Challenges that might arise in cross-cultural research

Our world is constantly evolving. And with this evolution comes a big change: cross-cultural growth. People move from one country to another, uprooting their whole lives while maintaining – as much as possible – their identity and customs. All this while also adopting and adapting to the new way of life, including culture, language, and beliefs. So with all this mixing, how exactly are we to understand the world? The answer is simple: cross-cultural research. 

What is Cross-Cultural Research?

Cross-cultural research is the scientific method used to compare cultures systematically, answering questions about cultural variations and complex problems, such as the relation between language, identity, beliefs, social norms, and their impact on conflicts and misunderstandings. In short, “cross-cultural research strives to arrive at reliably supported explanations of why things are the way they are.”  So we need cross-cultural research in order to obtain valuable data that can help understand ourselves, our cultures, our environments, and even our consumers. 

According to the Association for Consumer Research, we need “information on consumer behavior in other cultures and nations in order to develop international marketing operations.” So cross-cultural research is extremely important for all businesses, particularly for multinational ones. In fact, cross-cultural consumer research can help multinational companies find the right message and make it functional and translatable into all the targeted cultures.  But cross-cultural research has many more challenges than anthropologists, psychologists, and researchers anticipated. 

Challenges of Cross-Cultural Research


When cross-cultural research began to take hold, “Western-type tests were utilized to compare Europeans with non-Europeans.” The validity of this test is being debated today. This is because these tests are created from the perspective – both cultural and ideological – of the developers. It’s almost as if you’ve been forced to take a test you’re going to fail simply because you weren’t brought up to think a certain way. This problem has led test designers to create “culture-free” or “culture-fair” tests. However, since these tests are developed by human beings (meaning they inevitably belong to a certain culture), the very fabric of this creation would be tainted by what they consider to be free of culture. Begin to see the problem? How can you validate what your culture believes to be correct in a completely different culture? This is definitely a huge challenge when undergoing cross-cultural research. 


Much like validity, bias refers more to the expected results researchers hope to attain. You see, your researcher has been a part of a cultural society for a large number of years, conforming with his or her culture’s particular social norms. This individual then develops a determined mode of thinking and acting within this particular cultural group, something that is also referred to as “behavioral law”. This individual will then use this behavioral law (norms and standards of behavior) as a criteria by which to judge the behavior of others. 

Think of something simple, like saying hello. In Latin American countries, greeting another person involves a kiss on the cheek, a handshake, or both. In the United States, a nod or a handshake are the norms. In some European countries, no physical greeting takes place, while in other European countries, like France, you’re supposed to kiss another person’s cheek 2 or 3 times. An American in France would deem this greeting as over-affectious and slightly over the top, while a French person in the United States would deem the culture cold and distant, all because of cultural norms. And that is just for saying hello!

So you see, cross-cultural research can get complicated. This type of bias can affect a researcher’s judgment. 


Simply said, comparing one culture to another is to deny their own individual uniqueness. Every culture is different, unique, and beautiful. How can you compare India’s respect for bovine species with Argentina’s love of steak dinners? How can you compare Latin America’s large families to Europe’s small nuclear ones? What is the norm? What’s right? What isn’t? As with everything in life and research, it depends. And that’s where cross-cultural research comes in. “It is naive to assume that findings obtained from the study of a particular culture hold for all societies.” But what we can assume is the researcher’s commitment to understanding another culture, no matter the cost or complications. 


To conclude, we could infer that undergoing any type of cross-cultural research is pointless because cultures simply can’t be compared to one another. That researchers are biased. That there are simply too many contextual factors involved. In short, it’s impossible. But while it is complicated, what we can try to accomplish is a translation and deeper understanding of a certain culture, without falling into generalization. We can try to make “culture-free” tests, all the while considering that culture will never be something you can exclude from market research. It shapes who we are, how we think, and how we act. But what cross-cultural can teach us is to understand these aspects of consumers, and shape and translate each message accordingly.

At Zebra Strategies we tackle these researches with dignity, cultural competence, and direct experience. We always keep in mind the challenges that cross-cultural research implies and strive to obtain the best results possible, whether it’s a research study design, focus group recruiting,  online & mobile research, or field management. We have all the tools to gather all the information you need prior to your next big cross-cultural marketing campaign. 

If we’ve sparked your curiosity and you’re interested in pushing your campaign to the limit through quality data, let’s work together! 

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