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Tuesday, October 3, 2023

Individualism versus Collectivism

By Jeffry Norton

Special to CSMS Magazine

Researchers for many years have maintained “self-orientation versus collective orientation is one of the basic pattern variables that determine human action.” As Ting-Toomey notes, “Individualistic and collective value tendencies are manifested in everyday family, school, workplace interactions.”

Although Holfstede is often credited for investigating the concepts of individualism and collectivism, he is not the only scholar who researched these crucial intercultural dimensions. Trandits, for example, has derived an entire cross-cultural research agenda that focuses on these concepts. While we use Hofstede’s work as our basic organizational scheme, we also examine the findings of Triandis and others. Although we speak of individualism and collectivism as if they are separate entities, it is important to keep in mind that all people and cultures have both individual and collective dispositions. Brislin helps clarify this point when he notes, “Although no culture totally ignores individualistic or collective goals, cultures differ significantly on which of these factors they consider more crucial.


Although it might be easier in academia to have acute grasp of when one looks at American culture, it is important to touch on some of its constituents: (1) the individual is the single most important unit in any social setting, (2) independence rather than dependence is stressed, (3) individual achievement is rewarded, and (4) the uniqueness of each individual is of paramount value. According to Hofstede’s findings, the United States, Australia, Great Britain, Canada, the Netherlands, and New Zealand tend toward individualism. Goleman highlights some of the characteristics of these and other cultures that value individualism: People’s personal goals take priority over their allegiance to groups like the family or the employer. The loyalty of individualists to a given group is very weak; they feel they belong to many groups and are apt to change their membership as it suits them, switching churches, for example, or leaving one employer for another.

In cultures that tend toward individualism, competition rather than cooperation is encouraged; personal goals take precedence over group goals; people tend not to be emotionally dependent on organizations and institutions; and every individuals has the right to his or her private property, thoughts, and opinions. These cultures stress individual initiative and achievement, and they value individual decision making. When thrust into a situation that demands a decision, people from cultures that stress this trait are often at odds with people from collective cultures. This point is made by Foster: At the negotiation table, differences in this can clearly cause serious conflict. Individual responsibility for making decisions is easy in individualistic cultures; in group-oriented cultures this can be different. American too often expect their Japanese counterparts to make decisions right at the negotiating table, and the Japanese are constantly surprised to find individual members of an American team promoting their own position decisions, and ideas, sometimes openly contradicting one another.

Remembering our earlier analogy regarding the stone in the pond that creates ripples, it should be clear by now that the cultural pattern of individualism creates a host of “ripples” that are discernible in variety of ways. In small groups “individuals are motivated to work for themselves.” In the use of space, Andersen notes that “People from individualistic cultures are more remote and distant proximally.” Within the family context, Hanson tells us that individualism is stressed through self-determination, self-reliance, and emphasis on privacy. In the business setting, according to Lewis, individualistic Americans “like going it alone” When moving to the classroom, Hofstede suggests that you find teachers dealing with individual pupils and encouraging the pupil and encouraging pupil initiative.


A rigid social framework that distinguishes between in-groups and out-groups characterizes collectivism. People count on their in-group (relative, clans, organizations) to look after them, and in exchange for that they believe they owe absolute loyalty to the group. Triandis suggests some of the following behaviors are found in collective cultures: Collectivism means greater emphasis on (a) the views, needs, and goals of the in-group rather than oneself; (b) social norms and duty defined by the in-group rather than behavior to get pleasure; (c) beliefs shared with in-group rather than beliefs that distinguish self from in-group; and (d) great readiness to cooperate with in-group members.

In collective societies, such as those in Pakistan, Colombia, Venezuela, Taiwan, Peru, and much of Africa, people are born in extended families or clans that support and protect them in exchange for their allegiance. Triandis offers an excellent summary of the role and power of the family as a starting point for collective cultures: The prototypical collectivist social relationionship is the family, where people have strong emotional ties and feel that they “obviously belong together,” the link is long term (often for life) and there are many common goals. Cooperation is natural and status is determined by position within the group.

As you can imagine, a “we” consciousness prevails instead of an “I” orientation. This perception in “community” is evident in Africa. As Etounga-Manguelle notes: If I had to cite a single characteristic of the African culture, the subordination of the individual by the community would surely be the reference point to remember. African thought rejects any view of the individual as an autonomous and responsible being.

In African and other collective cultures, identity is based on the social system. The individual is emotionally dependent on organizations and institutions, and the culture emphasizes belonging to organizations. Organizations invade private life and the clans to which individuals belong; and individuals trust group decisions even at the expense of individual rights. Regarding China as collective culture, Meyer notes, “With individuals rights severely subordinated, group action has been a distinctive characteristic of Chinese society.” Collective behaviors, like so many aspects of culture, have deep historical roots. Look at the message of collectivism in these words of Confucius: If one wants to establish himself, he should help others to establish themselves at first. You can also notice this view about working as a group in the Chinese proverb, “No matter how stout, one beam cannot support a house.”

We have already suggested that collectivism is found in African societies, where as Richmond and Gestrin point out, “Individualism needs and achievement, in contrast to the West, take second place to the needs of the many.”

Numerous co-cultures in the United States can be classified as collective. The research of Hecht, Collier, and Ribeau, for example, concludes that African American also have characteristics of collective societies. And, according to Luckman, Hispanics—including Mexican Americans, Cubans, Salvadorans, Guatemalans, Puerto Ricans, and others—greatly value the family, often place the needs of the family members above the needs of individuals.

As the case with all cultural patterns, collectivism influences a number of communication variables. Kim, Sharkey, and Singles, after studying Korean culture, believe that traits such as indirect communication, saving face, concern for others, and group cooperation are linked to Korea’s collective orientation.

Collectivism is also contextual. That is to say, we can observe the collective pattern in various setting and contexts. For example, in collective classrooms, such as those found in Mexico, harmony and cooperation in learning are stressed instead of competition. Think of what is being implied in the Mexican saying, “The more we are the faster we finish” The medical environment also reflects the pattern of individualism and collectivism. Schneider and Silverman offer the following view of the health care context in Egypt: “Even in illness, Egyptians prefer company. A stream of friends who bring him soda, food, aspirin, and advice will surround a man who has a headache or fever. Hospitals are crowded with residents and friends visiting patients.” And in the business context, Marx maintains that “Negotiations in collective cultures are often attended by a group.” and that”decision making takes longer.”

Note: Jeffry Norton teaches Cross-Cultural Studies at Indiana University in Bloomington. He wrote this piece exclusively for CSMS Magazine.  



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