Individualism vs. Individuation
Today, I would like to discuss another aspect of an Indigenous view of interpreting historical events: collectivism! Additionally, I would like to observe the role that individualism has within the process of collectivism for Indigenous communities. This post will delve into the philosophical understandings of these approaches from an Indigenous perspective. It will examine examples in communication and ethics.
First, let’s start by defining both individualism and collectivism. Keep in mind that the definitions I use won’t be super detailed because their applicability will be viewed through the lens of an Indigenous perspective.
- Individualism – “Individualism is a moral, political or social outlook that stresses human independence and the importance of individual self-reliance and liberty.”
In the west, codes of conduct are based on the concept of the individual as the “bargaining unit.” That is, there is fundamental description of the human being as essentially an individual which is potentially autonomous. The term autonomous is, in this sense, described as making reference to an individual that exists isolated and solitary. The term implies, also, the notion that this individual can act in such a manner that he can become a law unto himself: the “I” is conceived as containing the capacity to be “self-determining” (Cordova, 2003, p. 173).
Thus, the individual, every individual, is seen as having autonomy to conduct themselves in the manner they see fit; the individual is the focal point for production of meaning, action, and thought. An example of application of this concept, which is often notable in politics, can be seen in the matter of representation:
A theory of representation should seek to answer three questions: Who is to be represented? What is to be represented? And how is the representation to take place? Liberal individualism answers each of these questions in a distinctive way. In answer to the question “who?” it replies that individual persons are the subject of representation; and in answer to the question “what?” that an individual’s view of his or her own interests is paramount, so that his or her wants or preferences should form the stuff of representation. The answer to the question “how?” is slightly more complicated, but its essence is to say that the representation should take place by means of a social choice mechanism that is as responsive as possible to variations in individual preference (Weale, 1981, p. 457)
- Collectivism – “Collectivism. . .stresses human interdependence and the importance of a collective…”
Indigenous Americans . . . found their codes of conduct on the premise that humans are naturally social beings. Humans exist in the state of the “We” (Cordova, 2003, p. 175).
. . . in collectivist cultures social behavior is determined largely by goals shared with some collective, and if there is a conflict between personal and group goals, it is considered socially desirable to place collective goals ahead of personal goals (Ball, 2001, p. 58).
Thus, the collective, whether in the form of a group, community, tribe, clan, government, or nation, is seen as being the source of determination and setting of goals, recognizing that decisions and actions rely upon and impact other peoples.
Exercising the “I” within the “We”
As one might have surmised by the defining of the concepts or perhaps has learned through their experiences in life, individualistic and collectivistic characteristics can and often do conflict with each other. Some of the inherent values behind individualism run fundamentally counter to collectivism and vice versa. One who values the independence they see in themselves and the autonomy to make all decisions according to their will does not easily relinquish such supposed independence unless it is their choice to do so. And those who value the shared efforts they see in their communities and the interdependence their decisions have on the decisions of others will not easily relinquish such supposed ties unless such conduct is condoned by the group. Let’s consider a brief example in the field of communication.
Two Cultures of Communication
The nature of individualism and collectivism is manifested in a multitude of ways. One way can be noticed in communication styles, particularly ones that employ deception. According to some, there are three primary motives for the use of deception in communication (Buller & Burgoon, 1994). Those are:
- Instrumental objectives – Interests that focus on securing something the communicator (the one initiating communication) wants from another party. This can be an outcome, an attitude, or materials, such as resources.
- Interpersonal objectives – Interests that focus on creating and maintaining relationships (from an Indigenous perspective of relationality, this would include relationships with non-human items and beings).
- Identity objectives – Interests that focus on the identity a person wants to maintain and the image they want to project in any given situation.
These three motives are important when considering how to categorize social interactions within individualistic and collectivistic cultures; they help us to identify not only the characteristics of such perspectives, but to understand how ingrained these characteristics are and how much they influence our conduct and the transferring of knowledge.
Commenting on the conduct of these two types of ways cultures behave, Rodríguez (1996) says:
Members of individualistic cultures are more likely to pursue instrumental objectives than members of collectivistic cultures. Conversely, members of collectivistic cultures are more likely to pursue interpersonal and identity objectives than members of individualistic cultures. It is important to note that members of both cultures can deceive to secure any of the objectives discussed previously. For example, it is possible for a member of an individualistic culture to deceive because he or she is attempting to secure an interpersonal or identity objective. In a similar way, it is possible for a member of a collectivistic culture to deceive because she or he is attempting to secure some instrumental object. There is, however, a greater probability that a member of a collectivistic culture will deceive as a consequence of a motive that is most consistent with the values of his or her culture, and the interpersonal and identity motives are most consistent with collectivistic values (p. 114).
The reason we see cultures who tend one way or another being categorized with the three aforementioned is because there is a fundamental difference in how social interactions are expected to be executed. Reciprocity, the concept of returning favors and acts in like manner as you received, is an aspect relevant in both individualistic and collectivistic cultures. However, there are different norms associated with this concept. Reciprocity in seen as obligatory for collectivist cultures, as opposed to voluntary in individualist cultures. When it comes to communication, this differs alters the very dynamics of how deception is perceived.
For example, in many Indigenous cultures, a person committing a mistake will likely not be directly confronted about said mistake, even if they inquire about it (depending on how they inquire). For collectivist cultures who focus on maintaining relationships and putting group goals ahead of individual ones, the person committing a mistake is part of the group. There is a need, an obligation, to let that person save face despite committing a mistake and a direct confrontation could be detrimental to their identity and to their reputation. In an individualistic culture, there is often a greater chance of a person committing a mistake being directly confronted about it because their individual character is being perceived more than the whole group identity and their mistake can be seen as a threat to the goal of another if they’re working together. In this brief example, we see the employing of deception for the person to save face within a collectivist culture, but this type of deception is expected and not seen as rude or wrong.
As spoken about earlier regarding codes of conduct, the preference of individualism or collectivism can greatly impact ethical guidelines. Interestingly enough, however, is how Indigenous collectivist societies see the role of the individual when interpreting collectivist goals.
A code if conduct, however, can be based on the descriptions of the human being as a social being; that is, he exists within the confines of the “We.” The adjustment of his behavior in the company of others is necessary for the continued existence of the individual. In other words, if there was no others, or if the individual were truly autonomous, there would be no need to adjust one’s behavior in order to maintain membership in a group (Cordova, 2003, p. 174).
As highlighted in the example of communication, the maintaining of relationships, and thus the very “continued existence of the individual,” is key and is what promotes social harmony. This is contrasted with individualistic characteristics, as proposed by Cordova, that culminate in two essential assumptions for maintaining individualistic social harmony: “(1) that the individual is not “naturally” a social being, and (2) that a social identity, as well as social behavior, is artificially imposed upon the individual by others, that is, that such an identity or behavior is “unnatural”” (p. 176). This is surmised, in part, because of the internationalization and externalization of laws (rules), or the ethical codes of conduct. In Western societies, there is a focus on the externalization of these laws because of the individualistic nature developed by both religion and philosophy. Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), an English philosopher, argued that the individual existed in a state of competition with other individuals for instrumental objectives and groups were formed for greater gain. Christianity dawned a view of individuals being separated by faiths and God deeming it right for there to be a condemned and a saved. Because the individual has freedom and choice and is considered fully autonomous, even within a number of Christian interpretations, law is forced upon the individual in order to have them submit to their societal grouping. There are punishments enforced among the individuals in the group and this creates an externalization of laws. In both of these cases, one of secular or one of religious nature, those grouping together needed justification from the individualistic perspective, which isn’t necessary in many Indigenous collectivistic societies because grouping together is the norm, it is seen as natural. This means that obeying laws set by the group is also seen as natural. This translates into an internalization of laws (or a “habitual” following of these laws) because there are two assumptions this behavior rests on: “(1) humans are social beings by nature, and (2) humans want to remain in the social group” (p. 176).
The internalization or externalization of law is important because it identifies the characteristics of collectivistic/individualistic cultures. Those who have internalized their laws, their codes of conduct, their ethics are manifesting their very collective ontology: their reality is made up of their relationships and their very reality hinges on the maintaining of these relationships, for this is what is seen as “natural” and “normal.” There is an obligation to follow these laws for not only the sake of your group, but for your very existence. This is opposed to the individualistic understanding informed by competition, rapacity, egotism, and self-centered attitudes, attributes which require an externalization of laws if individualism is a value still desired to be held.
I believe that collectivist cultures, however, offer at least the same level of expression of individuality while trying to maintain the social harmony of the group. For the Indigenous peoples of the Americas, this definition of “We,” this collectivist nature, expands itself to include the concept of equality. Cordova (2003) further comments:
Many outside commentators on Native American lifeways have commented on this notion of equality – that it extends to children; that it promotes an emphasis on consensual decision-making; that it extends even to an individual’s actions toward the planet and its many life-forms . . . Each new human being born into a group represents and unknown factor to that group. The newborn does not come fully equipped to deal with his membership in the group; he must be taught what it is to be a human in a very specific group . . . The newborn is at first merely humanoid – the group will give him an identity according to their definition of what it is to be human. The primary lesson that is taught is that the individual’s actions have consequences for himself, for others, for the world. The newcomer’s humanness is measured according to how he comes to recognize that his actions have consequences for others, for the world (pp. 176-178).
Thus, from the very beginning in many Indigenous societies, a personal, individual identity is encouraged because it will be measured in how they relate to all their relations in the world. To be denied an individual identity is to be denied humanness. The concept of autonomy changes, though.
The term autonomy takes on a whole different meaning in this environment. In a society of equals no one can order another about. No one can be totally dependent upon another, as that would create an artificial hierarchy (the dependent and the independent) with all of its accompanying ramifications such as authoritarianism and lack of individual initiative. The autonomous person, in this environment, is one who is aware of the needs of others as well as being aware of what the individual can do for the good of the group. “Autonomy,” in this case, would be defined as self-initiative combined with a high degree of self-sufficiency (p. 178).
From this perspective, the autonomy of the individual, their very existence, is calculated for and accommodated, though viewed differently, because they are recognized as willfully contributing to the existence of the group. Once in the group, they internalize the laws of the group and charges themselves with social obligations while respecting the individual decisions another may make, even within the group. This allows for individual development while maintaining social harmony and advancing the goals of the collective. The goals of the collective become the goals of the individual.
Individualism vs Collectivism
Doing History – Collectivist Eyes
As it has been made very clear, an Indigenous collectivist culture has a heavy focus on their relationships. And for no wonder – relationships create the very reality these cultures exist in. So when it comes to learning and teaching history, how does this impact the way it is done?
Part of it is done through collective memory and oral story telling. Things that might’ve happened to an individual of a Tribe or clan can be related to the group and it is taken as if it impacted the group as a whole. There is a legend of the Kiowa people of a time a comet fell from the sky and struck close by. The image of the comet striking close to them was both awe inspiring and terrifying for them, so much so that much of their oral history marks the falling of this star and designates when things happened in relation to it.
When history is related in this manner, accounts told by story are taken as the facts, even though their rendition might change from speaker to speaker (a feature that also respects the individuality of the storyteller) and even if the descendants or even the speaker have no direct connection to the events that took place or the words being spoken. A collectivist interpretation of history will also work to maintain the social norms that are in place, which includes acknowledge that relationships extend beyond the immediate group relations. What this means is that even if contradictory histories or stories are related, they are not seen as explicit contradictions. It is acknowledged that others have their own stories to tell, their own legends to pass along, and their own interpretation of said things. And while they might differ from Tribe to Tribe, it isn’t seen as a concern that they might contradict – it is within the social obligations for them to allow people to believe what they want.
Of course, we want to relate history that is honest and accurate, credible and verifiable (to a reasonable degree). But when doing things from an Indigenous perspective, the goal is not to dismiss or uncover, but to enlighten and learn. It is also to be respectful and to always mind your relationships. This means realizing that there isn’t a one history or your history or my history, but our histories.
Edit: Forgot my references…
Ball, R. (2001). Individualism, Collectivism, and Economic Development. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 573, 57-84. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org.evergreen.idm.oclc.org/stable/1049015
Buller, D. B., & Burgoon, J. K. (1994) Deception: Strategic and Nonstrategic Communication. In J. A. Daly & J. M. Wiemann (Eds.), Strategic interpersonal communication (pp. 191-223). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
Cordova, V. F. (2003). Ethics: The We and the I. In A. Waters. (Ed.), American Indian Thought. Wiley-Blackwell.
Rodríguez, J. I. (1996). Deceptive communication from collectivistic and individualistic perspectives. Journal of Intercultural Communication Studies, 6(2), 111-118.
Weale, A. (1981). Representation, Individualism, and Collectivism. Ethics, 91(3), 457-465. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org.evergreen.idm.oclc.org/stable/2380796