The Common Value

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Sociologists claim that modern Russia is dominated by individualists. Collectivists are few and far between – a lot fewer than in the Netherlands or in Poland, for example. However, the group focused on the growth value so characteristic of most developed European countries is virtually absent. So, how is it that collectivism, in a country with a vast tradition of the tradition, has suddenly found itself out of fashion?

Russia and Europe

The findings in question were made based on public data from the European Social Survey (ESS) – a large-scale international project dedicated to the study of European citizens’ values ( and published in the Journal of Public Opinion.

The study is based on Shalom Schwartz’s theory, which identified 10 core values: security, conformity, tradition, self-direction, stimulation, hedonism, achievement, power/wealth, benevolence, and universalism. Schwartz placed the values onto a circular structure. The closer two value sectors are, the higher the congruence between them. Values located in opposing sectors have a negative correlation.

The individual types of value are combined into value categories. Two bipolar dimensions are on opposite sides of the circle and form axes: conservation versus openness to change; self-enhancement versus self-transcendence; individualistic orientation versus social orientation; and self-defense versus growth.

The location of individuals and countries on each of the axes reflects the value preferences of their carriers, and these preferences are measured as the difference between the values of the corresponding value categories. Different combinations of categories lead to conclusions that individualism, for example, can be selfish, if dominated by the values of self-affirmation, or creative, if dominated by the values of openness to change. Similarly, social orientation can be altruistic or passive, depending on whether the dominant value is self-transcendence or conservation.

The study identified five groups, or classes, to which Europeans could be said to belong, on the basis of their value preferences. The members of each group are similar to each other in the sense of having similar values, but, at the same time, they are distinct from other groups. Those are the classes of a strong and a weak social orientation, and a strong and a weak individualistic orientation, as well as a standalone class of growth values.

The class of strong social orientation is characterized by maximum preference for the values of conservation (security, conformity, tradition) over the values of openness to change (self-direction, stimulation, hedonism), and it is combined with the highest preference for the value of self-transcendence (benevolence, universalism) over the values of self-enhancement.

Its opposite is the value class of a strong individualistic orientation, which, on the contrary, is characterized by a maximum preference for openness over conservation and a minimal preference for self-transcendence over self-enhancement.

Another pair of classes – the class of weak social orientation and the class of weak individualistic orientation – is quite different. For instance, a strong social class differs from a weak one through a significantly higher preference for the values of self-transcendence and a slightly higher propensity towards the values of conservation. A strong individualistic class differs from the weak one through greater expression for all the value preferences of self-enhancement and openness.

These four classes include more than 80% of the population of European countries. The fifth group – the class of growth values – is radically different from the rest. It includes those who combine self-transcendence with openness to change. It is this class that determines the greatest differences between countries; the proportional ratio of individualists and collectivists, though it varies from country to country, is not very significant. As for the growth class, it may either be almost completely absent (Kosovo), or include almost half of the population (the maximum rate – 46% – was recorded in Iceland).

In general, the countries with the largest share of the growth class are located in Northern and Western Europe, and it is the least prominent in the post-socialist countries and the Mediterranean. In Russia, just as in Slovakia, only two percent of the population belongs to it. In Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, and Poland it is a little more – four to six percent.

The authors of the study connect how representative the growth class in a country is to the level of its economic development and noted a high correlation with gross national per capita income. Here, too, Russia in no way deviates from the pan-European trend.

What is interesting is that the country is in the top four when it comes to the number of individualists (together with Hungary, Portugal, and the Czech Republic). Only in those European countries, as well as in Israel, is the proportion of the population in individualism-oriented groups greater than 50%. In general, research shows that individualists are more common in less affluent European countries (though there is no set-in-stone pattern). However, in the countries themselves, as a rule, such classes comprise more affluent citizens, and Russia, once again, is no exception.

So what distinguishes individualists from other groups in Russian society? They are more educated, well-off, and satisfied with their lives in general. They believe in themselves and tend to rely on themselves in everything. The values that they choose are independence, determination, and imagination. At the same time, strangely enough, they value friendship more than collectivists.

For those who belong to the socially-oriented classes, such values as tolerance and respect, diligence, and obedience are quite important. They are committed to the ideals of a strong state. They worry about social inequality. Most of them are senior citizens and retirees.

According to the study, the gradually shrinking socially-oriented class in Russia is the ‘ordinary Soviet man’ fading into the past, who is being replaced by the younger generation, whose values were formed under the influence of the changes that took place in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

How and why the values are studied

The question of how views on life are different in different cultures and societies has interested both scientists and ordinary people for a long time. However, an accurate, science-based answer is hard to give, if it is possible at all. To begin with, the questions would have to be asked in different languages, and, here, the researchers are faced with the challenge of finding equivalents.

In order to most accurately convey the meaning in another language, one sometimes has to resort to the method of back translation. First, one translator translates the questions into the appropriate language, and then a second translator translates them back into the original language. The result is compared with the original material, and discrepancies are discovered and replaced. The procedure is repeated for as long as the original and the reverse translation do not match.

Finally, the same words may be perceived in different ways and acquire different connotations to different people, groups, and cultures. Therefore, even if the questions are translated correctly, it is impossible to always be sure that we are actually talking about the same thing in both cases. In such situations, context and repetition of the same idea in different words come to the rescue.

The largest comparative study of values – the World Values Survey – is conducted every five years and has allowed researchers to compare several dozen countries and track changes occurring in the last 35 years. The first wave of surveys for this project was carried out in 1981. The latest wave was completed in 2014, with some 58,000 people from 60 countries answering the sociologists’ questions. In drawing up the national questionnaires, the back translation method, as well as its preliminary testing, was used. In some cases, certain questions had to be changed or even deleted. The initial data are publicly available and can be downloaded on the website and analyzed independently.

The study is based on the theory by Ronald Inglehart. He separated values into materialist and post-materialist, linking them to the lower- and higher-level needs in Maslow’s hierarchy. According to Inglehart, materialistic values (economic and physical security, and social comfort) are more common in poor countries. In rich countries, people’s attention switches to other – post-materialist – factors: quality of life, self-realization, and participation in political, social, and environmental movements.

To evaluate the differences between cultures, he introduced two axes: traditional versus secular-rational values (vertical y-axis) and survival versus self-expression values (horizontal x-axis). The two axes define a plane on which the researchers place countries depending on the results obtained.

According to the World Values Survey, Russia is not a traditionalist country. On the first axis, it is located somewhat closer to the rationalist pole, at the level of some countries of Catholic Europe – France and Belgium, in particular. On the second axis, however, it is comparable to countries such as Zimbabwe and Pakistan; the survival values are still very relevant. The countries that are the closest on the map are Moldova, South Korea, Belarus, and China.

Inglehart’s research does not support the idea that globalization leads to a convergence of values. Over the past 30 years, significant changes have taken place in the value system of many countries, but they were rather in parallel to each other. Moreover, the changes were more significant in developed and successful countries. Stagnant economies have changed little in terms of values, too. Therefore, the difference in values between rich and poor countries has only increased.

Another well-known comparative study of values was done by Dutch social psychologist Geert Hofstede. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, he studied the organizational culture at the IBM offices in 70 countries. That data allowed him to make broader conclusions about the differences that exist between countries. He developed a methodology that has then been applied more than once in the new waves of cross-cultural research.

Hofstede introduced six dimensions for measuring a culture: power distance and inequality, collectivism/individualism, uncertainty avoidance, masculinity/femininity, short-term/long-term orientation, and indulgence/restraint. The values for each scale vary from one to 120.

The power distance determines how society recognizes and emphasizes the power hierarchy, and how great the differences are between superiors and subordinates. A greater difference means a more pronounced subordination and explicit attributes of domination. A smaller difference means greater democracy, as well as greater initiative and responsibility of citizens.

Individualistic cultures attach higher importance to the achievement of personal goals, whereas in collectivist societies, social and welfare goals are put above personal.

Hofstede associated the masculine type of culture with such qualities as assertiveness, competitiveness, and desire for power, and the feminine type with taking care of the quality of life and with interpersonal relationships.

A high level of uncertainty avoidance means that changes are perceived as a threat by society. In such cultures, religion usually has a greater value and social norms are stricter. People from such cultures are less tolerant of those who are different from them.

The indicator of short- or long-term orientation is associated with how a culture treatstime, whether its members expect changes in the future, whether they plan for them, or whether they live in the present above all.

The hedonism/abstinence scale shows the attitude regarding momentary desires in a culture. Those cultures that recognize self-restraint as a positive quality are characterized by strict social rules and restrictions, and modesty is considered one of the main virtues.

Hofstede’s measurements show that Russia is among the five countries with the highest index of power distance – 93 points. Only Malaysia, Guatemala, Panama, and the Philippines are ahead. Russia also has one of the highest levels of uncertainty avoidance – 95 points. (The lowest – eight points – is in Singapore.) As for individualism, according to this study, its level is still relatively low: A rating of 39 points on this scale indicates the predominance of collectivist thinking. Russian culture is more feminine; its masculinity index is 36 points. (First place in masculinity belongs to Japan, while its polar opposite is Sweden.) In terms of long-term orientation, Russia is closer to Eastern countries, where it is traditionally high (the most long-term oriented country is China), rather than to the West. In addition, Russians are more inclined toward restraint. In fact, the level of hedonism – or indulgence – is only rated at 20 points.

Hofstede identified some patterns and was able to link his values to other indicators of social and economic characteristics of the countries surveyed. Thus, power distance is correlated with income inequality, and the level of individualism with national wealth. The higher the level of masculinity, the smaller the share of national income spent on social programs. There are also very specific observations. For example, high uncertainty avoidance results in a requirement for citizens to carry their ID cards, while a long-term orientation goes together with relatively higher success of school students in mathematics.

Researchers are trying to understand the impact that differences in values may have on other aspects of life, such as people’s economic behavior and, ultimately, their success and well-being. They are also identifying certain patterns. However, it is hardly possible to discern the causes and consequences ‒ whether values determine economic development, or whether economic development impact values. There are arguments in favor both viewpoints, and, most likely, the influence is mutual.

Thus, any attempts to come up with some kind of definite diagnosis for a country based on this data raise only more questions. The researchers themselves note that in modern societies, people co-exist with very different values. The mix of worldviews is too variegated to simply extract the arithmetic mean and draw conclusions about the national system of values common to everyone, and therefore determining development.

The myth of Russian collectivism

Comparative studies of values show more important information about the similarities than the differences that exist between countries. They help to get rid of stereotypes, showing that Russia, in general, follows pan-European development trends.

The idea that Russians have a unique path, a unique character, their own worldview, and a mysterious soul is a common stereotype that is readily reproduced by many generations of philosophers, statesmen, and mere mortals who hold a variety of beliefs. Slavophiles and conservatives see this as evidence that the Western way is not for us. The West-leaning liberals see an annoying hindrance for development.

Yet, while in the 19th century, the peasant community was still alive and well in Russia, and in the 20th century, the ideals of collectivism became one of the foundations of the communist utopia implemented in the Soviet Union, it seems that now collectivism has absolutely no more ‘excuses’. In the rural community, as well as in the Soviet communal apartments, there was really no choice, but the current dominance of individualism is the result of a rather natural desire to finally scatter each to his or her own corner and live for oneself. The pendulum swung toward individualistic values, but it is possible that, after some time, it will start to reverse its movement, as it may well have happened in other European countries. Therefore, it is not out of the realm of possibility that the growth class, still ever so scarce in Russia, might also begin to expand.

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