research evidence.

Perhaps this is because culture is almost impossible to define and even harder to measure. Still, psychologists have tried over the years to address these matters.

One widely known and influential attempt to quantify culture is the work of Geert Hofstede, a Dutch social psychologist and a pioneer in cross-cultural research. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Prof Hofstede developed his "cultural dimensions" model, which involved surveying 117,000 IBM employees in 50 countries, including Egypt, Iraq, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya and Saudi Arabia.

His study resulted in the identification of four cultural dimensions, which appeared to vary across nations. These allowed some fairly useful predictions to be made.

The first dimension, called "individualism-collectivism", is the degree to which a culture values independence and personal achievements over and above interdependence and group harmony. In Prof Hofstede's study the Arabic-speaking region scored below the world average on individualism; in other words, the Arab nations were found to be firmly in the collectivist camp.

The second cultural dimension, the "power distance index" (PDI), is the degree to which societies relate to power structures and authority figures. High-PDI cultures have steeper hierarchies, while lower-PDI cultures are more egalitarian, with less deference to those in positions of authority.

In a high-PDI culture you might call your boss "Sir"; in a low-PDI culture you would use his first name. Prof Hofstede's data suggested that the Arab nations had a PDI far above the world average.

"Masculinity versus femininity", sometimes called "toughness versus tenderness", is the third dimension in Prof Hofstede's model. This is the extent to which a society rigidly divides social gender roles, with men expected to be assertive, tough and aggressively focused on material success while women are expected to be modest, tender and relationship-orientated. "Tender" cultures have more overlap in gender roles, with both genders expected to be modest and quality-of-life orientated. Prof Hofstede found the Arab nations to be just above the world average for masculinity.

His fourth dimension, "uncertainty avoidance" (UA), is the degree to which a culture can tolerate uncertainty, and the extent to which individuals attempt to minimise anxiety-provoking ambiguities. High-UA societies are more "emotional" and controlling, and minimise uncertainty through careful planning, legislation and regulation. Change is resisted, or embraced slowly, never without careful risk assessment. Conversely, low UA cultures tend to be more tolerant of change. Individuals in such cultures tend to feel comfortable without lots of rules and regulations. The Arab states scored just higher than the global average for uncertainty avoidance.

These findings have remained unquestioned for a long time. However, a recent study of 329 Arab students at the American University of Sharjah found radical divergence from Prof Hofstede's results.

The new findings, reported in the International Journal of Intercultural Relations, showed that power distance and uncertainty avoidance were far lower than expected, while individualism and masculinity or toughness were much higher. The pattern was the same for Emiratis and for other Arab students.

The profile showed a tough individualistic Arab culture, pretty tolerant of uncertainty and with a fairly egalitarian ethos - far from the portrait painted by the older data.

This study is far from conclusive. For one thing, it was restricted to university students, and within just one, high-status, institution.

Still, the unexpected findings raise interesting questions. Are individual achievements and personal freedoms becoming more valued than belonging, interdependence and group harmony? What might be the consequences of such a shift?

Further research on a broader sample might throw important light on cultural changes that may be taking place in this region.

Justin Thomas is an assistant psychology professor at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi