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A World of Three CulturesHonor, Achievement and Joy$

Miguel E. Basáñez

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9780190270360

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: January 2016

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780190270360.001.0001

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The Axiological Cube

The Axiological Cube

(p.69) 3 The Axiological Cube
A World of Three Cultures

Miguel E. Basáñez

Ronald F. Inglehart

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter proposes a new, graphical representation of cultural variation, borrowing the terminology of Shalom Schwartz. The author proposes a three-dimensional representation, an axiological cube, consisting of a political axis (hierarchy vs. egalitarianism), an economic axis (mastery vs. harmony), and a social axis (embeddedness vs. autonomy). The location of different societies along these three axes represents theoretical developmental paths. The author argues that historically, cultures of honor dominated everywhere in the world. Cultures of achievement, prioritizing material advancement, began to emerge during the Enlightenment and the industrial revolution. Cultures of joy, which have emerged since the end of World War II, achieve a balance between these two poles. This three-dimensional model helps reject the false notion that development is a linear continuum moving in only one direction.

Keywords:   axiology, values, cultural variation, axiological cube, development

Table 3.1 compares the main dimensions of Hofstede, Schwartz, Inglehart, and Basáñez in a simple way that may not do justice to their rich contributions. It may look more like a shoehorn than a natural fit, but it helps explain the proposition described in this section.

Table 3.1 Comparing Hofstede, Basáñez, Inglehart, and Schwartz





Hofstede 1980

Masculinity vs. Femininity

Power Distance

Individualism vs. Collectivism

Uncertainty / Avoidance

Basáñez 1986

Hard work: Prize vs. Punishment

Autonomy vs. Obedience

Trust vs. Distrust

Schwartz 1994

Harmony vs. Mastery

Egalitarianism vs. Hierarchy

Autonomy vs. Embeddedness

Inglehart 1997

Survival vs. Self-Expression


Survival vs. Self-Expression

I propose a three-dimensional model representing the three axes that offers a better conceptualization and visualization of the field than previous models.

Inglehart and Schwartz’s cultural maps suffice to outline the three key cultures that result from the interaction of history, religions, and legal systems: honor, achievement, and joy. Hence, I need not go over the empirical details that they have exhaustively covered. On Inglehart’s cultural map (Figure 2.4 in Chapter 2) the top, right, and upper-right corners show cultures of achievement around the Protestant and Confucian clusters; the bottom, left, and bottom-left corner show cultures of honor comprising the Orthodox, South Asian, and Islamic clusters; and more or less in the middle ground are the cultures of joy around the Catholic (European and Latin American) cluster.

However, as useful as Inglehart’s map is, such a two-dimensional representation forces the social and political dimensions into a single vertical axis (traditional-secular/rational). With only two axes, countries may appear misleadingly close together, as do, for example, Romania and Iraq, or Taiwan and Bulgaria, on Inglehart’s map in Figure 2.4. The third axis of my axiological cube (presented later in this chapter in Figure 3.2) provides depth, making the actual position of each country much clearer. Schwartz’s triple-axis formulation also solves that problem, except that his representation in a two-dimensional chart is problematic.

This chapter explores a potential development to solve the problematic representation of the three axes that Schwartz and I propose (rather than Hofstede’s four or Inglehart’s two), because they reflect precisely the three essential economic, political, and social dimensions that define human interactions: for the production of goods and services, for power relations, and for human relations, respectively. I borrow Schwartz’s axes labels (rather than using my own) due to the preexisting, deep body of academic work based on his findings. (p.70) Subsequent research will help to illuminate the seeming paradoxes of Schwartz’s two-dimensional map shown in Figure 2.11 in Chapter 2, as in the case of Spain, France, and Italy, which appear far away in the left corner, against the more central position they would occupy in my axiological cube (presented in Figure 3.4 later in this chapter).

Figure 3.1 represents the three essential dimensions (economic, political, and social) in a spatial figure by simply using three axes (x, y, and z) intersecting in the center.

The Axiological Cube

Figure 3.1 Three-dimensional space for economic, political, and social dimensions

The three axes, in turn, form the core of a cube, as shown in Figure 3.2, in which six walls help to represent six polar dimensions. Borrowing Schwartz’s terminology as well as his proximity and distance analysis, the top wall of the cube represents egalitarianism, and the bottom wall, hierarchy; the right wall, mastery, and the left wall, harmony; finally, the front wall represents embeddedness, and the back wall, autonomy (both intellectual and affective autonomy).

The Axiological Cube

Figure 3.2 Six axiological walls

The location of the walls helps to reconstruct hypothetical developmental paths for primitive societies, by adding corners to the cube, as shown in Figure 3.3.

It is easy to imagine a primitive group of hunter-gatherers some 150 millennia ago starting on the “A” corner of hierarchy, harmony, and embeddedness. As in animal groups, an alpha male performed the leadership role stressing authority (a political dimension, although primitive groups were more economically and (p.71) socially egalitarian). Because of the small size of the group, the embeddedness was concomitant to their daily lives. Finally, the relatively low technological level of their rudimentary tools meant that they had to adapt to the physical environment (harmony), with little capacity to alter nature.

The Axiological Cube

Figure 3.3 Eight axiology corners

The demographic explosion at the dawn of agriculture some 10 millennia ago and the associated creation of permanent settlements stimulated both economic and political growth, as well as a more complex network of social relations. Ancient civilizations took different paths of development within the cube as their own conditions allowed. Some grew richer from abundant agriculture (p.72) (from A to B); others may have become more powerful as population and pyramidal hierarchies grew (from A to C); consequently, social differentiation and specialization advanced (from A to E). All those simultaneous displacements were moving mankind toward the center of the cube at the core of the empires (China, Egypt, Babylon, Hindus Valley, Greece, Rome, Arabs, Mayans, Aztecs, and Incas).

The intellectual and technological revolution that began barely six centuries ago with the European Renaissance allowed the mastery of nature. The process began first by means of territorial expansion through advances in navigation, and later by means of the economic and political expansion spurred by the industrial revolution. The combination of these two forces produced an increasingly predominant role of the West over the rest of the world: first Spain and Portugal, then Holland, followed by England and France, and the United States today. By the middle of the 19th century, Europe had colonized practically the entire world.

The first important divergence in Europe was between two of the three legal systems of the world: the civil Roman and the common law traditions (Islamic law did not apply to Europe); the second divergence determined on which side of the Lutheran Reformation movement a country fell. These distinctions influenced which cultural zone a country and its colonies would gravitate toward: a culture of achievement (corner H) or culture of honor (corner A), as shown in Figure 3.4. Cultures of joy (at the center of the cube) appeared as such much later, as the next chapters explain.

The Axiological Cube

Figure 3.4 Axiological cube of three cultures: honor, achievement, and joy

In cultures in the honor corner, the incentives orient toward the political dimension: tradition, respect, hierarchy, discipline, loyalty, obedience, God, religion, and so on. The qualities of priests make a good fit. In the achievement (p.73) corner, a person works within a culture that gives incentives toward the physical environment and economic production. Hence, the qualities of goal-oriented rationality, as practiced by the military or by businessmen, are highly useful; in the joy center are the cultures where the incentives orient toward human environments and social interaction that do not require greater congruence with the outside world, given the wealth and variety of the internal worlds. The qualities of artists make a better fit. In this respect, Douglass North makes a very insightful observation when he notes an element (the contrast between physical and human environment) that began separating the paths of cultures, and which lends support to my proposition. He states that

[t]‌he contrasting […] characteristics of economies geared to dealing with the physical environment and those constructed to deal with the human environment raise fundamental questions […] that have evolved to result in economic growth on the one hand and stagnation on the other. [my emphasis] (North, 2005, p. 101)

Development is not an open continuum, and the points A and H in the three-dimensional space of Figure 3.4 represent hypothetical ends of the cultures of honor and cultures of achievement leaning to either side of the opposing corners. Each point has a finite end; cultures of honor are ultimately subservient to God, the ultimate leader, as in Islamic societies; while cultures of achievement are ultimately subservient to the carrying capacity of the physical environment (namely, the planet), which cannot sustain constantly increasing levels of consumption, as in consumerist American-style capitalism. But the limitations of these two cultures also highlight the need for balance—the location of the cultures of joy, somewhere midway between the two extremes in the center of the cube—what we might think of as the embodiment of Aristotle’s golden mean or the Buddhist middle path.

Conventional Western thinking has assumed that the entire world should keep moving toward the H corner, seen as progress. Billions of dollars in aid programs and in military spending have gone to that end. But that is a mirage, founded in the success of past colonization, which is unsustainable in today’s world.

International organizations and market forces for the several past decades have pushed countries to advance through material achievements, particularly along the economic scale—that is, by emphasizing movement from A to B. Those were the propositions of the early modernization theorists (Apter, 1965; Lipset, 1960; Rostow, 1960). The assumption has been that as a country gets closer to B, pressure mounts to advance along the political scale (i.e., from B to D) and also along the social scale (i.e., from D to H). Ultimately, a country should continue toward point H. Through this same logic, 10 basic hypothetical paths would be available: (1) ABDH; (2) ABFH; (3) ACDH; (4) ACGH; (5) AEFH; or (6) AEGH. Three other hypothetical options describe shorter possible journeys: (7) BH; (8) CH; (9) EH; but they all really are variations of the 10th one, AH, allegedly the optimal path. However, all those paths assume point H as the ultimate goal. And that’s where the problem lies.

(p.74) The three-dimensional representation allows us to visualize the 10 different hypothetical paths in the real world for the course of development, running from point A to point H. It is possible for a country, region, or city to advance greatly in social aspects (education and health, for instance) without achieving corresponding political development (Cuba) or economic development (Kerala, India). Similarly, a nation might advance politically without seeing parallel social (Barbados) or economic (India, 1950–1990) enhancement—or it might just as easily improve economically and remain behind politically (China) or socially (Russia). Indeed, some nations might show a more balanced location (France, Italy, Spain, Croatia, Israel) through the center of the three-dimensional space.

The countries that have arrived at point H in the egalitarian, autonomous, and mastery corner H of the cube (Figure 3.4), or the Confucian, Nordic, and some of the English Protestant clusters of Inglehart’s map (Figure 2.4), clearly illustrate the price that must be paid in order to achieve that corner—ruthless and unremitting competition, with little free time and high levels of anxiety, which prevent the enjoyment of family and/or friends, and result in feeling in a permanent rush, with the need to do everything fast (fast food, fast talking, fast resting, fast interacting, fast living). There is often little or no time available to enjoy life—the difficult paradox of work–life balance. In return for that price, those countries have enjoyed for the past 50 years high levels of well-being: physical security, good and extended education and health systems, good job options, access to a home, and many other advantages. Many gladly pay this price when poverty is the alternative; however, in extreme cases, the suicide rates in achievement countries are alarming.

In the opposite corner of cultures of honor (A), individuals may have free time, but the price for large segments of population may be the absence of well-being, in many cases lack of essential material means of existence. That is clearly not the case for the small number of citizens of oil-rich Arab countries. They enjoy both leisure and well-being, but this is not sustainable in the long term.

All nations have their locations in the three-dimensional cultural space—locations dictated by their unique histories and circumstances. Some countries will be close to one of the diagram’s eight corners, while others will be closer to the center. It is ultimately the responsibility of each society to decide for itself whether to continue on the path of its historic axiological inertia or to attempt axiological changes that might help it move onto a newly selected trajectory, if possible. However, the amount of effort and coordination required from political, intellectual, and business leaders to put in motion the right public policies, ideas, and market forces makes it highly unlikely that such deliberate shifts will occur—not that it is impossible under very special circumstances, as a few cases show: the Meiji restoration, Ataturk’s Turkey, Gandhi’s India, Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore, and Mandela’s South Africa, among the most notable. Less well known but equally impressive is the case of Bogotá, Colombia, in the first decade of this century. I will discuss some of these cases in the next chapter.

(p.75) Cultural Dissemination

Let’s mentally rewind back some three thousand years, and imagine a primitive society on a small, far-off island in the middle of Polynesia, without any possible influence from or communication with the outside world. Let us imagine settlement that began with the arrival of a few young families navigating uncharted waters—say, a dozen couples. How would they have formed their values and beliefs? How would they have passed them on? How would they have reinforced and consolidated them?

Day-to-day problems—that is, the material conditions of survival—would have demanded day-to-day solutions for fetching water, finding food, and keeping a roof over their heads. Their ancestors would have done this for millennia and, accordingly, would have accumulated a very important body of knowledge. That is, these young couples would not have started from scratch, although the precise conditions of their new home would have required them to put this knowledge to new use. Three thousand years ago, just such a group did so, equipped with a high-powered evolutionary tool: language. Of course they lacked reading and writing skills, and would not come to know them until many centuries later.

If 10 couples arrived and each one produced 10 children, in 20–25 years the tribe would already have grown to more than a hundred, and in the next 20–25-year cycle there would be a thousand of them. Hypothetically at least, such a tribe could grow from 20 to 10,000 members within a century. But the central question is this: Can an island that size support them all? At some point they would have to realize that the island’s carrying capacity would not tolerate such aggressive growth.

Jared Diamond (2005) has explored this subject convincingly. He began by studying birds in the Pacific islands before moving on to study the human race, surveying histories of success and failure in diverse populations around the world. He studied the population collapses of Easter Island, the Mayas, Anasazi, and Greenland, as well as success stories from New Guinea, Japan, and Tikopia, among others. He reaches a very thought-provoking conclusion regarding two opposite approaches that societies can take depending on the size of their territory: top-down public decision-making processes if the territory is large; and bottom-up processes if it is small.

Diamond takes the case of Tikopia, one of the Solomon Islands in Melanesia, as an environmental lesson in land size and cyclones that leaves no room for ambiguity. Its 1.8 square miles (4.7 square kilometers) cannot support a population greater than 1,200 inhabitants, and that is the population size that the island maintained for the last three millennia (Diamond, 2005, p. 286).

After centuries of trial and error, the inhabitants of Tikopia discovered seven inviolable methods of population control and came up with ways to pass them down from one generation to the next. These ranged from postponing the age of marriage to practicing coitus interruptus, from abortion to infanticide, and even war, suicide, and the elders’ exiling themselves out to sea as a way to leave (p.76) room for the youngest in case of drought or famine. The constraints imposed by the environment on Tikopia, specifically those of geography and climate, had to become part of their customs and rules, which were passed down through oral tradition, thus shaping their culture.

Tikopia did not face overpopulation problems for three millennia until the 20th century, when the arrival of the British government and Christian missions prevented the continuation of their traditional population-control customs. In 1952 the population had reached 1,753 inhabitants, when two cyclones in 13 months destroyed half their crops, leading to widespread famine. Today only 1,115 residents are allowed on the island, its millennia-old population level (Diamond, 2005, p. 291).

This process of natural, isolated culture formation is obviously no longer at work. The world today is a patchwork of thousands of overlapped and intermingled cultures. But understanding how cultures began may help to grasp where they stand today.

Historical Trajectory

About 5 millennia ago, humans had populated most landmasses, and writing was slowly beginning. The dispersion of micro-cultures was as numerous as the burgeoning of languages, though there is no possibility of tracing belief systems that far back. Organized religions began forming about the 8th to the 3rd centuries BC, starting a glacially paced process of cultural convergence from the thousands of micro-cultures toward the few hundreds of national mezzo-cultures, which merged into the handful of macro-cultures around belief systems. As powerful empires emerged in China, India, Egypt, Greece, Rome, and elsewhere, they were able to impose the belief system of their elites on the people of their controlled territories.

China and the Islamic societies had higher standards of living than Europe during the Middle Ages, but cultures of honor (typical of nomadic and agrarian, or Bell’s pre-industrial societies) dominated everywhere, as status, hierarchy, expansion, domination, and the like were the prevailing rationality. In about the 12th century, the paths of the East and the West began diverging with the Renaissance, then the Lutheran and Reformation movement of the 16th century, and this divergence was accelerated by the discovery of the New World and the Enlightenment. Within Europe, two defining factors in each country’s history became highly relevant causes of divergence: its religious roots and its legal codes.

The real jump-start to cultures of achievement began at the start of the Industrial Revolution. Many of the economic ideas and attitudes were already present in Confucian and Jewish ethics in the form of their high appreciation for learning and hard work, but their propagation in the dynamic countries of Europe ran through the Catholic–Protestant divide as they were preparing to colonize the world.

(p.77) In the 16th century, Spain and Portugal, the first colonial empires, outperformed all the rest of Europe. They followed the civil Roman law and opposed the Protestant Reformation. Holland began expanding at the end of the 16th century, applying civil Roman law but in favor of the Reformation. England began expanding in the 17th century, also on the side of the Reformation and applying common law. France was under the civil Roman law, and by the end of the 17th century ended the French Reformation movement. From these facts one may conclude that there was no unique pattern, because both legal traditions and religions produced success stories. However, as time passed, the image began changing, and one lesson began dominating: material success was highly appreciated and enviable, paving the way toward the admiration of achievement cultures.

Britain was clearly moving in the direction of the H corner, drawn by the mastery the Industrial Revolution brought and the autonomy encouraged by the Protestant Reformation. In addition, the Magna Carta of 1215 had paved the road to egalitarianism. The United States in the 18th century basically followed the same path as Britain, highly favored by the conditions of the Americas. The Nordic countries were also heading toward the achievement corner, albeit with a greater leaning toward egalitarianism.

The Islamic, Catholic, and Christian Orthodox worlds did not embrace the Reformist movement, and they all remained in the hierarchy, embeddedness, and harmony corner A of cultures of honor. A polarization trend began both in the Western and Islamic worlds at the end of World War II and the fall of the Ottoman Empire: a rush to consumption in the West and a rush to hierarchies in the Islamic world. The elites all over (the 1%, in today’s terms) and some of the colonial Catholic countries (Argentina in 1862–1930 and Mexico in 1933–1982, in particular) found a temporary spot at the center of the axiological cube as cultures of joy, for the relatively high levels of well-being they achieved in a balance between the two opposing corners.

The conventional linear concept of development and the mirage of achievement produce a false assumption that development is an open-ended continuum—that it goes on without limits. That is not true, as the three-dimensional space demonstrates. Development shows diminishing returns, particularly with regard to the limits of economic growth (Meadows, 1972), because the world cannot sustain the endless and universal expansion of the standard of living the West enjoys today. Equally, hierarchies cannot strengthen indefinitely, because they reach an ultimate limit once the honor culture escalates all the way up to what they believe is the final step: God.

Table 3.2 A Summary of the Three Cultures





The State (political)

The Family (social)

The Market (economic)



Post–World War II

Industrial Revolution


Dominance Tradition

Human relations Well-being

Wealth Efficiency, punctuality


Ancient empires

Catholic (and Buddhist) countries

Modern empires

In summary, the origins of cultural variation as shown in Table 3.2 come from three basic ethno-cultures: cultures of the market (work, saving, productivity), cultures of the state (honor, duty, discipline), and cultures of the family (joy, hospitality, indulgence). The basic idea is that the cultural values of a people are patterned by the historical institutional environment (market, state, or family) and what is rewarded by each environment. Most societies contain a combination of all three, including a combination of ethno-cultural groups (p.78) from each type—so even in Latin America or Africa there exists a bureaucratic, state-oriented culture among a small minority, as well as market-dominant minorities, though neither is the dominant ethno-culture. Typically, social stratification also follows the logic of the cultural system; for example, in Europe the upper class might disproportionately have a culture of the state, the middle class a culture of the market, while the rest of society is mixed.