Economy, Jobs and Business

Cultural sensitivity in an index of social development

5 min


Kuba Krys

Almost all governments identify social development with economic development. Yet people’s preferences for development cover more than just economic progress – they also vary between societies. This column argues that the cultural diversity of development goals can be reflected in a culturally sensitive development index. For the vast majority of post-materialistic societies, it seems to be an urgent necessity, but poorer societies may also wish to harmonize their economic progress with other aims that could be indigenously defined.

Discussion of measures of social development has intensified since the global financial crisis of 2007–2009. Common criticisms of economic measures include arguments that they account insufficiently for environmental costs, omit non-market activity, ignore social disparities, and are an inadequate indicator of social wellbeing. Here we add the voice of cross-cultural psychologists to this debate, and we also revitalise the postulates of the social indicators movement of the 1960s. Development indexes also need to become culturally sensitive.

Most current indexes of development assume implicitly that:

(1) every society has the same set of development goals,

(2) every society pursues these goals with equal intensity, and

(3) every society follows the same development pathway to satisfy these goals.

In contrast, we claim that societies are likely to vary in:

(1) their set of preferred development goals,

(2) the intensity with which they wish to pursue specific goals, and

(3) their preferred pathways leading to these goals.

We advocate that the philosophies underlying development indexes should reflect the cultural diversity of contemporary societies in terms of their preferred development goals and the pathways leading to these goals. Table 1 provides a summary comparison of the culturally sensitive paradigm to the economic paradigm (and to the previously dominant military paradigm).

An example: cultural sensitivity applied to the Human Development Index

The Human Development Index (HDI), which is the most popular alternative to GDP, is constructed as the geometric mean of three sub-indexes – education, longevity, and economics (Isubscript stands for the index of a given dimension):

HDI = (Ihealth x Ieducation x Ieconomics)1/3

Thus, the HDI implicitly assumes that each of its three components is equally important for society. But there is no empirical evidence that every society prefers each of these three pathways of development with equal strength.

By collecting or accessing relevant data, researchers could weigh longevity, education, and economics by the actual preferences of each society and then assess how well each society is meeting its own goals in a culturally sensitive HDI (CS-HDI; Wsubscript stands for the weight of a given dimension):


= (Ihealth ^Whealth  x Ieducation ^Weducation  x Ieconomics ^Weconomics )1/(Whealth+ Weducation + Weconomics)

As a result, this adapted CS-HDI would give relatively more significance to the dimensions that a given society aspires to attain, and it would thereby become more culturally sensitive.

Between-country comparability of the traditional HDI is easy to comprehend as it is based on arbitrarily selected equal weights of three sub-indexes. The CS-HDI weighs social aims differently for each society depending on the degree to which individuals in each society value that aim. Thus, the unit of comparison for CS-HDI will be the level of progress on indigenously valued aims of development. With CS indexes, one will be able to compare how close each society’s actual experiences are to indigenously defined ideals.

The need for methodology and mappings

The cooperation of cultural researchers and development economists, along with other social scientists, is needed to elaborate the theories and resultant maps of societies’ development goals. To craft culturally sensitive indexes, researchers need to elaborate the methods for identifying:

(1) the list of possible development goals pursued by contemporary societies, which could be elaborated in a similar way to how cross-cultural psychologists prepare cultural maps of values or social axioms,

(2) the scores measuring preferences of societies towards various development goals, and

(3) the measures of performance of a society on a given development goal.

Preparing the culturally sensitive methodology of social development may seem challenging, but the methodology for calculating GDP also took time and a great deal of studies before it became a ‘universal’ index of social progress.

The first version of the GDP measurement manual was published in 1953, and it has since undergone major revisions (earlier, the idea of economic development was not commonly employed by governing bodies, nor discussed among researchers). A similar manual can be imagined for culturally sensitive indexes, and similar revisions will probably be necessary.

Psychologizing social development science and practice

The economics Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz and colleagues noticed that those attempting to guide our societies are like pilots. The decisions they make depend on what they measure and how good their measurements are. Introducing cultural sensitivity to growth measurement will help social scientists to understand the culturally diversified pathways for the development of societies, and may influence government policies.

Globalization has forced us to question what aspects of the human experience are universal and what aspects are culturally shaped. The lack of complex understanding about the influence of cultural context on people’s conceptualization and preferences about social development impedes progress.

Psychology emerged largely as a discipline aimed at healing individuals – with scientific rigor, psychology has documented individual differences and revealed the variety of pathways leading to individual flourishing.

Cross-cultural psychology has the potential to offer similar support in healing social systems – by documenting cultural differences and proposing solutions that are sensitive to the cultural diversity of contemporary societies. To do so, social scientists from various disciplines may need to map people’s preferences about social development. With this column, we call for such action (and to stimulate scientific discussion of the proposed idea, we plan a special issue of the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology).

Why care about cultural sensitivity in the science of social development?

The economic paradigm helped to satisfy universal basic needs, implying that the next step could be satisfaction of higher needs and fostering a good life. But there is no universal ‘one-size-fits-all’ way of living a good life.

Depending on cultural context, the concept of ‘good life’ or ‘wellbeing’ has various meanings. Europeans may have different ideas about their future (a comfortable life in social security) than do North Americans (personal freedom and self-expression) or Confucian Asians (social cohesion). Indexes of social development can reflect these differences, if they become culturally sensitive.


Kuba Krys
Assistant Professor, Polish Academy of Sciences