Keeping up with the neighbors in China
written by Jackie Lorch
As we become familiar with the challenges of data collection in China – selecting the right mode, understanding how to set correct population quotas and fielding in appropriate languages – we’re also becoming more familiar with how to accurately interpret the data in light of China’s culture.
Faced with higher levels of ownership and intent to purchase among Chinese respondents, the initial theory is often that fraud or satisficing must be to blame. While checking the data for evidence of this is of course important, it’s also important to consider whether unique cultural factors are the cause. Some participants in China may be inclined to report their aspirations rather than their current situations. They may, for example, select the car they would like to buy, rather than the one they realistically intend to buy.
While aspirational thinking is of course not limited to one culture, a recent article in The Economist suggests that there is more cultural pressure to do this in China. Xi Chen and Ravi Kanbur of Cornell University, and Xiaobo Zhang of the International Food Policy Research Institute, examined “gift-books” kept by households in 18 poor villages in Guizhou, where it’s customary for families to “cement their position in the local pecking order by hosting expensive weddings, funerals and other ceremonies for their own family and buying costly gifts for other people’s”. The poorest households spent about 30% of their budgets on gifts and festivals, twice as much as Indians at a similar level of poverty. If one of the households in Guizhou sold some land, for example, and therefore had extra funds, they would spend it in the same way. This then forced others in the village to keep up.
The challenge then is to devise the right questions for each culture so we don’t risk drawing the wrong conclusions from research results. And in doing this, there’s no substitute for local knowledge and insights.