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How You Have Been Shaped: Individualism vs Collectivism

All of us are culturally-conditioned, but what does that mean? I'd like to try to explain.

After you were born, when your parents took you home from the hospital, they began, culturally speaking, programming you. By the way they raised you, they modeled for you how you should talk, walk, eat, greet, dress, sleep, live, love and so on. They taught you about who belonged in your group, and who did not. They taught you how people in your group should think, feel, and behave. They taught you how to properly relate to people in your family, in your neighborhood, and in your environment.

Before you were even aware of it, your brain was programmed with those same patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving. You just took those patterns for granted. Most of us never really question our patterns, because we have had them for so long. Those patterns give us glimpses of our culture.

Specifically, what kinds of patterns can you look for when attempting to understand of yourself and of those whom you serve? Some cultural anthropologists see culture as a body with many different body parts. Just as a body has several different parts which serve a specific function of the body, the different parts of culture serve specific functions for a group of people. They have identified the common problems and dilemmas that every group of people in the world faces, and how each group of people responds to those problems is what distinguishes that group as a culture. It is what sets them apart as a group. Regardless of geography or genetics, nationality, gender, ethnicity, or religion, every group of people encounters some of the following problems and/or dilemmas. Their response to these problems or dilemmas gets passed down to their children and shapes the frame of reference of every person who grows up in that culture. In the same way, the cultural group from which you come has had to face the following dilemmas and problems, and you have been programmed to respond to these dilemmas or problems in very specific ways. 


Do you believe your own interests should prevail over your family’s interests; or should your family’s interests prevail over your own interests? What about your school, or company for which you work? Should your own interests prevail over their interests? Or, should the school’s or company’s interests trump yours? What about your country? Should your own interests prevail over the interests of your country, or should the country’s interests take priority over your own individual freedom? Your answer to these questions reveals the tension that exists between individualism and collectivism.

Collectivism is the belief that the interest of the group prevails over the interest of the individual; and, individualism is the belief that the interests of the individual prevail over the interests of the group. Do you do whatever you want to do regardless of how it will impact your family, classmates, company, or country? Or, do you do what is best for others, regardless of how you feel about it personally?

Both individualism or collectivism have pros and cons. The wonderful thing about individualism is that it helps the individual person reach his or her highest potential; the great tragedy of individualism is that it can lead to selfishness and self-centeredness. The beauty of collectivism is that the group grows and benefits because of the individual’s sacrifice; the downside of collectivism is that the individual quells his or her own interests, and does not realize his or her full personal potential. Where do you fall on that spectrum of individualism and collectivism?