• Jan 13, 2016

Individualism and Collectivism

by Jena Barchas-Lichtenstein, PhD Anthropology

When my friends in Mexico migrate within the country, they always go to places where they have family or townspeople. Even if they’ve heard that jobs are more plentiful elsewhere, it’s better to have a network. The community can get you a job, they tell me.

In fact, the community is practically obligated to get you a job. The community is obligated to do anything within its power to support its members.

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If you’ve spent time abroad — or even if different regions of the U.S. — you know that cultures can differ in all kinds of ways. Every place has its family structures, its foods, its ideas about which jobs are valuable and what a house looks like. There’s a lot of value in describing the particulars of any given culture, but there are also good reasons to think about the differences between cultures using more widely applicable frameworks.

One of these is the spectrum from individualism to collectivism, which has to do with the role of individuals in wider society.

In more individualistic societies, the individual takes priority over the group. Individual needs are addressed first, and group membership is not considered essential to survival or well-being. People who grow up in a more individualist society are more likely to voice their opinions, especially if they disagree. They are also more likely to be competitive. The U.S., most of Western Europe, and Australia are generally seen as individualistic societies, although all of these places have a lot of individual variation.

In societies that lean toward collectivism, more focus is put on the group. In fact, one’s identity is, in large part, a function of one’s membership and role within the group. People are defined by relationships rather than accomplishments. Importantly, the survival, success, and well-being of the group is the main priority, as it ensures the well-being of everyone included in the group. As a result, harmony, consideration of others, and interdependence are highly valued. Many societies in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East lean more toward collectivism.

I mentioned before that the community has some obligation to help members find a job. For individualists, preferential hiring is judged harshly, seen as nepotism. But collectivists see it as intrinsically moral. Not only that, it’s smart business: you know the person you’re dealing with, which is less risky.

Collectivism is also reflected in the workplace in another way: achievement is often secondary to group cohesion. In more collectivist workplaces, people spend more time on small talk and rapport-building. Decision-making processes typically encourage group cohesion as well. Collectivists typically find it inappropriate to say “no” directly since it would challenge the harmony within the group, and negative opinions must be communicated indirectly. Meanwhile, individualists typically prefer to resolve conflicts by directly addressing the problem, while collectivist solutions are more roundabout.

Each group is also uncomfortable with the other’s communication strategies. An individualist may find the way collectivists solve problems to be frustratingly indirect or even passive-aggressive. Meanwhile, collectivists often find the other approach uncomfortable and even rude.

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More than a year after I began my research, a friend called me after her son was deported from the U.S. Since I had papers and could cross freely, she asked, could I get his car from Washington State to Southern Mexico? I couldn’t help — I explained the distance (3,000 miles), the costs (all that gasoline, a plane ticket, lodging and food during the drive, almost two weeks of lost working time), and the logistics (a non-citizen who enters Mexico in possession of a vehicle cannot leave the country without that vehicle under any circumstances).

The favor was impossibly large, but I still hated to disappoint my friend. After all, the community is obligated to provide for its own — and her asking meant that I had been accepted into the community at last.