Comparing Low & High Power Distance Cultural Communications

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  • 0:00 Power Distance
  • 1:09 High Power Distance Cultures
  • 4:09 Low Power Distance Cultures
  • 6:34 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Different cultures have different ideas about power. In this lesson, you will explore the relationship between power distribution and cultural values. Afterwards, test your understanding with a brief quiz.

Power Distance

I think we all know that some people are more powerful than others. Some people have more wealth or more political influence than us. We are fairly aware of this. And, frankly, most of you probably have more wealth and power than someone else. The fact is, power is not evenly distributed as much as we'd like it to be. Well, we can't necessarily change that, but at least we can study it. In the social sciences, this idea is called power distance, or the extent that people within a society accept that power is distributed unequally. The study of power distance is the study of power distribution, but with a very specific focus. While a lot of research looks at distribution from the top down, the study of power distance is all about power distribution from the perspective of those without the highest degrees of power. Basically, does the average person accept that power inequality is simply a fact of life, or not? That's the question here.

High Power Distance Cultures

Power distance is a cultural phenomenon. The way that we regard the distribution of power and how we even define power are subject to each culture's biases. Some cultures are more than happy to accept inequality, some aren't. Let's start at the top of the scale: a high power distance culture is one in which power inequality is pronounced and common, and people accept that without question. Some people have power, while others don't; that's just the way it is. High power distance cultures tend to value things like tradition, which keeps society stable and prevent massive changes to power relations. They also tend to be very hierarchical, which means that people are ranked within society by strict roles. In a very hierarchical society, everybody knows their place and they don't really question it. This also means that these cultures tend to place little emphasis on individualism, favoring larger ideas like the nation or the greater good over individual attention and power. To measure the degree of power distance in a country, researchers have come up with a scale called, aptly, the Power Distance Index. So, what cultures are higher on the Power Distance Index? Well, for starters, many nations that are traditionally Catholic tend to have higher power distance levels. Highly religious societies in general tend to value tradition and cultural stability. For example, on a scale of 1 to 120, France ranks at a 68. Actually, most of southern Europe is in this range. China is even higher with a rank of 80, due largely to millennial-old traditions of strict social hierarchies. A high power distance rating is not a bad thing, let's be clear about that. It's just an indicator of cultural values. However, it can be used to indicate areas where inequality may become an institutionalized and inescapable tradition. Guatemala, for example, has a power distance rating of 95. This means a very high degree of inequality and a very low belief amongst average Guatemalans that this can be changed. Both of these are largely due to low levels of education, high levels of corruption, and systemic racism against Amerindian populations. So, the index can point out areas of potential human rights violations but, again, a higher score does not itself mean that a culture is intolerant or abusive. Not everyone values individualism as much as western culture does, and that's okay.

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