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Collectivist and individualist cultures

March 04, 2008

Hello again,
Individualism and collectivism are two extremes of a spectrum. The USA, Canada, and Western European cultures veer towards individualism, as opposed to Asian, Latin American, and African nations, which tend to be collectivist. The individualist culture...

... values and nurtures the sense of “I” while collectivist cultures think more of “we.” Triandis (1995) explained that collectivists focus on changing themselves
to fit the environment, while individualists focus on changing the environment to fit themselves.

Mrs Thatcher once notoriously remarked that there was no such thing as society. She had a fiercely individualistic approach, which, at its worst, is a dog eat dog culture in which only the strongest win out. Most of us have a more balanced view and can sense that there are times when the needs of the group are more important than of the individual but it is always a difficult balance to achieve. The more individualistic the culture, the more people expect to be independent in thought and deed. The more collectivist the culture, the more emphasis is place on relationships, group identity, a sense of belonging.

As with power distance, western-trained teachers going east to work are likely to experience cultures closer to the opposite end of the spectrum from their own. The purpose of education serves a different meaning for collectivist cultures than for
individualist cultures. According to Hofstede, 2001, the purpose of education in individualist cultures is to learn how to learn. This learning continues on throughout an individualist’s life readying him for life with other individuals and new situations. The purpose of learning in a collectivist culture is to acquire the customs and norms of that society in order function better as an in-group member. This learning tends to be given to the young only, in the hopes of passing on traditions important to the perpetuation of the society.

Classes will probably be bigger than those in the west and students may be reticent when it comes to speaking or standing out in any way from the group. They may also be diffident about expressing personal views, making debating activity difficult. Teachers rarely single out individual students in collectivist classrooms. This means that both confrontation and praise are less likely, and that suits students in collectivist cultures, who have a tendency not to want to stick out from the group.

In an individualistic culture students are encouraged to, be self-reliant, competitive, and pursue personal goals. Learners in a collectivist culture might feel uncomfortable if teachers try to impose this kind of learning environment on them. And, of course, if they feel uncomfortable, they will not learn effectively. However, the teacher, by virtue of his or training, may feel ineffective in a collectivist learning environment, which may seem static and lacking in dynamism.

The collectivist classroom lends itself to group activities, teamwork and cooperation. Hofstede made some useful contrasts between collectivist and individualist classrooms. Collectivists feel comfortable with tradition while individualists seek what is new; collectivists want to learn how to do while individualists expect to learn how to learn; individual student will not speak up unless personally invited by the teacher while individualists will speak up as part of a general invitation to discuss; collectivists do not want either the teacher or students to lose face while individualists are tolerant of overt mistakes and can openly apologise.

I think one of the issues for ELT is that our teacher training does not prepare us sufficiently for these very different approaches so that teachers venturing into new cultures to work face very different realities form those they have been trained to deal with.

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  1. yoon-ju cho Says:

    Q1) This article is quite interesting to me. When I teach English, i haven't been to think about a point of difference between collectiveist and individualist cultures in a class. In Korean education, we usually have a lesson of collectivist culture in a class. The teachers are fouced on teamwork and cooperation. Therefore, the collectivists don't positive than the individualist. For example, in a class, when the students have a conversation in a group, one or two studetns only lead to the activity. So the teachers are difficult to get each students talent. on the other hand, a foreign teacher leads to make a individual class for each studetns in a lesson. This way also have some negative faces, however I prefer to individual class for students. Because the studetns can have a chance to speak out their own ideas in a class.
    At the rest, i think the teachers should realized these different approaches and have trained to deal with.

  1. linguisticus Says:

    Is there such a strict dichotomy of "collectivist" versus "individualist"? While I agree with much of what the author says I have some misgivings about the comfort zone the so-called 'collectivist" cultures provide.

    The individual in a collectivist culture simply is a conformist that has adapted to group dynamics; he or she is lost when on their own. That is true in life in general as it is in the classroom. However, every life begins as an individual existence; the baby learns with his mother, not with his peers. Only when babies have attained a certain age will they be taught as a collective. From then on it's a downhill race. Stimulation of the intellect will lag; instead the focus is on mass-producing Pavlovian reflexes.

    So while students from collectivist cultures acquired their mother tongue in much the same way individualists do, they are taught any foreign or second language as a collective, which is utterly at variance with how second-language teaching is done elsewhere. No wonder the common denominator in a collectivist classroom drops so low.

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