Do Asian Values Exist? Empirical Tests of the Four Dimensions of Asian Values

By Kim, So Young | Journal of East Asian Studies, May-August 2010 | Go to article overview

Do Asian Values Exist? Empirical Tests of the Four Dimensions of Asian Values


Kim, So Young, Journal of East Asian Studies


The Asian values debate has been long on speculative advocacy but short on empirical validation, with statistical tests emerging only lately. This study explores two questions: whether Asians indeed hold distinct cultural attitudes when compared with non-Asians and whether these cultural attitudes and beliefs identified as Asian values form coherent dimensions among Asians. The study first identifies four dimensions of Asian values based on a review of various Asian values discourses: familism, communalism, authority orientations, and work ethic. The findings from the empirical analysis based on multilevel models and factor analysis return mixed support for the Asian values hypothesis. Although East Asian respondents do exhibit strong work-related values compared with those from other regions, commitment to familial values and authoritarian orientations are actually lower among East Asians. Also, while preference for strong leadership and parental duty do turn out to form distinct sets of attitudes among South and Southeast Asians, the four dimensions do not constitute a clear value complex in the minds of East Asians.

KEYWORDS: Asian values, authority, authoritarianism, communalism, congruence theory, culture, democracy, familism, multilevel analysis, postmaterialism, work ethic

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Do Asian values exist? Yes and no. Yes, because Asians have traditions and patterns of life that are different from those of Westerners and that both reflect and reinforce their cultural values and norms. As advocates of Asian values would argue, Asians, like people of any other region (say, Latin Americans), hold their own cultural norms, rituals, and traditions inherited from their histories. In this sense, there is nothing ideological when we say that Asian values are cultural traits that distinguish Asians from non-Asians. No, because some Asian values may in fact be imaginary, summoned by some Asian leaders to justify their quasi-democratic rule. Critics of Asian values would claim that the notion of Asian values has served as a pretext for soft authoritarianism prevailing in certain parts of the region. For instance, some of the values that Asian political leaders claim to be irreconcilable with Western norms include fundamental human rights, which should be equally binding for Asians.

Perhaps the truth may lie somewhere between the two extreme positions. As Donald Emmerson nicely remarked:

The extreme understanding of "Asian values" as a unique set of preferences found only in Asia is untenable. But Asians do have some values, and certain Asians (and Westerners) have identified certain values as characteristically Asian. These observations imply a strategy for shifting constructively from the extremes of the "Asian values" debate toward the center by trying to determine what values Asians do hold and ascribe to one another (Emmerson 1995, 100-101).

While more than a decade has passed since his comment, empirical efforts to delineate the range of Asian values have emerged only lately with notable collections of research essays assembled by well-known scholars of Asian politics and society (Dalton and Shin 2006a; Chu et al. 2008). (1) This study is an attempt to improve upon these existing empirical studies of Asian values. Noting that the Asian values debate has been long on speculative advocacy but short on empirical substantiation, the study aims to provide a comprehensive empirical exploration of the so-called Asian values hypothesis. In this exploration, the current study examines two issues. First is whether Asians are indeed different from non-Asians in their value orientations. Second is whether those value orientations form a coherent pattern among Asians. The first question calls for a comparative analysis, as can be answered by comparing the cultural views and perceptions of people from different regions. The second question needs some form of factor analysis, since it can be answered by looking into the patterns of correlations among Asians' endorsements of various value statements.

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