Collectivistic Cultures Definition
Social psychology researchers tend to think about cultures as shared meaning systems that provide the knowledge people need to function effectively in their social environment. To see the importance of shared meaning systems, imagine that you were in a different culture where you did not know the language or the customs. It would be quite difficult for you to function in such a culture, at least until you learned these things. It is only when you share knowledge with others that you can communicate and interact with them effectively. Because of this shared knowledge, people in a culture are likely to have some similar ways of thinking about the world, to perceive things in a similar way, to have similar values and attitudes, to want similar things, to have similar ways of interpreting events, and to perform similar behaviors. This does not mean that all people in a culture will be the same, but they are more likely to be similar to each other than to people from other cultures.
Keeping in mind what a culture is, now consider how to define collectivistic cultures. Usually, collectivistic cultures are contrasted with individualistic ones, but there is no single definition. Rather, there are several characteristics that people from collectivistic cultures tend to have in common. In general, people in collectivistic cultures tend to think of themselves as interdependent (as strongly valuing harmonious relations) with their groups such as families, coworkers, country, and others. They benefit from their group memberships, and in turn, they have a desire to make sure that they benefit their group members. Consequently, they are likely to give priority to group goals over their personal goals. In general, people in collectivistic cultures are more likely than people who are not in collectivistic cultures to think about their group memberships and to consider them when making decisions. Some examples of collectivistic cultures include East Asians (e.g., Chinese, Japanese, and others) and Arabs (e.g., Egyptians, Syrians, and others).
Much evidence has accumulated showing that people in collectivistic cultures define their self-concepts (their concepts of who they are) relative to their group memberships. For example, when these people are asked to complete sentences beginning with “I am,” they are more likely than other people to respond with group memberships such as “I am a member of my family,” “I am a Chinese person,” and others. People from collectivistic cultures are also more likely than other people to say that their group memberships play an important role in how they think about themselves.
Because people in collectivistic cultures are interdependent with each other, that is, they have influence over each other and are influenced by each other. In other words, people have power over each other, but others also have power over them. This reinforces the tendency to prioritize group goals over personal goals because failure to do so can result in punishments from the other members of the group, whereas the pursuit of group goals can result in approval. The power issue is clarified when one considers that wealthy people tend to be less collectivistic than other people, even in collectivistic cultures. This is because wealthy people, to a greater extent than those who are not wealthy, can buy what they want, relocate to another area, and pursue other relationships. In short, wealth can provide some (but not complete) protection against social sanctions and thereby reduce the need for collectivism.
There are several factors that can affect the degree of collectivism in a culture. One such factor is the homogeneity (sameness) of the group. The more similar people in a group are to each other, the easier it is for them to agree on the proper norms, and so they will tend toward collectivism.
A second factor is the degree to which people need each other to accomplish the task at hand. Suppose that the task at hand is to feed one’s family. A person in a highly technological society may be able to make a good living as a computer programmer and rarely have to interact with other people. However, a person in an agricultural society—especially one in which the production of food is a group effort—must interact effectively with others. Such cultures will tend toward collectivism.
A third factor is that, in some cultures, people have more access to alternative groups than in other cultures. In a culture where access to alternative groups is restricted, one’s group has a great deal of ability to reward or punish behavior, thereby increasing the tendency toward collectivism. In contrast, to the extent that there is access to other groups, the ability of any particular group to reward or punish behavior decreases, and so collectivism likewise decreases.
A fourth, and subtler factor, is the ease with which particular self-concepts can be brought into consciousness (this is often called accessibility). Much evidence demonstrates that people in a wide variety of cultures have both a private self-concept (where thoughts about their traits and behaviors are stored) and a collective self-concept (where thoughts about group memberships are stored), though these concepts may not be equally likely to be accessed. It is quite easy to perform experiments where one or the other of these self-concepts is made more accessible by an experimental manipulation. For example, the collective self-concept can be made more accessible by asking people to think about how they are similar to their family and friends. The result of making the collective self-concept more accessible is that people behave in a more collectivistic manner. Thus, if people in a culture are exposed to stimuli that increase the accessibility of their collective self-concepts, they will tend toward collectivistic behaviors.
A fifth factor involves personality. Some people tend to value group memberships more than others. If there are many such people in a particular area, the culture will tend toward collectivism. Similarly, some people are more susceptible to social pressure than are others, which again increases the tendency of the culture toward collectivism.
Religion is sixth factor that has been shown to be correlated with collectivism. As people become more religious, they conform more to the practices of their religious group and identify themselves more with that group. In a word, they become more collectivistic. But not all religions are the same in the extent to which they promote conformity to religious prescriptions. Also, some religions are more centralized than others (e.g., Roman Catholics are more centralized than Protestants), and more centralization of authority leads to more collectivism. In religions where people are encouraged to disagree (e.g., Reform Judaism), it is less likely that religion will increase collectivism.
In summary, collectivism is a complicated idea that can be affected by a variety of things and is correlated with many other variables. In addition, there is no single kind of collectivism; although many different cultures are categorized as collectivistic, they differ from each other in their degree of collectivism as well as in many other ways. Despite these complications, the notion of collectivism has been widely used in social and cross-cultural psychology and is likely to remain so for a long time to come.
- Smith, P. B., & Bond, M. H. (1999). Social psychology across cultures (2nd ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
- Trafimow, D., Triandis, H. C., & Goto, S. (1991). Some tests of the distinction between the private self and the collective self. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 60, 649-655.
- Triandis, H. C. (1989). The self and social behavior in differing cultural contexts. Psychological Review, 96, 269-289.