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Individualism & Collectivism

All cultures could be placed on a spectrum from individualistic to collectivistic. In order to help us more clearly see what this means, we will make some generalizations about the extreme ends of the spectrum:


Human life and purpose is about the individual: my achievements, failures, rights, freedoms, distinctions, and property.


Human life and purpose is about the community: our achievements, failures, rights, freedoms, distinctions, and property.

General Ideals

  • Importance of private property 

  • Equal opportunity

  • Equal treatment under the law

  • Self-determination 

  • Capitalism 

  • Importance of shared/community property

  • Acknowledges that opportunity is not equal by nature

  • Personal responsibility is greater for those with higher status, skill, or resources

  • More likely to have giving/bartering economy 

Ethical Questions

Do the actions of an individual infringed upon the rights of another individual?

How does a behavior infringed upon the rights of the whole community, its way of life, and its social harmony?


The primary claim the community makes on me is to keep me as an individual from violating other individuals’ rights.

Because I would not be alive or be who I am without my community, I owe my life to my community. I do not want to violate the rights of my community. 

The Non-Human Creation

The material world belongs to humans as property. Because it is property, it doesn’t necessarily have any rights of its own.

Other created things are part of our community/kinship network. Because they are related to us and supply us with what we need to live, we have a responsibility to them.


Because everything comes down to individual choice and difference, enforcement of the rule of law by power is vital for maintaining order. The law exists to keep individuals from infringing on other individuals’ rights.

The “laws” of state government are mostly irrelevant—but, social contracts and norms are strictly enforced by the community in an informal way. These norms exist to help us maintain the honor of self and others. Social harmony is more important than being “guilty” or “innocent” by law.


Because “law” and objectivity are so powerful, God is associated with law, objectivity, reason, etc. God is primarily a judge and an enforcer of law. Humanity owes God perfect law observance. 

God is our greatest ancestor and the Giver of all things. God is therefore the highest standard for honor. Humanity owes honor to God—to live with him and his other family members in a manner worthy of him. 


Characterized by humanism: Westerners tend to view everything in terms of humans and the law (in some cases including the “laws of nature”). If a person does believe in God, God still operates primarily by laws, and without the intervention of other spiritual beings or forces. 

Characterized by supernaturalism: Traditional cultures see the spirit world as full, alive, and active in both non-human and human affairs. Our kinship network usually extends to include ancestors (spiritual or physical), as well as gods, demons and other spiritual entities. For some, this leads to an animistic view where everything has a spirit or spiritual life. 

In individualism, the desire to respect individual choice tends toward secularism: the creation of “religiously neutral” spheres where differing individuals can (in theory) agree on laws, and on matters tied to “reason alone” apart from “faith.” For people of faith, this can mean considering some areas of life to be irrelevant to spirituality. A job is just a job, unless it is a directly religious vocation. Many daily activities have no spiritual significance, and little bearing on spirituality.

By contrast, as one Navajo auntie put it to me, "The Navajo don't have a religion. Religion has you in church on Sunday and living like hell the rest of the week; but what we have in our tradition is a whole way of life."


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