Responsibility: A cross-cultural comparison

One of the most interesting challenges as a foreigner abroad is to understand how people think in the host country you’re living in. We think we are different. However, you may feel like a “foreigner” in your home country too. We don’t understand very well why our friends think so differently. In the journey to understand other people’s thoughts, we get lost. In my experience as a cross-cultural researcher, I’ve gotten lost many times trying to understand the content of thinking, and it’s a challenge to find a way out of this labyrinth. In the way out, I learned that people from many countries whom I know are not so different from me. We laugh when we see something funny, or we feel anxious when we have a problem, and others try to help us. I agree with Professor Kenneth D. Keith that across cultures, we share more commonalities than differences. However, I don’t want to speculate and oversimplify that we are not so different after all due to “something” in the brain. Cross-cultural and within cultural comparisons are complex, and they require multiple levels of analysis and a multidisciplinary approach.

With globalization, we are interacting across borders more than ever, and cross-cultural comparisons have become relevant.  They’re still important to me because I’ve spent almost half of my life living abroad in three different countries. During my doctoral studies, I decided to explore and compare, through social representation theory, the content of the common sense thinking of the words “responsible” and “irresponsible” between Guatemalans and Czechs university students.  However, people use these words with distinctive meanings. To clarify the meaning, I asked university students from both countries the following question: How do I define myself as responsible or irresponsible? I profited from the philosophical approach to the responsibility construct as a virtue, a morally valuable trait, when we praise or criticize someone, and we call them responsible or irresponsible.

My research was a descriptive study of objectification using the socio-dynamic approach of social representations, based on the Geneva school research strand, to obtain using two questionnaires the common structure and variations in the representational field of these constructs. In other words, I asked the students to define themselves as responsible and irresponsible. Once they had defined the last of the concepts, they had to order the features by assigning a number 1 to the word which defined the concept best or would be “nearer” to it. Number 2 was given to the next best definer and so on, until all features were ranked.  The common structure was obtained because the features were transformed into an image or a hierarchical structure of words. Afterwards, a second questionnaire was created from the ranked features of the first questionnaire. I asked the students to indicate how strong the relationship was between every feature, and the evaluated concept. The variations were obtained through exploratory and confirmatory factor analysis of every concept. I used Auhagen’s responsibility model to obtain three dimensions, which are: a) being responsible or irresponsible for something, b) being responsible or irresponsible toward someone, c) being responsible or irresponsible in relation to an instance (following or ignoring certain norms with a desirable or undesirable trait).

The dimensions were found in every concept. Additionally, Guatemalans defined themselves as responsible with features such as being punctual, reliable and tidy.  Czechs did it with definers such as family, school and work. Guatemalans defined themselves as irresponsible with features such as being unpunctual, untidy and lazy. Czechs did it with definers such as laziness, alcohol and unpunctuality. Furthermore, there were three similar features out of fifteen (punctual, reliable and studious) in the Guatemalan and Czech definitions of being responsible. There were six similar features out of fifteen (unpunctual, untidy, lazy, unreliable, forgetful and lack of interest) in the Guatemalan and Czech definitions of being irresponsible. A different objectification of the constructs emerged in each culture, and it was not possible to compare them. I suggest that further research is necessary in order to explore the norms of responsibility and values in each culture and to correlate them with the features that I found in my research. For instance, the feature punctual could be correlated with the norm “Don’t be late” and in turn with the value punctuality.

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