Defining individualism and collectivism

In my previous entry, I reviewed the epistemic nature of individualism and collectivism, as well as some misunderstandings about what they imply for social behaviour. I also pointed out to a study that showed that individualism was in fact more favourable to society as a whole than collectivism, and gave a reasonable explanation for that result.

The basic differences do not lie primarily in the behaviour itself (although individualism v collectivism does affect the length and frequency of communication; according to to Wheeler, Reis and Bond, “Collectivism individualism in everyday social life,” 1989, collectivists have longer and fewer interactions with fewer people, while individualists have shorter but more interactions with more people) but in the attitudes and principles that dictate behaviour. Here are the main lines:

*Collectivists identify themselves with the group, follow the goals of the group, focus more on the context than the content of communication (i.e. whether the person who said something is a person of authority), believe that external causes are responsible for behaviour, and are more self-effacing. Individualists follow their own goals, don’t care so much about the context of communication, attribute actions to internal causes, and are less self-effacing. (Triandis, “Individualism-Collectivism and Personality,” 2001)

* Collectivists have more collectivist cognitive elements (e.g. I give money because my family needs it) and are more likely to find meaning through these elements. Collectivists are more likely to turn situations into collectivist issues (e.g. buying a carpet might involve convoluted involvment from the shopkeeper, the family, etc… instead of being a simple economic transaction). Individualists have more personal constructs (e.g. I give money because I am a kind person) and are more likely to find meaning through such elements. (Triandis, Individualism & Collectivism, Westview Press, 1995)

* Collectivism is correlated with sensitivity to rejection and greater desire for uniformity. (Yamaguchi, Kuhlman and Sugimori, “Personality Correlates of Allocentric Tendencies in Individualist and Collectivist Cultures,” 1995)

Thus the sociological differences are mainly the result of a moral difference. Individualists consider morality as serving their values and the values of people they care about, and take responsibility for their actions. Collectivists consider their moral sense to be a servant of the collective, and as such have a strong incentive to delegate responsibility to others, to their belief system or ideology, and to forego expressing themselves even if they are right and the collective is wrong. The collectivist not only follows the group and group behaviour, but identifies himself as a part of the group and analyzes everything in his life in terms of the group. When someone talks to him, he does not primarily look at the content but at who is saying it and how. Is it someone in a position of authority? Are his words expressing the proper code-words or concepts? Is it “acceptable”?

To the collectivist, friendship is superficial and far more conditional. We can look at extreme forms of collectivism- cults- to observe the extreme example of this tendancy. When you are in a cult, you get a lot of friends within that cult. There is a strong sense of belonging and purpose. But when you start “falling out” in some way, or lose authority within the cult, you start losing friends. If you leave completely, then you are left without friends, and you know it. This is one way in which cult members feel “trapped.” They are not free to be themselves to others, and friendships express very little of their values. In a collectivist mindset, trust is not present because people care more about belonging and authority, as well as the benefits and fear of authority.

If the individualism v collectivism issue rests on one’s moral attitude, one’s identification either with one’s own values or inter-subjective values, and that collectivism is essentially a coercive and self-conflicting process, then we should expect that changes in a society which favour the expression of individual values will tend to raise individualism within that society, and vice-versa. Assuming that, due to the lack of excess resources and therefore possibilities within a less evolved society, we start with high levels of collectivism and come gradually down as technological and economic progress takes place, we should observe in reality that the transition between collectivism and individualism takes place under such progressive conditions.

This is what we observe. We find that individualism in a society is correlated with urbanization and education (Ma and Schoeneman, “Individualism Versus Collectivism: A Comparison of Kenyan and American Self-Concepts,” 1997). The transition is also motivated by changes in the family structure, from extended to nuclear (Georgas, “Changing Family Values in Greece,” 1989). In societies where kinship collectivism is dominant, the extended family structure provides group belonging, especially when everyone lives under the same roof. Group pressure and propaganda can then flourish, just as it does in cults where believers are kept within close quarters. When the switch from extended family to nuclear family takes place, the smaller, self-contained family units provide a relative shelter from the needs and interests of the extended family, and puts emphasis on the needs and interests of the smaller family units. Given this, it is not surprising that family loses importance in this transition, thus reducing the level of collectivism within the host society.

2 thoughts on “Defining individualism and collectivism

  1. Mark T. Market January 14, 2009 at 07:21

    Interestingly, I’ve recently entertained two views on Collectivism. The first is the criticism, the second is a reprise in light of China’s emergence. The two hardly satisfy any debates, but the important lesson for me is to be on guard against naively taking history as a final arbiter on anything, and to remain constantly vigilant and critical of ideas, no matter their merit.

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