Individualism or the Group?

Thor May
Wuhan, China 2001

The lady on BBC radio was making a pitch to teach social anthropology to the unwashed masses of the air-waves. There is, she said, a range of cultural types whose two extremes are individualism and groupism. And the psychological collocations of these types are “selfish” and “cooperative” respectively. Really?

Well, the discussion which follows is not in the language of academic anthropology, and is not based on formal “rigour” in methodology. It is a personal reaction in plain language to some of the claims emerging from academic social sciences. Personal reactions, yours or mine, have no special claim to authority. We may be misguided, but a vote is a vote. The lady on BBC radio will be an unwitting target, but she surely defined her own type : the academic repeater. Like the booster units in high tension electricity transmission cables, the academic repeater picks up the accepted half-truths of the age and amplifies them to the world as golden rules...

The particular half-truth the BBC lady propagated is insidious (I think), for it is the foundation of countless false stereotypes widely held, even by well-meaning people. Particularly by well-meaning people. The pseudo-scientific propagation of unchallenged ideas becomes really damaging when some academic builds a populist career on "studies" which support the favoured proposition. With social phenomena it is fairly easy to construct a selective "research study" which will support almost any theory. Often the process is less malicious than lazy, and this is probably the case with the notions in question here.

However, if we deconstruct these assertions of "individualistic" and "group oriented" cultures in the hard light of real world experience, well suddenly the implications assumed for the labels begin to melt away, or blend and change in unexpected ways.

For example, a typical naive set of assumptions about "group oriented" cultures it that the participants within them are basically altruistic, self-effacing, self-sacrificing and sociable. A society of such individuals should exhibit the very best of human civilization working in equitable, democratic communities. By contrast, those from individualistic cultures should be cold, grasping, selfish, egotistical and almost incapable of the cooperation demanded by a civil society. Indeed, a society of individualists, by this stereotype would be a dog eat dog affair, dedicated to conflict, riven with disloyalty and betrayal, forever failing to build a stable and humanistic community.

Now let’s take a plane trip and look at the real world. Better, like me, let’s work for a while in location where there is a fair sampling of both supposed archetypes of culture. What do we find? We find that the real social content behind those supposedly individualistic and group-oriented labels is drastically at variance with the stereotypes.

I come from a supposedly individualistic culture: Anglo/Australian. It has its faults, some of them serious. Anomie and loneliness affect far too many people. The ready-made (though constricting) micro communities of extended family, work groups, alumni etc that are so adhesive in some "group" cultures tend to be fragile and casual in Anglo/Australian culture. Naturally dependent personalities can easily feel abandoned. I can report also that you do not have to dig too deeply to find the selfish, the egotistical, the disloyal and the greedy.

In fairness though, one must also observe that this particular Australian community as a whole is one of the most tolerant and even-handed on the planet, with superb social services, a long tradition of voluntary work for good causes, and a ready acceptance by large numbers of people of their personal responsibility to contribute to the betterment of human-kind. How odd... Is it just possible that these "individualists" are comfortable enough with their own autonomous identities to cooperate freely and altruistically with other human beings as equals?

In practice, Australians, like people anywhere, come in a variety of flavours. Many are gregarious, others more self-contained. Officially, the two major national political parties are divided by a preference for group action (the Labour Party), or the cooperation of libertarian individualists (the Liberal Party). However, this is only one strand in their formation. Most people in the street believe that Labour’s origins in organized labour unions have been supplanted by yuppie culture (young upwardly mobile professional persons, sexually liberal, but economically conservative), whereas the Liberal Party is seen as the home of conservative business interests. In fact, familiarity with either party quickly reveals a wide range of social types in each.

It may be true however -- and this is a matter for research -- that the formation and cohesion of political parties in a milieu of relatively independent thinkers like the Australian requires broad attachment to policies and causes. By contrast, attempts at democracy in many intensely "group oriented" cultures often seem to have lead to parties and factions which have no genuine dedication to any values except the naked pursuit of power. Such parties are unstable, and may dissolve rapidly when power beckons individual members from another source: a pattern which is all too familiar in many parts of the world.

One can only speculate about the apparent lack of durability of political groupings in many "group cultures". Could it be that the group psychology types expect an imposed organization, whereas the individualists have to be tempted to group participation by an inherently rewarding organization, irrespective of power?

For three years (1987-1990) I lectured linguistics at the University of the South Pacific in Suva, Fiji. This was a culturally fascinating experience, in a society split right down the middle between indigenous Fijians and ethnic Indians. Most of the latter had been in the country for several generations and knew no other home. Both the Fijian and Indian populations claim to be group oriented (though Indians definitely edge more towards the individualistic, and have no clear tribal affiliation). Regardless, each culture is entirely out of sympathy with the other. Intermarriage is extremely rare.

My Fijian students, especially, often spelled out the naive stereotypes outlined above for group and individualistic orientations. They saw themselves as group oriented types, with the prescribed virtues attached, and both Indians and Europeans as "individualistic", with all the accompanying ills. As I came to know more about Fijian groups I saw that there was much to admire amongst the more admirable members that you see in any community.

And then there were the others. Once I played King Solomon with three Fijian undergraduate students who handed me word-for-word identical essays. I called them into my office and offered them a choice: the real author could have 15/20, or they could divide the mark three ways, 5/20 each. It was up to them to sort it out. Later a message came back that the young man (the others were women) had demanded the full mark and the women had withdrawn. Hmm, he wouldn’t have survived a forensic examination, but it was their cultural resolution. Fijian group solidarity? Nobody in my courses pulled that stunt again.

In Fiji I observed a culture that was often brutally hierarchical, and that had deep undercurrents of violence. Large numbers of Fijian men routinely beat women. Fights amongst men were not infrequent. In spite of a rather puritan brand of Christian Methodism that permeated the Fijian communities, anti-social behaviour like lying and stealing was common (in the Indian ethnic community also). Above all, by failing to find a cooperative and fair compromise with the Indians, Fijians had (and have) very nearly destroyed their own country. In other words, the simplistic label of "group oriented" concealed a vastly more complex and contradictory equation than the stereotypes suggested.

Another scenario: I taught for two years (1998-2000) in central China, partly because I wanted to see "how China worked" as a society. It has been standard communist Chinese propaganda fare for half a century to castigate the "selfish individualism" of the West. After all, the communist vision, in its madder reaches, declared an ideology to make ONE group of hundreds of millions of people. Interestingly, in order to make a single group of a whole political culture, all existing groups had to be undermined and destroyed.

Like archetypal professional soldiers, and "disciplined forces" from time immemorial, the perfect communist man or woman or child would renounce loyalty to family, friends, professional colleagues and neighbours, all for one great "group" cause. Once immersed in this oceanic glory of "the masses", each human particle would be cared for from the cradle to the grave, but only in exchange for utter "unselfish" loyalty to the Party. Well, that was the propaganda. What was the reality?

There is no doubt that traditional Chinese society (for all its regional variations) was strongly oriented to mutual dependence within tightly restricted groups. Pre-eminently this meant the extended family, where both mutual care and mutual obligation were intense, often suffocating. Outsiders were admitted into this tight core mostly on the basis of long personal association and accumulated trust. Those who went through some intensive shared experience, such school alumni or sometimes military veterans might also form life-long bonds.

Such friends would not only expect but also demand all kinds of favours and help (including financial help). Quite complex legal or business practices might develop with little written record. A few family-based companies with trusted employees could grow moderately large in this fashion, but most enterprises barely extended beyond the family. The obligations of all inner-members however were strongly reciprocal. The room for personal ambition and manipulation within such small groups was very restricted, yet much exercised as far as the rules allowed.

Confucian orthodoxy projected the family hierarchy as model for layers of subordination all the way up to the emperor. However, for those outside of the bureaucracy, there seems to have been little daily sense of belonging to a larger national enterprise. Civil society was almost non-existent. The Chinese man seeking to survive beyond of his small loyalty group was essentially in the jungle. Notions of Confucian virtue notwithstanding, the wider social structure was an ever-shifting equation of force, opportunism, bribery, extortion, cultivated alliances, betrayals, and all the usual tools for fighting in a social wilderness.

Chinese Communist Party attempts to supplant the family group + trusted friends with a singular commitment to mass society foundered on basic human psychology. Even in those world cultures with the most well-developed traditions of civic behaviour and liberal democratic institutions, it is only a small number of people who are ever seriously interested in "the national interest". Most people are family centered. Some can extend loyalty to a neighbourhood, a few to a state or province, some to a company while it employs them. Interest in "human-kind", where it exists at all, is mostly limited to particular issues (environmentalism is a recent example), and focused emotional events (like the Jewish holocaust).

Violent attacks by the CCP on the existing pattern of social loyalties in China had tragic consequences. Attempts to destroy the family reached their height in the Cultural Revolution when children were encouraged to betray their parents. In effect, during those fanatic years China committed cultural suicide (and in the process destroyed most of the nation’s most valuable cultural artifacts). There was a reign of terror, yet terror found many willing technicians and passive victims. The very fact that hundreds of millions of people allowed this atrocity to be committed on them, and participated actively themselves, shows how fragile the existing social structure had been beyond the bounds of family. (Incidentally, it is extremely difficult to find anyone nowadays who will admit to having been a Red Guard -- the teenage storm-troopers of the culture’s destruction -- just as it is difficult in Germany to find anyone who was a Nazi ).

So now, a generation beyond the Cultural Revolution, and half a century from the Communist accession to power in mainland China, what is the nature of the social fabric? Do we see the selfless dedication of the idealized masses in a harmonious and generous society? The answer, of course, is a very large NO.

Communist ideology -- the submersion of individual human egos in the cause of a mass society -- is entirely discredited. Its disrepute is made indelible by the behaviour of the nation’s political leaders at every level, who have demonstrated for fifty years and at every opportunity that THEY are solely interested in personal power and personal enrichment. If, by some (unlikely) hypothetical magic, the Communist Party were to lose power in China tomorrow, and were substituted by a credible alternative administration, then (I believe) that the Communist Party would disappear almost without a trace. The legions of current seekers after power would change rhetoric without a backward glance (without however altering their methods..).

Ordinary people in the street in China seem to have reverted in many ways to the old pre-communist social patterns. Those are certainly the ideals that many articulate, when they have ideals at all. As before, civil society is almost non-existent. While the care of friendship is both thoughtful and consistent, public behaviour can be brutish. In Wuhan where I lived for two years, many people (for example) were fastidious about their personal hygiene, but without a blush threw rubbish and spat anywhere on the street, or on the floors of shops and classrooms. No one EVER volunteered for anything in the public sphere; (Chinese media’s use of terms like "volunteer" is a code that fools no one).

Small group loyalty can be intense in China, yet the pursuit of personal advantage is more ruthless than that found in almost any other culture. The yawning chasm between small closed groups and the public pathways to power or advantage is bridged by "guanxi". Guanxi had its origins in the reciprocity which is found in many forms in every culture. In the Chinese context however, guanxi for the ambitious has less to do with generosity and more to do with relentless influence seeking. Its basic technique is to wrap as many people as possible into a spider web of reciprocal obligation by gift giving, favours or outright bribery.

Industrial society has imposed its own consequences on traditional forms. Families are much smaller than they used to be, and the single children of the legislated "one child families" are just now coming of marriageable age. Divorce is almost common in the cities. Extended families are becoming rarer. All of this means that the ancient pattern of family loyalty is less and less viable as a vehicle to sustain a satisfying life. In China now there are tens of millions of individuals who, in one way or another, have been stripped of traditional group support. They mostly abhor the Communist Party as a proffered adoptive "family". Forced to be "selfish individualists" by demography itself, these social orphans sway in the winds of change, held suspended in space solely by the sticky web of guanxi (relationships for favours) that they weave.

Out of personal interest in 1998 I surveyed about one hundred and twenty mainland Chinese post-graduates about what they respected -- that is, about their social values. The survey carefully distinguished between what respect had to be SHOWN for, and what respect was personally FELT for. About thirty triggers were chosen, from age, to power, to gender, to honesty etc. with a scale of 0 to 5. Such surveys are always troublesome, especially when conducted by an authority figure (I was a lecturer) because people tend to reply in a way calculated to please. Partly for that reason I did not analyze the statistics in detail suitable for publication, but the dominant patterning was unmistakable.

The really surprising feature was that there was almost NO AGREEMENT about values at all. Those educated young people, mostly in their early twenties, had every kind of expressed value in every permutation across the spectrum of thirty items. One could only conclude that the huge agglomeration of human beings we call China is in transition when it comes to values. We have some idea of where they came from. Where they are going is anybody’s guess. When I hear East Asian politicians talk about "Asian values" and the "selfish individualism" of the West nowadays, I choke.

But I also have a secret hope. The Chinese state has shown some of the worst that political vandalism can do, and many Chinese business practices continue to demonstrate an amorality which is sickening. However, the Chinese people have also shown that whole populations can go through crushing experiences such as those of the last century, yet emerge a couple of generations later with countless numbers of decent people (as well as, of course, the usual quota of scoundrels).

My natural worldview is contrarian, critical, sardonic, and that must be reflected in my writing. But in fact there is good news to report too. A foreigner in China, outside of a couple of places like downtown Shanghai, is almost helpless -- one is suddenly illiterate and struck dumb in an utterly unfamiliar environment. You stand out like a beacon. The people all around you behave in incomprehensible ways. You can’t predict anything. The smallest tasks of daily survival become an exercise in elaborate planning. In such a scene, the hostility of strangers could make life intolerable.

However again and again my experience in China was that when the need was greatest, some individual very often appeared to help. And these were people acting as individuals. I remember the hawker who shut up her little stall in Chongqing and led me for fifteen minutes on foot across the city to show me an internet cafe. She wanted no reward and immediately excused herself. There was the small boy in Lanzhou who led me through a maze of back streets to a destination, and was shocked when I offered him a tip. There were strangers who spontaneously intervened to help at bus stations and airports. And there were of course my students ...

Other articles by Thor dealing with cross-cultures: "Cultural Operating Systems - Thoughts on Designing Cultures", 2010; Ethnicity and Racism - Stirring the Pot, 2005; "Senate Inquiry into the Status of Australian Expatriates", 2004;"Korean, American and Other Strange Habits - You Do It Your Way - two books reviewed", 2003; "When Is It Rude To Be Rude? - Politeness Across Cultures and Subcultures", 2001; "The Price of Freedom - an Escape from Vietnam", 1984


Professional bio: Thor May's PhD dissertation, Language Tangle, dealt with language teaching productivity. Thor has been teaching English to non-native speakers, training teachers and lecturing linguistics, since 1976. This work has taken him to seven countries in Oceania and East Asia, mostly with tertiary students, but with a couple of detours to teach secondary students and young children. He has trained teachers in Australia, Fiji and South Korea. In an earlier life, prior to becoming a teacher, he had a decade of drifting through unskilled jobs in Australia, New Zealand and finally England (after backpacking across Asia in 1972).  

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All opinions expressed in this paper are entirely those of the author, who has no aim to influence, proselytize or persuade others to a point of view. He is pleased if his writing generates reflection in readers, either for or against the sentiment of the argument.

"Individualism or the Group?" © copyrighted to Thor May; all rights reserved 2001