16. Individualism or the Group ?

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). 

con­tact: http://thormay.net    thor­may AT yahoo.com
return to Thor’s Unwise Ideas index


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
This entry was posted in culture, evidence, individualism, proportion, Research & Study, truth. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to 16. Individualism or the Group ?

  1. Hansi says:

    Hi. I enjoyed read­ing your account of China and agree with your obser­va­tions. I spent four years teach­ing at col­leges in North­ern China and man­aged to travel as far south as Hainan Island. It’s dif­fi­cult to decide what is going on in China but I think the One Child pol­icy is pro­duc­ing a more self-cen­tered, self-con­fi­dent gen­er­a­tion. Much of the col­lec­tivist rep­u­ta­tion of the cul­ture is unde­served except in a nar­row sense, the fam­ily union. Thanks for your enjoy­able blog.

Leave a Reply