PART III — Continuum of “Individualistic” and “Collectivistic” Values
Transition policies and practices typically assume that youth with disabilities and their families give priority to individual-oriented outcomes such as self-determination, self-reliance, and independent living. However, not all youth and families share these values (Bui & Turnbull, 2003). This section of the Essential Tool explores the role of culture in the transition process. Culture refers to the patterns of values and learned behaviors that are shared and transmitted from generation to generation by the members of a social group. “Values” as used here includes beliefs, assumptions, and attitudes. “Worldview” is another term that could be used in this way. Values in this broad sense are assumed to guide how people live their lives, including their moral judgments, goals, and behaviors. Exploring and understanding the values of youth and their families is therefore an important key for planning and providing transition services and supports, and in achieving better outcomes.
However, it is beyond the scope of this Essential Tool to explore the many different values shared within all ethnic/racial subgroups. It is possible, however, to identify an area of contrast between the values of American mainstream culture and the values characteristic of many other cultures (Niles, 1998). This contrast—between “individualistic” and “collectivistic” values—will be discussed in this part, focusing on related implications for the transition process. An example using self-determination will illustrate the importance of understanding and addressing the contrast between individualistic and collectivistic values.
It is important to realize that values, like any human characteristic, fall along a continuum. There are elements of both individualism and collectivism in any culture (Trumbull, Rothstein-Fisch, Greenfield, & Quiroz, 2001). For example, a culture oriented to individualism might highly value being able to work independently, while a culture oriented to collectivism might highly value being able to work as part of a group. However, the first culture almost certainly also values being able to work as part of a group, and the second culture also values being able to work independently. The difference is in the relative importance that each culture places on these contrasting values. The concept of a continuum also applies to individuals within a culture. Most members of a collectivistic culture will hold values at the collectivistic end of the continuum, although each will be at a different spot on the continuum, and some will even be at the individualistic end. Where they are on the continuum of values depends on such factors as how closely they identify with traditional culture, their level of education, and the ethnic mix of their community. This variability among people again illustrates the need for individualization in transition services and supports (Atkins, 1992).
As Trumbull et al. (2001) note, it is important for personnel to understand the basic differences between individualism and collectivism because these two orientations
Alternative Views of People as Independent or Interdependent
Individualism and collectivism are subsets of broad worldviews, which have been called, respectively, atomism and holism (Shore, 1996). Atomism is prominent in the western hemisphere and refers to the tendency to view things in terms of their component parts. This orientation has supported advances such as scientific discoveries about how the physical world works and the development of assembly line manufacturing. Holism is characteristic of most CLD cultures and refers to the tendency to view all aspects of life as interconnected.
Atomism and holism lead to differences in how the boundaries between people are conceived, which, in turn, lead to differences between individualistic and collectivistic values (Markus & Kitayama, 1991). The primary individualistic view is that there are sharp boundaries between people, with each person being a complete unit. In other words, people are considered to be independent. They are generally also thought to have rights and responsibilities that are more or less the same. A person’s identity (i.e., the sense of self) in an individualistic society tends to be based mainly on one’s personal experiences—accomplishments, challenges, career, relationships with other people, etc.
By contrast, the primary collectivistic view is that people are not separate units, but rather are part and parcel of a larger group (i.e., extended family, village, or tribe). In other words, people are interdependent. A person’s identity in a collectivistic society tends to be based on one’s roles and experiences within the group context. For example, people in traditional Pacific Island cultures have been described as developing “shared identities” as the result of “sharing food, water, land, spirits, knowledge, work, and social activities” (Linnekin & Poyer, 1990, p. 8). Similarly, according to Lieber (1990), “The person is not an individual in our Western sense of the term. The person is instead a locus of shared biographies: personal histories of people’s relationships with other people and with other things. The relationship defines the person, not vice-versa” (p. 72).
This traditional Pacific Island view of the person falls at the extreme collectivistic end of the continuum, while the American mainstream view of the person is widely considered to fall closer to the extreme individualistic end than any other culture (Lasch, 1978; Shore, 1996). Yet even these cultures each reflect elements from the other end of the continuum to varying degrees. Americans, for example, develop a kind of “shared identity” when they cheer together for the same sports team. When they identify a part of themselves with the team, they tend to feel a bond with each other and experience similar emotions of joy, pride, sadness, etc. at the same time, depending how the game unfolds and whether the team wins or loses.
Where a person’s preference falls on the collectivistic-individualistic continuum depends on his or her culture, socioeconomic status, and historical era. Interdependent values appear to be stronger among people living in conditions of scarcity and threat, because they depend more on each other for survival. For example, settlers of the American West during the 1800s probably had a more interdependent orientation than most Americans today, as reflected in how they helped each other build barns and harvest crops.
The relatively extreme individualism of American mainstream culture today is made possible by a high and dependable standard of living that allows self-sufficiency (i.e., independence) to be the expected norm. Youth of American mainstream culture almost always have ready access to a substantial store of economic and social capital accumulated by their families. This capital allows them to begin practicing independence and self-sufficiency at an early age and to be supported to achieve independence and self-sufficiency as they transition to adulthood.
By contrast, Americans living in poverty generally have much lower levels of economic and social capital that can support independent lifestyles. Unfortunately, the social fabric of many low-income communities has become so frayed that effective interdependence may not be possible for many residents. If one’s friends and relatives are unemployed, there’s little chance they can help the person get a job. Government and private programs have been developed to fill the gaps, but an unintended consequence has apparently been to foster dependence in many program participants, who may rely heavily on agency personnel rather than interdependent natural support networks (Zuckerman, 2000).
Contrasts Between Individualistic and Collectivistic Values
The basic individualistic and collectivistic views of people as either independent or interdependent lead to contrasting sets of values. Nearly three-fourths of the world’s cultures can be described as collectivistic (Triandis, 1989). CLD groups generally fall at the collectivistic end, although American Black culture has absorbed some of the prominent values of American mainstream individualism (Ellison, Boykin, Towns, & Stokes, 2000). This section summarizes some common contrasts in values of particular relevance to the transition process (Black, Mrasek, & Ballinger, 2003; Lynch & Hanson, 1998; Triandis, 1995; Trumbull et al., 2001; Yamauchi, 1998).
Orientation to Self or Group
The individualistic view of people as independent units leads to emphasis on a range of self-oriented values and skills that support independent living. These values include self-sufficiency, self-determination, self-advocacy, self-competence, self-direction, self-efficacy, self-regulation, self-reliance, and self-responsibility. On the other hand, the collectivistic view of people as interdependent leads to emphasis on group-oriented values and skills that contribute to effectively filling roles within the family or other group. Instead of living independently or going away to college, the young adult may be expected to remain at home and fulfill roles within the family.
Culture influences how decisions are made within a family. In traditional collectivistic cultures, there is likely to be a social hierarchy based on gender, birth order, and/or age. Family elders may be highly respected, and they often have roles of authority with responsibility to make sure family members do what is best for the family rather than what is best for themselves as individuals. Elders may have final say about how far their children go in school, who they marry, or where they work. Decisions by authority figures in collectivist cultures are likely to be obeyed with less questioning than is typical in individualistic cultures. There are, however, many collectivistic cultures with a strong egalitarian orientation that promotes shared decision-making, although most people of CLD backgrounds in America come from more hierarchical cultures. In American individualism, the ideal is for all people to be able to freely make their own decisions. The opinions of family elders may be respected, but as youth enter adulthood, they expect and are expected to make decisions about their own lives.
Dennis and Giangreco (1996) provide the following examples of how decision-making in some CLD families might differ from the American mainstream:
Social hierarchy also strongly influences how knowledge is obtained and transmitted. In many collectivistic cultures, people of high social status may be seen as holding important cultural and technological knowledge. This knowledge may have traditionally been memorized (i.e., rather than recorded in writing) and transmitted orally. Much of this knowledge may be reserved only for people who have passed ceremonial milestones or belong to a restricted group, so that they can effectively fill their social roles. It may be considered disrespectful for children to express their opinions to or ask many questions of their elders. Instead they may be expected to absorb and then reflect back the knowledge provided to them by their elders, who determine when youngsters are ready to learn. In individualistic cultures, it is more likely that children are encouraged to form and express opinions and to seek knowledge at a pace they self-determine. An important individualistic value is that knowledge should be freely available to anyone who wants it.
Individual Choice and Personal Responsibility
All cultures seem to acknowledge that how people behave affects what will happen to them, whether in this life or a presumed afterlife. However, there are different views of the responsibility for those outcomes. American individualism highly values the freedom to choose for oneself. People are assumed to have free will, and from an early age they may be reminded that each choice has consequences for which they will be held personally responsible. In collectivistic cultures, the ideals of individual choice and free will are less likely to be highly valued, and less emphasis may be placed on personal responsibility for outcomes. Collectivistic cultures are more likely than individualistic ones to allow for external explanations for the cause of a good or bad event (e.g., fate, spiritual intervention, or the demands of social superiors). People in individualistic cultures may be allowed or even encouraged to make choices based on what is best individually, while people in collectivistic cultures are more likely to be expected to give priority to what is best for the group.
Concepts of Progress
A widely shared value in American mainstream individualism is that people should continually be improving themselves and advancing in their educations, careers, and other endeavors. Everyone’s individual efforts combined are expected to generate progress at the national level as well, especially in terms of a higher standard of living. Traditional collectivistic cultures, however, may not place a strong value on this kind of progress. For one thing, time may be viewed less like an arrow into the future and more like a circular process, as seasons change in their regular order and humans repeat their traditional activities, such as planting or harvesting crops. The concern of the family and community may be mainly on faithfully carrying on the activities that have sustained their lives over generations, rather than trying to improve on the system into which they were born. In addition, there may be a focus on spiritual rather than material advancement.
In American individualism, people can show that they have valued characteristics–such as mastery of certain skills or being able to perform under pressure–by competing with and doing better than others. From the perspective of many collectivist cultures, however, Americans are often considered too competitive and focused on material rewards (Kohn, 1992). Collectivistic cultures are more likely to emphasize cooperation among group members as the basis for success in competition with other groups, whether at the level of the family, business, or nation. Members of successful groups take pride in what the group has accomplished.
Shame and Guilt
People are likely to feel shame or guilt if they do poorly in competition or behave in ways that others criticize. Fear of failing or losing may keep people from tackling a challenge or entering a competition. As social emotions, shame and guilt naturally vary across cultures. Because people with an individualistic orientation tend to view themselves as being more in control of their own lives, they may be more likely to blame themselves and feel shame or guilt if they do not meet expectations. Because people with a collectivistic orientation are more likely to identify strongly with their family or some other group, they tend to be more likely to feel shame or guilt if their behavior is judged to bring disgrace on the group.
In some collectivistic cultures, great importance is placed on maintaining the family reputation by not shaming it. This perspective can delay or prevent getting help if conditions such as mental illness or disabilities are viewed as sources of shame. Furthermore family members in a collectivistic culture may desire or feel obligated to care for relatives in need, so accepting help from others may be viewed as evading family responsibilities (Boone, 1992). In American mainstream culture families also take care of their own, however, often people feel they should take care of their own needs and only turn to their families as a “last resort.” This is reflected in statements by parents who say they do not want to be a “burden” on their children in their old age, while in collectivistic cultures it is often expected that children will care for their elderly parents (Mason, 1992). For example, CLD youth may be expected to remain at home after exiting high school to care for a sick relative.
Expression of Identity
American mainstream culture promotes self-expression. Cars, clothes, cosmetics, and most other consumer items are often marketed in terms of how they help people to express their inner selves (Shore, 1996). In collectivistic cultures, by contrast, people are more likely to adopt an appearance appropriate for their social status, with less concern for expressing what makes them unique as individuals.
Individualistic notions of property generally emphasize that objects, land, ideas, etc., are owned by individuals who give consent for others to use their property or who are due compensation when their property is used. However, the collectivistic perspective on social relationships is often associated with a more communal view of ownership. Personal items such as clothes or toys, for example, might be considered to be family rather than individual property, and therefore more freely shared.
Each culture has its own norms for how people should behave with each other. Misunderstandings are therefore likely when people from different cultures interact. Common tendencies in American individualism include directly raising topics or issues, freely expressing personal opinions, and asking personal questions, even of strangers. All of these tendencies are generally less prominent in collectivistic cultures. Norms vary a great deal across cultures for the distance at which people feel comfortable talking to each other or for appropriate touching (e.g., it may be customary for people to greet each other by hugging, shaking hands, or bowing). In all cultures, interaction norms depend on people’s social status. In many collectivistic cultures it is especially likely that younger or socially lower people are expected to behave in a respectful and obedient way when interacting with older or people of higher social rank. This is an extremely common source of misunderstanding between American mainstream educators and CLD students. For example, many Pacific Island, American Indian, and Asian children are raised to look away when talking to social superiors, because looking someone in the eye is equated with being disrespectful or challenging authority. However, American mainstream educators may interpret looking away as being inattentive or disrespectful.
Expectations for Adulthood
All cultures have expectations about how children typically behave and how their behaviors should change as they mature and demonstrate readiness for adulthood. In individualistic cultures, expectations tend to fall at the independent end of the continuum: Adults should be self-sufficient, set and pursue personal goals, be true to their personal values, and meet their civic responsibilities in a context of social equality. In collectivistic cultures, expectations tend to fall at the interdependent end of the continuum: Adults should contribute to the group, work with others to achieve mutual goals, adhere to the traditional values of the group, and understand their place within the social hierarchy and perform their expected roles.
Table of Contents
Part I – Essential Tool Overview
Part II – CLD Youth with Disabilities in Transition
Part III – Continuum of “Individualistic” and “Collectivistic” Values
Part IV – The Culturally Sensitive Individualization of Services and Supports
Other Resources Available on the Internet
Citation: Leake, D., & Black, R. (2005). Essential tools: Cultural and linguistic diversity: Implications for transition personnel. Minneapolis,
MN: University of Minnesota, Institute on Community Integration, National
Center on Secondary Education and Transition.
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This document was published by the National Center on Secondary Education and Transition (NCSET). NCSET is supported through a cooperative agreement #H326J000005 with the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs. Opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the U.S. Department of Education Programs, and no official endorsement should be inferred. The University of Minnesota, the U.S. Department of Education, and the National Center on Secondary Education and Transition are equal opportunity employers and educators.