Collectivism and Individualism

Clients in sport and exercise psychology contexts are from a diversity of cultural backgrounds. The terms individualism and collectivism have recently been  integrated  within  sport  psychology  as  elements  of  one  criterion  by  which  to  understand the  client’s  cultural  standpoint.  Individualism  has often  been  associated  with  mainstream  clients who are white and from the Western hemisphere. In contrast, people generally characterized as collective  in  their  approach  to  self  and  world  have often  been  depicted  as  South  American  or  Asian in origin, or as having been born and raised in collective-minded communities such as an Israeli kibbutz or an aboriginal reserve. To assume, however, that  every  athlete  born  and  raised  in  a  collective community  must  be  group  minded,  or  that  every client socialized in an individualist context must be driven  by  personal  objectives  would  of  course  be too simplistic.


A person’s inclination to view the self or collective at the center of interpersonal exchanges is a matter of  many  personal  factors  and  not  necessarily  the effect  of  such  broad  considerations  as  one’s  geographic origin, skin color, or religion. For example, there are white, mainstream, North American athletes who are collectively inclined, just as there are fitness  enthusiasts  from  Latin  American  or  Asian cultures  with  an  individualistic  mindset  as  they approach  their  physical  exercise.  Clients  must  be understood in their own right and not on the basis of stereotypes. However, it should also be observed that some clients are inclined toward the values of individualism, where others are somewhat or fully collective in their approach to performance.


What  differentiates  someone  with  an  orientation that  begins  with  self  from  another  with  a  collective  inclination?  A  person  who  is  situated  more toward individualism in one or more areas of life would often use language that places one’s self at the  center  of  discussions,  such  as  when  the  elite athlete is interviewed by the media and attributes personal accomplishments exclusively to personal efforts and personal abilities. Individualism is also typified through the use of theoretically informed objectives,   including   self-determination,   self efficacy,  self-concept,  and  self-esteem,  as  well  as the  behaviors  that  manifest  the  intentions  underpinning  each  term.  Decisions  are  often  informed more  by  personal  objectives  than  those  from within  one’s  communities  of  affiliation,  whether geographic, peer group, religious, or professional. Personal goals are derived from personal interests, ending in personalized accomplishments.


The collectively inclined person, in contrast, seeks position in relation to one or several groups, with the views and practices of the group(s) informing, and in some instances, determining personal decisions  and  behaviors.  The  decision  to  become  an elite athlete might be informed by how that career path  contributes  to  those  living  in  one’s  community.  Thereafter,  the  collectively  inclined  client might opt to return to that community and share experiences  and  skills  with  others  for  the  collective’s  betterment,  such  as  when  a  national  team athlete  or  professional  athlete  returns  to  the  cultural community to become a coach, or when one studies  physical  education  and  then  returns  to one’s  locale  to  work  a  physical  educator.  Hence, the person’s decision to act in a certain manner or develop targeted skills will align with the development of the group as a whole and also informed by the community’s stakeholders. The importance of social support, both in its reception and provision, becomes  particularly  salient  for  people  socialized with a collective mindset.

Research Applications

There  are  research  strategies  that  illustrate  inclinations  toward  individual  and  collective  values. Consider  qualitative  strategies  that  reflect  an emphasis  on  the  individual,  including  personal interviews and single-subject case studies. Practices that are individualist are best used with participants holding  like-minded  cultural  norms.  When  working with people who are more collectively inclined, one  might  consider  group  interviews  to  encourage group exchange and the convergence of ideas. Within  research,  the  objective  would  be  either  to conceive of strategies that match where participants reside on the aforementioned continuum or at least to  approach  research  studies  with  an  awareness that  orthodox  research  practices  for  individualist participants might cause discomfort among collectively inclined participants, and vice versa.


There are strategies that could be employed to better understand where the client resides in terms of self in relation to the collective. Perhaps the most basic  suggestion  is  to  listen  with  care  to  the  client in terms of how the client describes, and therefore positions, himor herself in relation to others. When motives seem to be informed by a community perspective, the sport or exercise psychologist can seek further clarification about where the client is from, what the values are within the community  of  origin,  and  whether  these  values  are  held dear by the client. Conversely, also through listening, when the client’s description of self centralizes personal accomplishments, again, the practitioner might follow up with questions that clarify the client’s origins and socialization.


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