Individualism and collectivism

Individualistic family

Communication theorists, anthropologists and others have given us tools to develop our awareness of and understanding of others whose culture and communication may differ from our own.  Individualist patterns involve ideas of the self as independent, self-directed and autonomous. In collectivist cultures members are rewarded for allegiance to group norms and values, interdependence and cooperation. Key differences between collectivist cultures and individualistic cultures are: 

Collectivist Cultures

Individualistic Cultures

Children tend to think in terms of ‘we’

Children learn to think in terms of ‘I’

Harmony should always be maintained and direct confrontations avoided

Speaking one’s mind is a characteristic of an honest person

Resources should be shared with with relatives

Individual ownership of resources, even for children

Showing sadness is encouraged and happiness is discouraged

Showing happiness is encouraged and sadness is discouraged

People with disabilities are a shame on the family and should be kept out of sight

People with disability should participate as much as possible in normal life

Rely more on social networks for information

Prefer researched information from statistics

Information sourced from: ‘Cultural Connections booklet, by Child Australia’ (2013), p24.

While family responsibilities are important in both individualistic and collectivistic cultures, generally collectivistic cultures emphasise family obligations over individual autonomy (Triandis, 1990).

In individualistic cultures, individuals are generally socialised to be more autonomous. Seeking help from the state and disclosing family problems to extra-familial sources of support is more commonplace among people from individualistic cultures. It is important to understand how collectivistic cultural norms and practices can contribute to the barriers CALD families face when they access and use family relationship and early childhood services. (Sawrikar and Katz, 2008).

An example of how individualism vs collectivism can manifest in child rearing practices

Child rearing practices in Anglo-Australian mainstream culture are often oriented towards individualism. Newborns are often expected to sleep alone, toddlers are encouraged to feed themselves and preschoolers are encouraged to be competitive and to do the best they can.

Families from a collectivist cultures may emphasize interdependence and the cooperation of the group as a whole. The family may sleep together, self feeding may occur at a later stage, and being competitive-to stand apart from the group-is considered in appropriate and shameful behaviour.

"Junior who is new to the centre, is excited when he sees a bowl of food. The baby makes happy sounds, kicks his legs, and waves his arms. But when Helen places the bowl in front of him, he just sits there and makes no attempt to feed himself. He looks confused and then distressed. Finally he slumps over, a glazed look in his eyes.

His mother explains later that she taught Junior not to touch his food. In fact her son has never been in a high chair; he has always been fed on his mother's lap, wrapped up tightly in a blanket to discourage him from interfering with her. Junior obviously doesn't know how to respond to this new arrangement."

The story identifies the need to have open dialogue with families so we may better understand the 'thinking' and 'doing' of ourselves and others. Openly invite the feedback and thoughts of families. It is only through dialogue and perseverance that happy mediums can be found.

This story is from the Cultural Connections booklet published by Child Professional Support Coordinator, page 25.

Last modified: Thursday, 14 July 2016, 5:26 PM