Community and Societal Development

How can cross-cultural development workers help communities and societies thrive by following godly principles?

Why We Still Debate If “Culture Matters”: A Way Forward

September 21, 2017

by Kevin Brinkmann


In 1992, economic advisor to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Robert Klitgaard, posed this question: “If culture is important and people have studied culture for a century or more, why don’t we have well-developed theories, practical guidelines, close professional links between those who study culture and those who make and manage development policy” (Huntington 2000, xvi)? In short, if “culture matters,” then why don’t development initiatives reflect it? The answer is that the “culture matters” thesis is still debated. This article examines two reasons why it is still debated and proposes a possible way forward.

The term “culture matters” comes from the landmark book, Culture Matters: How Values Shape Human Progress (2001), edited by Samuel Huntington and Lawrence Harrison. The book comes from a long tradition of economists, historians, and sociologists who have argued that “culture matters.” In 1759, Adam Smith, the father of modern economics, wrote The Theory of Moral Sentiments which recognized the role of cultural values for society and laid the foundation for his future economic works such as The Wealth of Nations (1776). In 1835, the French diplomat, political scientist, and historian, Alexis de Tocqueville, wrote Democracy in America lauding America’s cultural morality and attributing America’s success to its cultural values (1851, 335). In 1904, the German sociologist and political economist, Max Weber, correlated an ascetic work value with capitalistic wealth. Building on the work of Adam Smith, de Tocqueville, and Weber, new economic sociology arose in the 1980s. This new economic sociology sought to marry the “long-alienated disciplines” of economics and sociology (Zelizer 2010, 1). More recently, Harvard historian David Landes argued that while no mono-causal explanation will suffice, yet “if we learn anything from the history of economic development, it is that culture makes all the difference” (1999, 516). So why is culture still debated? Why has the cultural dimension of development analysis suffered “comparative indifference” in the last forty years (Sen 2004, 37)?

Reason #1: Fear of Repeating Past Mistakes

The answer is that the “culture matters” thesis is still debated. Development theorists and practitioners are concerned that they not repeat the mistakes of history, as expressed by the shortcomings of modernization theory in the 1960s (Brinkmann 2012). Modernization theory arose as an alternative to a Marxist theory of development. It focused on technology, industrialization, and “modern” values. It was popularized by economist Clark Kerr et al. (1960), sociologist Alex Inkeles (1960), and economist Walt Rostow (1960). However, in the 1970s, dependency theory arose and exposed some of its shortcomings (Frank 1975). Three of these shortcomings, expressed as concerns, are described below.

Concern: Culture Treated as Enemy

The first concern is that culture is treated as the enemy. One example comes from economic historian Douglass North who is simultaneously praised for his “coherent theory that links culture and development” and criticized for his conclusions (Rao and Walton 2004, 98). North (1981, 1990) treats “traditional culture [as] a dead hand that blocks development” (Rao and Walton 2004, 100). Therefore, if traditional culture is standing in the way of development, eliminate it—or so is the concern.

Concern: Culture Treated as Static

The second concern is that culture is treated as static and therefore deterministic. Swedish economist and sociologist Gunnar Myrdal’s Asian Drama is critiqued for being “unduly pessimistic” (Lankester 2004, 292). Myrdal believed that Asia’s chances for economic take-off were “slim” due to cultural factors (2004, 291). Myrdal’s intellectual heirs have been similarly criticized. For example, the Indian economist and philosopher, Amartya Sen, has criticized the work of former USAID mission director Lawrence Harrison and Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington for being too static in their view of culture (2004, 20). Sen argues that history teaches the opposite: Cultures are malleable (2004, 20). Fifteen years earlier, Indian scholar Yogendra Singh argued the same thing: Cultures do change (Singh 1988), as did sociologist William Ogburn in his theory of cultural lag originally published in 1922 (Ogburn 1966). So are cultures static or do they change? British sociologist Anthony Giddens’ structuration theory says they do both (Giddens 1984). Viewed through structuration theory then, cultural mores, norms, and structures are always being changed or reinforced as society participates or deviates from them.

Concern: Culture May Be Trampled Upon

The third concern is that culture may be trampled upon. In their chapter in their edited volume, Culture and Public Action, Vijayendra Rao and Michael Walton highlight a positive and negative case study in this regard. The first follows a case study of development interventions in Sudan. Unfortunately, the policy interventions ignored culture and the intended results failed. The second case study took place in Kolkata, India and paid “careful attention to the culturally conditioned processes” already in place.” The result was a “highly successful project” (2004, 4). This approach to development has been called participatory development since the 1970s, to distinguish it from earlier top-down approaches to development. Historically, these concerns and mistakes have made culture and development studies controversial.

Reason #2: Lack of Concrete, Quantitative, and Internationally Comparable Data

The second reason “culture matters” is still debated is less obvious. For the past 250 years, the majority of studies that culture matters are based on country-specific data, or else they are qualitative or theoretical rather than quantitative. As a result, these studies have difficulty penetrating to the level of policy-making. Typically, policy-makers want large-scale, multi-country quantitative data in order to rationalize their decisions. This is understandable; they have to justify their policy to the public and citing a handful of ethnographies (no matter how scholarly) is hardly as defensible as cold statistics. Most culture and development studies do not provide this.

However, there are a few exceptions to this trend. Dutch social psychologist Geert Hofstede (1991), American political scientist & economist, Francis Fukuyama (1995), Ronald Inglehart and Christian Welzel in their book, Modernization, Cultural Change and Democracy (2005), and economist Matteo Marini (2010) all sought to marry culture with large-scale, international, quantitative analysis. However, these are the exception and not the norm. Max Weber (1904) was a masterful economist and sociologist, but his work, Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, remains a largely theoretical work. De Tocqueville (1851), Anstey (1929), Banfield (1958), Kapp (1962), Sherman (1997), Harrison and Kagan (2006), and Nkechinyere (2014) are first-rate studies of culture and development but are each bound to a single country. This makes the leap to policy formation more difficult to justify for policy makers. What is needed is concrete, quantitative, internationally comparable data.

Getting international quantitative data is notoriously expensive and time-consuming. But what if development scholars were able to access existing cross-country data? Does such data exist, which would enable development scholars and policy-makers to analyze the relationship between cultural values, mindsets, and worldviews with development data? Yes, but the database has not yet been created.

A Possible Way Forward: Create a “Culture Matters” Statistical Database

International Indices

If the problem is a lack of quantitative, internationally comparable data for policy makers to refer to, then the solution is to create a “culture matters” statistical database. It would show the statistical relationship between cultural variables and development indicators with statistical significance. Matteo Marini has already modeled the way. Marini uses the World Values Survey for cultural factors and compares it against economic development indicators, governance quality, natural resources, human capital, and institutions (2010, 22).

While this is a way forward, it also comes with limitations. Turning a concept as complex (and qualitative) as culture into a number is, inevitably, reductionist. Many complexities and nuances will be lost. Also, by isolating cultural factors from the whole, it tends toward mono-causal explanations. This would be a simplistic, inaccurate reduction. Ideally, the database might have a mix of qualitative and quantitative data, but step one is to create a quantitative database.

How will development be measured? Should it be Gross Domestic Product, Gross Happiness, or something else? It could be all of them. However, the starting point for policy advocacy should be the Human Development Indicator (HDI). It is simplest, holistic, and universally available development indicator available. The data is already available without requiring more funds or researchers to collect it.

The more challenging question is how culture will be measured. If one is limited to data that is already collected and internationally comparable, a surprising number of options emerge. In the last twenty years, dozens of international indices have been developed to measure different aspects of culture. Each should be considered a proxy measure of culture, the closest alternative to a variable that is otherwise unobservable. The following table shows eight cultural variables, based on the work of Argentine sociologist Mariano Grondona (2000) and professor of global studies, Thom Wolf (2010), and indices available for each.

Table 1: Proxy Measures for Cultural Variables (At least 35 different proxy measures exist to study cultural variables internationally. Most have been developed in the last twenty years. )


Gender Development Index (b. 1995) by UNDP

Gender Empowerment Measure (b. 1995) by UNDP

Gender Equality Index (b. 2004) by Social Watch

Global Gender Gap Index (b. 2006) by World Economic Forum

Gender Inequality Index (b. 2010) by UNDP

Global Trends’ Gender Rights Index (b. 2014) by Ipsos

Gender Parity Index by UNESCO

Female Entrepreneurship Index by GEDI



School Enrollment Percentages (b. 1990) by UNESCO

PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) (b. 2000) by OECD

Merit: By favors or merit?

Global Competitiveness Report (b. 2004) by World Economic Forum

Index of Economic Freedom’s Labor Freedom Score (b. 2005?) by The Heritage Foundation and The Wall Street Journal

Social Mobility Data by OECD



Locus of control (b. 1966) by Julian Rotter

Index of Economic Freedom (b. 1995) by The Heritage Foundation

Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (b. 1999) by GEM Consortium

Press Freedom Index (b. 2002) by Reporters without Borders

Global Entrepreneurship Index (b. 2012) by GEDI

Global Trends’ Tradition Index (b. 2014) by Ipsos

OECD Self Employment Rate

Social Progress Index’s Personal Freedom & Choice (Social Progress Imperative



Religious Tolerance Index (b. 2002) by Gallup

Global Peace Index (b. 2007) by Institute for Economics and Peace

Social Hostility Index (b. 2007) by Pew Research Center

Government Regulation Index (b. 2007) by Pew Research Center

Social Progress Index’s Tolerance & Inclusion by Social Progress Imperative



International Country Risk Guide (b. 1980) by The PRS Group

Corruption Perception Index (b. 1995) by Transparency International

Worldwide Governance Indicators (b. 1996) by World Bank

Trust Barometer (b. 2002) by Edelman

Global Trends’ Trust Index (b. 2014) by Ipsos



The State of the Global Workplace (b. 2010) By Gallup

Global Trends’ Work Fulfillment question (b. 2014) by Ipsos



World Giving Index (b. 2010) by Gallup and Charities Aid Foundation

Global Trends’ Inequality Index (“Success” questions) (b. 2014) by Ipsos


International Comparisons

Step one is to upload the raw data from available indices into the database: Gender Development Index, World Giving Index, etc. Step two is to compare that data with its corresponding level of development, measured by HDI. The purpose of this paper is not to conduct the statistical tests but to issue a call for such tests. The tests would provide a more robust foundation for the “culture matters” thesis to inform development policy and initiatives. The following figures highlight several dimensions of culture and their relationship to HDI.

Table 2: Women - Gender Gap Index (2016) (Since 2006, The World Economic Forum has published the Global Gender Gap Report, which today covers 144 countries. The index measures four areas of inequality: economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, political empowerment, and health and survival. Four out of five countries with the best gender equity are in the top 12% for HDI. Four out of five countries with the worst gender equity are in the bottom 25% for HDI. The only exception, Saudi Arabia, has massive oil fields which may help account for the high HDI despite low gender equity. )

COUNTRY                    RATING (2016)                    HDI (2016)                  

Iceland                            #1 (.874)                                 #9

Finland                            #2 (.845)                                #23

Norway                           #3 (.842)                                #1

Sweden                          #4 (.815)                                 #14

Rwanda                          #5 (.800)                                 #159


Chad                             #140 (.587)                            #186

Saudi Arabia                 #141 (.583)                            #38

Syria                              #142 (.567)                            #149

Pakistan                        #143 (.556)                            #147

Yemen                           #144 (.516)                            #168

Table 3: Education - Primary School Enrollment (2016) (Since 1999, UNESCO Institute for Statistics has measured internationally comparable data on education, science, technology, culture, and communication. It covers more than 200 countries. Its data is used by other development agencies such as the World Bank’s development indicators, UNDP “Human Development Report”, and UNICEF’s “State of the World’s Children”. Three out of five countries with the highest school enrollment are also in the top 10% for HDI. Four out of five countries with the lowest school enrollment are in the bottom 10% for HDI. )

COUNTRY                  RATING                             HDI (2016)

Japan                            #1 (99.94%)                         #17

Canada                         #2 (99.92%)                         #10

Iran                               #3 (99.85%)                         #69

Marshall Islands           #4 (99.71%)                         N/A

Netherlands                 #5 (99.67%)                          #7


Liberia                         #184 (40.62%)                      #177

Congo                         #185 (36.21%)                      #176

Eritrea                         #186 (32.94%)                     #179

Afghanistan                 #187 (27.96%)                     #169

Somalia                       #188 (15%)                           N/A

* Source: UNESCO Institute for Statistics

Table 4: Critical and Creative Thinking - World Press Freedom Index (2017) (Since 2002, Reporters without Borders has measured press freedom in 180 countries. The index measures the level of freedom available to journalists. The data is collective from journalists by pooling their responses to a questionnaire. The questionnaire measures pluralism, media independence, censorship, legislative framework, transparency, and the quality of the infrastructure supporting the press. The five countries with the highest press freedom are all in the top 12% of HDI. Four out of five countries with the lowest press freedom are in the bottom 40% of HDI. )

COUNTRY                 RATING                          HDI (2016)

Norway                       #1 (7.60)                          #1

Sweden                        #2 (8.27)                          #14

Finland                         #3 (8.92)                         #23

Denmark                      #4 (10.36)                        #5

Netherlands                 #5 (11.28)                        #7


China                           #176 (77.66)                    #90

Syria                            #177 (81.49)                    #149

Turkmenistan               #178 (84.19)                    #111

Eritrea                         #179 (84.24)                    #179

North Korea                #180 (84.98)                    N/A

* Source: Reporters without Borders

Table 5: Faith Pluralism - Social Hostilities Index (2014) (Since 2007, The Pew Research Forum has measured restrictions on religion in 198 countries and self-governing territories. Their focus is on two different dimensions: government restrictions and social hostilities. The table below only focuses on social hostilities: the violence and intimidation between people on the ground. To measure social hostilities, Pew Research uses 13 indicators on a 0 to 10 metric. The 13 indicators include religious hate crimes, communal violence, active terrorist groups, religion-related armed conflict, honour killings, religious displacement, hostility over proselytizing, etc. Unlike other indices, Pew Research does not attach exact numerical rankings to the countries because of numerous tie scores. Three out of five countries with the highest social hostilities are also in the bottom 30% of HDI. Three out of five countries with the lowest social hostilities are in the top 7% of HDI.)

COUNTRY                 RATING                          HDI (2016)

Pakistan                      #1 (7.60)                            #1

Afghanistan                #2  (7.2+)                           #169

India                           #3  (7.2+)                           #131

Somalia                       #4  (7.2+)                           N/A

Israel                           #5  (7.2+)                            #19


Hong Kong                #194   (<1.4)                      #12

Iceland                       #195  (<1.4)                       #8

Belarus                       #196  (<1.4)                       #52

Cameroon                  #197  (<1.4)                        #153

Canada                     #198  (<1.4)                         #10

Table 6: Ethics - Corruption Perception Index (2016) (Since 1995, Transparency International has measured Corruption Perception Index (CPI). It focuses on perceived levels of corruption, as determined by expert assessments and opinion surveys. CPI defines corruption as the misuse of public power for private gain. The five least corrupt countries are also in the top 12% for HDI. Four out of five most corrupt countries are in the bottom 20% for HDI. The only exception, Libya, has massive oil fields which may help account for the high HDI despite high corruption. )

COUNTRY                 RATING (2016)                HDI (2016)

Denmark                       #1 (90)                               #5

New Zealand              #1 (90)                               #13

Finland                          #3 (89)                              #23

Sweden                         #4 (88)                              #14

Switzerland                   #5 (86)                              #2

Sudan, Libya, Yemen*   #170 (14)                         #165, #102, #168

Syria                              #173 (13)                          #149

North Korea                   #174 (12)                          N/A

South Sudan                   #175 (11)                          #181

Somalia                          #176 (10)                         N/A
* Tied with Sudan, Libya, and Yemen

** Source: Transparency International, Corruption Perceptions Index

Table 7: Sense of Community - World Giving Index (2015) (Since 2010, The Charities Aid Foundation has measured World Giving by using data gathered by Gallup, covering 140 countries. The World Giving Index measures three aspects of giving: helping strangers, volunteering time, and philanthropy. Philanthropy is measured by asking people if they have donated money to a charity in the past month. Four out of five top countries for philanthropy also in the top 7% of HDI. Four out of five countries rated least philanthropic are in the bottom 50% of HDI.)

COUNTRY                 RATING (2015)                  HDI (2016)

Myanmar                      66%                                     #145

USA                              61%                                      #10

New Zealand                61%                                      #13

Canada                         60%                                     #10*

Australia                        59%                                     #2


Palestine                      17%                                     #114

Lithuania                      17%                                     #37

Yemen                          15%                                     #168

China                            12%                                     #90

Burundi                         11%                                     #184

* Indicates tie

** Source World Giving Index (WGI) published by Charities Aid Foundation using data gathered by Gallup, includes 140 countries.


Culture is not the only factor in development, but it is a factor that, by many accounts, has suffered “comparative indifference” among development economists and policy makers (Sen, 2004, p. 37). There are good historical reasons that it has been treated with caution. But today there are good reasons that it may be handled differently. Today, unlike thirty years ago, there are more than thirty proxy measures for cultural variables. There is nothing stopping development scholars, policy advocates, and policy makers from analyzing the statistical relationship between culture and development in ways that were not possible a generation ago. It may prove that culture matters more than one thinks – or less. It may show which cultural factors matter most and which matter least, through correlation studies. (Causation is impossible to prove in this case.) It may lead to a more comprehensive approach to development policy and initiatives. Ultimately, it all aims to contribute its part in the shared goal of development: human flourishing for all cultures.


Anstey, Vera. 1929. The Economic Development of India. London: Longmans Green and Company.

Banfield, Edward C. 1958. The Moral Basis of a Backward Society. New York: The Free Press.

Brinkmann, Kevin. 2012. Development’s Culture Phobia. Unpublished manuscript.

Frank, Andre Gunder. 1975. On Capitalist Underdevelopment. Bombay: Oxford University Press.

Fukuyama, Francis. 1995. Trust: The Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity. New York: Free Press.

Giddens, Anthony. 1984. The Constitution of Society: Outline of the Theory of Structuration. Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Grondona, Mariano. 2001. A Cultural Typology of Economic Development. In Culture Matters: How Values Shape Human Progress, ed. S.

Huntington and L. Harrison, 44-55. New York: Basic Books.

Harrison, Lawrence E. and Samuel P. Huntington, eds. 2001. Culture Matters: How Values Shape Human Progress. New York: Basic Books.

Harrison, Lawrence and Jerome Kagan, eds. 2006. Developing Cultures: Essays on Cultural Change. New York: Routledge.

Hostede, Geert. 1991. Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Inglehart, Ronald and Christian Welzel. 2005. Modernization, Cultural Change, and Democracy. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Inkeles, Alex. 1960. “The Relation of Status to Experience, Perception, and Value.” American Journal of Sociology 66, no. 1 (July): 1-31.

Jahan, Selim. 2017. Human Development Report 2016. United Nations Development Programme Human Development Reports. Accessed September 19, 2017. http://hdr.undp.org/en/2016-report.

Kapp, K. William. 1962. Hindu Culture, Economic Development and Economic Planning in India. Bombay: Asia Publishing House.

Lankester, Tim. 2004. “‘Asian Drama’ The Pursuit of Modernization in India and Indonesia.” Asian Affairs XXXV, no. III (November).

Landes, David. 1999. The Wealth and Poverty of Nations. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Marini, Matteo. 2010. “The Traditions of Modernity: Assessing the Impact of Beliefs and Attitudes on Human Progress.” Lecture, Moscow State University, Moscow, Russia, May 24-26.

Myrdal, Gunnar. 1968. Asian Drama: An Inquiry into the Poverty of Nations. New York: Pantheon.

Nkechinyere G, Onah. 2014. “Religious Pluralism and Sustainable National Development: The Nigerian Experience.” International Journal of

Humanities and Social Sciences 3, no. 1, (January): 1-10.

Ogburn, William F. 1966. Social Change: With Respect to Cultural and Original Nature. Oxford England: Delta Books.

Rao, Vijayendra and Michael Walton, eds. 2004. Culture and Public Action. Delhi: Pemanent Black.

Rostow, Walt. 1960. The Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sen, Amartya. 2004. How Does Culture Matter? In Culture and Public Action, ed. V. Rao and M. Walton. Delhi: Pemanent Black.

Sherman, Amy. 1997. The Soul of Development: Biblical Christianity and the Economic Transformation in Guatemala. New York: Oxford University Press.

Singh, Yogendra. 1970. Chanukhera: Cultural Change in Eastern Uttar Pradesh. In Change and Continuity in India’s Villages, ed. K. Ishwaran. New York: Columbia University Press.

de Toqueville, Alexis. 1851. Democracy in America. New York: A.S. Barnes and Company.

Wolf, Thom. 2010. “Progress-Prone and Progress-Resistant Societies: Mariano Grondoña’s Paradox and a Cultural Typology of Humane Development.” Lecture, Finance and Budget Academy of the Finance Ministry of the Russian Federation, Moscow, Russia.

Weber, Max. 2010. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Trans. Stephen Kalberg. New York: Oxford University Press. (Orig. publ. 1904.)

Zelizer, Vivian A. 2010. How Culture Shapes the Economy. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Kevin Brinkmann has an MA in International Development from WCIU and is the author of The Global Leader™, a comprehensive 9-day leadership program that has been used by the United Nations and Fortune 500 companies. He is currently completing his PhD on leading organizational and systemic change, based in New Delhi, India.

Kevin Brinkmann has an MA in International Development from WCIU and is the author of The Global Leader™, a comprehensive 9-day leadership program that has been used by the United Nations and Fortune 500 companies. He is currently completing his PhD on leading organizational and systemic change, based in New Delhi, India.

Editor1 Comment