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What is collectivism?


The construct of collectivism is traditionally compared with individualism when considered in the literature of social psychology. The dual constructs are powerful in their ability to identify general differences in cultural perspective or worldview. The danger that accompanies the constructs is the tendency to overgeneralize. Nevertheless, when painting with a broad sweep, the two categories provide a helpful model for understanding foundational differences in cultural groups.

Social psychologists attempt to both define and measure collectivism but are not unified in what they propose. A definition developed by Harry C. Triandis describes collectivism as a “social pattern consisting of closely linked individuals who see themselves as parts of one or more collectives (family, co-workers, tribe, nation).” A definition that includes a functional aspect identifies collectivism as being a cultural syndrome of norms, values, and a way to engage in the world that is embedded in practices, artifacts, and institutions. In collectivism, members give priority to the goals of the collective rather than personal goals. Norms and duties of the collective motivate members, and value is placed on connection with members of the group. Countries known for their highly collectivist natures are Pakistan, Venezuela, Colombia, Peru, Taiwan, Thailand, Japan, and China.

Individualism and Collectivism

In contrast to collectivism, individualism gives priority to personal goals and to values that serve the self such as personal distinction, achievement, and independence. The individual is the most basic unit. Countries that represent individualistic societies include Canada, Great Britain, Belgium, France, the Scandinavian countries, and the Netherlands. The majority group in the United States represents individualism.

Several contrasts between individualism and collectivism can be drawn relative to the functioning and perception of group members. Collectivism values the public self. Achievement includes cooperation for the benefit of the in-group. Individualism places importance on the private self, personal achievement, competition, and power. Collectivism values obedience, in-group harmony, and a few close relationships. Individualism values pleasure and freedom and is more likely to represent many casual relationships. Collectivism stresses saving face for both self and others, and favors people who are modest and self-effacing. Individualism emphasizes saving one’s own face and favors people who are self-assured.

Diverse Groups and Collectivism

Although the majority population in the United States tends to represent individualism, diverse cultural groups are more likely to have a collective worldview. Within such groups, high priority is placed on loyalty to family and culture.

Many immigrants come from countries with collectivist narratives for self and family. A primary component of such collectivist narratives is the internalized obligation to help extended family members, regardless of whether there was a strong relationship with the member. Depending on the ethnic group, this sense of family obligation and support often continues to exist as an enduring psychosocial feature.

In Middle Eastern societies, the development of an individual identity that separates one from the family or ethnic community is not valued or encouraged. The enhancement of family honor and status is a primary goal. Family members are expected to control their individual behavior because it reflects on the family’s reputation.

In Asian cultures, the group often takes precedence over the needs of the individual. The activities of the individual may be more directly related to the status and wealth of the family as a whole, rather than to the advancement of the individual. This group focus tends to emphasize dependency and respect for authority rather than independence and egalitarian relationships more common in northern European countries.

American Indians view the focus on the solitary individual to the exclusion of the group as meaningless. They question the concentration on the individual in Western philosophy, law, and the religious thinking of modern society. For the American Indian, concepts about religion and spirituality have a communal rather than an individual basis. Because all things are perceived as interconnected, relationships among people are critically important. Indian tribes would view individuals without loyalty to anyone else as people who are exceedingly dangerous. Relationships within the family and clan are valued so highly that banishment, refusal of the tribe to recognize the wrongdoer as a member, has traditionally served as punishment for heinous crimes.

Collectivism and the Family Unit

In collectivist cultures, marriages link families rather than individuals and may be arranged. Group boundaries are explicit, and great value is placed on shared activities, solidarity, and family/group loyalty. In contrast, individualist cultures reflect relationships that are loosely connected and autonomous, with flexible boundaries. Relationship goals include personal fulfillment and romance as important components in the pursuit of life.

Collectivist cultures have traditionally viewed marriage as a vehicle for maintaining social order and for forming links between families rather than as a means of fulfilling personal desires. In traditional Hindu societies, marriage is one of the most important events in a person’s life and is perceived as a social and cultural duty. Individualist cultures follow a love-based approach to marriage, which values feelings of personal compatibility and mutual attraction, rather than a duty to meet the needs of family or society.

As diverse families are served by mental health professionals, they are often placed within the Western value systems of psychology and counseling, in which individuation is expected to place boundaries on cohesion and individual goals. On one commonly used family scale, families identified as unbalanced have the following characteristics: high dependence, very high togetherness, very high closeness, high loyalty, and mainly shared activities.

Research and Application

Collectivism appears to be a variable associated with romantic partner preferences. Although universal values for a core group of dispositional features have been identified in research, cultural differences exist. Adults in collectivist cultures such as China and India tend to value “practical” characteristics(such as being a good housekeeper) and demographic similarity (such as sharing the same religion or caste) in a potential spouse more than do adults from individualist cultures. This would seem consistent with cultures that have a history of arranged marriage.

Individuals from collectivist cultures tend to view chastity as a relatively important attribute in a potential mate, whereas it appears to be a dispensable or even undesirable trait for men and women in many Western countries. An overview of research finds that young adults in collectivist cultures are more likely to disapprove of premarital sex as compared with young adults from individualist cultures, who typically hold more permissive attitudes.

Low-income families are more likely than higher-income families to have a collective worldview relative to financial style and spending practices. Individuals from groups reflecting a collective worldview value helping family members, friends, or neighbors when assistance is needed. Consequently, money is more often shared than used to better the individual in purchasing houses, furthering education, or investments. Mental health professionals and financial advisers from European American, middle-class groups may view this as being irresponsible.


Cultural competence refers to the expertise and information needed by those who work with diverse populations. Culture is defined as the behavior, patterns, beliefs, and all other products of a particular group of people that are passed on from generation to generation. If members of diverse populations do try to implement practices that are in conflict with strengths of their own cultural group, members of the helping profession may actually cause harm to the family because they encourage a “cultural clash” that negatively affects family life. Mental health workers and agencies should carefully assess their cultural competence.

Proponents of the collectivist worldview argue that the Western emphasis on individualism devalues the role that groups play in the survival of human beings and may undermine the basic need for relatedness. Comparison of collectivist and individualist cultures reveal that individualistic cultures have higher rates of suicide, drug abuse, crime, divorce, and mental disorders.

All individuals incorporate both individualism and collectivism in their patterns of living. When comparing the two, the focus is more one of preference and degree. Some of the more common contrasts between individualism and collectivism involve self-descriptions and contextual information. In collectivism, the social group is incorporated into self-descriptions, context is used to describe the self, and contextual information is used for decision making. A balance between collectivism and individualism may be the optimal position. Either in its extremity will result in undesirable consequences. The point of agreement is the need to have both a positive sense of self and a sense of connectedness to others.


Al-Deen, N. “Understanding Arab Americans: A Matter of Diversities.” In Cross-Communications and Aging in the U.S. Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1991. Provides comprehensive information on the values of Arab Americans. Illustrates their collective identity in a number of characteristics.

Kagitcibasi, C. Family, Self, and Human Development Across Cultures. Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2007. Focuses on diversity of cultures in areas such as human development. Notes the tendency of developmental psychology to use individualism as its standard and identifies the disadvantages of this approach.

Khallad, Y. “Mate Selection in Jordan: Effects of Sex, Socio-economic Status, and Culture.” Journal of Social and Personal Relationships 22 (April 1, 2005): 155-168. Examines mate preferences of individuals from a collectivist culture in the Middle East to note the strength of the traditional social values.

McAuliffe, Garrett, et al., eds. Culturally Alert Counseling. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications, 2008. Provides an excellent background for mental health professionals working with diverse groups. The influence of varying worldviews is obvious.

McGoldrick, M., et al., eds. Ethnicity and Family Therapy. 3d ed. New York: Guilford Press, 2005. Almost all cultural groups are included, making the distinctions between collectivism and individualism evident.

Reis, H. T., and S. K. Sprecher, eds. Encyclopedia of Human Relationships. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications, 2009. A three-volume set that provides a vast amount of information about how people think, feel, and act toward others with whom they have relationships. Includes an article on the effect of collectivism on relationships.

Robins, Kikanza Nuri, et al. Cultural Proficiency Instructions: A Guide for People Who Teach. 2d ed. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications, 2006. Written for educational institutions, but its principles apply for mental health institutions.

Skogrand, L., D. Hatch, and A. Singh. Strengths and Challenges of New Immigrant Families: Implications for Research, Policy, Education, and Service. Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2008. Interviews of many families from diverse cultural backgrounds provided data to make culturally relevant provisions in mental health policies and service. Includes differences relative to collectivistic and individualistic worldviews.

Thomas, Anita Jones, and Sara Schwarzbaum Thomas. Culture and Identity: Life Stories for Counselors and Therapists. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications, 2006. Each chapter describes the experience of individuals from diverse cultures who are attempting to navigate the many challenges of developing a cultural identity. A number of cultures are considered, helping the reader understand the importance of cultural identity within the larger framework of human development. Various activities are suggested as a means to apply the cultural setting to the mental health practitioner.

Triandis, H. C. Individualism and Collectivism: New Directions in Social Psychology. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1995. One of only a few sources that provides scholarly theoretical information on the distinctive aspects of collectivism.

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