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Why the U.S. and Belgium are culture buddies

The Inglehart-Welzel World Cultural map replaces geographic accuracy with closeness in terms of values.

Credit: World Values Survey, public domain.

According to the latest version of the Inglehart-Welzel World Cultural Map, Belgium and the United States are now each other's closest neighbors in terms of cultural values.
Key Takeaways
  • This map replaces geography with another type of closeness: cultural values.
  • Although the groups it depicts have familiar names, their shapes are not.
  • The map makes for strange bedfellows: Brazil next to South Africa and Belgium neighboring the U.S.

Some countries value self-expression more than others.Credit: Robyn Beck / AFP via Getty Images

Question: On what map is Lithuania a neighbor of China, Poland lies next to Brazil, and Morocco and Yemen touch?

Answer: The Inglehart-Welzel World Cultural Map. To be precise, the 2017 map. Because on the 2020 version, each of those pairs has drifted apart significantly.

These are not, strictly speaking, maps but rather scatterplot diagrams. Each dot represents a country, the position of which is based on how it ranks on two different values (discussed below). The dots are corralled together into geo-cultural groups:

  • Catholic Europe, which comprises countries as diverse and far apart as Hungary and Andorra
  • Protestant Europe, taking in both Iceland and Germany
  • The Orthodox world, from Belarus all the way to Armenia
  • The three Baltic states
  • The English-speaking world, including both the U.S. and Northern Ireland
  • The huge African-Islamic world, ranging from Azerbaijan to South Africa
  • Latin America, which goes from Mexico to Argentina
  • South Asia, which comprises both India and Cyprus
  • The Confucian world, encompassing China and Japan.

The placement of the dots indicates cultural proximity or distance. Some countries from different groups can be more similar than other countries in the same group.

See the examples indicated above: cultural neighbors China and Lithuania belong to the Confucian and Baltic groups, respectively. Poland is part of Catholic Europe; its 2017 neighbor Brazil is in Latin America. Morocco and Yemen are closer culturally to Armenia, in the Orthodox group, than they are to Qatar, despite all belonging to the African-Islamic group.

The 2017 version of the map places Malta deep inside South America and lets Vietnam, Portugal, and Macedonia meet.Credit: World Values Survey, public domain.

Creating a culture map

So, what exactly are the criteria used for plotting these dots in the first place?

These maps are part of the World Values Survey, first conducted by political scientist Ronald Inglehart in the late 1990s. With his colleague Christian Welzel, he produced an update in 2005. The WVS has been revised several times since, most recently in 2020.

The WVS asserts that there are two fundamental dimensions to cross-cultural variation across the world. These are used as the axes to plot the various countries on the diagram.

  • The X-axis measures survival versus self-expression values.

Survival values focus on economic and physical security. There is not much room for trust and tolerance of “others.” Self-expression values prioritize well-being, quality of life, and self-expression. There is more room for tolerating ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities.

  • The Y-axis measures traditional versus secular-rational values.

Traditional values include deference to religion and parental authority as well as traditional social and family values. Societies that score high on traditions typically also are highly nationalistic. In more secular-rational societies, science and bureaucracy replace faith as the basis for authority. Secular-rational values include high tolerance of things like divorce, abortion, euthanasia, and suicide.

As indicated by the significant changes on the 2020 map, the cultural values of nations are not static:

  • Countries that move up on the map are shifting from traditional to more secular-rational values.
  • Countries that move to the right on the map are shifting from survival values to self-expression values.
  • And, of course, vice versa in both cases.

According to the authors of the map, changes in cultural outlook can be the result of socioeconomic changes — increasing levels of wealth, for example. But the religious and cultural heritage of each country also plays a part.

The world’s cultural landscape is dynamic — you could even say promiscuous, producing new bedfellows every few years.Credit: World Values Survey, public domain.

Some notable features of the 2020 map:

  • The Baltic group has been dissolved; Lithuania is now part of Catholic Europe, Estonia a lone Protestant island in a Catholic sea. More worryingly, Latvia seems to have dissolved completely.
  • In general, survival values are strongest in African-Islamic countries, self-expression values in Protestant Europe.
  • Traditional values are strongest in African-Islamic countries and Latin America, while secular values dominate in Confucian countries and Protestant Europe.
  • The United States is an atypical member of the English-speaking group, scoring much lower on both scales (that is to say, lower and more to the left). In other words, the U.S. is more into traditional and survival values than the group’s other members.
  • Shifting attitudes don’t just separate; they also unite. Belgium and the U.S. are now culture buddies, as are New Zealand and Iceland. Kazakhstan is virtually indistinguishable from Bosnia.

The Inglehart-Welzel map is not without its critics. It has been decried as Eurocentric, simplistic, and culturally essentialist (that is, the assumption that certain cultural characteristics are essential and fixed, and that some are superior to others). Which is, of course, a very self-expressive thing to say.

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For more on these maps, on the WVS surveys, and on the methodology used, visit the World Values Survey.

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