Breaking Out of the North American Box


Gerald J. Gorn (1997) ,"Breaking Out of the North American Box", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 24, eds. Merrie Brucks and Deborah J. MacInnis, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 6-8.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 24, 1997      Pages 6-8


Gerald J. Gorn, The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology

Did you ever wonder why the "Middle East" is called the "Middle East" and the "Far East" the "Far East"? What is Middle and Far about them? These labels reflect a Western European view of the world. From Vancouver where I have lived, you would head straight west, not east, to get to Asia. Most maps we see have North America and Europe in the top portions with Australia "down under." There are Australian "south-up" maps with Australia in the north and centre, and North America on the bottom left and also "upside down". We may know in our heads that it is arbitrary which pole goes on top and that these Australian maps are as accurate as any "north-up" map, but it still looks strange to anyone from the northern hemisphere. As a North American, it looks strange to me to see the U.S. where it is, with Canada below the U.S. The whole map looks upside down.

As an example of North American dominance, on the Internet, firms registered outside the U.S. have been required to identify their country of origin with a two letter extension Ce.g. for Australia it is '’, for Canada, it is '’Cwhereas firms registered in the U.S. are exempted from this requirement. As an article in the Economist put it, "because the United States dreamt up the Internet, most of its users grandly carry no country code" (The Economist, June 8, 1996, p. 71). The situation is, of course, changing, as the proportion of non-Americans to Americans using the Internet increases.

My remarks here concern breaking out of an ethnocentric North American box in our field, something which is already happening, and which I would like to reinforce here. Perhaps one of the few universal truths is that, oddly enough, we are all, at least to some extent, ethnocentric (c.f. LeVine and Campbell 1972, and Triandis 1994, 1996 for a discussion of ethnocentrism); even scientists. This is one of the points the philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn made whn he described scientists from competing paradigms as seeing the world differently, leading them to live in different worlds (Kuhn 1970). Where you stand depends on where you sit!

Sumner, back in 1906, defined ethnocentrism as "the technical name for this view of things in which one’s own group is the center of everything, and all others are scaled and with reference to it" (Sumner, 1906, p. 12). It is the latter part of this definition that I find most intriguing. The constructs, relationships, samples and measures we use as researchers undoubtedly bear our cultural stamp, and therefore testing for their generalizability to other cultures may be biased and insufficient. It may not do justice to the cultures to which we are trying to generalize, cultures which may be better captured by more indigenous as opposed to "imported" constructs. Hofstede (1980, 1983) in his well-known research on cultural values, uncovered four dimensions of culture, namely individualism-collectivism (focus in the society on the development and welfare of the individual versus the collective), power distance (attitude towards unequal power in organizations and in society in general), uncertainty avoidance (tolerance of ambiguous situations and the desire to avoid them), and masculinity-femininity (the extent to which the society favors assertiveness or nurturance). These four dimensions emerged from a questionnaire developed by researchers from six Western countries. In subsequent research, Chinese scholars were asked to develop a similar questionnaire, and like with Hofstede’s original research, the questionnaire was then administered to respondents in different countries. Four dimensions emerged in the Chinese study as well, but only three were the same. In the Chinese study, uncertainty avoidance did not emerge, whereas a new dimension called Confucian dynamism emerged. Confucian dynamism contains such values as thrift, perseverance and respect for tradition (see Chinese Cultural Connection 1987, and Hofstede 1994 for a more detailed discussion). As another example of constructs important in other cultures, but less so in North America, there are emotions that have special significance in the Japanese culture but not in the North American culture (e.g. "ki ga sumanai", an ongoing dissatisfaction with oneself, "amae", indulging one’s sense of dependency on others).

Japanese constructs like "ki ga sumanai" and "amae" were brought into the literature by a Japanese psychiatrist, Takeo Doi (see Heine and Lehman 1996a, and Heine, Lehman, Kitayama, and Markus 1996). In the field of consumer behavior as well, it may be non-North American researchers who have a special role to play in bringing into our field constructs from other cultures, constructs that they have a feel for first hand. As gatekeepers of new knowledge, they also have a special role to play as reviewers and editorial board members. There are, by my rough count, about 15% on the editorial board of both the Journal of Consumer Research and the Journal of Consumer Psychology, who from what I can gather are non-North American. Perhaps they have this special role of bringing new knowledge from other cultures into our field. North American scholars interested in breaking out of the geography box, are likely to benefit greatly from interacting with, and doing research with, those from other cultures, and this cross-cultural research collaboration would seem to be increasing. Those from another culture can serve as guides to that culture, which may help those viewing it with foreign eyes to see something new. It should also help them reflect back on their own culture and take a fresh look at it.

I would like to digress a little here to say that powerful economies like Japan and Germany have taken their place alongside the U.S. The U.S. dollar is no longer the only powerful currency, and the only currency against which all others are measured. This change should lessen the feeling that the U.S. is the centre of the world, which in turn should help stimulate an interest in at least the cultures or countries that are becoming more powerful. Perhapsit has been in part the growing economic power of other countries that has spurred interest in their culture. Economic success may be the validation that is needed to really spur interest. For example, the interest in Japanese management theories and the Japanese in general was probably stimulated, at least in part, by their economic success. "How do they do it, those Japanese?" And what we are finding out is that, not surprisingly, they are very different from North Americans. If the 21st century is in fact "the Asian century", the 20th century being perhaps the American one (Dale, 1996) then there is much more learning on the part of North Americans to come, because Asian cultures are so different from the cultural environment those of us from North America have grown up in.

Research in Japan has already challenged some psychological truths from North American research findings, that I have always felt were so basic and universal. Research in North America has shown that people like to think well of themselves. We like to think of ourselves as competent, independent and confident (e.g. Sampson 1977, Markus and Kitayama 1991, and Heine and Lehman 1996a). We strive to do better, and be successful. It is also well-documented in this research that we even make use of self-serving biases to bolster an unrealistically positive view of ourselves (e.g. Taylor and Brown 1988) and of our future (Heine and Lehman 1995a); and there is the well-known attribution finding in North American research that we tend to take credit for our successes but blame our failures on external factors (see Zuckerman, 1979 for a review of this literature).

Are these fundamental human tendencies? Would people from cultures which do not place so much of a premium on individual success, and reward it so much, think and act the same way? From what I can tell, the answer at this point seems to be "no". Many of our robust findings in North America simply do not hold up in cultures which value interdependence. One example is the one I just mentioned of the tendency for people to take credit for successes while blaming failure on others. [Another example of a North American finding that does not seem to hold as strongly in other cultures is the tendency to reduce dissonance between attitudes and behavior (see Heine and Lehman 1996b).] It has been shown to be less pronounced in cultures that emphasize integration with the group as opposed to self-enhancement (Kashima and Triandis 1986). In fact, at least when it comes to the Japanese, they do not appear to view themselves as better than others in the society around them (Markus and Kitayama 1991, Heine and Lehman 1996c), and they do not seem to want to stand out from the crowd; whereas we say "the squeaky wheel gets the grease", the Japanese have a saying "the nail that stands out gets pounded down" (Markus and Kitayama 1991). As another example of a difference between Americans and Japanese and of the previously mentioned Japanese construct "ki ga sumanai", a study done by the Prime Minister’s office in Japan found that while 93% of North American students felt they were doing well in school, only 37% of Japanese students felt this way. If anything, research shows that the Japanese tend to be unnecessarily pessimistic (Heine et al. 1996). As Heine et al. (1996) note, the North American slogan "where there’s a will, there’s a way" can be contrasted with the Japanese saying "there is no way". [And the evidence shows that it is more than a matter of modesty (Diener, Suh, Smith, and Shoa, 1995, Heine and Lehman 1995b).] This ongoing sense of dissatisfaction about oneself serves an important function in the interdependent Japanese culture. Focusing on their negative characteristics in their interactions with others is a way the Japanese use to find out what has to be done to enable them to integrate better with, and obtain the approval of, the group (Heine and Lehman 1996a).

If we accept that cultures are different, and also that our culture shapes us in profound ways, then we should be able to accept that there are going to be major cultural differences in the way people think, feel, and act, including the ways they behave vis a vis both advertising and products. [As but one recent example of this, see Schmitt, Pan and Tavasolli's (1994) research for how language, as aspect of culture, shapes consumer information processing.] Furthermore, the more we appreciate how deep-seated these cultural differences often are, the more likely we are to realize that there are limits to the notion of a "global person" or "global consumer" (c.f., Levitt 1981, and Segal-Horn 1992); the more likely to be challenged are some of the truths that we believe to be universal.

It will be interesting to see what important differences emerge as more consumer behavior studies are conducted in other cultures, particularly in cultures very different from our own, namely non-western cultures. About 70% of humans live in non-western cultures (Triandis 1996); and learning about cultural differences should be, clearly, all the more relevant today with the recent emergence of consumer markets in Asia, and parts of Latin America as well.

As a final comment I would have you consider the following. When going through the consumer behavior journals, we all realize how much of our knowledge comes from studying college students. We often joke about this and the limitations and biases involved in having such a restricted sample base. What we joke about less is that the sample is typically one of North American college students. If as a field we are trying to do more than simply understand the American consumer, perhaps we should be as sensitive to any shortcomings of a sample being North American as we are to it being one of college students.


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Gerald J. Gorn, The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 24 | 1997

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