Collectivism is defined as an orientation that reflects the values, attitudes, and behaviors of a person-group relationship in which family and group life is emphasized and the concept of the self is less essential. Collectivism emphasizes an interdependence among individuals in their ingroups (e.g., family, tribe, nation), with the expectation that members give priority to the goals of the group, and shapes the norms of group behavior. For example, children in collectivistic cultures are not encouraged to individuate from their parents; instead, children tend to obtain psychological well-being and a sense of security through obedience to, and dependence on, their parents. In essence, in collectivistic cultures, groups bind and mutually obligate individuals.
Ingroup and Outgroup
An important defining feature of collectivistic cultures pertains to the dynamics of ingroups and outgroups. In collectivistic cultures, individuals usually belong to a few ingroups (e.g., family, coworkers, and friendship circles). The welfare of their ingroups is viewed as a priority, and individuals are expected to make efforts for the groups’ well-being. Specifically, they are encouraged to retain connectedness among individuals, promote ingroups’ goals and interests through cooperation, and avoid open conflicts. Because of the emphasis on group harmony, cooperation, and collective goals, individuals in the ingroups are perceived as interdependent and selfless. For example, individuals tend to be concerned about the impact of their behavior on members of their ingroups and tend to shape their behavior based on the norms of the groups. Moreover, individuals from a collectivistic culture tend to share resources with ingroup members and feel cared for and a sense of belongingness by being involved in the lives of other ingroup members.
Although relatedness is a defining element of collectivism among individuals in the ingroups, it does not apply to everyone else in outgroups. In collectivistic cultures, individuals’ attitudes tend to be sharply different toward others in outgroups. For example, a cooperative relationship is highly unlikely with others who belong to outgroups. Individuals tend to treat those in outgroups with distance and clear boundaries.
Collectivism and Psychological Functioning
Scholars who have examined relations between collectivism and psychological functioning have found that collectivism contributes significantly to social, collective, and related aspects of the self-concept. For example, researchers found that collectivism was associated with decentrality of self-concept and perception of the self as part of larger social groups and endeavors; consequently, the personal needs and goals of members of collectivistic cultures should be deferred for the unity of the collective group. Moreover, personal traits that are facilitative to the maintenance of group connectedness are especially favorable in collectivistic cultures, such as being willing to sacrifice for collective benefits, being skillful in maintaining close relationships with ingroup members, and being mindful of preserving group harmony. Not surprisingly, when in conflictual situations, individuals attend to preserving relationships rather than achieving justice. Direct confrontation is usually tension provoking and undesirable in solving a conflictual situation. Studies on relationality and groups also suggest that collectivism is associated with equality. People from collectivistic cultures who showed more willingness to remain in relationships indicated ingroup preference, even in personally costly ones, and presented different forms of face-saving. Additionally, collectivism was found to have a correlation with a flexible and more ambiguous personality in that people from collectivistic cultures tend to place more focus on contexts, have less concern for consistency, and be less interested in self-enhancement as they tended to adjust themselves to their ingroups. Moreover, in organization research, collectivism was found to be associated with lower preference to work alone, lower performance in solo tasks, and more focus on work conditions and human relations. Thus, collectivism does appear to be related to psychological processes.
Collectivism versus Individualism
Individualism and collectivism are often conceptualized as two opposite constructs and represent very different norms of behavior. In general, cultures of Africa, Asia, and Latin America are categorized as collectivistic, whereas cultures of Western Europe and North America are noted as individualistic. In examining the dimensional structure of collectivism, research suggested that the simple approach of viewing collectivism as the opposite of individualism does not sufficiently represent the complexities within these two constructs. Most of the recent conceptual models and empirical research support collectivism/individualism as a separate domain-specific, independent dimension depending on contextual and social cues. Moreover, it seems appropriate to view societies as simultaneously dealing with both collectivistic- and individualistic-oriented values. Consistent with the notion of separate dimensions, another model has divided collectivism into kin- and non-kin-related collectivism, as well as kin- and non-kin-related individualism. This model implies that the meaning of collectivism varies across ingroups and cultures. In other words, collectivism is associated with certain groups but not others, and it takes different forms across different cultures.
Collectivism across Cultures
Studies on individualism and collectivism have been using samples from countries across the world. A recent meta-analysis of the comparative research literature of individualism and collectivism found that 50 out of 83 studies examined international comparisons, and 35 examined within-U.S. comparisons. In the studies of international comparisons, 50 countries were represented, with countries in South Asia and East Asia being most represented. The findings suggest that Americans are less collectivistic oriented than other regions of the world, except for some English-speaking countries. Within-U.S. comparisons examined differences among European Americans, African Americans, Asian Americans, and Latino/a Americans. The results from these studies indicate that European Americans are significantly lower on collectivism than Asian Americans and Latinos/as, although the effects were small, but do not differ from African Americans on collectivism. However, different collectivistic cultures emphasize different elements of collectivism. For example, Asian collectivistic cultures value group harmony and modesty in one’s presentation. Conversely, collectivistic cultures of the Mediterranean and Latin America construe respect/dignity as the central value; that is, individuals are expected to preserve their honor and act dependably.
The measurement of collectivism, as reflected in more than 2 dozen inventories, has been based primarily on Likert ratings of values and attitudes. Some of the existing scales measure individualism and collectivism as a single bipolar construct. The majority, however, measure individualism and collectivism as separate orthogonal constructs. Measuring collectivism (and individualism) has been very difficult, in part because of the many varieties of collectivism and collectivistic cultures. For example, some collectivistic cultures emphasize equality (e.g., Sweden), whereas others emphasize hierarchy (e.g., India). Nonetheless, common content components of collectivism scales are useful to depict key elements of collectivism, such as relatedness to others, a sense of belongingness to groups, a sense of duty to groups, harmony, seeking others’ advice, contextual self, valuing hierarchy, and working in groups. Most of the current research literature on collectivism can be categorized into three areas: (a) the dimensional structure of collectivism and its model development, (b) the relationship between collectivism and psychological functioning domains (e.g., self-concept, self-efficacy, well-being, attribution, and relationality), and (c) international comparisons and within-U.S. comparisons.
Counseling Implications to Collectivism
Collectivism can have a profound impact on all aspects of the counseling process. For example, individuals from collectivistic cultures are more likely to attribute the cause of an event to situational factors (e.g., environmental stressors) and less to personal characteristics. Such attributions can affect a client’s perceptions of his or her presenting problems and thus are relevant for the counselor to carefully assess. Also, a counselor’s choice of appropriate intervention strategies should be in line with a client’s worldview (e.g., collectivism). For example, intervention strategies that promote a sense of autonomy and self-worth would be inappropriate to a client who endorses collectivism with an emphasis on interdependence. Instead, it may be more appropriate to help a client from collectivistic cultures to find ways to meet both personal needs and group expectations. In addition, traditional emphasis on direct and open communication in a counseling relationship may create uncomfortable feelings in a collectivistic-oriented client who prefers indirect and high-context communication.
In sum, collectivism represents an important culture-based psychological construct related to how the self is conceptualized relative to important ingroups and out-groups across different cultures. It is also a worldview that is related to a host of psychological processes, which underscores the utility of the construct in understanding human adjustment. A competent counselor is one who understands how collectivism and individualism influence the counseling process and takes an active approach to develop culturally appropriate intervention strategies to help his or her clients.
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