The many cultures of the world differ in a great variety of ways. One of the most interesting ways in which cultures vary is in the extent to which they are “individualistic” or “collectivistic.” An individualist society and a collectivist society are different in many ways.
In an individualistic culture, each person tends to think of himself or herself in terms of his or her own characteristics and preferences-the things that make the person unique or different from others. In a collectivistic culture, each person tends to think of himself or herself in terms of his or her social relationships and roles-the things that make the person a part of a larger group, such as an extended family or an ethnic group.
Another difference between individualist and collectivist cultures involves the tendency to help others. In an individualist society, people feel some obligation to help persons who share some group identity-such as their distant relatives, or persons from the same town-but this obligation is not nearly as strong as in collectivist cultures. On the other hand, people in collectivist cultures tend to feel very little inclination to help other people who do not belong to their groups, whereas people in individualist cultures are more often willing to help others even if they do not belong to the same group.
Another difference between individualist and collectivist cultures involves the relationship between people and the groups to which they belong. In an individualist culture, people usually join or leave groups when it is in their personal interest to do so. In a collectivist culture, people usually stay with one group for a long time. For example, people in individualist societies are more willing to quit their job, and take a new job at another company. People in collectivist societies usually prefer to stay with one company throughout their career. Similarly, people in individualist countries usually get married for reasons of personal choice, and are more likely to get divorced. However, people in collectivist societies usually get married according to the wishes of their relatives, and are less likely to get divorced.
Western countries, such as those of western Europe and North America, are usually considered to be very individualist. However, not all individualist countries are similar in every way. For example, the individualism of the United States is viewed as more “competitive” than that of socialist countries, such as Sweden. In contrast to Western countries, the countries of most parts of Asia and Africa are usually considered to be very collectivist. Collectivist countries also differ from each other in many ways.
The idea of individualism versus collectivism is an interesting way to understand some of the differences between cultures. By learning about ideas like this, one can better appreciate the customs of other peoples.