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Individualism/Collectivism Redux

Social scientists of every ilk (from anthropologists to sociologists) since the dawn of the social sciences have been drawing distinctions between societies that were more group-focused and those that are more individualistic.  From Durkheim we have the distinction between organic (individualistic) and mechanical solidarity (groupy). Tonnies spoke of Gemeinschaft (community-focused) and Gesellschaft (dyadic relationships of urban societies). Cooley compared the world dominated by primary groups and the new world populated primarily by secondary groups.  And many mention de Tocqueville’s very early use of the word individualism (although he was not the first, see Arieli, 1964).  In his Democracy in America Tocqueville (who was not a social scientist, by the way, because there weren’t any social scientists in 1830s), he used the word to describe American society, worrying that perhaps the focus on the individual that was marked in America and in its founding philosophy would cause the society t become unstable.  All these writers, and those who followed them, use individualism and collectivism any which way they please, and as a result the concepts have become completely fuzzified.

For the last fifty years no pains have been spared to convince the inhabitants of the United States that they are the only religious, enlightened, and free people. They perceive that, for the present, their own democratic institutions prosper, while those of other countries fail; hence, they conceive a high opinion of their superiority, and are not very remote from believing themselves to be a distinct species of mankind.”

—Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America

Psychologists have not exactly done much to help unmuddy the conceptual waters. When Geert Hofstede burst on the scene with a fist-full of surveys completed by diligent IBM employees working in countries scattter around the globe, he was careful to disentagle individualism (IDV) from related cultural differences, such as “power distance” and “masculinity.”  Cross-cultural psychologists took up the theme and applied it diligently–although primarily to explain why Japanese people are different from U.S. people–before personality psychologists decided that this dimension may apply not only to cultures, but to people within the cultures. So, the theory became a multi-level one, with differences in the definition of the concept when it is used at a societal level than when it is used at an individual level (see, for example, Fischer,  Vauclair, Fontaine, Schwartz, 2010).

The result of all this interest in the concept is that many variations in the definition and measurement of individualism and collectivism have emerged, with each one providing a bit different perspective on these concepts.  For example:

Hofstede: “Individualism is the opposite of Collectivism. Individualism stands for a society in which the ties between individuals are loose: a person is expected to look after himself or herself and his or her immediate family only. Collectivism stands for a society in which people from birth onwards are integrated into strong, cohesive in-groups, which continue to protect them throughout their lifetime in exchange for unquestioning loyalty.” (Hofstede, Hofstede, Minkov, & Vinken, 2008, pp. 7-8).  He measures this dimension with these four items: “Please think of an ideal job, disregarding your present job, if you have one. In choosing an ideal job, how important would it be to you to (M1) have sufficient time for your personal or home life (individualistic), (M4) have security of employment (collective), (m6), do work that is interesting (individualistic), and (M9) have a job respected by your family and friends (collective).

Gaines, Marelich, Bledsoe, Steers, Henderson, and many more (1998) decide to remove family focus from individualism and collectivism, for good reason.  Most of the early analyses of individualism actually included a focus on family in the concept, but more recent researchers have assumed that (a) family = group and (b) Asian cultures are collectivistic and very family focused so family suggests collectivism.  Gaines et al. measure individualism with items such as “These days, the only person you can depend upon is yourself” and “I place personal freedom above all other values,” collectivism with items such as”I consider myself a team player” and “I believe in the motto, “United We Stand, Divided We Fall,” and familism with “My family always is there for me in time of need” and “I cannot imagine what I would do without my family.”

Triandis’s measure is very well-known, although he decided that it is important to split I/C into Vertical and Horizontal.  His four scales include: Horizontal individualism (1. I’d rather depend on myself than others. 3. I often do “my own thing.”), Vertical individualism (1. It is important that I do my job better than others.  2. Winning is everything.),  Horizontal collectivism (1. If a coworker gets a prize, I would feel proud. 4. I feel good when I cooperate with others.), and Vertical collectivism (1. Parents and children must stay together as much as possible. 4. It is important to me that I respect the decisions made by my groups.).

The Schwartz value scale is not exactly a measure of individualism/collectivism, but it predicts it fairly well (see Fisher et al., 2010).  And, the 10 values that Schwartz has been studying can be arranged along 2 dimensions, that are conceptually reminiscent of individualism and collectivism. Oishi and his colleagues (1998) explored the relationship between the Schwartz Values and Individualism/Collectivism, as measured by Triandis’s two dimensional approach that folds power and hierarchy into the mix. They found that Individualism was positively correlated significantly with power and achievement, but negatively with self-direction, universalism, and benevolence. Collectivism, in contrast, was correlated positively with tradition, conformity, and security, but negatively with self-direction, stimulation, hedonism, and power. Self-direction was negatively correlated with both.

Oyserman, Coon, and Kemmelmeier, 2002, to bring some order to the chaos, tracked down no fewer than 27 (!) individualism/collectivism scales and examined their content, and checked to see how well they predicted both societal level and person-level outcomes.  They identified 7 repeated themes in their analysis of individualism items, and 8 for collectivism.  For Collectivism, virtually all of the scales included an item pertaining to duty to the group and relatedness to others.   They also found that at least half of the scales included items related to relying on other people when making decisions, concern for maintaining group harmony, and preference for working with others in groups rather than alone.  Other, less frequently noted, elements are shown in the table and include belonging, context, and hierarchy).  Individualism, in contrast, was a more mixed bag.  Nearly all included an item that addressed freedom, self-sufficiency, personal independence.  However, no other themes appeared in more than half of the scales. The next most popular themes, mentioned in only a third, were personal achievement and self-knowledge. Competition was noted in only 15% of the individualism scales, for some obscure reason.  Theoretically, competition is stressed in most analyses of individualism, and was one of three scales used by Chen and West in their 2008 measure (along with independent and uniqueness.  Chen and West’s scale is relatively unique on the collectivism side, for it includes considering the implications of one’s decision for others, sharing positive outcomes with others, and avoiding doing embarrassing things so that others are not humiliated.

But back to Oyserman, Coon, and Kemmelmeier. They also examined the content of individualism and collectivism through a  review of previous studies that have examined the relationship between I and C and various kinds of outcomes.  This research suggests that differences in individualism and collectivism do not predict how many groups one belongs to, but these variables do predict the importance of groups for members.  Those who are individualistic interact with more groups, feel they can leave groups and join others more easily, and are more at ease with strangers than collectivists. Collectivists, as theory suggests, favoring the ingroup over the outgroup, prefer equality when distributing resources, and they are more likely to accommodate ingroup members. In organizational and work contexts those who are low in collectivism prefer to work alone and are more likely to perform solitary tasks more effectively. Studies of communication suggests individualism predicts an emphasis on direct, clear communication, where collectivism is associated with indirect communication that takes into account the other person’s feelings.


  1. Sarah N.
    September 9, 2018 at 6:48 am

    Very clear breakdown of a complicated dynamic; I’ve been looking for something like this for a while. Thank you for writing it!

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