Skip to main content

Contrasting Predominant Values of American and Cambodian Society & Culture

  • Author:
  • Updated date:

Cambodian Treasure Angkor Wat


American Treasure Mount Rushmore


Contrasting Predominant Values of American and Khmer Culture

This hub discusses some of the predominant values and the origin of values of two dissimilar cultures: namely, American values and Khmer (Cambodian) values. This endeavor has been taken up in order that leaders of American Christian organizations can train their expatriate workers to be effective witnesses among the Khmer citizens living in Cambodia. Currently, there are approximately 100 Christian organizations operating in Cambodia (US State Department, 2005); some of which come from Western culture countries including the United States (personal communication). In order to be an effective cross-cultural witness Christian workers need to learn the people and their culture accordingly those Americans who choose to be Christian witnesses in Cambodia should learn the people (Kraft, 1996). The culture of a society is the way of life of its members; the collection of ideas and habits which they learn, share and transmit from generation to generation (Ginisha, 2009; Grunlan & Mayers; Linton, 1947). Culture consists of two levels: the surface behavior level and the deep worldview level. Incorporated in a society’s worldview are assumptions, values, and allegiances (Kraft, 2008). Rice wrote: “Values define the things we care about and prize the most and provide the basis for ranking the things we want." Values are the rules by which [human beings] make decisions about right and wrong, should and shouldn't, good and bad (Johnson, 1997;; Boudin, 2001). Johnson points out that values:

1. Help adherents rank things in terms of how socially desirable they are.

2. Provide a way to choose between seemingly equal alternatives.

3. Affect how people of a certain culture perceive and treat themselves and other people.

4. Have a taken-for-granted quality about them. (pp. 47-49).

What are some of the general predominant values of the American and Khmer societies and how do these predominant value commitments arise in each respective culture? First, general predominant values of the two cultures are identified employing three of Hofstede’s four cultural dimensions; namely, power distance, individualism, and masculinity; followed by a discussion of some of the factors that generally contribute to the origin of values exhibited by the respective cultures.

American - Cambodian Relations

Comparison of Cambodian and American Values according to Hofstede’s Value Dimensions

In this section a comparison of American and Khmer (Cambodian) cultural values is provided employing cultural value dimensions theory postulated by Hofstede. The comparisons follow a brief discussion of Hofstede and his research project and are intertwined with short discussions of three cultural dimensions including:

1. Power Distance

2. Individualism-Collectivism

3. Masculinity-Femininity

For the Khmer and American comparisons, this paper relies heavily upon observations made and recorded by Lesley University Center for Special Education and its action research initiative the Language Minority Assessment Project (2005) (Sepra, M., 2009, Cambodia).

Hofstede and His Research

Geert Hofstede was a Dutch sociologist hired as a personnel researcher for the European headquarters of IBM (Foster, 1999, p. 1). Concerning his research, Foster wrote

As part of his assignment, Hofstede worked with teams of international researchers to develop a 180-item survey of employee attitudes. Over the next seven years, the survey was translated into 18 languages and administered to about 88,000 respondents in 66 countries. By the mid-1970s, Hofstede had become aware of strong national patterns in the answers to the survey and requested access to the data bank in order to re-analyze it statistically to verify and study these patterns. His analysis identified four dimensions of national culture: power distance, uncertainty avoidance, individualism, and masculinity. (p. 1).

Power distance.

Definition of power distance. Power distance (PD) refers to the degree or extent of which members of a certain society tolerate inequality in power distribution (Olausson Stafstrom, and Svedin, 2009, p. 9; Fowler, p. 2). A high PD score indicates that society accepts an unequal distribution of power and people understand "their place" in the system. Low PD means that power is shared and well dispersed. It also means that society members view themselves as equals. (Mindtools, 2009).

High-low power distance comparison of American-Khmer culture. In their comparison of the American and Khmer culture, Sepra et al indicate that Cambodia has a predominantly high power distance orientation whereas the U.S. has a low power distance orientation (p. interpersonal communication). This means that the Khmer society tends to accept an unequal sharing of power while in American culture power is more apt to be shared.


Scroll to Continue

Definition of individualism-collectivisim.Individualism and collectivism refer to the extent of which an individual is free to express him or herself independently of their group or cultural society (Olausson et al, 2009, p. 3; Fowler p. 3). “A high IDV score indicates a loose connection with people [whereas] a society with a low IDV score would have strong group cohesion, and there would be a large amount of loyalty and respect for members of the group” (Mindtools).

Comparison of individualism-collectivism in the American and Khmer cultures. Sepra et al observed that Cambodian culture is predominantly collectivist in nature while American culture is oriented towards individualism. As such, the Khmer people tend to emphasize group identity within which loyalty to the group and group consensus are valued and harmony may be more important to the truth while Americans tend to emphasize identity based on individual characteristics, loyalty one’s one personal goals, and the truth is more important than harmony (p. interpersonal communication).


Definition of masculinity-femininity cultural orientation.

This cultural factor refers to how much a society sticks with, and values, traditional male and female roles. High MAS scores are found in countries where men are expected to be tough, to be the provider, to be assertive and to be strong. If women work outside the home, they have separate professions from men. Low MAS scores do not reverse the gender roles. In a low MAS society, the roles are simply blurred. You see women and men working together equally across many professions. Men are allowed to be sensitive and women can work hard for professional success. (Mindtools, p. 1; Fowler, p. 3; Dimensions, p. 171).

Comparison of masculinity-femininity in the American and Khmer cultures. Sepra et al. identified femininity as a Khmer cultural orientation and masculinity as the predominant American cultural orientation. As such, (a) Cambodians tend to place higher value on people, quality of life, and nurturing while Americans place higher value on material possessions, power, and assertiveness; (b) Khmer citizens consider disagreement as impolite and may verbalize ‘yes’ but act to the contrary while Americans value disagreement as a means to expressing one’s self; and (c) Cambodians value saving a person’s feelings and avoiding confrontation while Americans value the truth over sparing the feelings of another (p. interpersonal communication).

This section referred to a research project by Lesley University’s Center for Special Education which employed cultural dimensions theory postulated by Hofstede to make a comparison of a few differences between Cambodian and American cultures. In the last section, the discussion considers a question posed by Joas (2000) and discussed in separate accounts by Joas and Boudon (2001) “how do values and value commitments arise?” (Joas, p. 1).

The Origin of Values and Values Commitments

So, as Joas (2000) asked: “how do values and value commitments arise?” (p. 1). How, as Boudon observed, does a person come to accept that “X is good, fair, and or legitimate and alternative Y is bad, unfair, and or illegitimate”? And pertaining to the comparison cultures highlighted above in this paper, what might be some contributing factors to the rise of respective American and Khmer (Cambodian) cultural value distinctives?

Philosophical and Sociological Theories about the Origin of Values

Boudon (2001) noted the following ideas of philosophers and sociologists concerning the origin of values:

1. Friedrich Nietzsche: Values are an illusion stemming from personal intuition and devoid of empirical evidence (p. 1).

2. Karl Marx: Values are illusions dictated by one’s social class to serve his or her social class (p. 2).

3. Emile Durkheim: Values are derived through a collective consciousness (i.e. an individual believes something is good because everyone around him or her thinks so) (pp. 122, 123).

4. Max Weber: Values originate from rational thought (i.e. a person believes something is true because he has legitimate reasons to think so) (pp. 30-31, 86).

5. Instrumental Rationality: Values are contingent upon how they affect the person (i.e. something is good if the person benefits from it andbad if it has a negative effect on the person.) (p. 86).

An Anthropological Model of Individual Culture and Its Subsystems

Kraft (1997) observed that values are incorporated in a person’s worldview and that one’s worldview is at the core of culture (p. 11); therefore, in his model of an individual culture and its subsystems Kraft identifies six factors that play an interdependent role in the development of culture including one’s worldview and values. Those subsystems are:

1. Social (including family, education, kinship, and social control)

2. Communicational (including language and arts).

3. Religion

4. Economics

5. Technology

6. Miscellaneous (p. 122).

The following sketches out a comparison of American and Khmer cultural norms in two of the subsystems listed above that contribute to the development of culture, worldview and values; they are family and religion.

Comparison of Family Relationships in American and Cambodian cultures.

Kraft wrote: “The family is the basic unit in which economic, educational, and social functions are carried out and taught to new generations” (p. 291). Regarding the differences family relationships in American and Cambodian cultures, Sepra et al observed that in the Cambodian culture

1. Family is the foundation of the Khmer social structure.

2. The nuclear family has strong ties to the extended family including non-biological relatives may be considered part of the family due to extreme losses from war.

3. Children are an integral part of the family and contribute to the welfare of the family.

4. Children are welcomed to participate in most adult activities.

5. Adult children live at home until marriage.

Contrastingly, in the American majority culture:

1. The family unit is diverse and live independently of the extended family.

2. Children are not expected to contribute to the welfare of the family.

3. Children have separated activities than adults.

4. Adult children are encouraged to move out and become independent before marriage. (Sepra et al., Cambodia, Family Structures).

American Protestant Church


Cambodian Buddhist Monks at Ancient Temple Site


Comparison of Religion in American and Khmer Cultures

According to Kraft another subsystem contributing to culture, worldview, and societal values is religion (p. 199).

Theravada Buddhism is the official religion of Cambodia, but every day religious practices include ancestor and spirit worship. By contrast, Protestantism is the predominant religion of the American majority culture.

As Buddhism teaches, most Cambodians adhere to a circular understanding of the human life cycle including birth, death and rebirth whereas American majority culture adheres to a linear understanding of the life cycle including before birth, childhood, adulthood, old age, death, and after life (Kraft, p. 217; Window on Asia, 2007, Cambodia-Religion).

Additionally, based on the tenets of Buddhism, the Khmer people generally believe in a fixed destiny by which the course of one’s life is predetermined by the good and bad deeds (karma) performed in previous lives (Window on Asia). This notion is contrasted by the American Protestant work ethic that dictates that a person can shape his own destiny based on hard work and persistent effort (Ghosh, 2007, Abstract).

Family and religion are two factors listed by Kraft that contribute to the American and Cambodian origin of values.



(2006). Dimensions of Culture.

(2007). Cambodia-Religion: Asian Studies Center - Windows on Asia.

(2009). Hofstede's Cultural Dimensions: Understanding Workplace Values Around the World.

Boudon, R. (2001). The Origin of Values: Sociology and Philosophy of Beliefs. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers.

Fowler, F. C. (1999). Applying Hofstede's Cross-Cultural Theory of Organizations to School Governance: A French Case Study.

Ghosh, C. , (2007). The American Dream in American Political Talk: The Protestant Ethic Revisited Abstract. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, Hyatt Regency Chicago and the Sheraton Chicago Hotel and Towers, Chicago, IL Online <PDF>. 2009-05-27.

Hofstede, Geert H. (1980), Culture’s Consequences: International Differences in Work-Related Values. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications.

Joas, H. (2000). The Genesis of Values. Chicago, Illinois: The University of Chicago Press.

Kraft, C. H. (1997). Anthropology for Christian Witness. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.

Lam, D., Lee, A. and Mizerski, R. (2009). The Effects of Cultural Values in Word-of-Mouth Communication. Journal of International Marketing; Vol. 17 Issue 3, p55-70.

Olausson, E., Stafström, C. and Svedin, S. (2009). Cultural Dimension in Organizations. – A Study of Tanzania.

Phou, A. (2009). Cambodian Christian Today. Cambodian Christian .Com.

Rice, K. (2006, September 21). Ethics and Values: A Leader's Imperative.

Seedam, Ginisha. (2009). Socialization, Culture, Norms and Values into a Society.

Serpa. M. (2005). Cambodia: Cultural Differences – Interpersonal Communication. ELL Assessment for Linguistic Differences vs. Learning Disabilities. The Language Minority Assessment Project. Lesley University Center for Special Education.


RevLady from Lantana, Florida on May 07, 2010:

A very interesting comparison that really helped me to discern clear differences and similarities between Buddhism and Christianity at a glance. Excellent pictures and link resources as well. Great work ecoggins!

Forever His,

Related Articles