What is individualism and collectivism

Individualism and collectivism

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Hofstede's individualism / collectivism dimension is probably one of the most widely used and discussed dimensions.

This dimension is primarily concerned with setting priorities within society on the individual or on the group. In an individualist society, the focus is on the individual: It is important to "go your own way", "swim against the current". It was not for nothing that the American (the USA is the most individualistically oriented culture) proclaimed Frank Sinatra "I did it my way!". The Chinese counter with the saying "The nail that protrudes is hammered into the board" - because in this collectivist society, the group as a whole is in the foreground and is more important than the self-realization of the group members.

This dimension is one of the most popular dimensions because of its ubiquity - and obviousness - and one of the dimensions that has arguably been best explored. Their effects on everyday life are varied. A concrete example of this dimension is, for example, the failure of certain bonus programs in Asian countries. Bonus programs that reward an individual financially for their performance, for example, are fundamentally individualistic in their cultural character, and they are also quite successful in more individualistic societies. In collectivist societies, these bonus programs can even be counterproductive. The explanation for this is relatively simple: In a collectivist society, no group member wants to be highlighted as special because the group has priority. Accordingly, American companies, among others, found that the productivity of groups decreased if an individually tailored bonus program was used. The group members oriented themselves towards the weakest link in their group and tried not to surpass it. Only when the bonus program was changed so that it rewarded the entire group was productivity increased. In individualistic societies, however, this type of bonus program did not work, where group programs reduced productivity.

For example, democracy and the free market economy are - at least in their American interpretation - also a political-economic ideology based on individualism. Accordingly, it can also be explained why mostly in collectivist countries there is a rather "unfree" market economy, and also collectivist countries have or had rather undemocratic forms of government.

Communism could also be cited here as an example: To this day, communist parties, for example in Europe, are relatively important in the predominantly collectivist countries Italy, Spain and Greece - in stark contrast to individualistic countries such as Great Britain, Canada and the USA.

But also in the smaller group, e.g. the family, there is individualism or collectivism. Parents in individualistic countries raise their children to be self-sufficient - e.g. in Great Britain and the USA, where it is the rule that the children move out of home at the latest when they start studying. In Spain or Italy this is not the rule - many young adults continue to live with their parents, often until they get married. In general, the "extended" family plays a much more important role in collectivist societies than in individualist-oriented societies. The "extended family" is rather rare in the USA, Great Britain and the Netherlands.



Translated from English, partly shortened. Original version:
Dahl, Stephan (2000) "Introduction to Intercultural Communication", in Dahl, Stephan "Intercultural Skills for Business", ECE, London.
With the kind permission of the author.