Individualism And Collectivism
    By Gerhard Adam | August 15th 2009 04:25 PM | 5 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    In discussing individualism and collectivism it needs to be clear that this represents overall philosophical perspectives that aren't confined to simple economic or political interpretations.  Rather these ideas permeate human society, its interactions, and the subgroups within it.

    It is interesting to note that many people want to advocate one philosophical position over another rather than recognizing that regardless of our personal preferences, these viewpoints are a part of human society and are responsible for the social circumstances we find ourselves in.  It makes little difference which you prefer, but rather which are a part of your existence and which you must respond to.

    In general, it seems that the concept of individualism is more positively viewed among people despite the fact that there is little evidence to suggest that it is a viable strategy with which to maintain a cooperative society.  Similarly, collectivism is generally frowned upon as a means by which an individual is lost to the "collective" mass and therefore to be distrusted or avoided.

    In truth, collectivism tends to dominate the social scenery ranging from the attitude among family and friends up to the national levels.  Each group represents a collective to which concessions are made and some degree of reciprocity is expected.  People often vehemently defend or support family and friends, simply because they are recognized as being a special social group and, in many cases, people will risk everything to sacrifice for such a group.  Similarly, depending on the relative importance of the social group to the individual, all manner of sacrifice and/or risk may be undertaken to advance such a group.

    We have all heard the phrases about being a "team player", or even Kennedy's "ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country"  as strong indicators of the collectivist mindset.  Institutions such as the military, police, and fire departments are based on being a member of a team (or collective) to which you maintain loyalty and a willingness to sacrifice for the group. National sports teams are similar examples of team behavior that extend beyond the abilities of individual players.  Team sports often emphasize the need for being a team player as being significantly more important than simply being skillful.  In fact, individual skills may often have to be suppressed or tempered to engage the team rather than being maximized for individual gain.

    Team sports naturally are all about the team, but it is critical to focus initially on individual players. Businesses have adopted concepts from team sports for years, and now coaches are applying business concepts to team sports to gain a competitive edge.

    Even in the workplace there is a sense of being loyal to one's employer and participating with the group to achieve objectives.  While such an identity can be more difficult to maintain as the group becomes larger and more diverse, there is nevertheless a strong impetus to ensure that the success of the group is considered above that of the individual. This can be seen from the definition of "corporate culture" shown below:

    corporate culture
    The set of important assumptions that members of the company share. It is a system of shared values about what is important and beliefs about how the company works. These common assumptions influence the ways the company operates.

    Arguably our most individualistic activities such as Olympic sports are based on belonging to a team rather than consideration as individual competitors.  While individuals are certainly recognized for their achievements as competitors, it is within the context of the larger group (i.e. the team or even the country) gaining the benefit of their accomplishments.

    There is no question that the individuals are often recognized, even heroically, for their actions, but there can be little doubt that such recognition occurs against the backdrop of the group, collective, or team.  The entire basis of leadership presumes the existence of a collective over which such a trait can be exhibited.

    Heroism is a much higher attainment than anything that occurs in sports. To be a hero requires taking risks and exposing yourself to jeopardy. Heroism requires nobility of purpose, some goal that is outside your own self-interest. And heroism may require sacrifice.

    So what causes so many people to resist the notion of collectivism in favor of individualism?

    I suspect that this occurs because while we recognize our role in the "collective" we also want to be recognized as individuals for our contributions to such a group. It is precisely such motivation that provides the "glue" which causes such groups to be strong.  Fame and fortune are sought after because they provide a greater recognition within the social group (perhaps even all human beings), which is what holds the appeal. 

    In addition, most people are strongly opposed to the idea of being coerced into group participations.  So it would seem that our urge to consider ourselves as individualists hinges more on having the freedom to determine which groups we associate with, than any issue of true individaulism. However, even coercion is tolerated to a fair degree if it doesn't conflict to radically with our basic desires.  A military draft may be considered too coercive, while the idea of getting a job or obeying the law are generally considered reasonably acceptable.

    True individualism is not common and in our society is typically marked as being a sociopath.  This is an individual for whom no social connections matter, and there is little ability to empathize with fellow humans. 

    Even the strongest advocates of individualism rarely argue in its favor as much as they argue that individuals need to be recognized and acknowledged within the larger social group.  The typical argument focuses on the desire to freely choose which collective one participates in rather than arguing against collectivism. An individualist requires no such acknowledgement nor recognition, since they have no need of the social group's approval. However, the majority of people enjoy the groups they belong to and will strongly identify with many of them that share similar values and ideals.  This doesn't deny our individual identities, nor does it deprive us of the choices we make regarding such group participations.  In fact, it is precisely our ability to curtail our individualist tendencies that has given rise to the society and achievements we can claim as human beings. 

    If humans evolved as individualists, I suspect they would still be sitting in the trees or hunkered down in a savannah someplace.


    Steve Davis
    we also want to be recognized as individuals for our contributions to such a group.
    And its those who make outstanding contributions for the group who become known as heroes.

    The group "doesn't deny our individual identities". And it's only through participation in a group that many can reach their potential as individuals. The group enhances individuality, so the group is primary and the individual secondary.
    Nice work Gerhard.
    Many social scientists have predicted that one inevitable consequence of modernization is the unlimited
    growth of individualism, which poses serious threats to the organic unity of society. Others have argued that
    autonomy and independence are necessary conditions for the development of interpersonal cooperation and
    social solidarity.We reanalyzed available data on the relationship between individualism-collectivism and
    social capital within one country (the United States) and across 42 countries. In America, the states with a
    high level of social capital (higher degree of civic engagement in political activity, where people spend more
    time with their friends and believe that most people can be trusted) were found to be more individualistic. A
    correspondingly strong association between individualism and social capital was observed in the comparison
    of different countries. These results support Durkheim’s view that when individuals become more autonomous
    and seemingly liberated from social bonds, they actually become even more dependent on society.[Allik, J., Realo, A. (2004). Individualism-collectivism and social capital. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 35, 29-49.]

    Gerhard Adam
    Thanks for your comments.  I intend to follow-up on that research.  Thanks again.
    Mundus vult decipi
    I tend towards a kind of individualism where everyone is seen as a fellow individual human being crucial to the humanity as a whole. This way, social interactions are not disregarded, as everyone is a fellow human, empathy is natural, and so is progress since everyone is a fellow human, and so no one's ideas are to be disregarded, the likes of sociopaths are frowned upon since they don't see others as fellow individuals, but inferior to themselves, etc.

    Gerhard Adam
    I tend towards a kind of individualism where everyone is seen as a fellow individual human being crucial to the humanity as a whole.
    Isn't that contradictory?
    Mundus vult decipi