Whale Valley, Egyptian Western Desert

Perspectives on Collectivism and Individualism

When my husband and I lived in Egypt, one of our favorite pastimes was hunting for fossils in the Egyptian Western Desert. When I first looked out across the desert, my eye took in the landscape as a whole without discerning any individual object within it. The quiet and solitude of the desert were a stark contrast to the chaotic life in Cairo. It always took me a moment to adjust. As I looked longer, I began to see the fossils scattered around me: abundant nummulites, bivalves and shark teeth. Once my brain recognized the patterns of these fossils, they were impossible not to see.

The same phenomenon is happening with my reading list these days. I first read about the theme of individualism versus collectivism in Gish Jen’s The Girl at the Baggage Claim. Now I’m seeing this same theme everywhere. Jen focuses her discussion on the cultural differences of east Asian collectivism versus die-hard American individualism. Jen explains that east Asian collectivism originates from the practice of farming rice. Growing rice is labor intensive and requires a communal effort. Historically, crop failure meant starvation so the culture evolved to promote cooperation within the community. Although east Asia is an extreme example of collectivist culture, collectivism is the norm in most of the world. Western individualism, as it currently exists, is somewhat an anomaly. The effects of individualism or collectivism on culture are far-reaching and impact everything from education and business practices to religion and politics. However, I was more interested in how individualism and collectivism shape my personal view of the world.

Enter the next book on my reading list in which this theme appears: Evicted by Matthew Desmond. Through a series of interviews, this book documents the effects of eviction on some of the poorest citizens of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I was born in Wisconsin but I haven’t spent much time there as an adult. I was shocked to read that Milwaukee is now the second poorest city in the country, just behind Detroit. What does poverty have to do with individualism? Blame. Seen through the individualist lens, poverty is the result of self-determination. Ben Carson’s recent statement that poverty is “a state of mind” is a good example of this type of thinking. The collectivist perspective, however, attributes causality primarily to circumstances and environment. This is the viewpoint from which Desmond writes and convincingly so. Americans tend to believe that our success or failure is solely decided by our innate qualities as individuals and we downplay the role of factors such as race, geography and socioeconomic status at birth.

The differences between collectivists and individualists aren’t superficial. In his book called Behave, Robert M. Sapolsky discusses (among many other topics) how these differences manifest themselves in the brain. While there may be subtle genetic influences on culture, it is primarily a learned trait. Whether we are raised as individualists or collectivists, it strongly influences the way our brains process information. For example, if I could bring an individualist and collectivist to the Western Desert with me they would each have unique perspectives. The individualist would likely focus on the distinct elements starting with himself and then maybe expanding to the fossils or sand dunes. The collectivist would instead take in the larger picture first and the relationship between the objects such as how the sand dunes are shaped by the prevailing winds and topography. Sapolsky notes that we are capable of viewing the world from either perspective but employing our non-native viewpoint requires a little extra brain power. The effort is worth it.