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Mother cultures, individualist & collectivist

Americans say the squeaking wheel gets the grease. Japanese say the nail that stands out gets pounded down. A speaker in the West will be introduced as "distinguished" while an Asian speaker begins by saying he knows little about the topic.

Various research reveals differences between the two. Cross-cultural scientific studies indicate individualism as a deep feature of Western cultures as distinct from most others. This research perhaps will pioneer a new way of looking for so-called universal human values, and it should. Collectivist cultures comprise 70 percent of world population but virtually all data of social science and psychology derive from individualistic Western cultures. "Universals" of human behavior may apply only to advanced, materialistic societies, a minority of world population. Collectivism predominates in most cultures of Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America. The most strongly individualistic cultures include the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Great Britain, Canada, and the Netherlands. Other Northern European countries also rank high.

Values most important in the West are least important worldwide.
  • Novels in the West focus on a lone figure seeking private goals. Those in the East celebrate duty to kin or other authorities, despite personal temptations. Huckleberry Finn leaves civilization behind. Krishna, in the Bhagavad-Gita, is persuaded to do his duty, and plunge into battle.

    Collectivists as compared to individualists:
  • How is a person defined? In middle-class America, people think of themselves as bundles of traits, preferences, and desires. In Asia people conceive of themselves in terms of the web of their social relations.
  • When Americans are asked for their contribution to an effort, they almost always estimate greater than 100 percent. In Asia, the estimate is less than 100 percent.
  • In one study, 64 percent of New Zealanders and 50 percent of Australians endorsed the goal of doing whatever they wanted to do. Only 32 percent of Japanese and 12 percent of Indians subscribed to it.

    Collectivist society characteristics:
  • Group loyalty overrides personal goals.
  • Collectivists put high value on self-discipline, accepting one's social position, honoring parents and elders, and preserving public image for the group's sake.
  • People tend to think in terms of long-term goals which benefit the whole group. Time frames involve generations. (Individualist time frames involve immediate rewards for efforts.)
  • Family integrity is of utmost importance. Children should live at home with parents until marriage. Aging parents should live at home with children.
  • Self-effacement preserves group harmony. Studies in China show that people modest about success are better liked than the prideful.
  • Studies suggest collectivist societies have the lowest rates of homicide, juvenile delinquency, divorce, child abuse, and alcoholism.

    Collectivist societies aren't all sweetness and light.
  • In countries such as Pakistan, Peru, and Singapore those at the top of the social ladder are regarded as very different from those at the bottom. As individualist examples, people in the United States, Netherlands, and Australia would view this as anti-egalitarian.
  • Collectivists can be nice to group members but nasty, competitive, and uncooperative to members of other groups. They unquestioningly obey their own group, revealing even a willingness to fight and die for it. (This helps explain the Bush administration's miscalculations about Iraq.)
  • Child rearing is intrusive. Children have no real privacy or autonomy. Dependency on parents is regarded as good, and so is breaking the will of the child to obtain complete obedience.
  • In a conflict between personal and group goals, the group takes precedence. People feel comfortable in hierarchies and place a premium on harmony within the group.

    Individualist society characteristics:
  • Individualists place personal goals above those of groups such as family or employer.
  • Loyalty to any single group is weak, and is diffused by membership in many groups. Membership in a church, or employment in an organization shifts with a person's change of mind.
  • In individualist cultures the superior person stands alone. Winning is everything.
  • Individualists stress personal freedom, equality, an exciting, varied life, and personal enjoyment.

    Growing affluence and geographic mobility spread cultural individualism. Similarly, individualism is higher among the affluent, socially and geographically mobile, more modern segments of collectivist societies. As countries like Japan become more prosperous, individualism rises, especially among the young.

    Studies also suggest a shift in American individualism toward raw self-interest, and this correlates with economic growth. Robert Bellah, co-author of Habits of The Heart, says "in earlier days the individualism in America was also one that honored community values. Today we have an ideology of individualism that encourages people to maximize personal advantage. This leads to a consumer politics in which ' What's in it for me? ' is all that matters, while considerations of the common good are increasingly irrelevant." He also said, "there's perhaps a better model in the democracies of Europe." He added,"there you find a strong sense of the dignity of the individual with an equally strong social responsibility."

    (In any culture, what is social justice? For a thought experiment on how to determine it, see John Rawls & Justice 7 January, then read about The Homeless Guy.)

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