Considerations for conducting cross-cultural survey research

Learn the differences to consider when executing cross-cultural research online and tactics to apply in your survey designs.
08 April 2021
cross cultural research, online surveys
Jon Puleston

Vice President, Innovation, Profiles Division

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Whilst online research allows us to cross borders with ease, conducing cross-cultural research requires many considerations. There can be vast differences in how people respond to survey questions across different countries and cultures. Because of this, designing international surveys require some extra care.

What is cross-cultural research and why is it important?

Cross-cultural research is an interdisciplinary field that aims to understand and analyse the diversity of human experiences across different cultures. It involves studying the impact of culture on various aspects of human behavior, including attitudes, values, norms, and communication styles. This research provides valuable insights into how individuals and societies function within their cultural contexts, highlighting both similarities and differences.

Cross-cultural research is important for several reasons. Firstly, it helps us develop a deeper understanding of cultural diversity and fosters intercultural competence. By examining different cultural perspectives, we can enhance our ability to communicate effectively and build meaningful relationships with people from diverse backgrounds. Secondly, this research allows us to identify and address cultural barriers and misunderstandings that can arise in various contexts, such as business, education, healthcare, and social interactions.

Furthermore, cross-cultural research plays a crucial role in improving global business practices. It enables companies to navigate cultural differences when operating in international markets, ensuring that products and services are culturally sensitive and tailored to local preferences. Understanding the impact of culture on consumer behavior and decision-making processes can greatly contribute to successful marketing strategies.

Moreover, cross-cultural research has significant implications for education and training. By recognising and appreciating diverse cultural backgrounds, educators can create inclusive learning environments that cater to the needs of students from different cultures. It also promotes the exchange of ideas and knowledge between cultures, leading to enriched educational experiences.

Methodology of cross-cultural research

Methodology in cross-cultural research encompasses various approaches to gather and analyse data in order to gain insights into cultural differences and similarities. Comparative studies involve examining multiple cultures or groups and making systematic comparisons to identify patterns, trends, and differences in behavior, beliefs, or values. This approach allows researchers to highlight cultural variations and draw meaningful conclusions about cultural influences on various phenomena.

Ethnographic studies, on the other hand, involve immersing oneself in a particular culture or community to gain an in-depth understanding of their practices, beliefs, and social dynamics. Ethnographers engage in participant observation, interviews, and document analysis to gather rich qualitative data that provides nuanced insights into the cultural context. By embedding themselves within the culture, researchers can explore the intricate webs of meaning and understand how cultural factors shape behavior and social interactions.

Surveys and questionnaires are commonly used quantitative methods in cross-cultural research. These tools involve administering structured sets of questions to a sample of participants from different cultures. Surveys provide a way to collect large amounts of data efficiently and enable researchers to quantify and compare responses across cultures. Questionnaires can cover a wide range of topics, such as attitudes, values, preferences, or behavior, allowing for systematic analysis and statistical comparisons.

Each of these methodologies has its strengths and limitations. Comparative studies offer broad insights into cultural differences but may oversimplify the complexity of individual cultures. Ethnographic studies provide rich qualitative data but are often time-consuming and require long-term engagement with the culture being studied. Surveys and questionnaires allow for efficient data collection and statistical analysis, but the responses may be influenced by cultural biases and limitations in translation and cross-cultural equivalence.

How and why do survey responses differ cross-culturally?

People answer surveys in different ways around the world. The way respondents answer surveys varies significantly between countries. This is due to a range of cultural and methodological factors that you should consider when planning any cross-cultural study.

For example, levels of agreeability range across countries dramatically. In India for example, 75% of answers are on the positive end of range scales, on average, whereas in Japan only 11% of answers are positive.

The underlying reasons for this are quite complex and driven by psychological factors, but they are compounded by several issues, including:

Language and word association

The same words can be interpreted differently in different countries. The word ‘love’ to describe feelings towards a brand is far more likely to be selected by Americans than British or Australian. Their use of language is less emotional. Respondents in UK and Australia are more likely to use the world ‘OK’ in association with a brand. However, to Americans, ‘OK’ is too ordinary.

Number ranges

In most countries people tend to think about 10 being the highest and 1 being the lowest score you can give when rating things. The opposite can occur in some countries like China and Germany. In China, 1 is thought of as the best and much more likely to be consider to be the top score. The same in Germany too, which stems from their school making system where work is scored on a 1 to 6 scale, 1 being the highest mark. This is why it’s critical to understand the variance in acquiescence bias in each country before designing your questionnaire. Otherwise, it could dramatically impact your data.

Comprehension issues

It can take different countries longer to read and answer a survey. Slower speeds can be caused by linguistic repertoire, the use of characters, a more verbose language style or answering in a language that isn’t native.

Attitudes towards taking surveys

Unfortunately, we sometimes must contend with the approach to taking surveys. In the UK and US, people are less fastidious than other countries and can straight-line through a survey. Meanwhile, in China and India, there is a higher tendency to overclaim, sometimes intentionally but sometimes due to cultural differences.

How do you design surveys that deliver more consistent data across global markets?

So, what are some of the solutions to ensuring you achieve the most robust, reliable data from your cross-cultural research? Here are three tactics Kantar recommends for reliable data collection:

1. Weighting tables to calibrate basic differences

Calibration data can be used to harmonise differences across countries and respondent levels by having the main cultural markers mapped out. This can create a means of recognising differences that can have a measurable impact in interpreting and comparing your data. Be careful when applying weighting techniques, however. It varies from question to question and requires enough data to pull apart the subtleties.

2. Adopt a more visual approach to asking questions

Visuals and icons can help introduce more consistency than words. Using imagery not only improves attention, it can also reduce the intra-country variances. This is because people interpret pictures more consistently than language nuances. For example, we’ve found that using faces rather than words can bring the variance between countries down by almost a third.

Visuals can also increase engagement and the attentiveness of respondents more generally. By bringing the question to life and making respondents concentrate more, you will yield more consistent data.

3. Change how you ask questions

Cultural bias can be considerably reduced if you look at asking questions in different ways. For example, you can overcome agreement scale problems by replacing rating scales and rankings. Consider using tools like max. diff and custom scale anchor points instead. You may find they yield a better spread of answers and understanding of respondents.

Learn more

Keen to learn more? Access all our recommendations in our Online Survey Design Module: Factors to Consider When Conducting Cross-Cultural Research.

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