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Is Collectivism being overtaken by Individualism?

Updated: 9 November 2016

It’s been a given in cross-cultural research in the behavioural sciences that Individualism has increasingly dominated in the West since at least the end of World War II while the rest of the world has tended to be collectivistic.

In the context of the early 21st Century, this dichotomy provokes 2 key questions:-

  • Was it ever as simple as: West, individualistic; rest of the world, collectivistic – and, if so, how did it get to be so?
  • Is Collectivism being overtaken by Individualism – and, if so, what are the driving factors?

Geert Hofstede, Gert Jan Hofstede & Michael Minkov (2010) define Individualism as “the degree to which individuals are integrated into groups”.

In individualistic societies, the stress is put on personal achievements and individual rights. People are expected to stand up for themselves and their immediate family, and to choose their own affiliations. By contrast, in collectivistic societies, individuals are seen to act predominantly as members of a lifelong and cohesive group or organisation. People have large extended families which provide safety in exchange for unquestioning loyalty.

Individualism, according to Ellen Meiksins Wood (1973), is the moral stance, political philosophy, ideology or social outlook that emphasises the moral worth of the individual. Individualists promote the exercise of the individual’s goals and desires and so value independence and self-reliance. They advocate that the interests of the individual should achieve precedence over the state or a social group while opposing external interference upon someone’s own interests by society or institutions such as the government. L Susan Brown (1993) sees Liberalism, Existentialism and Anarchism as examples of movements that take the human individual as the central unit of analysis. Individualism thus involves “the right of the individual to freedom and self-realisation” (Meiksins Wood, p6-7).

Collectivism is a type of social organisation in which the individual is seen as being subordinate to a social collectivity such as a state, a nation, a race, a social class, a local community or even a family grouping.

There is a political, social and economic tradition of Collectivism in Western Modernism – which straightaway undermines the individualistic West/collectivistic rest-of-the-world delineation.

For example, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1762) argued that the individual finds his true being and freedom only in submission to the ‘general will’ of the community. Georg Wilhlem Fredrich Hegel (1820) takes this further by arguing that the individual realises his true being and freedom only in unqualified submission to the laws and institutions of the nation-state which, to Hegel, was the highest embodiment of social morality. Karl Marx (1859) later provided the most succinct statement of the collectivist view of the primacy of social interaction: “It is not men’s consciousness which determines their being, but their social being which determines their consciousness.”

Collectivism has found varying degrees of expression in the 20th Century in such movements as Socialism, Communism and Fascism. In political terms, the least collectivist of these is Socialism in its Social Democracy formulation. This seeks to reduce the inequities of unrestrained Capitalism by government regulation, redistribution of income and varying degrees of planning and public ownership. In Communist systems Collectivism is carried to its furthest extreme, with a minimum of private ownership and a maximum of planned economy.

The influence of Marxism alone in the first 3/4 of the 20th Century shows the enormous influence of political Collectivism in the West. Indeed, the whole concept of class consciousness (György Lukács, 1923) has to be, by definition, a collectivistic notion.

Perhaps then the failure of Communism to become a long-term sustainable political and economic system in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in the late 20th Century can be seen in part as a failure of Collectivism…?

Driven by the Spiral
On the face of it, Collectivism seems to be driven by the ‘cool’ conformist/sacrifice-self vMEMES of the Spiral.

Susumu Yagamuchi, David Kuhlman & Shinkich Sugimori (1995) declare that Collectivism is correlated with sensitivity to rejection (PURPLE) and greater desire for uniformity (BLUE). Harry C Triandis (2001) states that collectivists identify themselves with the group, follow the goals of the group and focus more on the context than the content of communication- ie: whether the person who said something is a person of authority in the group. Triandis also identifies that collectivists believe that external causes (situational) are responsible for behaviour- effectively displaying an external locus of control. Triandis (1995) sums up the sacrifice-self aspect of Collectivism with the line: “I give money because my family needs it.”

Individualism, then, seems to be driven by the ‘warm’ express-self vMEMES of the Spiral.

Triandis (2001) notes that individualists follow their own goals, don’t care so much about the context of communication and attribute actions to internal causes (internal locus). He (1995) sums up individualistic sacrifice, when it happens, as being due to internal attributions (dispositional) – eg: “I give money because I am a kind person.”

An overly-simplistic Gravesian view of human development is that PURPLE-oriented tribes (collectivistic) get taken over by feudal-type warlords driven by individualistic self-aggrandisement and lust for power, only to give way to BLUE collectivist systems such as mercantilism for trade and parliaments for governance. There may then be ORANGE-driven individuals who pursue goals of continuous progress. Microsoft founder Bill Gates seemed to epitomise that mindset for a while, producing new versions of Windows every few years and making himself a richer and richer man in the process. Yet Gates changed sometime around the Millennium and became more interested in charitable works. It seemed his GREEN vMEME had come to dominate his selfplex – Bill became concerned with people and the collective good. Though its influence is limited – and it’s yet to be seen in the ongoing aftermath how the world-wide recession has impacted it – GREEN has certainly tinged government policies significantly in places like the Scandinavian countries, with an emphasis on everybody looking after everybody – a collective responsibility through the state and its welfare systems.

Of course, as Don Beck & Chris Cowan (1996) clearly point out, it’s nothing like that simple. All kinds of vMEME harmonics and vMEME wars characterise multiple vMEMETIC cultural influences at any one time. For example, Jerry Coursen (2001) was one of the first to theorise that tribes mutated into kingdoms because RED emerged in the heads of a few of the tribal elders, enabling their indvidualistic concerns to dominate over the collective PURPLE of the tribe.

While in Mediaeval England kings established RED power structures to control their populations in their own individual interests, the serfs under the control of the king’s lords often displayed elements of PURPLE neo-tribalism alongside their RED farming self-interest. Running alongside the king’s fear-driven power structures were the BLUE religion-fuelled churches, monasteries and cathedrals of the Catholic faith, claiming divine authority to determine what was service for all, the collective, to the Higher Authority. Even such delineations of vMEMETIC influence are simplistic. Abbots and bishops, led by RED, used the authority structures of the church to pursue their own ambitions while the kings set up BLUE-derived tax systems to gain revenue and imposed regimented order on their armies so they could wage war more effectively.

The organising force of collectivistic BLUE can be portrayed as ‘the difference that made the difference’ in enabling the armies of Rome to conquer North Africa and much of the Western end of the Eurasian landmass until RED-dominated self-servers undermined Rome from within, leaving the Empire to be eaten away from the outside by the PURPLE/RED barbarian hordes.

Some have seen the so-called ‘hippie revolutions’ of the 1960s as the first big explosion of GREEN in human culture. However, GREEN influences can be detected clearly in the ‘Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité’ slogan of the French Revolution and in the drafting of the American Bill of Rights, both 1789. Besides which, there was a huge amount of RED individualistic indulgences riding on the back of the GREEN ‘freedoms’ the collectivistic hippies espoused – notably a large increase in recreational drug use and a great loosening of sexual mores.

So, if we apply the Gravesian approach to just a few areas and eras of human development, it’s nothing like the straight-forward linear progression a simple reading of the theory might predicate; rather, human development is a patchwork of vMEMETIC influences affecting sections of societies in different ways at different times.

The Individualist West vs the Collectivistic East
So where did the idea that the West is individualistic and the rest of the world collectivistic come from?

While clearly, from a historical perspective, the RED vMEME and even the BLUE vMEME were exercising influence right across Europe and North Africa for hundreds of years before, Drew Westen (1996, p693) notes that “The prefix ‘self-‘, as in ‘self-esteem’ or ‘self-representation’, did not evolve in the English language until around the time of the Industrial Revolution…. The contemporary Western view is of the person as a bounded individual, distinct from others, who is defined more or less by idiosyncratic attributes. In contrast, most cultures, particularly, the non-literate tribal societies, view the person in her social and familial context, so that the self-concept is far less distinctly bounded.”

According to Uichol Kim (1995), it is the Agrarian Revolution of the 16th and 17th Centuries, with its efficiencies of production creating food surpluses for trade and labour surpluses to work in the new factories of the Industrial Revolution which fostered the real growth of Individualism. Interestingly, according to the Marxist Willem Adriaan Bonger (1905), it is farming surpluses which first introduce selfish individualistic attitudes and behaviour into human economics.

Kim sees the development of reason, science, technology and trade in the West as freeing individuals from dependence on their fellows, writing (p7): “…people did not have to migrate to find new food sources. They did not have to till their soil to have dinner on their table. They did not have to store their food for the coming Winter. They did not have to sew to have shirts on their backs.,,, They were no longer at the mercy of changing climatic conditions; instead they worked in climate-controlled environments. They worked for wages. The money they earned could be used to buy necessary goods and services. Money could also be deposited with a bank for future use. Currency, especially paper money, acted as an intermediary commodity that allowed the efficient movement of resources.”

The massive expansion of urbanisation which resulted from the Industrial Revolution has been correlated with Individualism by Vaunne Ma & Thomas Schoeneman (1997) as has education. James Georgas (1989) attributes the shift from collectivistic extended families to more individualistic nuclear families to the great changes in economic activity of mercantilism and the Industrial Revolution.

The Age of Reason saw the early emergence of the ORANGE vMEME beginning to break many leading thinkers away from BLUE’s conformity to the prevailing religious and cultural memetic orthodoxies, querying and questing but using BLUE procedural disciplines to develop the foundations of modern science.

So, is it science that has made the difference and put the West on the course from Collectivism to Individualism? It is perhaps no accident that the already over-simplistic classification of Individualism versus Collectivism is often further reduced to Western science versus Eastern mysticism. It is also perhaps inevitable that Post-Modern Integralists such as Ken Wilber (2000, 2006) attempt to form new directions in thinking by, in part at least, fusing Western science with Eastern mysticism.

The leading researcher in the last half-century of collectivistic and individualistic attitudes in the workplace has been Geert Hofstede. Reporting in 1980 and 1983, Hofstede studied over 117,000 employees of IBM in 66 countries. Using his own index as well as a broad array of survey questions to establish cultural values, he established a continuum from valuing individual freedom, opportunity, achievement, advancement, recognition (Individualism) to valuing harmony, cooperation, relations with superiors (Collectivism). Based on his samples, Hofstede found the United States was the most individualistic country, with the UK 3rd and France 10th. Individualism had a correlation of +0.82 with Modernity, as measured by GDP.

Hofstede’s work seems to support Ma & Schoeneman in that it is the most industrialised and urbanised Capitalist countries – in the West – with their wealth and surpluses, which are the most individualistic and self-oriented.

This fits with cross-cultural research into the Suppression-Facilitation Model proposed by John Weisz et al (1987) which states that the cultural expectations (memes) strongly influence behaviour, either faciliating it or suppressing it. From a longitudinal study of 400 Thai and American children, Weisz et al (1995) observed the American children were twice as disruptive in the classroom as the Thais. Individualistic American parents were noted to encourage independent and assertive behaviour while collectivistic Thai parents discouraged under-controlled and aggressive behaviour. Most interestingly the Thai children were perceived by their teachers as having significantly more behaviour problems than the American children were by their teachers.

Is Individualism vs Collectivism too simplistic?
For all that there is evidence to support generally the concept that the West is more individualistic, the either/or conception of Collectivism vs Individualism is clearly inadequate. As Hofstede (1980, 1983) indicates, it’s better to look upon it as a continuum from one polar extreme to another, with societies, groupings and individuals within those societies scattered along a wide range of preferences and oftentimes moving position along the continuum according to context (life conditions).

Even the category of Collectivism is, itself, too broad. Triandis (2001) identifies what he terms ‘Vertical Collectivism’, in which hierarchy is emphasised and people submit to specific authorities, such as the elders of the tribe. This clearly is driven by the PURPLE vMEME which allocates roles on the basis of age, gender and kinship (traditional ascription). Inevitably, though, the position of power is likely to encourage the emergence of RED amongst the leaders. Triandis also identifies ‘Horizontal Collectivism’ in which equality is emphasised and people engage in sharing and cooperation. This would seem to be the work of GREEN.

The complexity of straining to categorise according to simple labels such as ‘individualistic’ or ‘collectivistic’ is compounded by the fact that groups and individuals within a society which orients towards one pole or another may take stances more or less towards the same pole or even towards the other pole, depending on their circumstances. Peter Smith & Michael Harris Bond, in their classic 1993 meta-analysis of conformity studies, found a number of individualistic variations in collectivistic societies. Eg: they found in Japan – Japan being regarded as a country traditionally leaning heavily towards the collectivistic pole – that 51% of students in the same sports club conformed in a replication of Solomon Asch’s famous lines experiment whereas only 27% of students who didn’t already know each other conformed. The implication is that, where there aren’t strong social expectations of collective conformity, then the individual will assert themselves.

A key example of collectivistic action in Western Europe, especially the UK in the 1970s, is that of trade unionism where union members were expected to act collectively and often did even if they personally disagreed with the action of their union. Away from their union activities, many members of unions acted in a highly individualistic way. Although a number of unions were led by RED-driven demagogues like Arthur Scargill and Mick McGahey, the unions themselves depended for their 1970s successes on sharing a strong common group identity (PURPLE) – some degree of class consciousness – and efficient organisation (BLUE).

It was the arrival of Margaret Thatcher in Downing Street in 1979 which signalled the demise of union power. More important than the BLUE legislation put in place to restrict union activities such as secondary picketing, was the sense of individualism Thatcher encouraged, particularly in the financial and service sectors. Thatcher never rubbished the concept of society in quite the way her detractors insisted (Richard Littlejohn, 2013) but she did champion the individual, especially those who showed self-determination, self-reliance, innovation and entrepreneurialism. It was as if it was suddenly OK to be self-oriented – even selfish and greedy! Thatcher facilitated the emergence of virtually-unrestrained ORANGE which infected the United States of Ronald Regan and the first George Bush and clearly dominated the selfplex of Tony Blair who largely continued her policies – though with the occasional nod to his Socialist past.

Even the worldwide recession and its ongoing aftermath seem only to have dented, rather than seriously hurt, the kind of ugly corporate elitist Capitalism unrestrained ORANGE has spawned in recent years. As austerity drives many into poverty in the ‘developed world’, the transnational corporations seem to become more and more dominating, with greater power and wealth being concentrated in the so-called ‘1%’ – the super-rich. However, the super-rich still show strong vestiges of PURPLE in the way they create family dynasties- eg: Rupert Murdoch trying to make wayward son James his heir apparent at News Corp (Peter Wilkinson & Barry Neild, 2012).

Is the East becoming more Individualistic?
In their 1999 meta-analysis YohtaroTakano & Eiko Osaka found that 14 of 15 studies that compared the United States and Japan found no evidence of the individualistic/collectivistic distinction that might have been expected.

In some respects the growth of Individualism in Japan has come out of Collectivism. In the post-war reconstruction of Japan, Japanese manufacturing took well to the strategies and standards formulated by ‘quality gurus’ such as W Edwards Deming and Joseph Juran who were at the time spurned in the US (Otis Port, 2004). The rigid obedience to standardised ways of doing things suited the Procedures meta-programme run by the BLUE vMEME at both personal and cultural levels. The consequent world-wide success of Japanese products not only prepared many for the emergence of ORANGE but led to increased exposure to ORANGE-driven Western Capitalism. Thus, the increased influence of Individualism in Japan was both predictable and discernible.

China, though, has been a different story. Often portrayed as one of the most collectivistic countries in the world – even post-World War II – China entered the Modern world as a very collectivistic state, acceding to the political Collectivism of the Communist Party.

Francis Hsu (1981) encapsulates the Chinese approach: “An American asks “How does my heart feel?” A Chinese asks “What will other people say?”’

Michael Harris Bond (1988) attributes the almost-ideological approach of the Chinese to Collectivism to the influence of what he calls ‘Confucian Dynamism’. Rooted in Confucianism, this is concerned with long-term perspectives, perseverance, strict social ordering, thrift and a sense of shame in the context of social responsibility to one’s self and others. Hofstede (1994) adds to this the concern to avoid uncertainty and deviance from unacceptable behaviour; instead the collective must work together to plan for the future.

Since Deng Xiaoping began the process in 1978 of moving China away from a planned economy and towards a more market-oriented mixed economy, China has engaged more and more with the outside and increasingly it has become subject to the effects of globalisation. Inevitably that has meant exposure to Western culture and what George Ritzer (1993) terms McDonaldisation– ie: the transmission of American social and economic values.

One of the earliest and most disturbing markers of Western ‘cultural imperialism’ affecting China was the rise in eating disorders among young women. Previously all but unknown in China, research such as that of Gail Huon et al (2002) demonstrated a shocking rise in problems such as Anorexia Nervosa.

Robin Goodwin (1999) takes the arguments of Hofstede (1980, 1983) and Ma & Schoeneman by pointing out that personal wealth is a key factor which driving the move from Collectivism to Individualism.  Echoing Uichol Kim, he notes that in affluent countries there will be many ways individuals can gain personal economic security and autonomy whereas in poorer countries people may have to pool resources far more and be dependent on others. Affluence also gives people the opportunity to move geographically, loosening their ties to pre-existing community groups.

As China’s economy grows (albeit a little more sluggishly following the recession), so the country is developing an affluent middle class. As Dominic Barton, Yougang Chen & Amy Jin (2013) document, by 2022, it is predicted that more than 75% of China’s urban consumers will earn the equivalent of $9,000 to $34,000 a year.

So, are urban Chinese becoming more individualistic and self-oriented with their new-found wealth?  Han Dongfang (2014) believes so. He says: “After 30 years of practising a market economy, the entire country has been functioning based on self-interest. The political subject is disappearing and ideologically nobody believes in that anymore. Workers are talking about profits, talking about the stock market, talking about cars, housing, but nothing to do with the original ideology.”

Han also talks about collectivistic union action to achieve better conditions for workers – so political Collectivism is far from dead in China. However, he clearly sees that self-interest is now a powerful force in the country.

Interestingly, Han also believes that the increasing emphasis on individualistic values will eventually lead to Democracy in China as people develop the desire and, with their new-found wealth, the confidence to express their individual preferences.


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