When I first moved to the US I couldn’t get over the flags. (It was summer of 2002 and flags were at their apex.) There were all sorts of flags, small flags, big flags, really big flags and blocks out the sun size. This very visible adherence to the country, the collective group, was startling. Thus, it surprised me that everyone seemed to agree that the US was the ultimate in individualistic societies. The prominence of the US collective identity just seemed too important to people for individualism to be a complete description. How could people square US individualism and a US Collective identity?
Further evidence of US collectivism came to me after my graduations. US universities do a great job of binding their alumni into a group identity. They want you to return for reunions, support the football team, hire fellow alums, and give them money. This contrasts with England where they hand you a bit of paper and, if they are feeling helpful, make sure you know where the exit is.
US Individualism And A US Collective Identity
My observation that US people can be quite collectivistic seems to go against a lot of work in the field. Hofstede (2001, page 210) says: “Many Americans see individualism in their culture as a major reason for the greatness of the United States”. The problem is we often establish how individualist a culture is by asking people how individualist their culture is. The right answer, if you think greatness comes from individualism, is to say your culture is very individualistic. If you believe what Hofstede says about US culture you have to, at a minimum, doubt the usefulness of his survey methodology to assess the culture.
You can find an anecdote to support whatever you want to say so beware of conclusions based upon anecdotes. As such I’m not offering “proof” that US people aren’t individualistic. I merely make the point that a whole nation is impossible to meaningfully describe in a word or two. You need a really good reason to even attempt this bold endeavor. (Please feel free to read bold as incredibly foolish.)
What Does This Mean?
Remember the next time someone tells you that US people, (or for the truly ambitious commentators Westerners in general), are individualistic they are probably right. Sadly, they are also probably right when they tell you US people are collectivistic. The lesson I took from my time in the US is that US people are individualistic except when they aren’t.
For more on measuring culture see here.
Read: Geert Hofstede (2001) Culture’s Consequences: Comparing Values, Behaviors, Institutions, and Organizations Across Nations, 2nd Edition, Sage Publications