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Understanding Collectivist Cultures

By Charlotte Nickerson, published Sept 22, 2021


Collectivist Culture Traits

  • Collectivism is the tendency, on the individual and societal level, to view oneself as interdependent, and a member of a group, rather than as an independent being.
  • In collectivist cultures, people feel as if they belong to larger in-groups or collectives which care for them in exchange for loyalty (Hofstede & Bond, 1984). As a result, collectivist cultures value collaboration, communalism, constructive interdependence, and conformity to roles and norms.
  • A collectivist culture is especially likely to emphasize the importance of social harmony, respectfulness, and group needs over individual needs.
  • Collectivism has four important cultural traits.
  1. Firstly, the definition of the self as interdependent — in relation to other people rather than in the abstract traits of an individual (Markus and Kitayama, 1991b; Reykowski, 1994).
  2. Secondly, an alignment of personal and communal goals — meaning that the individual makes decisions accounting for the wants of the collective and what they are bringing or taking away from the group.
  3. Thirdly, a greater consideration of social norms than individual attitudes when making decisions. And lastly, an emphasis on relationships, even if disadvantageous for individuals.
  • These cultural traits result in societies divided into ingroups. While any given person is likely to belong to few ingroups, the dynamics and closeness of those in ingroups are closer than those in individualistic cultures (Triandis 1995).

Concepts similar to collectivism reach as far back as Plato’s Republic, and interpretations of Confucian ethics — which emphasize goodwill, filial piety, balance, and norms — have shaped far-eastern cultures for nearly 25 centuries (Arcodia). However, it was not until the mid-to-late 20th century that social scientists began to define and quantify collectivism in its current form.

Geert Hofstede’s cultural dimensions theory (1980) examined people’s values in the workplace and created differentiation along three dimensions: small/large power distance, strong/weak uncertainty avoidance, masculinity/femininity, and individualism/collectivism. The core of collectivism is the idea that groups bind together and mutually obligate individuals (Kemmelmeier 2002).

As such, collectivists value security, good social relationships, harmony within ingroups, and personalized relationships. (Triandis, McCusker, and Hui, 1990), and collectivistic societies rely on mutual obligations based on status (Schwartz 1994). The personal is merely a component of the social, and as such ingroups, rather than individuals, are considered to be the basic unit of a collectivist society.

These ingroups can be as diverse as family, clan, ethnicity or religion, and as such, the values of collectivist ingroups can be more broadly encompassing than those of individualism. Ingroups are malleable, and can occasionally extend to an entire society.

For example, collectivism was a powerful predictor of mask use during the COVID-19 pandemic, both among individuals and cultures (Jin & English 2021).


Individualistic vs. Collectivist Cultures

Individualist cultures and collectivist cultures place emphasis on different basic values. People who live in individualist cultures tend to believe that independence, competition, and personal achievement are important. Individuals in Western nations such as the United States, England, and Australia score high on individualism (Oyserman, Coon, & Kemmelmier, 2002).

People who live in collectivist cultures value social harmony, respectfulness, and group needs over individual needs. Individuals who live in countries in Asia, Africa, and South America score high on collectivism (Hofstede, 2001; Triandis, 1995). These values influence personality.

Hofstede outlines a sample of these behavioral differences as follows:

Collectivist Individualist
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 primary source of information Media is primary source of information
Students talk in classes only when sanctioned by the group Students expected to individually talk in class
Education as learning how to do Education as 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

Traditionally, collectivism stands in contrast to individualism as one of Hofstede’s cultural dimensions (1980). Those in collectivist cultures value group cohesion, even at the expense of the individual, while those in individualistic cultures value the self over the group.

However, the difference between collectivism and individualism lies more in which issues each stance focuses on, rather than in having opposite positions on the same issues (Kagitcibasi, 1987). The consequences of individualism and collectivism are as far reaching as language, views of the self, and mobility at work.


Examples of Collectivist Cultures

Individualism and collectivism are so deeply ingrained in a culture that they mold our very self-conceptions and identities.

According to Markus and Kitayama (1991), most North Americans and Europeans have an independent view of the self as an entity that is distinct, autonomous, self-contained, and endowed with unique dispositions.

Yet in much of Asia, Africa and Latin America, people hold an interdependent view of the self as part of a larger social network that includes one’s family, co-workers and others to whom we are socially connected.

Consequently, Markus and Kitayama report, Americans are more likely to express jealousy, pride, and other ‘ego-focused’ emotions that affirm the self as an autonomous entity, whereas non-westerners are more likely to experience ‘other-focused’ emotions that promote social harmony.

In Japan, e.g., people often report feelings of oime (‘idebtedness to someone’), fureai (‘connection with someone’), and shitashimi (familiarity to someone’).

Hofstede’s initial survey rated countries on a 1 to 100 scale from aggregated responses (1980). Hofstede rated Guatamala, Ecudor, Panama, Venezuala, and Colombia as the most collectivistic countries in his survey, and eight of the ten most collectivistic cultures belonged to South and Central America, with two (Indonesia and Pakistan) belonging to Asia and the Mid-East, respectively (Hofstede, 1991).

Malaysia is a prototypically collectivist culture. From birth, families encourage children to mmake ingroups the center of their lives. Families live in intergenerational households and child-rearing emphasizes warmth and control (Kesharvarez & Baharudin, 2011).

The relationships between employers and employees exist on moral terms, and promotions depend on one’s status within the employer ingroup. However, in Malaysia, as with the other rapidly developing economies in Asia, such as in China and Japan, levels of collectivism are lowering among the young, the wealthy, and the urbanized (Cao, 2009).

In particular, employees in Malaysia report a high degree of competition relative to one another, a distinctly individualistic trait (Noordin, 2004). Turkey is another highly collectivist culture, where decisions ranging from marriage to whether or not to travel depend heavily on considering the ramifications on family (Göregenli, 1997).

Turkish ethnic groups in Western Europe also have high levels of rigidity in social behaviors — cultural “tightness” – in comparison to the general population. Triadis (1995) reports the killing of a Turkish-born teenage girl living in France on account of her integrating too much into French society.

The family collectively decided that the family’s need for cohesion outweighed the girl’s life. Some collectivist cultures, such as that of parts of India, value hierarchy.

Triadis calls these vertical collectivist cultures (1995). Indian society encourages cohesion and interdependence through generations. Approximately 90% of Indian marriages are arranged by families (Jaiswal 2014), and a strict caste system separates the roles and occupations of families and ingroups (Barreman, 1966).

In contrast, horizontal collectivist cultures — such as those on Israeli Kibbutzi — emphasize equality. Kibbutzi are traditionally agrarian settlements where each member contributes to a collective goal and children are raised communally.

As a result of this equal and collective commitment among members, Kibbutzi have high levels of gender and material equality (Agassi, 1989).


Causes of Collectivism

There are three main factors that lead to collectivism: (i) complexity of a society, (ii) class, and (iii) heterogeneity, such as child-rearing practices (Triandis, 1994).

The majority of the world, about 70% of the population, was collectivist at the end of the 20th century (Triandis 1995). Generally, countries with lower levels of wealth tend to be more collectivistic, and when countries undergo major periods of economic growth, their cultures become more individualistic.

Conversely, economic recession correlated with increased collectivism (Bianchi 2016). Historically, collectivistic communities have been agrarian, where those in, for example, a village, hold interdependent roles in a common farm. Philosophies, such as Confuscism, have a heavy hold on contemporary Asian collectivism.

Women tend to be more collectivistic on average than men (Zeffane 2017). Collectivism can sometimes manifest in very-involved child rearing. For example, in Chinese culture, children and adults do most activities together, and parents are in close proximity to their children at all times, particularly when the child is under five years old. This fosters mutual dependency, making it desirable for a child to live with older parents or visit frequently.

After scolding a child, in Chinese and Russian cultures, the parent attempts to reeastablish closeness through affection, resulting in a personality that is optimistic, trusting, and sociable (Rohner 1986). Collectivist child-rearing tends to be more affectionate, but more controlling than individualistic child-rearing. On the reverse, collectivistic child rearing can also be the result of a large family.

Extended families make collectivism more likely because any one child cannot receive special treatment. Parents in large extended families do not have the resources to cater to the exacting needs of any one child when, for example cooking (Triandis 1995).


Effects on Behavior

Self Concept

Collectivists tend to define themselves in relation to others, and group membership is a central aspect of collectivist identity (Hofstede, 1980).

The self does not encompass abstract traits — as it does with individualists — so much as the traits of the group that the collectivist belongs to, and life satisfaction comes from successfully carrying out social roles and obligations (Markus & Kitayama 1991).

This manifests literally in the naming conventions of some collectivist cultures. For example, in traditional Indonesian culture, people have first names but are referred to more commonly by their birth order (Triandis 1995).

In collectivism, people are interdependent, rather than independent. The well-being of the group defines the success and well-being of the individual, and as such, one protects oneself by considering the needs and feelings of others.

History is more important to collectivists than individualists, as collectivists see themselves as part of a long chain of relationships over hundreds and thousands of years.

The values of this historical collective supersede those of the individual, and thus the decisions of the collective can trump those of the individualist (Triandis 1995).

Relationships

Collectivist relationships are centered around the ingroup. However, these ingroups vary dramatically between individualists and collectivists.

While individualists maintain ties to a large number of ingroups, each of these revolving around a shared interest, collectivists belong to a more limited number of ingroups, defined by a diverse set of values and interests (Hofstede 1980).

Collectivists value interpersonal harmony, and will maintain established relationships even if these relationships are not in their best interests. This is not to say, however, that collectivists do not make some calculations as to whether or not to maintain a relationship.

Regardless, collectivists’ relationships tend to be deeper and more emotionally invested than those of individualists, as these relationships are tied to the belief that by helping others, one is contributing to the wellbeing of the self.

This is reflected in the language of traditionally collectivist cultures, such as Japan. Shinyuu, which translates to “best friend” carries enough emotional investment, as, in the studies of Aaron Cargile, for those to make major life decisions around the well-being of their friends.

This feeling of shinyuu is often described by Japanese individuals as being willing to give up your life for another (Cargile 2012). Collectivism gives little credence to the idea that relationships happen between individuals.

Rather, relationships happen in groups. Adults from Asian collectivist cultures, for example, are more likely to do activities — such as skiing — in groups than those from individualistic cultures, who tend to do such sports alone or in couples. The use of the Japanese word Nakama — friend group — to describe interpersonal relationships has the connotation that friendship happens interdependently, rather than between any two individuals (Cargile 2012).

This sense of closeness and interdependence extends to the collectivist extended family, and the child-rearing practices of collectivist societies. For example, a stranger may scold a Russian mother for not wrapping up her baby tightly.

The outcomes and ways of parenting children are seen as an extension of the group as a whole (Triandis 1995). While individualistic relationships tend to work as social contracts, collectivist relationships work on agreeability (Kemmelmeier 2002).

While an individualist may believe that making one’s intentions clear through an argument is beneficial to a relationship,, collectivists stray away from conflict. Agreeability often comes at the cost of honesty, and specific forms of dishonesty can be socially sanctioned.

For example, in traditional Greek culture, a surprise visitor can be turned away by the owner shouting “I am not here,” through the door. Although this is clearly not a true statement — as the guest can presumably recognize the unwilling host’s voice — this is the social script for revealing disinterest.

Collectivism also alters how people see social situations. For example, those in Hispanic collectivist cultures are disproportionately likely to associate social situations with positive feelings and outcomes (Triandis 1995), and Chinese collectivists tend to emphasize common feelings, social usefulness, and acceptance of authority when analyzing social situations in contrast to Australians (a highly individualistic culture), who emphasize competitiveness, self-confidence, and freedom (Kagitcibasia & Berry, 1989).

Conformity

Collectivistic cultures tend to be “tight,” meaning that there is a very limited acceptable range of behaviors for any given situation.

For example, the traditional Japanese tea ceremony involves a group sitting in an uncomfortable position for about an hour around a fascinating object, with the highest ranking member sitting closest to the object and the lowest ranking member sitting the farthest away.

The group members listen to the distinctive sounds of hot and cold water falling before tea is offered to the highest ranking member. He must decline a specific number of times before accepting, after which the tea is offered to the second-highest ranking member.

This calculated process of denial continues with each member and follows a strict sense of customs which must not be broken. However, the formalized rituals of collectivism are fading as countries undergo rapid economic growth. For example, few in the younger Japanese population have experienced a tea ceremony (Triandis 1995).

This parallels a general decline in traditional roles, such as Japanese adults caring for elders (Bellah 1985) Collectivists value conformity within the ingroup, but this is not so with relation to outgroups. Counterintuitively, those in highly collectivistic cultures can display anti-conformity at higher levels than those from individualistic cultures.

Frager’s (1970) replication of the Asch conformity experiment — where subjects either go with or against an incorrect group in comparing the shapes of lines — showed that Japanese subjects conformed less than those of US (an extraordinary individualist culture) subjects (Triandis et. al 1988).

Although collectivism values harmony, more recent studies on collectivist ingroups show that members of collectivist ingroups can be more vigilant with respect to other group members than those in individualistic ingroups, mindful of the unethical intentions of others (Liu et. al 2009).

As the people in these groups are interdependent, the unethical behavior of an individual can be the downfall of all.

Mental Health

Collectivistic cultures sometimes consider individuality a form of disharmony, and this can have major effects for “acultured” individualists within a collectivistic culture.

Triandis (1995) recounts the story of a Japanese school child who has lived in Tokyo but returned to his rural town. Not speaking the local dialect, he was bullied by the group of schoolchildren as a whole and eventually found dead in a utility closet.

Despite the potentially dire consequences of being excluded from the ingroup, those in collectivist cultures tend to be bullied in lower numbers than those in highly individualistic ones, such as the United States (Smith & Robinson 2019).

“Aculltured” individuals also suffer from depression and suicidal ideation at higher rates than individualists in individualist cultures. However, collectivist cultures tend to have lower suicide rates as a whole (Eskin et. al. 2020).

Matsumoto (1989) discovered that collectivists more readily perceive sadness than individualists, and are less likely to perceive happiness. Aaron Cargile (2012) has theorized that this is because collectivists tend to find rating oneself as better than others as undesirable.

Japanese men and women tend to underrate - or more realistically rate - their skills in comparison to others. While the average American university student said that he was better than 63% of the population at a given task, Japanese students averaged 47% (Triandis 2005).

As a result, collectivist culture is associated with lower levels of self esteem and feelings of mastery (Yetim 2003).

About the Author

Charlotte Nickerson is a student at Harvard University. Coming from a research background in biology and archeology, Charlotte currently studies how digital and physical space shapes human beliefs, norms, and behaviors and how this can be used to create businesses with greater social impact.

How to reference this article:

Nickerson, C. (2021, Sept 22). Understanding collectivist cultures. Simply Psychology. https://www.simplypsychology.org/what-are-collectivistic-cultures.html

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