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10 Tips on How to Conduct Cross-cultural Behavioral Science Research

Updated on July 24, 2012

Methodology Issues in Cross-Cultural Research

In the age of globalization, the cultures of the world are coming together to collaborate on economic, political, and social issues. Moreover, more businesses from one country are thinking about expanding into other countries. Due to mass migration from 1975 to 2010, more workers have left their home countries to work in factories hosted by culturals that are unfamiliar to them. Due to globalization, migration, and cross-cultural integration of organizations around the world, more behavioral science researchers are examining organizational and leadership-management theories as they apply to different countries around the world. David C. Thomas in his 2008 publication Cross-Cultural Management - Essential Concepts outlined 10 relevant issues related to cross-cultural and cross-national research.

Three Areas of Precaution

Thomas outlined three broad methodological issues to consider when doing cross-cultural research. Those three broad issues included:

  1. Equivalence
  2. Sampling
  3. Data Collection


Equivalence means that culturally different participants understand equally the concept and its relationship to other concepts. Three key points to the issue of equivalence in cross-cultural research include (a) the conceptualization of the theoretical concept; (b) the study design; and (c) the data analysis.


Sampling refers to the participants selected to be included in the research project. The sample must be of sufficient size and must include those from the desired demographic group(s).

Data Collection

Data collection refers to the procedures used to collect data including quanitative instruments like questionnaires and qualitative procedures like interviews.´╗┐

Conceptual or Construct Equivalence

One reason why cross-cultural research projects succeed or fail is tied to what Thomas refers to as conceptual or construct equivalence. Conceptual equivalence refers to the extent to which the concepts presented in the study have the same meaning in different countries. One emphasis in Western leadership research is participative leadership. In order to perform a solid cross-cultural research study, the examiner must ascertain what "participative leadership" means in each of the cultures he or she chooses to include in the study. When designing a cross-cultural research study, the designer(s) must make sure the concepts are well translated and understood by all parties.

Method Equivalence

Method Equivalence refers to whether the measurement unit is perceived as the same by all cultural groups included in the study. Threats to methodology include acquiesence and extremity bias. In some cultures, the participants in a study may have a tendency to agree with a statement in a survey even if it isn't true. They will simply acquiesce and give deferrence to the question in the instrument. Extremity bias refers to the tendency of some cultures to give answers on the extreme ends of a survey e.g. definitely not or absolutely as opposed to somewhat agree or disagree. If measuring the responses of two groups which don't have a shared philiosophy of how to fill out surveys, then research data will be skewed and unreliable or even invalid.

Metric Equivalence

According to Thomas, metric equivalence refers to the extent to which questions have similar measurement properties across different groups. This type of equivalence is tied to the translation of the instrument and awkward wording that is not contextualized for the various cultures included in the study. Instrument development in a cross-cultural study must be done with meticulous care in order to ensure equivalence.

Sampling - Obstacles to Cross-cultural Sampling

Thomas argued that the goal of sampling is to conduct research with a small number of participants who are truly representative of the population as a whole. However, he emphasizes that to find an international sample that is truly representative of a population is very difficult.

Random Sampling May Be Impossible

The most desired form of sampling is random sampling by which every person in a chosen population has an equal chance of being chosen. Unfortunately, most cross-cultural research projects do not have the time or resources to weed out a random sample, so most studies settle for a convenience sample of those people who readily available. This may mean that some portions of the whole population end up excluded from the sample because no one from that group is readily available.

Sub-culturals May Not Be Representative of the Whole Country

Related to the problem listed above are concentration of research in one region of a country or culture. The members of that region may not be an accurate portrayal of the country as a whole; that is, their views may not be indicative of other members of a nation who reside in other regions. When designing a cross-cultural research project, how to determine the proper sample is an important ´╗┐consideration to the success or failure of the project.

Pitfalls in Data Collection

Like equivalence and sampling, data collection is another important aspect of cross-cultural research design. Some of the pitfalls and dilemmas, the astute researcher should understand include:

Literacy Rate

The literacy rate of the region under investigation. Much research is conducted with the more learned members of society. The level of familiarity with quantitative survey instruments can have a profound impact on the results of the survey.

Comfort with the Researcher and Bias

In many cases, participants might look upon a researcher from the outside with suspicion. They may feel the researcher is working undercover for the establishment and might choose to guard their answers. If this occurs, answers may be biased. For instance, in a place like Cambodia subordinates may fear that their employers will find out if they rate their performance unsatisfactorily, so they may give a higher rating in order to protect themselves from possible reprisal.

Frame of Reference or Lack thereof

Thomas explains that some participants from various cultures may not have the proper frame of reference in order to answer a hypothetical question. Participants from the USA have extensive experience answering hypothetical questions; however, participants from other countries may need to be given a description of a context before being able to answer a question about a given scenario.

Characteristics of the Interviewer

In the case of qualitative reseach designs, characteristics of the interviewer may influence how a participant answers a given question. Characteristics may include the interviewer's appearance, demeanor, or technique. In a cross-cultural study, the culture differences between the interviewer and the participants may increase the chance of error. ´╗┐


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