Navigating Diversity: why cultural differences present a fascinating challenge in research

06 Nov 2022 | Research & Business Knowledge

ICG member Sarah Jenkins at Magenta talks us through the challenges and rewards of cultural diversity in research.


Global research projects are both fascinating and thought-provoking. It is always inspiring to talk to people with a variety of different experiences. It opens up new pathways of discovery and reveals surprising insights that challenge our way of thinking. We take great delight in the new level of understanding these projects impart.

However, cultural differences don’t just raise exciting new insights. They also present challenges in communication and approach. Every country has different cultural norms and expectations, and we need to tread carefully when navigating these variables in our research. It is crucial to take the time to understand the preferences and cultural differences of local people in each market.

“Cultural differences don’t just raise exciting new insights. They also present challenges.”


In some markets, it could be that what we consider a standard approach to data collection comes across as potentially offensive. For example, focus groups, direct interviews or observation may be viewed as discourteous. Participation in discussion groups could cause discomfort. Even the timing of our research needs to be taken into account. We need to be aware of the daily schedule of the local community to ensure we don’t interrupt family time, prayer time, or dinner time.

Capturing data about ethnicity can be especially challenging. It is one of the traditional ways we ensure we have the most representative or diverse sample of a population or group. However, while people in the UK are used to being asked to state their ethnic identity, in other countries, it is not considered a standard question. It may even cause offence in some cases.

“What we consider a standard approach to data collection may come across as potentially offensive.”


We also have to think about the language we use. While the term ‘ethnic minorities’ is widely used in the West, it doesn’t apply when considering Asian or African markets where white populations may be the minority. Here at Magenta, we have been seeking a more suitable term to refer to non-white heritage/groups. ‘Non-white’ feels as though it carries a derogatory tone. The Government suggests ‘other than white’ or ‘all other ethnic groups combined’, but both terms are long-winded and also don’t sit comfortably. We have currently opted for the term ‘mixed ethnic groups’. However, we’re still not sure we have found the perfect solution.


Cultural differences extend far and wide, affecting everyday situations that we may take for granted. For example, in some cultures such as Asian cultures, people may be hesitant to disagree openly or offer a negative opinion for fear of offending. Conversely, the Danish are known to talk directly and freely. This can sometimes be misconstrued as overly negative but is unintended to be so.

When trying to gather opinions, particularly unfavourable ones, we therefore need to consider how we ask our questions and adapt to our audience. Rather than asking our participants what they dislike about a product or service, we need to rephrase our query. Instead, we could ask how the product might be improved to meet their needs better.

“Cultural differences extend far and wide, affecting everyday situations that we may take for granted.”

It is not just about how we ask questions. When we’re creating stimulus, even a wonderfully joyous occasion such as a wedding needs to be handled with care. How do we visualise a wedding to ensure it is suitable for all cultures? The wedding ceremony is a very different event across cultures; in some, it is a white dress and a party; in others a red dress and a tea ceremony. In some markets, homosexuality is illegal, thus removing any ability to divert from stereotypes. Somehow, we need to convey a partnership that is both inclusive and recognised globally.

These examples are just scratching the surface of the challenge. International research is a fascinating field, but it does require a meticulous sensitivity to the wide range of customs and expectations that exist across cultures. We also need to consider nuances within cultures. Every individual has their own experience of discrimination, and we have to be sensitive to the interplay of different characteristics. Social identities work on multiple levels, resulting in unique experiences and sometimes barriers, for each person.

We need to keep our minds open to all the possibilities. Our role is to recognise, accept, respect and celebrate our cultural diversity.