Should we measure cultural intelligence?

When I search Google on the term ‘cultural intelligence’ I get about 2,320,000,000 results. On Google Scholar I get 3,820,000. Over the last twenty years International Journal of Cross Cultural Management has published 17 articles with cultural Intelligence in the title, 19 in the Abstract, and 107 where the term is mentioned anywhere in the text. The term is often abbreviated to CQ, with the ‘Q’ meaning ‘Quotient’. This word is defined as ‘a particular degree or amount of something’ by the Cambridge English dictionary, implying in this case that the amount of cultural intelligence that a person has can be measured. The ‘intelligence’ bit suggests that cultural intelligence is a part of general intelligence, and that like IQ it can be measured. The ‘cultural’ part suggests a measure of that part of intelligence that pertains to an individual’s manifestation of their understanding and interpretation of different cultural contexts and the way that those within these contexts may think, feel and behave and what they value. Or, in short CQ is ‘.. a person’s capability to adapt effectively to new cultural contexts ’ in the words of Earley and Ang’s early work in 2003, when the concept was introduced to the world. Because the term is applied across cultural contexts it is assumed to be a universal concept that can be understood, applied and measured anywhere, regardless of cultural context and background of the individual being measured, although this assumption has been criticised more recently.

Back to basics: intelligence testing

Generally I don’t like the concept of intelligence. Because, as Earley and Ang suggest, CQ is a manifestation of intelligence, I also have reservations about the notion of cultural intelligence and its implications. ‘Intelligence’ suggests a catch-all notion that someone is to a greater or lesser extent intelligent based on something that is quantifiable. I’m an academic and I should therefore be ‘intelligent’. In fact the individuals who invented the measurable concept were of course academics and therefore likely to have created the concept in their own image. I do believe however that on all the IQ measures of intelligence many people in professions who are not particularly meant to be ‘intelligent’ would score far better.

The MENSA website states: ‘the attribute of intelligence refers to quickness of mental comprehension (or mental agility). That is, what an IQ test attempts to measure. I am not sure how mentally agile I need to be to do my job. They also state it shouldn’t be ‘confused with knowledge, wisdom, memory, or other attributes’.

My aversion to intelligence tests generally do have a root cause. I failed my eleven-plus. One of the main components of this was an IQ test. In the days of selective testing to decide what sort of secondary school you went to, my failure meant going to a ‘secondary modern’ school, which predates the advent of ‘comprehensive’ schools. The more fortunate eleven year olds doing well in the eleven-plus and intelligence tests (and predominantly from middle class homes) went to a grammar school. From my secondary modern school nobody went to university. I did. If this told me anything about my ability it was that I wasn’t very good at doing IQ tests. Yet the days of selective testing is back with us (together with the eleven-plus), in the UK education system. And, the idea that we can put a score on intelligence, and practically any other ‘trait’ has never really left.

Thank ypu:
Thank you:

The need to measure everything is ominous: abilities at school, abilities at work. It smacks of a need to control in the simplest, and cheapest possible way. I don’t want to take on the greats in psychometric testing, but I think the late Paul Kline (who was critical of many aspects of psychology) was quite naive when he said ‘Previously I have attempted to show that psychometric tests can be used for vocational guidance. One possibility, which has never been realised, is to build up through research an encyclopaedia of profiles for the successful occupants of various jobs on the main abilities (and personality) factors, then clients could be tested and informed of which jobs suited them most…’. This was in 1988 page 47 in his book Psychology Exposed, which is well worth a read. Of course this has since been done, and the whole industry of competency testing of various sorts has boomed. But more as a form of selection and control rather than guidance.

I know all about validity in testing (Cronbach’s Essentials of Psychological Testing was my constant companion for a number of years; and indeed my PhD thesis was titled Measuring Management Performance albeit from a critical perspective). But testing any form of intelligence – general, cultural, emotional – can only be a proxy for what it purports to measure. And if what it purports to measure doesn’t actually exist, then this is doubly problematic.

But first another digression, and declaration of prejudicial interest. I ditched psychology after my first year at university, and this was partly through issues around intelligence testing that were brought up in the 1970s, and partly through what I saw as the myopia of mainstream psychology. The work on intelligence, testing and IQ in the UK was prominent and influential through the 1960 and hit problems in the 1970s. Sir Cyril Burt (he was knighted for his contribution to psychological testing), who was instrumental in developing the 11-Plus, and a highly influential British psychologist had a theory that intelligence was hereditary. He tested his theory through twin studies. With two research assistants he sought out identical twins who had been separated at birth. He found that nature was everything and nurture was nothing. But it appeared that he had fabricated his research, and even allegedly invented the research assistants who had collected the data.

Hans Eysenck (another influential British tester) a student of Burt and influenced by his work, took up the mantle and concluded, in support of Arthur Jensen (another Burt protégé) in the United States, that race appears to be an independent variable in intelligence. African-Americans were less intelligent because they were the descendants of slaves who were the least intelligent among their peers in Africa because they were the ones who got caught by slave-traders. Irish-Americans were more intelligent than their Irish peers who remained in Ireland because they were the descendants of those who had the intelligence to leave Ireland during the potato famine (Eysenck, 1971, pp. 46-7). There didn’t appear to be much thought given to the cultural specificity of IQ testing, and that perhaps IQ tests were not relevant or appropriate across different cultural contexts and groups.

A group of slaves including men, women and children gathered outside a building at the Foller Plantation in Cumberland Landing, Pamunkey Run, Virginia, May, 1862.” Photo by James Gibson. (Library of Congress).
A group of slaves including men, women and children gathered outside a building at the Foller Plantation in Cumberland Landing, Pamunkey Run, Virginia, May, 1862.” Photo by James Gibson. (Library of Congress).

Perhaps these are aberrations within psychological testing. Perhaps they arose out of the times in which they were situated. But they have left a bad taste in my mouth about the efficacy and appropriateness of the testing of intelligence. Yet IQ testing is still controversial, including their use to marginalise ethnic minorities and poor communities. And now we come on to a new generation of concepts of intelligence and its measurement: cultural intelligence. Is it legitimate? Is it appropriate? Whose purpose does it serves? What purpose does it serve?

Of course, it can be argued that IQ testing is not intrinsically bad. It was just appropriated for bad purposes. In some ways the intentions of its proponents were benign: e.g. identify intelligent kids from working class backgrounds and send them to grammar school. Yet the cultural bias in intelligence tests are now well rehearsed. For example in Segall, Dasen, Berry and Poortinga’s 1990 introduction to cross-cultural psychology, Human Behavior in Global Perspective they remark (on page 59) that ‘it is hardly a new discovery the IQ tests are biased against those whose cultural backgrounds differs from that of the test’s original normative sample.’ What then of CQ tests?

As cross-cultural psychologists are aware of such cultural issues in IQ testing, and because CQ tests have been designed by cross-cultural psychologist, then they should be free from such cultural bias, and should measure what they purport to measure (regardless of cultural context). CQ tests/questionnaires should themselves be culturally intelligent, or at least those who design them should be high in CQ (just like those who design IQ tests should measure high in IQ). But how does one measure this? By asking them to complete an IQ/CQ test! This of course is a logical absurdity.

Tinkering around the edges

The nature of many tests of CQ are different to IQ tests, in that they are self-report. Basically, respondents are asked if they are culturally intelligent. Certainly the work of Ward et al takes issue with this. They believe that the assessment of CQ should be performance-based. They also take issue with the assumed cultural-general nature of the concept and its assessment, and suggest that culture-specific assessments need to be developed. Self-report appears to still be used predominantly to ‘measure’ CQ, although Thomas’ et al 2008 article in International Journal of Cross Cultural Management represents a step forward, as does the construction of the Business Cultural Intelligence Quotient by Alon et al in 2016 which introduces ‘quasi-performance’ measures. The X-Culture project takes this a stage further in developing the Quasi-Observational Cultural Intelligence instrument. Yet I think this is tinkering around the edges. The more CQ testing looks and feels like IQ testing the more worried I get.

Yet there can never be a test developed in the style of the ‘objective’ IQ tests. There will always be an element of self-report. And this may be a good thing.

In Blasco’s et al critique in 2012 in International Journal of Cross Cultural Management they question whether CQ exists at all, and raise a number of pertinent issues around this.

Firstly, the (composite) construct of CQ does not appear to be derived from repeated inductive observational studies. Moreover, it appears to have been derived from a desire to create an antithesis of examples of what Blasco et al describe as cultural unintelligence: misunderstandings, conflicts or problems caused by (mainly national) intercultural differences. These have been empirically documented, but not so for cultural intelligence. Hence they relate that ‘CQ has no observable exemplars’. This, they say, raises important questions about the verification of CQ testing as it becomes more important in areas such as recruitment. The parameters used to define CQ and the skills needing to be deployed to produce culturally intelligent behaviour appear too vague to operationalise. Particularly, observational factors are more concerned with the lack of intercultural problems, conflicts and misunderstanding.

Thank you:
Thank you:

Secondly, cultural differences are mostly defined as relating to national cultural dimensions from sources such as Hofstede’s work which itself has been critiqued for this over emphasis. For example, I find it difficult to comprehend the foundational statement on the X-Culture Cultural Intelligence project webpage, ‘If several decades ago cross-cultural interactions were still a rarity, a prerogative of expatriates and top managers in MNEs, today cultural diversity is an inherent part of any workplace’. Managers’ and employees’ experience in Africa and India, for example would suggest otherwise, where work colleagues have happily, or unhappily, been working side by side with others from many different cultural backgrounds for many decades. With an estimated 250 ethno-linguistic groups in Cameroon this is just daily life. And many managers, for example, are extremely good at it. The examples of many decades (and centuries) of migration to European countries and America, and the need to juggle between integration and keeping one’s cultural identity has required skills and abilities that could be described as akin to cultural intelligence.

Blasco et al also queried the notion in the conceptualising of cultural intelligence that conflict and misunderstandings are a sign of failed intercultural communication. These, they argue, may be suppressed because of a number of factors such as politeness, social hierarchies, the need to maintain cordial working relations, and may not be apparent. Also, conflicts can be seen as part of a positive learning experience, where in their apparent absence learning cannot take place.

A matter of control

I don’t think the concept of cultural intelligence is bad in itself, just like the idea of intelligence isn’t. It’s just the uses that these may be put to that is at issue. Intelligence testing in the real world has left a bad taste in my mouth. It has been used for nefarious purposes including keeping working-class kids in their place, segregating on racial grounds, and generally using for control purposes. In 2022, combined with neoliberal policies and practices, where people are still regarded as ‘resources’ in corporate settings, and combining this with another form of assessing and controlling these resources, I have an ominous feeling about the use of testing for cultural intelligence.

© Terence Jackson 2022

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s