Scholars have long seen traditional cultural values as a significant obstacle to political and economic development in the postcolonial world, especially in Africa and Asia. These values are expected to shape how individuals think, prefer and act, and thus have important influences on a country’s choice of economic and political regime. Until recently, however, such theses have been hard to test in any systematic way because they require cross-national data about individual and collective value structures in the developing world. But beginning in the 1990s, cross-national survey projects such as the Afrobarometer and East Asia Barometer have emerged that focus on the processes of political and economic reform in the developing world. The findings of these surveys have enabled important cross-national comparisons within continents, but problems of data incomparability and data availability have thus far precluded extensive cross-continental analysis.
In this article, we take a tentative first step towards such broad gauged comparison using data from one country from the East Asia Barometer (South Korea, 2003) and one from the Afrobarometer (South Africa, 2002) to address the following questions: To what degree have each of these projects developed reliable and valid measures of traditional values specific to their respective cultures? How widely are these values held across these mass publics? And to what extent do traditional values really preclude the development of public support for democracy? Our findings demonstrate that traditional cultural values do indeed shape popular attitudes to democracy in Asia and Africa, even in relatively modernized settings like South Africa, but they also show that traditionalists are minorities within both societies. On the methodological level, we conclude that while considerable progress has been made, both projects still need to develop better composite measures of cultural values, traditional or otherwise.