Inglehart-Welzel: Are Belgium and the United States truly cultural neighbors?


Stefan Huyghe is Vice President of Localization at Communicaid Inc. where he focuses on running high-level operations, workflow optimization, database development, social selling and community building. He has over 20 years of experience working in the language industry is fluent in Dutch, French, German, and English.


Are you familiar with the Inglehart-Welzel World Cultural Map? Upon coming across it for the first time, I was intrigued to find that, according to the World Values Survey Association’s most recent research data, the two countries I am most familiar with — Belgium and the United States — were determined to be some of the closest cultural neighbors.

Until my mid-teens, I lived in Flanders. Although I grew up in the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium, I am fluent in all  three of the country’s languages: Dutch, French and German. I hold dual citizenship and have spent the last three decades in California, Massachusetts and Texas, living in cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles, Boston, San Jose and Dallas for more than 25 years. As a result, I have intricate knowledge of the cultural differences that exist between the American south, east, and west coasts. Now, of course, this doesn’t make me a qualified cultural scientist, but nevertheless, I have a lot of anecdotal experience. Finding Belgium and America in close proximity on any map was the last thing that I expected. So how did the scientific duo behind the Inglehart-Welzel World Cultural Map reach this surprising conclusion? 

As in prior editions (1997, 2005, 2013), the map depicts a scatter plot of countries on two predominant dimensions:

The vertical Y-axis contrasts countries according to their relationship with traditional values like religion, parent-child relationships, authority and family values versus a secular or individualistic approach. 

In traditional societies, Inglehart and Welzel theorize that the importance of family is emphasized because it is crucial to survival. Respect for one’s own parents is paramount, and many people’s mission is to make their parents proud. In turn, parents are expected to strive, unselfishly, to give their kids a better outlook, even if that means making important sacrifices. Larger families tend to be idealized. High levels of national pride and protectionist attitudes toward foreign trade are also prevalent as a result of this focus on preservation. Examples of highly traditional societies are Zimbabwe, Morocco, Jordan, and Bangladesh.

In secular societies there is a decrease in the importance of family life, which no longer carries the same necessity for survival. These countries generally favor a more individualistic outlook on life. The increase of human security is accompanied by the gradual phasing out of religion. They have higher levels of faith in science and technology. This is often illustrated by a more permissive stance on moral issues like divorce, euthanasia, and abortion as well as higher tolerance of minorities. Countries considered highly secular include Russia, Bulgaria, Ukraine, and South Korea.

The horizontal X-axis differentiates survival and self-expression as opposing values. This measurement sets out to highlight how the fight for survival is directly related to opposing cultural tendencies. It shows rising levels of economic and physical security have been reshaping human values and motivations, and thereby transforming societies.

Survival values emphasize economical and physical security. It is linked with a relatively ethnocentric outlook and low levels of trust and tolerance.

Self-expression values give high priority to social issues such as gender equality, environmental protection, immigration, minority rights, and the participation in political decision-making.

Inglehart and Welzel strongly suggest that in post-industrial societies, which tend to have high levels of existential security and autonomy, people naturally become more tolerant and focused on well-being and civic activism. At the opposite end, people in societies shaped by existential insecurity and rigid social constraints tend to emphasize economic and physical security above all. They feel threatened by foreigners, ethnic diversity, and cultural change — this can in turn lead to intolerance of minorities, insistence on traditional gender roles, and a generally authoritarian political outlook. A central component of this dimension involves the polarization between materialist and postmaterialist values. These values tap into an intergenerational shift from emphasis on economic and physical security toward increasing emphasis on self-expression, subjective well-being, and quality of life. 

Analysts like Geert Hofstede, working from different perspectives, have described similar cultural differences as collectivism versus individualism, or autonomy versus embeddedness, but according to Inglehart, they all tap a common axis of cross-cultural variation that reflects different levels of existential security.

The Inglehart-Welzel map aligns with the classic modernization theory which claims that secularization is linked to occupational specialization and is symptomatic of a worldwide transition from being an agrarian society to industrial and post-industrial society. These are themes that are also echoed in the works of Durkheim and Weber. In order to arrive at the desired groupings, the scientists seemingly don’t see any issue with mixing and comparing religion, geography, and economic background in the same categories. 

What gives me most pause with the structure of this scatter plot is that the data points are represented by entire countries. Tiny Belgium, my home country, and no larger than the San Francisco Bay area, was artificially cooked up in the 1830s. It knits together three groups of peoples that not only speak a different language but also have completely different socio-cultural backgrounds. The Dutch-speaking Flemish are predominantly Catholic and have a much bigger agricultural tradition. The French-speaking Walloons live in one of the 19th century’s first industrialized regions. Secularization happened much earlier there. Since the inception of Belgium that section of the country has been much less religious as well. The German portion of Belgium was patched on after World War I as retribution and again illustrates how artificial and arbitrary this union really is. 

Finally, considering the United States as one single society makes even less sense. There are huge cultural differences between states. As I have gotten to know my adopted country better, I have come to realize that although its 50 states make up a union, socio-political attitudes vary greatly from state to state.

As a localization expert I have learned the hard way not to automatically consider countries to be cohesive entities. That is often a flawed assumption that can lead to the wrong conclusions quickly. While it might be helpful to analyze some of the complex cultural layers of the world population, I argue we should take the Inglehart-Welzel World Cultural Map with the proverbial grain of salt.