Tuesday, 26 June 2007

Individualism and collectivism explored

The collective

A useful conceptual framework that helps articulate that feature of collective life on which group social structure and its functioning is predicated can be found the writing of RenĂ© Girard. Girard (1972) sees society, culture, as having an inherent order which he calls “degree”. Within a culture the individual’s place is clear to him or her because that culture dictates roles for its member – father, daughter, uncle, chief, warrior, labourer, medicine (wo)man, etc. This order makes social meaning possible because the individual comes to understand him/herself in relation to others through the structures of culture. Girard says that:

"‘Degree,’ or gradus, is the underlying principle of all order, natural and cultural. It permits individuals to find a place for themselves in society; it lends a meaning to things, arranging them in proper sequence within a hierarchy; it defines the objects and moral standards that men alter, manipulate, and transform" (1972: 50).

Degree then is something that, to borrow from Mbiti (1967), “largely governs the behaviour, thinking and whole life of the individual in the society of which he is a member” (1967: 104). This feature is such that:

“Only in terms of other people does the individual become conscious of his own being, his own duties, his privileges and responsibilities towards himself and towards other people. When he suffers, he does not suffer alone but with the corporate group; when he rejoices, he rejoices not alone but with his kinsmen, his neighbours and his relative dead or living…Whatever happens to the individual happens to the whole group, and whatever happens to the whole group happens to the individual. The individual can only say: ‘I am because we are; and since we are, therefore I am’. This is the cardinal point in the understanding of the African view of man.” (1967: 108-109)
Mbiti’s plays cleverly on Descartes’ concept of “I think, therefore I am” – probably the best known articulation of individualist being – by presenting what might be seen as the collectivist equivalent. The individual inside of the collective has no meaning, no degree, outside of his/her group and so that individual’s sense of self is tied to into this belonging; while the individualist thinks and so becomes a self, the individual in the group is gains selfhood through his/her relation to others.

The simplest expression of the collectivist logic can be found in the Xhosa phrase umuntu ungumuntu ngabantu (a person is only a person through people) or ubuntu.

The individualised
Psychoanalyst Eric Fromm’s (1942) book Fear of Freedom is a comprehensive work which looks at the forces that gave rise to the individual and the consequences (social, economic, political and psychological) of this process. The starting point of the book is the social, economic, and political changes that took place in Europe, beginning in Renaissance Italy in the 14th century, that resulted in both physical and psychological shifts inside these European societies that ultimately gave birth to the individual.

In short, the breakdown of traditional (collective) social organisation through the changes in the cultural, political and economic order (towards capitalism) lead to the decline of fixed social positions and cooperative interaction, all of which gave rise to widespread competition and the birth of a new kind of individual; one whose success or failure was determined by individual capacity and willingness to succeed through the accumulation of wealth, status and power. Such a setting eroded much of the cooperation and collective purpose that existed before and helped pit one self-serving individual against another. For Fromm this societal development finds its roots in the emergence of the capitalist economic order in which the economics, and following from this the social, religious and political, of Europe changed from an ordered (read Degree) system inside of which collective operation was common to one in which this order was replaced by free market and individualist operation. Thus was the individual born.

The individualist mode of being has been the dominant one influencing recent world history (through imperialism, colonialism and now globalisation and capitalism) which has had an unsettling effecting on traditional structures, organisation and gender regimes. The impact on men inside of both modes of being has made men and masculinities problematic globally. Men are increasingly vulnerable, isolated and self-interested, as informed by individualistic ways of being, often with negative outcomes.

Among the amaXhosa, for example, an individual’s place in society is clear, a man is a man and a boy a boy, each with their own place, role, and responsibility within Xhosa society. Ritual is illustrative of these positions as the rite of passage is the process by which degree is adjusted in the transition from one clear status to another.

On the other hand, those who are fully individuated are often in a situation where the primary ties (family, community, culture, etc.) are broken in that they have little to no obligations to those they would normally be bonded or responsible towards. Instead they choose their associations based on wants and needs, they do not identify with a particular culture which gives meaning or direction to social life, the main binding association being based on the modern-day contract. Such people tend to be a product of the amalgamation of a range of diverse, different, and even contradictory influences and ideas. In short, they can lack a strong sense of degree, a state that allows they unlimited "freedom" in movement and in what they are allowed to experiment or engage with, the ability to make and unmake themselves as and then they choose, but this often leaves them with feelings of loneliness and without a concrete sense of who "I am" or how to be.

It is much like the ship that shed its own anchor in an attempt to become free, but then finds itself at the mercy of an utterly indifferent sea...

No comments: