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Collectivism and Individualism

You may have heard of the terms “individualism” and “collectivism.”

Collectivism is the principle of giving a group priority over the individuals in it, emphasizing cohesiveness among the individuals in the group. These cultures are seen as more respectful, relationship-oriented, and altruistic; they are usually tightly woven and integrated, cherishing group welfare, unity, and harmony (Salsa, Soul, & Spirit). Individuals from collectivist societies may, however, quell their own success and happiness for the sake of the group, or avoid conflict to keep the peace. In general, countries in Latin America, Africa, and Asia are more collective (Simply Psychology). Socialism (defined by Oxford as “advocating that the means of production, distribution, and exchange should be owned or regulated by the community as a whole”) is by definition a more collectivist philosophy.

Individualism is described as the principle of being independent and self-reliant, emphasizing the intrinsic worth of the individual. These cultures are seen as putting more value on independence, personal freedom and choice, achievement, competition, and not conforming to group preferences or norms. However, individualistic individuals may have fewer strong relationships and community (leading to loneliness and lack of ability to request help), and sacrifice or care less for others in their communities. In general, Europe, the US, and some other countries heavily colonized by Europe (such as South Africa) are more individualistic (Simply Psychology). The late stage capitalism and neoliberalism we find ourselves experiencing now is firmly under the individualistic umbrella.

Humans were able to survive throughout our history due to collective care, loyalty, and mutual assistance. “Almost unanimously, collective cultures understand that the excessive accumulation of wealth or power by a few hinders the wellbeing of the society as a whole. In collective cultures, generosity allows people and the community to thrive. Deep sharing is a cultural touchstone and wealth is defined as being able to give to others.” (Salsa, Soul, & Spirit)

Interestingly, countries with less wealth tend to be more collectivist, and often turn more individualist when they go through periods of economic growth (Simply Psychology). The International Monetary Fund finds that lower income inequality (how unevenly income is distributed amongst a population) is “robustly correlated with faster and more durable growth,” meaning the more resources are shared, the more economic growth happens (Redistribution, Inequality, and Growth). Thus, arguably, the more collectivist and distributed a given society is, the more economically prosperous they are as a whole.

As noted in previous articles in this series, those who are the most oppressed tend to be the most generous in sharing their time, labor, and resources. In the book Salsa, Soul, & Spirit: Leadership for a Multicultural Age, author Juana Bordas notes that cyclical reciprocity means people are continually giving to one another, creating a glue that holds these cultures together; the accumulation of wealth or taking more than their share would harm the community. An illustrative saying in the South African Pedi tribe is “Giving is to dish out for oneself.”

Salsa, Soul, and Spirit shares the necessity of collectivist community using examples from African, Latinx, and Native American cultures. While I encourage everyone, especially leaders, to read this book, here is a summary from Principle 2: I to We

  • Native American cultures emphasize sharing, not accumulating. Possessions are more shared and redistributed, including through formal mechanisms like potlatch ceremonies and giveaways. “In Native cultures, strong personal identity and collective identity stand side by side. A good tribal person must have self-worth, positive qualities and skills, and be as healthy as possible so they can contribute to the community. The collective is only as strong as the individuals who give it life.”

  • Latinx cultures highlight these principles of generosity with a golden rule: if everyone contributes, there will be more than enough to go around and no single person will bear more than their share of the burden. “Interdependency, cooperation, and mutual assistance are the norm. Unlike the Anglo nuclear family, the Latino familia is elastic and grows to include padrinos or madrinas—godparents for baptisms, weddings or confirmations—and tías or tíos—honorary aunts or uncles.”

  • And lastly, African cultures and the Black diaspora have a concept of the village, favoring comunal over individual ownership and childcare. This community caring and sharing was essential for survival throughout the hardships of enslavement and discrimination. “The capacity to express sentiments of generosity for those outside the group, the ability to love the enemy is an African American trait... there was evidence of a universal compassion within the community of Africans in the Americas that embraced both the near and distant relative.” Black Americans with wealth were more charitable and feel a greater responsibility than non-Blacks to contribute to people in need, donate 25% more of their discretionary income than whites, and 95% interviewed noted a moral obligation to help other African Americans.

So what does this have to do with women? It will likely not surprise you that, on average, women appear to be more collectivist and less individualist than men. “For instance, women are more willing and able to care for others, are more aware of and sensitive to others’ needs, are more likely to provide social support to others, view others as more sociable, and describe themselves in terms of relatedness to others, all of which are hallmarks of collectivism. In contrast, men are more likely to focus on themselves than on others, to endorse competitive goals, and to describe themselves as separate from others, which are characteristics of individualism.” (The relation between gender and cultural orientation and its implications for advertising)

If women are generally more collectivist, and communities of color are as well, then it is no surprise that so much mutual aid, community care, and social justice advocacy is carried on the shoulders of women of color, without whom most of us would not have the same freedoms we have today.

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