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Understanding individualism and collectivism

Of all the dimensions of culture, Individualism and Collectivism is most widely used to explain behavioral variance. This article discusses the history, applications, limitations, and modifications of this dimension as it is used for cross-cultural analysis.

Individualism and Collectivism, or ‘IND/COL’, primarily concerns the centrality of the individual or the group, and how people see themselves in relation to the social groupings or structures around them. In individualist cultures, individuals take precedence over groups; in collectivist cultures, the group takes precedence over individuals. In social structures where the ties between people are loose, “individualism” is usually the priority, such that each person is expected to responsibly look after him or herself (or their immediate family). In tighter social systems, people are guided from birth to be an active, contributing part of clearly defined in-groups, taught to consider how their mutual sacrifices, loyalty, or shared efforts contribute to the protection, maintenance, well-being, or advancement of that group.

Since the beginning of cross-cultural studies, differences along the IND/COL divide have been useful in understanding contrasts in communication in different societies. For example, people in individualist culture has been found to rely more on person-based information, whereas collectivists rely more on group-based information. Across a wide range of disciplines, the IND/COL dimension is considered to be the most influential explanation for how people in different societies think, function, or relate.

The recommended article addresses the dimension’s historical conceptualization, defining features, and operationalization. It also introduces low and high context communication as a function of IND/COL and links IND/COL to individual communicative behavior, and independent versus interdependent self-construals. Overall, it first examines how the dimension has contributed to intercultural competence research and training, then highlights its major critiques, and finally suggests directions for future research.

Let us know how helpful you find the individualism-collectivism distinction, or if you find it over-generalized. How would you better explain these features in your own culture?

With these dimensions now clearly in mind, what new insights might you add to your analysis of the values differences between Dr. Chen and Dr. Johnson?

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This article is from the free online course:

Intercultural Communication

Shanghai International Studies University (SISU)