Culture and Coronavirus: How Values Shape our Response to the Pandemic

Culture is…

… the set of attitudes, values, beliefs, and behaviors shared by a group of people, but different for each individual, communicated from one generation to the next. While the norms of any culture should be relevant to all the people within that culture, it is also true that those norms will be relevant in different degrees for different people… Our failure in the past to recognize the existence of individual differences in constructs and concepts of culture has undoubtedly aided in the formation and maintenance of stereotypes.

Matsumoto 1996

Culture is a fuzzy set of basic assumptions and values, orientations to life, beliefs, policies, procedures and behavioral conventions that are shared by a group of people, and that influence (but do not determine) each member’s behavior and his/her interpretations of the ‘meaning’ of other people’s behavior.

Spencer-Oatey 2008:(1)


Geert and Gert Hofstede’s Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind provides a useful background on the genesis and meaning of culture. The “software” in question is their description of how culture acts as mental programming to enable us to make meaning in the world. Their contribution to the field of cultural analysis is their description of several domains or dimensions along which cultures differ. These “continuums” of cultural values include individualism versus collectivism, high power distance versus low distance (about equality), and high uncertainty avoidance versus low uncertainty avoidance (looking at ritual and conformity), to name a few.

Their work has been followed by others who have expounded upon or added to these dimensions. The entire literature has been used by business leaders (among others) to understand and deal with the challenges and conflicts that occur as their companies expand across national and cultural “boundaries”.

There is an appropriate caution about stereotyping cultures based on their categories, and, as the Matsumoto quote on culture notes, people within a given culture do not hold to or manifest values in the same way. At the same time the dimensions are useful for making generalizations and engaging in analysis of why people respond to similar situations in such different ways.

In the face of a potentially culture-changing event like the COVID-19 pandemic, I have been returning to the Hofstedes’ (and others’) writing to analyze my reactions not just to the pandemic but to the restrictions that have been put into place to combat it. Comparing different countries’ responses has been fascinating and provides some insight into how different cultural values form a response/reaction.

It is easy in our highly polarized climate in the US to ascribe all such responses and reactions to a person’s political ideology. While I think ideology (political tribalism), because of its role in forming identity, does play a role in the responses we observe, I believe that a deeper look into how culture (which itself is part of any individual’s identity) conditions our responses and helps us make meaning in this time is necessary.

In this piece I hope to examine just one dimension of culture—the so-called individualism/collectivism continuum and how it shows up in the midst of this unique crisis—this rolling natural disaster that seems to remain permanently in its acute phase.

Individualism versus Collectivism

Individualism as defined by Hofstede does not refer to the image of the rugged individualist, the lone frontiersman, or the lonely superhero of American mythology. Rather, the concepts of individualism and collectivism are about what we might call “span of responsibility” and “breadth of loyalty”.

In cultures that value individualism, the social framework is very loosely knit and individuals are responsible for themselves and their immediate family. Loyalty is narrow and concerns for the wellbeing of others is circumscribed by the people closest to us (biologically).

In collectivist cultures the social framework is more tightly knit with the expectation that one must be loyal to a larger “in-group”. In exchange for loyalty, the individual can expect protection and support from the group.

One Explanation for the Evolution of Individualism

One common American myth is that individualism is a result of the kind of people who migrated to this continent from Europe. In this narrative, these people were seeking freedom from tyranny—whether that tyranny was political or religious. This narrative goes on to describe the necessity of individualism (as defined here) due to the nature of frontier living; the “taming of a wilderness” carried out by small nuclear families, with no support from the state or others.

While such narratives are powerful, their explanatory power (and fundamental accuracy) should be questioned. I would argue that a more powerful force that has helped create the individualism that dominates American cultural values is the pursuit of ever more efficient market mechanisms to provide for people’s needs.

I am not talking here about individualized consumerism, a trait that has certainly emerged in America and been expanded by the ability to consume effortlessly. Well before those particular market forces we had the development of insurance markets that, while being collective actions by definition (the creation of broad risk pools), changed our need for reliance on broader community groups.

While the barn raising and social insurance guarantees among such groups as the Amish or Hutterites might be lauded by some, they represent an aberration. Nearly all the essential protections that Americans need—homeowners insurance, crop insurance, auto insurance, and, importantly, life insurance—are transacted in an impersonal market that obviates the need for a broader social group to provide essential protections.

In my research on the causes and “uses” of human migration in West Africa, I stumbled across the many ways that people in that marginal environment (frequent and prolonged droughts) manage risk. Due to poverty and broadly co-varying risks, insurance markets simply have never developed in that part of the world. Rather, the collectivist culture I observed there arose, undoubtedly, from the exigencies of the natural environment. My research cataloged the many ways people built obligations towards themselves within the social networks in which they invested a great deal of time and energy. Loyalty to a broad group of individuals in that environment could be the difference between life and death.

Individualism: A Personal Understanding

The point in this analysis is that our individualism has arisen in the context of historical determinants related to a pursuit of market efficiency. There is nothing evil about this evolution but it does help explain (it does not FULLY explain) where we have arrived in terms of this particular value.

Like any cultural value, it is not immutable, nor do all members of a given culture adhere to it or value it in the same way. Having grown up on the east coast with parents from Appalachia, I experienced a much deeper commitment to guarding the prerogative of the individual than what I have found in California where broader societal commitments are at least verbalized as a value we hold.

I recall as a child visiting my relatives in West Virginia. My dad had “escaped” the “hollers” but was still fiercely individualistic. Our family reference was narrow, our loyalties only expanded because of the tightly controlling religious community my parents had joined.

My dad was proud of his success and, by the time I was old enough to remember, his ability to parley his job into creating a secure home for his family was something he wore as a badge of honor. He never once considered supporting his brothers who, to be honest, lived in the kind of grinding poverty that you sometimes read about in Appalachia and which I saw first hand.

And yet, when we visited my also proud, and also individualistic uncle who lived miles up a narrow hollow reached only by crossing bridgeless streams, he claimed the high ground on my dad who he considered “tied to a desk.” For him, he was the true free man: only his family to protect, his farm the product of his own hands, and his workday fully within his control.

The point is both men’s references of success were to their ability to be fully responsible for caring for their nearest kin—to control that piece of their lives in an uncertain world.

Individualism in the Time of COVID-19

How does someone who values individualism at this level experience calls to take action against our current plague that appeal to his/her sense of community commitment? Distancing myself to protect people I don’t even know? Wearing a mask for whom? How, especially do they respond when their ability to care for themselves and their immediate family is “taken” from them by people who are far away (as they view it)?

Diana Daly, an ethnographer from the University of Arizona, has taken the time to analyze the signs and statements of “lockdown protestors” in 15 cities. Her analysis forces us to go beyond describing them as merely provoked by right-wing conspiracy theorists, anti-vaxxers, or gun-toting racists (though certainly these are all factors). She found that, among other things, protestors were protesting poverty—but not requesting handouts. They were protesting their inability to provide for their families in the face of business closings.

Further, she found that protestors wanted the tools to fight the virus in their way and wanted the autonomy to decide what was best for their families.

But Can we “See” It?

I recently raised the value of cultural analysis and critique to assess responses to the coronavirus in a local news site’s comment section. One person responded to a point simply stating (and I paraphrase): “It is individualism that has made America great—the individual entrepreneur has helped construct an unparalleled economic machine and the government is taking actions that go against this great American trait.”

Another commenter pointed out that competition has been the foundation of American economic success and that that too was being denigrated by required sheltering actions.

What neither commenter was willing to grapple with is that both of these values are not universal but particular to this culture at this time. Further, and this takes us back to the environment that has fostered this form of individualism, both defined American success in economic terms. The challenge of the virus, to them, was not life or health. Those paled in comparison to the damage done to the economy—that engine that enabled both of them to provide for themselves and their families; that dynamo that enabled them to gain the autonomy that was part of the natural world order.

Meanwhile, across the globe, other nations have been facing this virus in more collectivist and cooperative ways. Certainly people in those places are faced with the devastation of their economies. That point is not unique to the US or individualistic values. The point is that others approaching this crisis with very different values have had some success in facing it.

Our “successful” neo-liberal economic model has helped form our deepest values (I would argue that successful market-based insurance products are at least partly responsible), AND becomes the thing we most fear losing to the virus.

Cultural Relativism and Cultural Critique

Cultural relativism, according to the Hofstedes “does not simply imply normlessness for oneself, nor for one’s society. It does call for suspending judgment when dealing with groups or societies different from one’s own”. Quoting Claude Levi-Strauss they suggest that cultural relativism means we can and should engage in “judgment” or critique of our own cultures.

I write the foregoing to suggest a pathway to the kind of cultural critique I believe is always necessary. I also write it to wrestle empathetically with those who are approaching this crisis in ways different from how I approach it. My experiences have moved me further along the “individualist/collectivist” continuum (towards more collectivist values) than many people in the US. But I cannot deny that their reaction to the crisis, their discomfort, their “meaning-making” about what it all means are not merely based on political ideologies. Rather, they are grounded in a “set of basic assumptions and values, orientations to life, beliefs, policies, procedures and behavioral conventions.” They are cultural.

Culture WILL Shape Our Response–But How?

I could wish that our elected leaders had access to the language of culture, cultural dimensions, and how culture helps us make meaning. If they did, they could help us better understand our collective and individual dis-ease about what we are experiencing. If they did, they could, perhaps, help us consider cultural adaptations that are necessary in this time. If they did they could permit us to feel awful while considering how we might accept change to move out of this crisis.

Instead, the mobilization of cultural values is left to those who understand how to push the buttons of our cultural evolution (much like the food industry has created sugar-laden foods that push our physiological evolutionary buttons to encourage us to over-consume sugar and face the inevitable outcomes of diabetes and fatty liver disease), to further divide us. I am not suggesting that these cultural manipulators have read Hofstede, but they understand, intuitively perhaps, how culture (and the broader issue of identity) informs our responses and they use that to consolidate their power and financial gain rather than help us to use culture to help us find a way through.

Let’s find a way to use the tools of cultural analysis to deepen our empathy towards those whose culture map may be different from ours and stand ready to critique our meaning-making.

(1) From Global PAD Core Concepts: What is Culture? A Compilation of Quotations compiled by Helen Spencer-Oatey

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