Individualism and Collectivism in Societies

Individualism and collectivism have been among the central concepts of cross-cultural research. The division between individualistic Western societies and collectivistic Eastern societies is probably the best-known cultural parameter distinguishing the West and East. At least, that is the most common framework that many researchers use when they study different cultures.

Let us take a closer look at what these parameters of individualism and collectivism are.

What Are Individualism and Collectivism in Societies?

Individualism and collectivism is among the earliest cultural constructs that social psychologists identified to characterize differences between Western and Eastern societies (e.g., Hofstede, 1980/1984; Hui & Triandis, 1986; Marsella et al., 1985; Triandis, 1995; see for review, Karandashev, 2021).

These constructs define the relations between an individual and a group in the structure of societal relations. The societal characteristics of individualism and collectivism describe the extent to which individuals in a society are integrated into groups. If most people in a society have individualistic or collectivistic value orientations, researchers call the society “individualistic” or “collectivistic.”

On the one hand, personal freedom, personal initiative, personal autonomy, and self-reliance are the cultural values linked with individualism in a society. On the other hand, family unity, family integrity, and family loyalty are the cultural values linked to collectivism. 

Individualistic cultures have norms and values that stress how important individual goals and personal freedom are for people’s functioning.

“People are supposed to look after themselves and their immediate family only”.

The values and norms of collectivistic cultures emphasize that the importance of group goals and relations with other shall be higher than individual goals.

“People belong to in-groups or collectivities which are supposed to look after them in exchange for loyalty”

(Hofstede & Bond, 1984, p. 419).

Individual Variation of Individualism and Collectivism in Societies

It is worthwhile to note that within a society (either individualistic or collectivistic), individuals can vary in these cultural value orientations. People can also be collectivistic and individualistic to varying degrees within different areas of their relationships. They can differ in the degree of individualism (or collectivism) in their relations with their kin, family members, neighbors, co-workers, or friends.

Therefore, I would suggest that cultural researchers be careful. They should not be too straight-forward and simplistic in attributing their observations of any individual to their individualism or collectivism, especially in any area of their relationships with others.

Individualism in Western Societies

The cultural values and norms in individualistic societies elevate personal independence, actions, autonomy, the primacy of personality uniqueness, self-realization, and individual initiative. The values and norms also emphasize the individual’s rights rather than duties, the high value of one’s independence rather than interdependence, and the priority of one’s self-interest with less concern for other people’s interests.

People in individualistic societies feel quite independent and autonomous in both in-group and out-group relationships. So, their attitudes and behaviors toward people from both their in-group and out-group are quite similar. 

The personal identity of an individual is recognized through the individual’s attributes. The ties between individuals are loose. In motivation, people subordinate the goals of collectivities to their personal goals. The United States, Canada, Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Denmark represent the typical examples of individualistic societies. One can easily notice that these are largely Western countries (Hofstede, 1984; 2011; Hui & Triandis, 1986; Gelfand, et al., 2000; Kashima, et al., 1995; Triandis, 1995; see for review, Karandashev, 2021).

Collectivism in Eastern Societies

In collectivistic societies, cultural norms highly praise relational values that foster cooperation within an in-group and the harmony of interpersonal relationships. The norms encourage subordinating a person’s self-assertion. Cultural values and norms of collectivistic societies emphasize that people are the natural parts of strong, cohesive in-groups, such as extended families. An individual’s loyalty to a group and the need to protect the interests and well-being of others in their in-group as opposed to other groups are of high importance. So, group norms encourage people to take part in social activities that help and share with each other.

People in collectivistic societies are highly embedded in their in-group relationships. Such relations with family as unity, loyalty, and integrity are collectivistic beliefs. These are values and rules that emphasize people’s interpersonal bonds, a sense of interconnectedness, solidarity, duty to the group, obligations, in-group harmony, and awareness of the needs of others. These values and rules are called “collectivistic.”

People in collectivistic societies have different standards of behavior for the members of their in-groups and out-groups. They are collectivistic in their interactions with their in-group members (family, friends, etc.). Yet ,in their interactions with out-group members (strangers, people from other cultural groups), they are in-group biased. They strongly distinguish their attitudes and behavior towards those from their in-group versus their out-group.

A personal identity centers on one’s place and role in one’s group. Personal privacy is abridged. In motivation, people subordinate personal goals to the goals of their in-group. Collectivistic values highlight in-group beliefs rather than individual beliefs. The value of in-group views is higher than individual views. Collective responsibility to the in-group precedes individual pleasure in importance.

Independent Individualistic and Interdependent Collectivistic Cultures

Despite being a classical cultural concept distinguishing individualistic and collectivistic societies, individualism and collectivism turned out to be more complex and multifaceted than they appeared at first sight (see Karandashev, 2021).

Researchers use the concepts of interdependent and independent cultures to explain Western and Eastern social structures and relationships between people. The concepts are especially important in the contexts of the mind, emotions, and self of a person. Western societies are characterized by an independent model of culture and self. And Eastern societies are characterized by an interdependent model of culture and self (See more in another article).