Individualist Vs Collectivist…what does that even mean and is it important?


Here is a section from my book, Building a Bridge from “I Can’t” to “I DID!”.

“It is what it is.” Traffic, other peoples’ actions, the weather, the way dinner comes out of the oven sometimes. Using this phrase is appropriate to many situations we encounter in life to help us accept the things we cannot change. We also cannot control how our cultural lens was formed. Our lens comes from our community, environment, family, religion, and even country, state and area we were born and raised. However, we can adjust and adapt the lens we choose to look through moving forward. We only know what we know, so the more we know, the more we see. The more we know and understand our own cultural lens, the more we will understand the way other people perceive the world. The more we understand differences, the less frustrating and scary they can be.

A concept that is crucial in understanding how culture links to learning is having a deep understanding of the differences between the collectivist and individualistic cultures. These are two very different lenses in which to look at the world. This is a topic that is very near and dear to my heart, because I looked at this totally wrong for a lot of years in my classroom. I can think back to the things I did and said (with good intentions, mind you), and shake my head at how misguided and naïve I was.

The collectivist culture tends to emphasize the needs and goals of the group as a whole over the needs and desires of the individual. Relationships are key, and often take priority over individual accomplishments. A person’s identity is often found within the community they live and work. Cultures originating in Asia, Central America, South America and Africa tend to lean toward a collectivist culture (7)

The individualistic culture emphasizes the individual over the group. Common goals of the individualist culture are autonomy and independence. Individual rights are important in this culture, and often times there is emphasis on being unique or standing out. Dependence on other people can be looked down upon and even considered shameful. Cultures in North American and Western Europe tend to be individualistic (8)

Kleiber, Jenn. Building a Bridge from “I Can’t” to “I DID!”: Creating Independent Learners through Culturally Responsive Teaching. Houston, 2019.

Why are these differences important? Many professions, such as international business, psychology, and the medical fields are already studying these differences in order to promote success in their varying fields, but how does this translate to your students in your classroom?  Let’s think about this!

I could talk about this subject for a while, mainly because this has been a relatively new concept to me in the last couple of years.  Individualist and collectivist sits in the deepest part of culture, the part that we may not even recognize as culture…the part where we may not even recognize that others think differently than us. 

The reason this is so crucial to understand is that when we are with people whose behavior goes against what we deem as “normal” or “appropriate”, we may be offended or subconsciously judgmental. 

“I can’t believe that many people live in that tiny apartment.”

“I can’t believe she brought all of her kids to the school to have this meeting.”

“I can’t believe that family was that loud at the awards ceremony.”

In my opinion, these two feelings dig the divide deeper with mainstream America than almost anything else.  When our cultural bias takes over, even the most “non-racial” person can be affected, and can play a devastating role in widening the divide between cultures.

The even sadder part is that many times, it’s just a misunderstanding of cultures and not anything offensive at all!  And a lot of times, the situation is actually something be praised, and not judged!

Take a look at this chart from one of my trainings…

Individualism Collectivism
Focused on independence and individual achievement Focused on interdependence and group success
Emphasizes self-reliance and the belief that one is supposed to take care of himself and get ahead Emphasizes reliance on the collective wisdom or resources of the group and the belief that group members take care of each other to get ahead
Learning happens through individual study and reading Learning happens through group interaction and dialogue
Individual contributions and status are important Group dynamics and harmony are important
Competitive Collaborative
Technical/Analytical Relational

I’m sure you lean towards one more than the other, and it’s important to note that one side isn’t better or worse than the other, it’s just different perspectives.

To determine where and how your lens has been built, Click here to take this Cultural Lens Survey to really dig deeply into the lens you are looking through. Cultural Lens Survey

One response to “Individualist Vs Collectivist…what does that even mean and is it important?”

  1. This is such an important topic for educators! Understanding cultural backgrounds can help alleviate many of the behavior problems in our classrooms. In my classroom, I am still working on being mindful of how my students were raised and what they believe is the norm. Thank you for shedding light on this subject! I look forward to reading more about it in your book!

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