The cultural opposition of Western and Eastern societies has been widely recognized in public discourse and scholarship. This division of the major world cultures had historical roots, valid justification, and adequacy.
Great Britain, France, Germany, the Netherlands, the United States of America, and other allied countries were traditionally viewed as having Western cultures. It is thought that ancient Greek and Roman cultures are the origins of Western cultures.
China, Japan, and India have traditionally been considered Eastern cultures. The ancient Confucian and Buddhist cultures are thought to be at the origins of Eastern cultures.
See more in Western versus Eastern cultures.
The scholarly significance of cultural comparisons between the West and the East
Most cultural studies of the past have focused on learning how the “East” is different from the “West”. Since many believed that they knew their own “Western” culture pretty well, they were interested in learning about the mysterious and less-known “East”. Therefore, such cultural opposition has become popular among scholars. Being ethnocentric, Western researchers were interested in knowing how similar or different the unknown East was from the well-known West. The first interest was to search for cross-cultural universality, while the others were more interested in learning about how much the East deviates from our traditional western knowledge. This is why those other societies were often called “nonwestern cultures.”
For comparative cultural studies, the in-group (West) versus out-group (East) dichotomy worked well. This division was basic and straightforward. As I noted above, the approach was largely ethnocentric because the West was viewed as “we” (in-group) and the East was viewed as “they” (out-group).
These cross-cultural comparisons have been valid in many regards, indicating several cultural differences between Western and Eastern societies (Karandashev, 2021). Here are the five main distinctions:
1. Philosophical and Folk Worldviews
Western folk and scholarly worldviews are linear, logical, analytical, and dichotomous, and have a dualistic view of the world and mental life.
Western logical beliefs acknowledge the existence of binary oppositions, such as positive and negative human emotions. According to dualistic Western cultural philosophies, the mind and body are in dualistic relations, and the mind (rational) and the heart (emotional) are in a dichotomy with each other.
Eastern folk and scholarly worldviews are nonlinear, wholistic, dialectical, and have a monistic view of the world and mental life.
Eastern dialectical beliefs accept natural contradictions and complementarity of opposition, such as positive and negative emotions. According to monistic Eastern cultural philosophies, the mind and body are in monistic united relations, and the mind (rational) and heart (emotional) are not in dichotomy with each other but rather in wholistic relations.
2. Perception of Social Relationships as Independent Versus Interdependent
Eastern and Western models of social relationships define how the self and others are related.
The individualistic view of Western cultures perceives social and relationship contexts as a free association of independent individuals. Western cultural norms suggest individualistic personhood and individualistic construals of the self and others. These cultural norms impose an independent model of self and culture. These cultural factors determine the person’s self-focused perception and emotional experience.
Eastern collectivistic cultures perceive social and relationship contexts as a strongly and intricately connected network of interdependent members. Eastern cultural norms suggest collectivistic personhood and relational construals of the self and others. These cultural norms impose an interdependent model of self and culture. Cultural factors determine a person’s other-focused perception and emotional experience.
See more about this in Perception of a person in relationship contexts.
3. Individualism Versus Collectivism in Society
The most well-known cultural difference between the West and the East is the distinction between individualistic Western societies and collectivistic Eastern ones. Individualism and collectivism describe how an individual and a group relate to each other in a society.
Western societies are considered to be independent, individualistic cultures. Individualism in a society is defined by cultural values such as personal liberty, initiative, autonomy, and self-reliance.
Eastern societies are considered to be interdependent, collectivistic cultures. The cultural values that go along with collectivism are kinship priority, family unity, in-group integrity, and loyalty to relationships.
4. High-Context Versus Low-Context Cultural Styles of Communication
The concepts of high-context and low-context cultures differentiate the types of cultures that accentuate the importance of implicit versus explicit messages in people’s relationships and daily interactions.
In high-context Eastern cultures, people prefer to use messages that largely convey meanings and connotations via implicit nonverbal codes, the contexts, culturally implied forms of speech, expected patterns of behavior, and the contextual settings of a situation and social relations.
In low-context Western cultures, people prefer to use messages in which the meanings and connotations are primarily expressed via explicit verbal codes, direct words spoken or written, and overt facial and body expressions with evident meaning, like an open smile.
5. High-Contact and Low-Contact Cultures
Western and Eastern cultures have certain differences in the cultural dimension of contact versus non-contact cultures. People in non-contact cultures keep their distance in communication and avoid tactile and olfactory sensory modes of interaction, while people in high-contact cultures communicate with a shorter interpersonal distance and higher engagement of tactile and olfactory sensory modes.
Societies from North America, Northern Europe, and Asia tend to be low-contact, whereas societies from Southern Europe, the Middle East, and South America tend to be high-contact cultures. So, we see that this division has a more complex configuration than just West versus East.