7 Variation and Complexity

Variation and Complexity

Carol Lynn Moder

When making comparisons between and among groups, you need to be careful not to make over-generalizations. For example, you would not want to say “French people are healthier than Americans” or “Americans do not care about the quality of their food.” In all groups there is some variation and a writer needs to be sure to limit big generalizations to avoid stereotypes that suggest every member of a group is the same.

First, you need to be careful NOT to assume that the people who responded to the survey represent all Americans or all French people. For one thing, the respondents were college students. Older people in each country or less educated people might or might not respond similarly. If you are writing from your own experience, you need to be careful in the same way not to assume that the people you have met are just like everyone else in their group. If you are writing about general assumptions that people have about different groups, you should be aware that all general statements about a group are likely to be stereotypes that ignore vast variation and differences.

Secondly, even within each group of the college students surveyed in this example, there is variation. If we look again at the percentage in Table 2, we can see that none of the answers had 100% responses. Though a larger percent of Americans than French surveyed said they would prefer to give up eating and take a pill instead, it is worth noting that only 27% of Americans said this, compared to 10% of the French respondents. So, the vast majority of Americans, even in this survey, (73%) said they would not want to do this, as did 90% of the French. If we think about the percentages in this way, we could accurately say that the responses show that the great majority of Americans agreed with the great majority of the French respondents in this question.


Limited Findings

Look back at the in-text citation for Table 2, and underline the words the writer uses to restrict the findings only to the amount of difference in the data:

  • much higher than
  • much more likely than
  • more
  • for our survey participants
  • seem to


On the other hand, for the hotel question, 77% of Americans prefer the luxury hotel, whereas only 11% of the French agreed. Here the difference between groups is much bigger, so we could be more confident about saying that most of the Americans responded differently than most of the French. Even so, we should still keep in mind that 23% of the Americans agreed with the 89% of the French who would rather have a modest hotel and good food. This means we could not say “Americans don’t care about food,” since almost one-fourth of the Americans in the survey said they did care more about food than a fancy hotel. We have to be careful to draw conclusions that fit the evidence and are not too general. If you are making a comparison that is not based on actual data, you need to be even more careful to limit your statements about each group.

Table 4 comes from another article by Paul Rozin [1]. In this article, he reports the responses of college students in India and the USA two questions about Traditional Values concerning obeying and respecting parents and Elders. Note that the responses suggests some contrast in the American and Indian responses, but also show a lot of variation within the groups. The responses are also separated by gender, suggesting that the author expected some possible variation among males and females in each group.


Table 4: Comparison of Hindu Indian and American College Students on “cultural attitudes (% agree with each statement)
Indian Females n=85 Indian Males   n=64 American Females n=140 American Males n=75
1. It is immoral for adults to disobey their parents 80 72 13 19
2. Even if it goes/went against my own feeling I often obey/obeyed my parents’ judgements on matters of importance to me 78 58 50 53
3. Old people deserve more respect than younger people in society 72 68 37 44

Focus: Variation & Complexity in Group Comparisons


Using the information in Table 4, write 3 statement comparing the responses of these Indian and American college students.

Be sure to clearly describe the variation and to limit your statements to fit the data.

  1. Paul Rozin (2003). Five potential principles for understanding cultural differences in relation to individual differences Journal of Research in Personality 37 (2003) 273–283


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Variation and Complexity by Carol Lynn Moder is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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