Cross National Comparisons

Last Updated on October 28, 2020 by Karl Thompson

Cross National Comparisons involve researching a specific social institution, trend, or phenomenon in two or more countries using the same research methods, with the intention of comparing how this institution, trend, or phenomenon manifests in different socio-cultural settings.

Researchers might choose to focus on broad topics such as the education system, or a specific trend such as the suicide rate, and they may use analysis of already existing secondary data to do this, or conduct their own original primary research.

The aim may be to seek new explanations for similarities or differences or to gain a deeper understanding of social reality in different national contexts.

Examples of Cross-National Comparisons

Durkheim’s classic 1897 study of Suicide

Emile Durkheim’s study of Suicide was the first ever study to call itself a work of sociology. Durkheim wanted to find out whether the very personal act of suicide was shaped by social factors.

He used official statistics on a range of factors such as the religion of a country (Protestantism or Catholicism), the rapidity of economic growth, and the divorce rate (among other things) and then correlated these with the suicide rate.

He famously found that countries with lower rates of social integration and social regulation have higher suicide rates.

(NB this is a summary of one aspect of the study, it’s a bit more complex than this!)

He was famously criticised for many reasons, one of which was his failure to take account of the stats lacking validity.

Wilkinson and Picket (2010) The Spirit Level

In 2010 these two researchers looked at income equality in several different countries (the gap between the highest and lowest earners.

They found that a higher level of inequality was associated with all sorts of social and cultural problems such as:

  • Higher rates of imprisonment
  • Higher levels of obesity
  • Higher rates of suicide.

A 2014 study on immigration and gender equality

In 2014 Roder and Muhlau noted that there is considerable cross national variation in attitudes towards gender equality, and they were interested in exploring what happens to the attitudes of immigrants who move from a less gender egalitarian culture to one in which gender equality is more activity promoted.

They started off with the following hypothesis:

(a)Second- generation immigrants have a more egalitarian-gender ideology than the first generation and (b)the gender relations of the origin country exert less influence on the gender attitudes for second generation immigrants than for first generation immigrants.

To test the hypothesis the authors used data from the European Social Survey (2014), which is conducted in several European countries by structured interview every two years.

They defined ‘second-generation immigrant’ as anyone who was born in the country in which they presently lived but had at least one parent who was born abroad.

To measure gender egalitarian attitudes, they relied on two questions from the questionnaire, both being Likhert Scale questions, consisting of statements which people had to agree or disagree with on a 1 to 5 scale.

To measure gender equality in the origin country, researchers relied on indicators such as female representation in parliament, professional jobs, and income differences between men and women.

  • ‘When jobs are scarce, men should have more right to do a job than women’
  • ‘A woman should be prepared to cut down on her paid work for the sake of her family’

The hypothesis was broadly proved correct

The Limitations of Cross-National Studies  

Cross national studies tend to be very large in scope, and so can require considerable funding to carry out, securing funding can be a problem (an agency based in one country may be reluctant to fund research that takes place in multiple countries, so sources of funding are likely to be limited to international agencies, rather than national governments).

Data collected from official government sources (official statistics) may not be comparable – the categories used and the methods of collecting the data may differ from country to country.

Data will have to be translated, and there is a problem of this translation being insensitive to specific national and cultural contexts. Cross-national research helps to overcome assumptions we might make about life in other countries.  

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