- Individualistic cultures emphasize the needs and desires of individuals over those of the group and the relationships of individuals with respect to other individuals.
- These cultures expect individuals to learn and discover what their values and interests are independent of the group’s social structures. This valuing of independence, self-sufficiency, and self-definition leads to social behaviors driven by the desires of individuals.
- People who live in individualist cultures tend to believe that independence, competition, and personal achievement are important.
- Most sociologists agree that individualistic cultures value individual choice, personal freedom, and self-actualization (Kemmelmeier 2002). As a result, the needs of individuals dictate social behaviors rather than the needs of larger groups.
- Fundamentally, individualism is a belief that the individual is an end in themself. Consequently, individuals are obligated to realize and find the self and cultivate their own judgment, regardless of social pressure encouraging conformity. (Gould & Kolb, 1964).
In This Article
Scholars have been discussing the concept of individualism for about 250 years. Fearing the influence of the French Revolution on individual rights, individualism was first described by Edmund Burke as a force that would make a community, “crumble away, be disconnected into the dust and power of individuality.” (1790, p. 109).
The 19th-century French sociologist Emile Durkheim (1893) outlined differences between “mechanical solidarity,” — where individuals are so similar that they relate to each other automatically — and “organic solidarity,” — where people are interdependent, namely because it confers privileges.
The 20th century brought sociologists such as Toennies (1957), Kluckhohn and Strodtbeck (1961), Weber (1947), Parsons (1949), Bakan (1966), Witkin and Berry (1975), and Inkeles and Smith (1974) who expressed ideas that largely overlap with our modern conception of individualism.
Hofstede and Individualism
However, it was not until 1980 that Hofstede’s survey of American culture popularized the idea of individualism in its modern form.
In a worldwide study of 116,000 employees of IBM, Geert Hofstede (1980) found that the most fiercely independent people were from the US, Australia, Great Britain, Canada, and the Netherlands, in that order. In contrast, the most interdependent people were from Venezuela, Colombia, Pakistan, Peru, and Taiwan.
Hofstede (2001) proposed four cultural dimensions — individualism/collectivism, power distance, masculinity/femininity, and uncertainty avoidance — as a way to assess attitudes, perceptions, and behaviors between disparate cultures.
Hofstede (1980) considered individualism to be a focus on rights above duties, a concern for oneself and immediate family, an emphasis on personal autonomy and self-fulfillment, and the basing of one’s identity on one’s personal accomplishments.
Other sociologists have since added to these implications. Waterman (1984) considered normative individualism to be a focus on personal responsibility and freedom of choice, living up to one’s potential, and to respect the integrity of others.
Schwartz (1990) calls individualistic societies fundamentally contractual, consisting of small social networks and specialized social relations, with specific obligations and expectations focusing on achievement.
Individualistic vs. Collectivist Cultures
Social scientists, and the cultural dimensions of Hofstede, put individualism antipodal to collectivism. In contrast to individualism, which values the self over the group, collectivism values an emphasis on cohesiveness among individuals and prioritization of the group over the self.
While individualist societies see social ties as impermanent and often goal-oriented, collectivist societies are structured around largely permanent ingroups and strong social bonds. As personified by the Japanese shinyuu, “best friends,” social ties outside a collectivist’s immediate family can lead to major life changes.
For example, Cargile (1998) reports an instance of a Japanese woman quitting graduate school in order to be with her emotionally distressed friend in another town.
The deep contrasts between individualism and collectivism also appear in more subtle behavior, as outlined by Hofstede (1991):
|Collectivist Culture||Individualistic Culture|
|Use of the word “I” is avoided||Use of the word “I” is encouraged|
|Interdependent self||Independent self|
|High introversion||High extraversion|
|Showing sadness is encouraged, and happiness discouraged||Showing happiness is encouraged, and sadness discouraged|
|Slower walking speed||Faster walking speed|
|Dependence on others||Self-supporting lifestyles|
|Social network is the primary source of information||Media is the primary source of information|
|Students talk in classes only when sanctioned by the group||Students expected to talk individually in class|
|Education is learning how to do||Education is learning how to learn|
|Diplomas provide entry to higher-status groups||Diplomas increase economic worth and/or self respect|
|Occupational mobility is lower||Occupational mobility is higher|
|Employees as members of in-groups pursuing the group’s interest||Employees will pursue the employer’s interest if it coincides with self-interest|
Examples of Individualistic Cultures
Individualistic cultures tend to be found in western countries such as the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom.
Individualism exists on a spectrum, meaning that those within a predominantly individualist society can have more or less individualistic behavior depending on beliefs and circumstances.
For example, in the United States, a highly individualistic culture, sociologists often consider ethnic minority groups to hold more collectivist beliefs and behaviors than average (Kemmelmeier 2001).
Thus, geographic ratings of individuality, such as those in Hofstede’s 1980 survey, generally reflect the beliefs and behaviors of the most-studied segments of the population in those countries.
Hofstede (1980) assigned each country an individuality index on a scale of 0 to 100 based on responses in a large survey study. He determined that the United States — or more specifically, the predominantly white, middle-and-upper class, mainline Protestant culture of the United States — had the highest individuality index in the world (91), followed by Australia, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Hungary (Hofstede, 2010).
American society expresses a high degree of individualism in its law and societal values, guaranteeing, for example, freedom of speech and the right to “bear arms” in its Constitution. Americans vote at low rates and find self-definition through work.
Families are relatively small, and one’s close social ties are generally limited to one’s immediate family members and close friends, with a large circle of acquaintances and loose relations specific to certain activities (Putnam, 2000). By and large, individual liberty takes precedence over the rights of the collective.
However, this is not to say that the United States is completely individualistic in its law.
Individualistic societies can exist in contrast to each other. One such contrast that sociologists have used to compare individualistic cultures is the horizontal and vertical cultural orientation (Triandis 1995), which compares the degree to which an individualistic or collectivist culture values hierarchy.
The United States, where high wealth and social achievement in comparison to others are highly valued, is a “vertical” individualistic culture. Meanwhile, Sweden, which values equality and self-sufficiency, is a “horizontal” individualistic culture.
To take an example of the implications of horizontal versus vertical cultures from Triandis (1998), a Swede may be content contributing high amounts to a social welfare system but insist on paying for a cigarette he has asked for, while an American may be similarly self-sufficient but revile high taxes.
Individuality is sometimes described as fundamentally American (Kemmelmeier 2002). However, it is important to note that the majority of the world’s most individualistic societies are either Western European or former colonies of Western Europe. Indeed, of the ten most individualistic countries in Hofstede’s survey, just two — Italy and Hungary — are outside of this sphere (Hofstede 1991).
Effects on Behavior
In individualism, the self is individual rather than interdependent. Individualist cultures value personal success, self-esteem, and distinctive attitudes and opinions (Triandis, 1995), and subsequently, individualism considers creating and maintaining a positive sense of self to be a basic human endeavor (Baumeister, 1998).
This sense of self consists of abstract traits rather than descriptions of how one may behave situationally (Fiske, Kitayama, Markus, & Nisbett, 1998). And thus, one in an individualistic culture must “find” who the self is beyond their immediate communities.
Travel, where one is geographically separated from their social networks, is often considered to be a typical way of finding one’s self in an individualistic culture (Bellah 1985).
Some individualistic cultures also see work as a way of self-conception. In the United States, for example, the question “What do you do for a living?” is often one of the first asked between new acquaintances.
Over the past several decades, time spent doing leisure activities has dropped in the United States while hours worked have increased (Putnam 2000).
American culture often sees work as a means of self-actualization, with career-finding guides suggesting that one follow their “passion,” and companies increasingly focus on “self-growth” and “wellness” activities for their employees.
In individualistic cultures, individuals need relationships to attain their goals, but relationships are seen as costly to maintain (Kagitcibasi, 1997). Social theorists assume that individualists leave relationships and groups when the costs of maintaining relationships outweigh personal benefits and when personal goals shift.
Thus, individualists see their relationships as impermanent and non-intensive (Triandis, 1995).
Those in an individualist culture may join what is known as a lifestyle enclave, which is a group of otherwise untethered people sharing a common interest. Retirees may join a gated retirement community, and those interested in golfing may join a golf club.
However, one can easily leave these lifestyle enclaves by, for example, moving away or joining a different association. The relationships formed through these enclaves mostly exist around a shared activity or experience (Cargile 2012).
Individualistic cultures extend these loose relationships to family.
Those in individualistic cultures are less likely to live in intergenerational households and consider gaining independence from one’s immediate family to be a hallmark of maturity. During adolescence, the self — an identity that’s separate and autonomous from one’s family — develops, and this manifests in the relationship between the adolescent and his parents.
The adolescent becomes self-reliant and less cooperative with authority (Morris 2011). An individualist can make decisions with little oversight from his immediate family.
For example, he can marry someone who his parents do not approve of or decide to move to pursue a better salary (Tardiris 1995) with less consequence than one in a collectivist culture.
Individualistic cultures tend to be cultures of “loose” adherence, which means that there are many appropriate responses to situations.
For example, a person in some individualistic societies looking to have a child can do so alone, with a steady partner, or in a marriage with general societal acceptance (Tardiris 1995).
Individualism’s value of uniqueness also manifests in less conscious decision-making. For example, Bond and Smith (1996) showed that those from more individualistic cultures perform better in the Asch conformity experiment than those from more collectivist cultures.
When participants planted by the researchers answered wrongly to a question about the length of lines, people from individualistic cultures were more likely to disobey the majority and answer correctly.
Those from individualistic cultures have smaller and less satisfying support networks, less skill in managing both self and others’ emotions, lower intentions to seek help from family and friends for personal and suicidal problems, and higher levels of hopelessness and suicide ideation than those from collectivist cultures (Scott 2004).
For both societies and individuals, individualistic cultures and cultures that are becoming more individualistic have seen rates of mental illness and suicide climb (Eskin et al. 2020). These negative mental health effects are even more pronounced in individualists in highly collectivist cultures.
However, being individualistic in highly individualistic cultures has positive effects on well-being (Morris 2011).
Individualistic cultures see mental health problems as a matter of one’s inherent personality rather than one’s circumstances (Williams, 2003) and cognitive behavioral therapy in the individualistic context tends to focus on working on self-definition and recognizing patterns in one’s own life (Morris 2011).
What determines whether a culture becomes individualistic or collectivistic?
Speculating on the origins of these orientations, Harry Triandis (1994) suggests that there are three key factors.
The first is the complexity of society. As people live in more complex industrialized societies (compared to, e.g., food-gathering nomads), there are more groups to identify with, which means less loyalty to any group and a greater focus on personal rather than collective goals.
Second is the affluence of society. As people begin to prosper, they gain financial independence from each other, a condition that promotes social independence as well as mobility and a focus on personal rather than collective goals.
Sociologists have found a strong relationship between national wealth and individualism and have theorized that the high individualism of countries in or adjacent to the anglosphere can be attributed to these countries’ historical wealth and influence. Rather than depending on social networks for needs, many in these cultures can hire those who will meet their needs for them (Cargile, 2012).
The connection between wealth and individualism is not limited to Western countries. Indeed, those that have achieved fast economic development over the last century have experienced a shift toward individualism. For example, care for elderly family members by the family is becoming less self-evident in Korea and Japan than it was for previous generations (culture and organizations).
On a local level, groups that have higher wealth and social status in society exhibit more individualist behaviors and beliefs than others, and individualistic beliefs rise and falter in line with economic growth and recession (Bianchi 2016).
The third factor is heterogeneity. Societies that are homogenous or ‘tight’ (where members share the same language, religion, and societal customs) tend to be rigid and intolerant of those who veer from the norm. Societies that are culturally diverse or ‘loose’ (where two or more cultures coexist) are more permissive of dissent – thus allowing for more individual expression.
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