One of the core narratives of our nation is that we are a melting pot, e pluribus unum and all. Today, however, we see our modern reality as more of a "mosaic" or "quilt" owing to the notion that the pieces don't "melt," but retain their uniqueness. The result is diversity, and a diversity in national origin finds its way into the jury room as well. In venues across the country, Americans with long roots in their home country will find themselves side-by-side with relatively recent citizens or with the second generation of immigrant families. And when lawyers look at the comparison, they're strongly tempted to believe that those national differences are meaningful. Those beliefs have always been part of the working litigator's toolbox, all the way back to Clarence Darrow's “How to Pick a Jury” in 1936: “He is Irish; that is enough…You should be aware that he is emotional, kindly, and sympathetic...An Englishman is not so good as an Irishman,” however, “he has come through a long tradition of individual rights." "The German," he continues, "is not so keen about individual rights except where they concern his own way of life." Today, those theories are more likely to focus on newer waves. Depending on the region, that might mean Indian or Pakistani, Hmong, Central American, African, or Mexican immigrants.

But are the attributed differences based on national origin reliable? According to one new study, (Taras, Steel & Kirkman, 2016) the answer is "No, they're not." Researchers from North Carolina looked at work-related cultural values based on a meta-analysis of 558 studies focused on individuals from 32 countries. What they found is that 80 percent of the variation in cultural values was within countries and not between them. That means that one cannot equate "country" with "culture," and knowing an individual's country of origin is a poor way of predicting their attitudes. There is still some value in looking at country of origin, but Bradley Kirkman, a leadership and management professor at North Carolina State University, shares in a write-up in ScienceDaily that the main disadvantage in putting an outsized faith in national-origin differences is that it distracts from other more reliable markers of attitudes. "Our results suggest that it may be more appropriate to talk about classes of professions, socio-economic classes, and free versus oppressed societies, than about cultures of countries." In this post, I will take a look at a few conclusions from this study as they relate to jury selection in diverse venues.

National Origin Differences Are Not Reliable

The study is noteworthy for its power in aggregating the results of 558 studies covering countries including the United States, Brazil, France, China, South Africa and twenty seven other countries. The finding that 80 percent of variation in cultural values resides within countries and not between them means that you're unlikely to understand your venire members' attitudes just by knowing their country of origin.

The study looked at four main constellations of attitudes:

  • Individualism: Do they place an emphasis on individual or group achievement?
  • Power distance: How much does status and hierarchy matter?
  • Uncertainty avoidance: To what extent are they willing to tolerate ambiguity?
  • Quantity versus quality of life: How much emphasis do they place on competition and material wealth?

What the research on these four general attitudes found is that country is a poor predictor of cultural values. Bradley Kirkman notes, "We wanted to know if nationality is really the best way to delineate cultural values and boundaries. And we learned that it's not a very good marker." The attitudes they studied are generally work-related, and so would matter most in employment disputes. But one's views on those factors would also seem to be the kind of foundational attitudes that would matter in all kinds of disputes. If the researchers don't find reliable differences on these attitudes, I believe they are unlikely to find them elsewhere. "This work highlights the illusion of national homogeneity," Kirkman continues, "and shows that there is a real danger in equating country and culture in a work context."

But They Aren't Absent Either

Of course, some of the variation is between countries. The analysis of the studies showed that, depending on the attitude they were looking at, between 16.6 and 20.8 percent of the variation was between countries. So in other words, knowing the country of origin would tell you at best about one-fifth of what you would need to know in order to predict a person's cultural values. Of course that is not enough, but in a jury selection context, that's not nothing either. Jury selection is one of those contexts where everything matters. So don't discard information on nationality, particularly when it is paired with tendencies you have observed over the years. But don't pretend that information is determinative, because once you dig into a given individual's attitudes, you may find more exceptions to the rule than confirmations of the rule.

Prioritize Occupation and Socio-Economic Status Instead

If national origin explains only a relatively small part of the rich attitudinal stew you are likely to see in voir dire, then that puts national origin in the same category as other demographic markers like gender, race, and age that are also very unreliable markers of individual attitudes. There are, however, a few demographic predictors that do work. In our experience, wealth or socio-economic status matters, occupation matters, and to the extent that it is considered demographic, then political leaning matters as well. Two out of three of those were examined in the study, and both occupation and socioeconomic status outperform country of origin. For example, looking at the attitudes relating to power distance, differences between occupations explain a little over half (50.1 percent) of the variation, and differences in socio-economic strata explain nearly a third (32.2 percent).

Kirkman concludes, "Making generalizations based on country can lead people to draw very inaccurate conclusions that may influence both individual and organizational business and management relationships." Better to base those conclusions on more accurate demographic markers like occupation or socio-economic status, or better yet, voir dire on the actual attitudes that are likely to matter most in the jury's evaluation of your case.