Cultural Syndromes Research Paper

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A cultural syndrome is a pattern of shared attitudes, beliefs, categorizations, self-definitions, standard operating procedures, unstated assumptions, norms, roles, and values that is organized around a theme. The theme is shared among those who speak a particular language, during a specific historical period, and in a definable geographical region. Cultural syndromes provide information about cultural differences. The number of existing cultural syndromes is unknown. However, some examples of cultural syndromes that have been identified are provided in  this research-paper.


  1. Examples of Cultural Syndromes
  2. Relationships among the Cultural Syndromes
  3. Practical Significance

1. Examples Of Cultural Syndromes

The following subsections describe five cultural syndromes that have been studied better than other cultural syndromes.

1.1. Cultural Complexity

The contrast between hunters and gatherers and information societies is vast. Simple cultures have few members, whereas complex cultures have many members. The number of people who constitute a cultural group is only one clue. Hunters and gatherers usually consist of bands of approximately 50 individuals who are related to each other through marriage or some other ceremonies. Information societies consist of millions of individuals who are sometimes related to each other through the Internet. In between, there is a very large number of levels of complexity such as ‘‘slash and burn’’ agriculture, regular agriculture, and industrial cultures.

Complexity is associated with the presence of writing systems, the presence of records, fixity of residence, agriculture, urban settlements, technical specializations, modes of transportation other than walking, money, high population density, many levels of political integration, many levels of social stratification, and the presence of different ways in which to make a living. For example, the number of occupations in simple cultures is small, whereas approximately

250,000 occupations have been identified in complex cultures. The number of choices available to individuals in simple societies is small, whereas it is vast (e.g., dozens of kinds of mustard) in complex societies. The number of standards for judging religious, economic, political, educational, social, and aesthetic phenomena is small in simple societies, whereas it is very large in complex societies. Thus, the organizing theme of this cultural syndrome is complexity.

1.2. Tightness

In tight cultures, there are many norms, standards, and rules for behavior. Those who do not do what is specified by these norms are criticized, punished, or even killed. In loose cultures, there are few norms, and people tolerate deviations from these norms. When a person does not do what is expected, people simply smile and say that it does not matter. Again, in between these two extremes, there are thousands of levels of tightness. The organizing theme is doing what is specified by in-group norms.

Conformity is high in tight cultures. Extreme examples of tight cultures are the Taliban in Afghanistan and North Korea. Tight cultures emerge in societies that are relatively homogenous, so that people can agree concerning what norms are to be used as guides for behavior. They also emerge when there is much interdependence required to make a living. For instance, to get a crop, one might need an irrigation system, but an individual cannot construct such a system without help. In addition, when there is enough density in the population to make it likely that deviations from norms will be observed and punished, there is more cultural tightness. The organizing theme is the importance of norms.

Loose cultures are usually exposed to several normative systems, so that people must develop tolerance for behavior that does not follow a single set of norms. Thailand is a culture that has been influenced by both the Indian and Chinese cultures, so it is understandable that it is loose. The organizing theme is the unimportance of norms.

1.3. Collectivism

This cultural pattern occurs in most of the traditional cultures of the world, including East Asia, Latin America, and Africa, as well as among Asian Americans. In collectivist cultures, the self is defined as an aspect of a group such as the family or tribe. In addition, religious, political, occupational, aesthetic, educational, and athletic groups can function as in-groups. In these cultures, the self has much social content (e.g., ‘‘I am a member of this family,’’ ‘‘I am a member of this religious group’’) and is interdependent with one or more in-groups. When there is a difference between personal and in-group goals, in-group goals have priority. Behavior is a function of both attitudes (what one would like to do) and norms (what one should do). Group-based relationships endure even if the individual would like to get away from them. The organizing theme is the importance of the in-group.

1.4. Individualism

This cultural pattern occurs primarily in Northern and Western Europe as well as among European Americans, Australians, New Zealanders, and others influenced by Western culture. In this case, the self is defined as autonomous, is independent of groups, and has little social context (e.g., ‘‘I am busy,’’ ‘‘I am proud’’). When there is a difference between personal and in-group goals, personal goals have priority. Behavior depends much more on attitudes than on norms. Group-based relationships are subjected to a cost–benefit analysis (e.g., ‘‘Do I get out of this relationship more than I have to put in?’’ [if so, stay in the relationship; if not, leave it]). The organizing theme is the importance of the individual.

Within any culture there is considerable variability concerning the presence of behaviors that correspond to collectivism or individualism. There are countercultural personalities in all cultures. People who tend toward individualism find collectivist cultures to be oppressive and so try to leave them. People who tend toward collectivism find individualist cultures to be cold and so join many groups (e.g., gangs, unions, communes).

1.4.1. Some Contrasts between Individualism and Collectivism

People in individualist cultures tend to see the self as stable and the environment as changeable (e.g., ‘‘If I do not like my job, I change jobs’’). Conversely, people in collectivist cultures tend to see the environment as stable and themselves as changeable or ready to ‘‘fit in.’’ In individualist cultures, people are most likely to sample cues about events ‘‘inside’’ other people (e.g., beliefs, attitudes, values), whereas in collectivist cultures, they are most likely to sample cues about external events and social entities (e.g., norms, roles, situations, social structures, agreements, intergroup conflict).

In 1999, Norenzayan and colleagues reviewed evidence showing that when East Asians make dispositional attributions, they see traits as quite malleable, whereas when Western individualist samples make dispositional attributions, they see them as fixed. The authors reviewed a wide range of information, from laboratory studies to ethnographies, and concluded that probably all cultures make dispositional attributions but that cultural differences occur because people from East Asia make situational attributions much more frequently, and to a greater extent, than do people from the West.

When people communicate in individualist cultures, they sample the content most heavily, whereas when people communicate in collectivist cultures, they sample the context of the communication (e.g., level of voice, eye contact, gestures, emotional expression) most heavily.

Antecedents of individualism include affluence, migration (leaving the in-group), leadership roles, education, and living in heterogeneous environments (e.g., large cities). Antecedents of collectivism include poverty (survival depends on the help of the in-group), stable residence, low social class roles, and living in homogenous environments (e.g., rural or simpler societies).

1.4.2. Kinds of Individualism and Collectivism

These cultural patterns take different forms in different cultures. Specifically, there are horizontal and vertical individualist and collectivist cultures. Horizontal individualist cultures, such as Sweden, emphasize that the individual is independent from groups and is self-reliant but also that people do not wish to ‘‘stick out.’’ Modesty is a virtue. People wanting to be ‘‘the best’’ characterize vertical individualist cultures such as the corporate and academic cultures in the United States. Competition is high and modesty is not a virtue is such cultures.

Horizontal collectivist cultures, such as the Israeli kibbutz, emphasize interdependence of the individual and the group, but there is little hierarchy. In theory, every member does all of the jobs, whether the jobs are prestigious or not. In vertical collectivist cultures, such as China and India, sacrifice for the group is virtuous. The individual is not important, and the group is all-important.

Another variety of collectivism is the one that stresses the relationship of children to all of the women in the extended family, as occurs in India, where there is no particular emphasis on the mother–child relationship. This pattern contrasts with the Japanese pattern, where the mother–child relationship is all-important and the relationship of the child to the women of the extended family is not important.

1.5. Hierarchy Versus Equality

This pattern is the same as the vertical–horizontal pattern just discussed, but it is useful to categorize it as a separate syndrome because it is very important and can be conceived independently from individualism– collectivism. In hierarchical cultures, people pay a lot of attention to the status of individuals when organizing their social behavior. In cultures that stress equality, people espouse many ideas, such as ‘‘one person/ one vote,’’ that stress the important of equality. The organizing themes are the importance or unimportance of status.

The syndromes that follow have not been studied well but are included here to suggest future research.

1.6. Masculinity Versus Femininity

In masculine cultures, men rarely do the jobs that women typically do. In feminine cultures, both men and women tend to do most of the tasks of the society (e.g., child rearing). The organizing theme is the importance or unimportance of being male.

1.7. Pragmatic Induction Versus Ideological Authoritarianism

This syndrome contrasts cultures in which people make most judgments based on information that comes from experience with cultures in which people make most judgments based on information obtained from ideological sources such as leaders, tribal chiefs, and gods. The organizing theme is empiricism versus ideology.

1.8. Short Versus Long Time Perspective

In cultures with a short time perspective, the emphasis is on the ‘‘here and now,’’ whereas in cultures with a long time perspective, the emphasis can be on the past or future. The organizing theme is the present versus the past or future.

1.9. Valuing Planning Versus Spontaneity

In cultures that value planning, much effort is expended in planning, whereas in cultures that value spontaneity, planning is considered to be an imposition on one’s freedom of action. The organizing themes are planning versus spontaneity.

1.10. Universalism Versus Particularism

In universalistic cultures, one uses general principles such as ‘‘to each according to his or her contribution,’’ whereas in particularistic cultures, one takes into account who the other person is, such as in-group membership, previous accomplishments, sex, age, and social class, and one gives what is appropriate for a person who has those particular qualities. For example, in waiting for food at a cafeteria, universalistic

cultures use the principle of ‘‘first come/first served,’’ whereas particularistic cultures unquestionably allow high-status persons to go to the front of the line. The organizing principle is the use of universalistic criteria (one behaves in a certain way no matter who it is) versus particularistic criteria (behavior depends on who the other person is).

1.11. Specificity Versus Diffusion

Specific cultures tend to be analytical, paying attention to each element of information such as who said what, when, where, and why, whereas diffuse cultures tend to be holistic, assuming that if a positive (or negative) element is present in one element, it is also present in all of the other elements. The organizing principle is specificity of the stimuli versus the diffuse reaction to the stimuli.

1.12. Process Versus Outcome

In some cultures, people emphasize the process (e.g., ‘‘This is the way we do things’’), whereas in other cultures, people pay little attention to the process but instead emphasize the outcome (e.g., ‘‘We must win’’). Thus, in the former kind of culture, one pays attention to how something is done, whereas in the latter kind of culture, the emphasis is on what happens as a result of the action. The organizing principle is emphasis on process versus emphasis on outcomes.

1.13. Additional Syndromes

In addition to the syndromes just listed, there are many narrow syndromes. There is a literature, for instance, that describes syndromes whose organizing principles are honor, achievement, competition, and so on.

2. Relationships Among The Cultural Syndromes

There is some evidence that syndromes are not unrelated to each other. For example, cultures that are tight tend to be collectivist. In general, collectivist cultures tend to be simpler and tighter, whereas individualist cultures tend to be more complex and looser. But there are many exceptions to these patterns. One usually finds more masculinity in collectivist cultures and more emphasis on pragmatic induction in individualist cultures. Planning is more likely in individualist cultures. Particularism is more common in collectivist cultures. It is best to measure each cultural syndrome independently of the measurement of the other syndromes.

3. Practical Significance

There is a correlation between some of the cultural syndromes and specific patterns of behavior. For example, industrial organizations in collectivist cultures are more likely to hire individuals who are in-group members regardless of their level of competence. In collectivist cultures, people tend to think of individuals as being easy to change and ready to adapt to different groups. Thus, it is understandable that they think that any in-group member can become a good employee. Loyalty to the organization, and especially to its authorities, is valued more in collectivist cultures than in individualist cultures. Thus, hiring loyal in-group members is more likely in collectivist cultures than in individualist cultures.

Collectivist managers are more likely to promote on the basis of tenure in the organization than on the basis of individual achievement. Also, collectivist employees prefer to be paid based on the achievement of the group rather than on the basis of individual achievement. But other things being equal, there is more organizational commitment and more training offered to employees in collectivist cultures that in individualist cultures.

Although on average members of a culture may have a particular attribute, there is very high variability within each culture. Thus, one can find employees who are behaving in highly individualistic ways in collectivist cultures and can find employees who are behaving in collectivist ways (e.g., joining unions) in individualist cultures. There are organizations that are individualist (e.g., academia) and organizations that are collectivist (e.g., the military) in all cultures.

When distributing resources such as bonuses, collectivists are likely to take into account the needs of employees (e.g., they have many children) or distribute equal amounts to each employee. In individualist cultures, bonuses go to those who have contributed more to their organizations.

The ideal leader is a benevolent father figure in collectivist cultures. The ideal leader is warm and supportive, but he or she also emphasizes production. Paternalism is a desirable leadership pattern in many collectivist cultures but not in individualist

cultures. In fact, top management is much more aware of the private lives of employees in collectivist cultures than in individualist cultures. For example, top management in collectivist cultures likely will send condolences to an employee who had a death in the family (e.g., when an employee’s parent dies), whereas top management in individualist cultures might not even be aware of the death of an employee’s parent. Also, management in collectivist cultures likely will send congratulations when an employee’s child graduates from high school or is accepted by a college.

Cultural differences in tightness also have implications. For example, people follow rules and specifications in manufacturing much more rigidly in tight cultures than in loose cultures. Improvisation and exploration of different ways in which to do the job are more common in loose cultures.

Differences in the way in which time is used provide a major difficulty in getting along with people from other cultures. Some cultures use monochronic time (e.g., holding one conversation at a time), whereas other cultures use polychronic time (e.g., holding several conversations with different people at the same time). When people from the former cultures are not aware of this cultural difference, they are easily offended by people from the latter cultures. Another contrast is between work time (i.e., time to work and not socialize) and social time. The definitions of what are work time and social time are culture bound. In some cultures, all of the farmers work together on the plot of one farmer and then go together to work on the farm of another farmer, and so on, and all the time they mix work time and social time. Still another contrast is between doing time (i.e., when one is supposed to do things) and not doing time. The desirability of ‘‘doing nothing’’ is very culture bound. In some cultures, it is the ultimate goal, whereas in other cultures, it is associated with utter boredom. Finally, the contrast between clock time (e.g., meetings end at a certain time) and event time (e.g., meetings end when the purpose of the meeting has been accomplished) can be the source of many misunderstandings.


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