Are Individualist Societies More Cohesive?

The argument is that individualist societies require more in the way of social capital, and therefore more cooperation than collectivist ones:

Many social scientists have predicted that one inevitable consequence of modernization is the unlimited growth of individualism, which poses serious threats to the organic unity of society. Others have argued that autonomy and independence are necessary conditions for the development of interpersonal cooperation and social solidarity. We reanalyzed available data on the relationship between individualism-collectivism and social capital within one country (the United States) and across 42 countries. In America, the states with a high level of social capital (higher degree of civic engagement in political activity, where people spend more time with their friends and believe that most people can be trusted) were found to be more individualistic. A correspondingly strong association between individualism and social capital was observed in the comparison of different countries. These results support Durkheim’s view that when individuals become more autonomous and seemingly liberated from social bonds, they actually become even more dependent on society

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4 thoughts on “Are Individualist Societies More Cohesive?

  1. Makes sense.

    Think of how we (ideally, IMHO) raise kids. We teach them to be independent of mom and dad, and if you do it right, after they become adults, you still have a close cooperative relationship (parents help kids, kids help parents) but not codependent one.

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  2. I replotted the data, adding color coding for four regions*. Observations, in no particular order. Bear in mind that the data are 20 years old; the papers they were taken from were published in 1999 and 2000.

    There’s some overall regional trend: Midwest towards the upper right, South towards the lower left, NE Urban Corridor in between. The West is scattered all over.

    Three of the regions have pronounced geographic splits. Eg, six western states in the Midwest (ND, SD, NE, KS, MN, IA) are in one cluster and the rest of the Midwest in another. The same kind of split occurs in the NE Urban Corridor, with the New England states in one cluster and the Mid-Atlantic states in another. The West is roughly split along a NW-to-SE line: WA, OR, ID, MT, WY, and CO in one group, the other states in a different group.

    The six states with the biggest populations in the 2000 census, which span all four regions, are closely grouped near the middle of the graph.

    There’s a very pronounced African-American effect. The states to the upper right, independent of region, have quite small (as a percentage) black populations. The states to the lower left, independent of region, have much larger (as a percentage) black populations.

    * Compared to the Census Bureau’s four regions, I move Virginia, Maryland and Delaware from the South to the Northeast, and label the Northeast as the NE Urban Corridor.

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    • I think if you look at the individualism-collectivism index, you can see why that might be, culturally.

      Personally I don’t think it’s a very good instrument, at least as it applies to US states. Or at least, it doesn’t measure the thing (most) people are afraid of when they talk about how we’re all (or kids these days are, or whatever) becoming too individualistic.

      Nor do I think the authors truly understood the correlation != causation thing, as if I’ve ever seen data crying out for a third, causative factor, these would be they.

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  3. “No man is obliged to put his powers at the disposal of another, and no one has any claim of right to substantial support from his fellow man, each is both independent and weak. These two conditions, which must be neither seen quite separately nor confused, give the citizen of democracy extremely contradictory instincts. He is full of confidence and pride in his independence from his equals, but from time to time his weakness makes him feel the need for some outside help which he cannot expect from any of his fellows, for they are both impotent and cold. In this extremity he naturally turns his eyes toward that huge entity which alone stands out above the universal level of abasement. His needs, and even more his longings, continually put him in mind of that entity, and he ends by regarding it as the sole and necessary support for his individual weakness.” – Alexis de Tocqueville

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