• Mihailo Savic

Individualism vs. Collectivism in the West

There is indeed a paradox in Western academia that stems from the issue of empirical research and the culture of research in general. The paradox has not yet been solved. In fact, no one has even recognized it yet, and it is having a profound impact on the political divide that we are observing in the US as well as the rest of the West. It has everything to do with collectivist vs. individualist culture. So what is this paradox?

I come from Serbia, a country that generally doesn’t consider itself a part of the West. I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to experience the world by traveling and most importantly by coming to the US when I was 17 years old. I am no tourist however: I have spent the last 5 years of my life here, living, studying, having a career and making close friendships, which means that half of my “non-child life” I spent in the US. The most important thing that I learned from coming here is the dynamics of individualistic culture that dominates the US vs. collectivist culture that has a major presence in Serbia.

But what are the differences between individualism and collectivism? While many in the US may think about Japan, China, “an African tribe”, communism and fascism when they hear the word collectivism and they will probably think “the West” when they hear individualism, I will be defining the two more precisely, at least “more precisely” in my opinion.

Efficiency vs. Emotion

Efficiency is not simply about profit maximization or purely materialistic success. Efficiency refers to all parts of culture, including human relations. For example, individualistic culture, obviously, focuses on the individual. This makes political institutions much easier to build since they assume that humans will be self-interested and rational. The institutions don’t have to struggle as much with assuming that the culture (as a whole) may not respect them, since in individualism the concept of culture as a whole doesn’t really exist in a significant way. Each individual looks at themselves separately from the collective and will not easily conform and look at the interest of the group but will rather focus their own interest. At the same time efficiency can also be applied to dealing with negative cultural attributes, such as racism. In individualism, people are used to looking at each person separately from the collective. When the culture pulls the individual to discriminate against a minority, individualist values can help stop the individual from instantly following the cultural pull, and they can even make him question the culture pulling him. Of course, efficiency also relates to the ability to conduct business, or more specifically, to have a proper culture of professionalism.

Emotion, which is the focus of collectivism, also holds a nuanced form of meaning in this case. It is not simply human emotions that are the focus of collectivism. Rather, it is the focus on following the emotional flow or current that is present in the group or in the individual. In other words, collectivism focuses on following the emotional inertia in order to create harmony, “calm” and therefore happiness. This is not to say that collectivists have calm personalities, quite the opposite. Serbian culture is very loud and fiery, much like other collectivist cultures such as the cultures of South and Central America, or the cultures of Southern Europe or the cultures of Southern and Southeastern Asia. Calm in the context of collectivism refers to not disturbing or putting stress on the emotional flow.

An example I like to use when trying to present the differences between individualism and collectivism is the following scenario involving my parents: My mother and father are driving back home in Belgrade, Serbia. My mother stops to eat at a street barbeque kiosk, one of many on the streets of Belgrade. She comes back to the car with her sodium filled meal and realizes that she should also buy a can of Coke to have with her meal. She starts to exit the car to buy the Coke for an unreasonable 60 RSD (Editor’s note: A Serbian dinar is roughly equivalent to a US penny.) from the fridge where she bought her sandwich. But my father tells her that they can go to a store just down the street where she can buy it for 40 RSD and it would be a 15 second drive. She frowns and says: “Who cares about 20 RSD, I just want to enjoy my meal.” In this story my mom is the collectivist and my dad an individualist. He focused on efficiency interrupting my mom’s meal, while she sacrificed money just so that she would not stress while eating. From this example the contrast is obvious, but it also teaches us that simply being raised in a country with collectivist culture, like my father was, doesn’t mean you are bound to be a collectivist; the two systems of value are on a spectrum in fact. We can also see that collectivism doesn’t necessarily have to present itself in a group.

Both systems have their benefits and shortcomings. Both attempt to help society be happier but they also both sacrifice something as well. My father’s insistence on efficiency does disturb my mom’s mood, or in other words, it makes him look like a cheapskate. On the other hand, my mom’s insistence on pleasure costs money. This absolutely applies to countries as a whole. Serbia and other collectivist countries sacrifice too much efficiency for collective harmony. This is represented in weak institutions, corruption, slow economy, lack of business professionalism, etc. In fact I have just laid out problems of many countries of the South (S. America, S. Europe, Africa, S. Asia) which are relatively collectivist. These countries, however, are also well-known for passionate and friendly people and a looser lifestyle. On the other hand, individualistic countries (often in the North or West: Scandinavia, Germany, Switzerland, UK, USA, Canada) sacrifice too much emotional cohesion for efficiency. Their people are often viewed and described as cold and overly self-interested. At the same time they all have some of the highest standards of living, strong institutions and stable governments and the most powerful economies. Of course, it’s not all cut and dry, but some contrast can be observed.

Individualism vs. Collectivism in US Politics

The cultural divide between the South and North, rural and urban, conservative and liberal is related to the differences between collectivists and individualists. The problems that liberals have with conservatives when they don’t try hard enough to fight against discrimination is because conservatives often fail to see minorities and the discriminated as individuals who are suffering. Meanwhile, conservatives have a distaste of liberal focus on “self-expression”, deviating from cultural norms, lack of ability to take a joke, self-pity and “whining”, ruining culture, etc. Both find their issues as crucial and both see the opposite sides’ complaints as ignorant or immature due to a difference in value systems. Again, this is not the full story, but I believe that it is a key insight for understanding US politics today. Some evidence that liberals correspond to individualistic values is the lack of “leftism” which includes socialism in the US. Conservatives or the “right” will always oppose socialism since it is leftist, but what about the opposition to the conservatives? Socialism is collectivist (an interesting fact that the far right and the far left have something in common), and liberalism is individualist (at least in today’s age it is) so they lack the will to support socialist ideas even though the liberals are falsely called “the left".

The lesson from all this is that if we care about creating the happiest societies we possibly can, we need to balance between collectivism and individualism. However, here we have a paradox. The benefits of individualism are easy to see, as they are very much material. My country is well known for its problems with “brain drain” and when people do leave Serbia they go to the West. This is because they are tired of dealing with problems of collectivism: corruption, unemployment, and lack of opportunity. However, many return or at least quickly recognize that there is a big price to pay for going West. They don’t feel at home. Not only because it is a foreign country, but because it is not as welcoming. Many international students, as well as Americans who grew up in families more familiar with collectivist culture of the east and south, will complain about the inability for Americans to make true friendships. That is not to say that Americans are unfriendly, quite the opposite, but they lack the skills to reach the depths of human connections that are learned in collectivism. However, we don’t see many “Westerners” leaving to go east or south. Why? The benefits of collectivism are far more nuanced: the happiness gained from strong communal feeling is hard to measure while GDP isn’t (I apologize to any macroeconomic accountants for that comment). In collectivist societies, it is easy to look at the individualists and see their wealth, but collectivists are not very good at advertising their benefits – leaving wealth behind in search of “a more human experience” is seen as foolish and immature in both types of culture.

This points to a future for humanity where collectivism will eventually die out and, in words of individualism, a great amount of utility from happiness that comes from these warm, nuanced, human relations will be lost. I have hoped that academia will help with this problem. But here is another paradox: Science, whether natural or social, inherently focuses on efficiency and it is one of the fruits of individualism. Academics are trained to call upon their “inner individualist” to achieve their PhD’s.

So if we have established that individualists have trouble recognizing the benefits of collectivism, how can we solve the issue by asking scientists to help? They should lack the ability to even recognize the problem, let alone provide a solution. It is my hope that we, the people, can gather to discuss. Recognize the collectivists among us and let them inspire us to recognize the benefits of collectivism. We don’t have to start making compromises, but rather find a way to benefit from all sides of the spectrum.

Photo credit Rabax63, Creative Commons

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