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What Is Culture? This Is How Culture Is Evolving

What is culture? Are all cultures unique and mutually exclusive, or are there trends and universals? Let’s explore the deep currents of cultural evolution.

This post is the first of a multi-part series on Ronald Inglehart’s work, an amazing contribution to our understanding of the evolution of culture.

He dedicated decades of his life to researching large-scale value change and its causes and was the head of the World Values Survey. His work focused on entire nations and broad trends, and he derived his fascinating conclusions from empirical studies.

In terms of the fundamental levels of development, Inglehart charts the move from Amber (and pre-Amber) to Orange and Green on a societal level.

Let’s start with some of his major concepts and conclusions.

Table of Contents

    What Is Culture? Inglehart’s Major Conclusions

    One concept that runs through his work is that of physical and economic security and its influence on our values. He claims much of human values and behaviour is dictated by our level of security.

    Lack of security means our basic survival is in jeopardy. Under these conditions, we seek a strong leader to protect them and defend them from outsiders. This has been the status quo for most of human history – our survival has never been guaranteed.

    On the other hand, when we do have physical and economic security, we begin to take our survival for granted. In advanced countries after World War II, a whole generation grew up under secure conditions. This was a result of post-war economic growth, the rise of the welfare state and The Long Peace. With the added influence of population replacement and continued growth, enormous societal and cultural change has taken place in these countries.

    This level of security led to a big-scale shift from Materialist to Post-Materialist values in those countries. This shift is itself part of a broader shift from Survival to Self-expression values.

    If we hold Survival values, we give top priority to economic and physical safety and conformity to norms. With sufficient security, we can move towards Self-expression values and place emphasis on gender equality, tolerance of outgroups, freedom of expression, and political participation. Countries holding Self-expression values are likelier to adopt legislation favourable to gays and lesbians. They tend to rank well on the UN Gender Empowerment Measure. 

    Inglehart also claims that value changes precedes institutional change. He has observed that, while Self-expression values can exist without democracy (like in authoritarian societies around 1990), democracy can’t exist without Self-expression values.

    In a later post, we’ll look at Inglehart’s conclusions on traditional religion. But let’s do a quick round-up. Inglehart claims that while religion is conducive to happiness in pre-modern societies, modern, secular citizens are happier than premodern religious people. He highlights the role of existential security, which is conducive to the shift from Traditional to Secular values, seen in the erosion of religious practices and beliefs.

    What Is Culture? The Theme Of Existential Security

     “This shift (Materialist–Postmaterialist) occurs only when a society reaches a threshold where a sufficiently high level of economic and physical security enables younger birth cohorts to grow up taking survival for granted” 

    Ronald Inglehart

    The sense that life is secure or insecure, Inglehart claims, is a relatively stable aspect of our character. It develops in our pre-adult years and has an enormous influence on our values. And since it’s more or less a lifelong trait, a society’s basic values tend to change slowly over generations. Long time lags separate underlying value change and visible changes.

    The Effect of Depravity

    He has observed that conditions of insecurity lead to xenophobia, strong in-group solidarity, authoritarian politics, and rigid adherence to traditional norms. These are what Inglehart calls Materialist values.

    Under these conditions, xenophobia is inevitable. If resources are limited, life becomes a zero-sum battle of my group versus the other group. Seeking protection behind a strong leader and guarding against outsiders is an effective strategy.

    This survival strategy is called The Authoritarian Reflex, and a massive body of evidence suggests this inbuilt racism and intolerance exists. We have a predisposition to intolerance when under threat. This has been the default mode of humanity for most of history.

    And Ronald Inglehart has found that the strenght of this reflex varies by generation. The level of existential security that generations experience in their pre-adult years is crucial.

    Changes Ushered in by Secure Conditions

    On the other hand, secure conditions lead to greater autonomy and tolerance of outgroups, openness to new ideas and more egalitarian social norms.

    In recent years, increases in levels of physical and existential security have reshaped values and motivations. In particular, younger generations grew up in better conditions than their elders, meaning they adopted markedly different values. Instead of giving top priority to security (Materialist values), they valued free choice, caring for the environment, gender equality and tolerance of outgroups (Postmaterialist values).

    What is culture? Materialist v postmaterialist values

    After World War II, industrialisation, urbanisation and mass literacy allowed the working class in Western countries to have greater political say. This lead to governments that put welfare systems in place. Starvation became almost non-existent and life expectancy reached new highs.

    The generations following these changes then took survival for granted, leading them to have markedly different values from their elders. In these countries, we see a marked shift from Materialist to Postmaterialist values between generations.

    Changes in Highly Secure Countries

    In countries experiencing this shift, gender roles are shifting. Women were historically interior to men and had rigid, pre-defined roles. Now almost all jobs open to men are also open to women. Women make up the majority of university students in most industrialised countries. And they have a growing share of seats in parliament and top political positions. 

    In low-income countries, especially Islamic ones, homosexuality is far from accepted and is even punishable by death. But in high-income countries, gays have become mayors, MPs, ministers, and heads of government. Same-sex marriage has risen dramatically. These countries have since reached a tipping point where new values are the norm rather than the exception, which further accelerates social change.

    What Is Culture? The Rise of Postmaterialism

    Let’s look at the data behind the Materialism–Postmaterialism shift. Inglehart performed surveys in six European countries (Great Britain, Italy, West Germany, Belgium and Holland) from 1970 to 2010. There is now data from all six continents.

    Participants had to choose which should take priority. On one hand, Materialist priorities, such as economic growth, fighting rising prices, maintaining order, or fighting against crime. On the other, Postmaterialist priorities, such as freedom of speech, involvement in government decisions, more say at work, and a society where ideas count.

    In his original 1970 studies, Inglehart found large differences between responses of the young and old. In the 65+ group, those with Materialist concerns outnumbered those with Postmaterialist concerns by 16 to 1. This ratio was a little lower with each younger age group. And in the youngest group surveyed, of ages 16-24, Postmaterialists outnumbered Materialists.

    He then followed the same birth cohorts over four decades. He found that the differences between the cohorts remained stable, and that events such as economic slumps had no lasting impact. Each cohort was also more Postmaterialist than the previous one.

    There was an substantial shift from Materialist to Postmaterialist values during the period he studied. In 1970, Materialists outnumbered Postmaterialists by 4:1. In the USA in 1972, this ratio was 3:1. But in 2000, the number of Postmaterialists was double that of Materialists. And by that year, Postmaterialists outnumbered Materialists across the six original countries. Postmaterialist values also dominated among the youngest birth cohort in all the ex-communist countries surveyed, in eight Latin American countries, and in nine Muslim-majority countries.  

    Since 2000, economic growth has slowed and income equality has widened, so economic security hasn’t risen. In the most recent studies, young cohorts aren’t more Postmaterialist than previous cohorts.

    An encouraging phenomenon is the huge economic growth that India and China have been experiencing since 1980. This means that 40% of the world’s population is moving from poverty to mid-level economic security. If Inglehart’s theory holds true in those countries, younger cohorts should sway towards Postmaterialists values. But for now, they are rare. 

    Global Cultural Patterns: The Rise of Secular, Self-expression Values

    The Postmaterialist–Materialist shift is just one that Inglehart has identified – now we’re going to look at two even broader value shifts.

    Through his World Values Survey, Inglehart has accumulated immense amounts of data on people’s values and opinions on a range of topics. His surveys began in 1981 and are now carried out in countries that together contain 90% of the world’s population.

    He found that the two most significant factors behind differences among nations are what he calls Traditional/Secular values, and Survival/Self-expression values.

    What is culture? Traditional, secular, survival and self-expression values.

    The Tradition–Secular values transition represents the jump from agrarian to industrial societies, while the Survival–Self-expression shift is behind the move from industrial, manufacturing societies to postindustrial, knowledge societies.

    Inglehart also came to fascinating conclusions about the influence of nationality and heritage. He noticed that countries with similar heritages lay close to each other on the plot of Traditional/Secular values against Survival/Self-expression values, forming clusters.

    What is culture? The Inglehart-Welzel world map

    Similar maps exist for earlier years in his study and they all look remarkably similar to this one.

    There’s some obvious conclusions we can draw from this map and they agree with our intuition. Countries like Germany, Sweden, Denmark and Norway are the most advanced in terms of freedom of choice, life satisfaction, tolerance and political involvement. On the other hand, countries often considered to be developing countries are the least developed in those areas. But that’s not all.

    The key conclusion we can draw is that heritage has a telling influence on a country’s values. Countries sharing a cultural heritage have similar value profiles in the present day. Cultural change is clearly path dependent. So while values have been shifting globally, it’s not the case that all societies have simply converged to the same point. Heritage has an enduring impact on a country’s values.

    Along this same track, the predictive power of nationality is stronger than that of income, education, region or sex. Countries’ relative positions on this plot have remained highly stable from 1981 to 2014. Inglehart also found that differences between societies far outweigh differences within societies.

    The Influence of Economic Conditions

    In one of his key analyses, Inglehart looked at the relationship between Traditional–Secular values, Survival–Self-expression values and countries’ income levels.

    He noticed that all high-income societies lie in the upper-right section of the graph, their values leaning towards Secular, Self-expression values. All low-income and lower-middle-income societies lie in in the lower-left zone, their values leaning towards Traditional, Survival values.

    This means that the world’s most economically developed countries are the most developed in terms of values. They’re the countries with the most freedom of choice, the most tolerance, the least religiosity and where Joe Bloggs has the most political involvement.

    How Have Countries Changed Over Time?

    Inglehart also studied how societies’ emphasis on these values has changed over time and how it varies with age.

    Some key findings are that:

    • between 1981-2014, 8 Protestant European countries, 8 Catholic European countries, 7 English-speaking countries and Japan all moved towards higher Self-expression and higher Secular values 
    • Russia, China and 21 former communist states become more Traditional, but significantly increased in Self-expression values 
    • Africa experienced little change
    • average correlation of 0.89 between countries’ first Survival–Self-expression scores and their final scores
    • virtually all developing societies’ Survival-Self-expression scores are moving at the same rate.

    Inglehart’s work has an enormous influence on my work at The Great Updraft. What I love is that it gives us solid data behind the big-scale evolutionary process that humans are undergoing. And beyond its many other virtues, it shatters the Left’s narratives that claim we’re living in an ever darkening dystopia and that the modern West exemplifies the worst of humanity.

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