By Seena Dean-HiberSpecial to CSMS MagazineIn-depth AnalysisIn American society, it is a mater of surprise if a 20+ year old person stays with her parents. It is expected that someone who is of adult age leave home and assume independence and self-reliance financially and otherwise. Contrasting this with other cultures, however, one will find people much older still living with their parents, and that is not a taboo but a norm. These collectivist societies focus on interdependence and a sense of belonging to the family and the community, whereas the American society is more concerned with independence and individualism. Individualism is a theory that says that individuals have the ability to judge norms of ethics and behavior independently of society, and that pursuing individual happiness is a fundamental right of the individual. In its philosophical aspect, individualism promotes autonomy and self-expression. In society, individual achievement and private ownership is applauded more than anything else. People are supposed to be self-reliant, self-contained entities whose only interaction with society is in the seamless, co-pursuit of individual happiness. This, as one author points out, seems to be “the most natural and normal – in fact the only – way to proceed through life” 1 Three ways of looking at individualism are ontological, methodological, and moral or political. Ontological individualism, with respect to a society, considers persons with the ability to be moral agents as the only real structural blocks of society. In this concept, groups like class, caste, even family, units that do not have this moral ability independent of their constituent units, are not taken to be independently real. Methodological individualism says that the social sciences must address, and only address, those issues and propositions that deal only with individuals. Moral/Political individualism implements these concepts in practice by claiming that society which is unreal except as a set of individuals does not have a normative role in the decisions and determinations of an individual moral agent. In contrast to this, collectivist theory holds groups of persons as superseding the independent moral agency of individuals; in collectivist society, the will and benefit of the individual is always subjugated to those of the group or society to which she belongs. Philosophically, collectivism is a form of holism where collectives become greater than the sum of their parts by virtue of gaining more meaning as well as value as a gestalt of individuals. Methodologically, only those social propositions have scientific meaning that address the group or collective, individuals have no separate reality apart from the belonging group and propositions about them have no scientific significance. Morally and politically, again, collective societies stress interdependence and group achievements rather than individual gains. Shared ownership, respect for authority and stable roles in the social hierarchy are the norms. Persons in collectivist societies are taught a sense of group responsibility and belongingness unlike children in individualistic ones, where children learn to become quickly self-reliant and individual growth and success lies in direct contrast to group benefit; hence, the concept of profit-making capitalism. Respect towards others, again, is viewed differently in these two societies. Collectivist societies are strongly hierarchical, both with respect to gender and age. Younger people are not expected to express independent opinions or share their knowledge; such roles are reserved for people of higher status, mainly older people. This is in direct contrast to an individualist society like America, where self-expression and exhibiting one’s knowledge is usual. These two modes often create confusion in social interactions, where Americans tend to take their counterparts as lacking in intelligence and drive simple because those traits have not been publicly exhibited, and collectivists thinking of Americans as showing disrespect and arrogance because they have. There are two objections to collectivism. One is that in collectivist societies, individuals tend to loose their identity and drive for self-expression and self-growth. Promotion of state-power at the cost of the individual, and its subsequent historical misuse is another criticism against collectivism. Individualism, on the other hand, is vilified because it is taken to lead to social anarchism and political disruption if pursued to its logical end. Morally, too, critics point out the lack of family values and loss of a healthy sense of belonging that is promoted by individualistic societies. Subjugation of individual will to the greater good, they say, is a higher moral ideal than pursuit of individual success and happiness. It should be noted in conclusion that no society is as simple as their philosophical study. It is only as a framework, therefore, that particular groups should be studied as being individualistic or collectivist. Each society utilizes and implements some concepts from either philosophy, thereby becoming more complex than individual philosophies. Most stable societies strike “a particular balance between individual and group, between independence and interdependence” (Greenfield 1994).Also see Materialism breeds individualism in industrial societies Multiculturalism and Cross-cultural Awareness: Not Really Intertwined (Part I)Multiculturalism and Cross-Cultural Awareness: Not Really Intertwined (Part II)Multiculturalism and cross-cultural awareness: Not really intertwined (Part III)ReferencesGreenfield, P. & Cocking, R. (Eds.) (1994).Cross-Cultural Roots of Minority Child Development. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Assoc.Small, E, (1987). A study of American Individualism. Blackwell Books, NY. 1.Small, (1987) Pg 104.Note: Seena Dean-Hiber is a retired philosophy professor from Brussels, Belgium. She wrote this piece exclusively for CSMS Magazine.
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