Sociologist Geert Hosfede* has a set of cultural dimensions (which you can look at here) that helps us understand broad differences in culture. These aren’t absolute by any means, but they do give us some baseline indications of how cultures differ for the purpose of understanding intercultural communication. One of these cultural dimensions is his concept of “individualism” which indicates the extent to which a culture is based on individualism (focus on the self) vs. the community (which could be a family unit, a tribe, a town, or even a country). But in today’s blog post I really want to focus on this idea of individualism and collectivism, and the shades of gray between these two binary terms. (*As an aside, Hosfede’s other dimensions are equally fascinating, for those of you interested in these kinds of things. Hosfede’s dimensions do work under binary assumptions, that is, the opposite of individualism is collectivism. False binaries aside, its still a useful rubric through which to consider these issues, even if it does simplify them.)
The United States and many other western industrialized nations seem to be very highly individualistic societies, which manifests itself in our culture in the idea of pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps, individual rewards for individual actions, a focus on individual achievement, and, especially in the latter part of the 20th and early 21st century, a whole lot of isolationism and solitude. In my experience in living in four different states in the USA, we don’t seem to have strong bonds, even within our families, and most of us these days barely know our neighbors. We seem to have more loyalty to company brands than we do to people–and everything in our culture is structured this way purposefully, to get us to buy and consume. The idea of “me” and the “self” seems to be the most important to us; narcissism is a key American quality among our younger generations. This seems to be exacerbated by current technology which emphasizes the individual and his/her actions (Facebook’s wall, Twitter, etc.). I make these observations partially just as someone living in this culture, but also as a professional who teaches college-age students for a living. I see the difficulties these students face with defining themselves, with their relations, and their uses of technology that seem to isolate more than they bring together.
Collective cultures, on the other hand, work on the level of the family or the tribe, where bonds of community are central. This leads to things like strong family bonds, extended families living and taking care of each other, and family/tribal honor. I had the opportunity to spend time with a group of close friends who were students from Korea while in graduate school–I was amazed by the bonds that they formed, their gift-giving and kindness. One said to me once, “Dana, why is it that everyone in America asks ‘How are you?’ but nobody actually wants to know?” The OBOD East Coast Gathering, which I blogged about last week, is another example of a tribe forming–its something that transcends the individual, and allows a supportive community to grow.
The USA used to have a more collective culture in its past. This is particularly true when communities had to work together for mutual survival. Families and communities banded together, raised structures together, found/grown/hunted and preserved food together, ate meals together, and so forth, because being isolated from the community in times previous to this one likely meant death. (You can see the remnants of this in old colonial dances, where you danced with everyone in the community to build communal bonds rather than with a single partner, or older fraternal orders, like the Grange, who banded together to aid rural communities and farmers. Laura Ingalls Wilder’s novels also have great examples of community-oriented experiences.)
I’d like to propose that individualism causes particular kinds of troubling trends, and would like to suggest that if we draw upon the idea of the “tribe” and extend that “tribe” quite far, it gives us positive ways of interacting with the world. One of the problems I see with a heavy focus on the self is that it makes us lose the bonds of community and connectedness; and these two qualities are really what make us human and make life worth living. If we disconnect ourselves from other human beings, we have less altruism, less care and compassion. We end up with political movements like the present-day Tea Party, which is essentially an exercise in selfishness. Since when did helping out fellow human beings become a problem? Since when is altruism a dirty word? Another problem with the heavy focus on self is that it disconnects us from the healing power of nature–we see ourselves as disconnected from the whole, we don’t see the consequences of our actions, and we begin to treat nature like something that is ours to own and exploit rather than our mother and nurturer.
Traditional cultures throughout the world were also much more collectivist–the idea of “tribe” or “clan” (such as those in ancient Ireland, Scotland, and Wales) all followed this collectivist model. We can see these tales of tribe, of clan, of family, woven into so much of the mythology and folklore of many peoples (read the Mabinogion with this in mind). We can also see the idea of collectivism reflected in everyday interactions–in its height of power, the Iroquois nation used an elaborate system of consensus-based diplomacy to encourage fairness and equity among its members. Even though it was made up of five (and later six) different peoples and tribes, its bonds of brotherhood were solidified by rituals and discussions in order to maintain stability and peace amongst its members (although how outsiders were treated was a different subject of discussion). In this, the bonds of family and tribe are central to living and interaction in the world.
Some cultures, such as most of those indigenous to the Americas, took the notion of tribe a step further and went so far as to include non-human persons (animals, plants, stones, etc.) within their idea of tribe. This is the concept of animism, and remains central to understanding much indigenous cultural interaction (such as those examples provided by Dale Everett in his interactions with the Pirahas his book Don’t Sleep There are Snakes). A basic animistic philosophy suggests a “belief in spirits”, the idea that every living being (and sometimes rocks and other so-called “inanimate” objects, have a spirit and a soul). In his book Animism: Respecting the Living World, Graham Harvey examines four groups: Native Americans, Maori, Aboriginal Australians, and Eco-pagans to show how their animistic philosophy is enacted by expanding the concept of tribe, where being with, speaking, interaction, and engaging in magic surrounding the living, spirit filled world is a critical part of the human condition.
Can we once again build tribes among our fellow humans? Can we expand our own notion of the “tribe” to include all life on this planet? If we do this, what do we gain? I would like to think that by doing this, we gain a great deal, and we begin to shift some of the destructive trends in human thinking and action; trends in thinking that have caused substantial environmental destruction, the destruction of whole peoples and cultures, and the inevitable loss in diversity that goes with such destruction. Instead, we can focus on our connection to each other and to the land, and the community that such connection brings.