SR article

3. Communitarianism and individualism, hierarchy and egalitarianism

In this course I will not try to be comprehensive. Many authors composed lists of cultural differences and try to get these conceptual distinctions confirmed by empirical evidence. I will use only six distinctions and value differences of major importance and in passing by I may so now and then point to the cultural values that are related to these main issues. In this lecture I will focus on collectivism versus individualism, and hierarchy versus egalitarianism. The focus on these two distinctions also helps to better understand the figure of the crossroads I introduced before.

Let’s first look at the opposition between hierarchy and egalitarianism. Egalitarianism means that decisions are taken in negotiation and collaboration, often by individuals participating in the proceedings. Hierarchy, on the contrary, means that those in power decide what people at the bottom should do. The more hierarchical an organization is, the less ordinary workers will have (and are allowed to) think for themselves. They have to do their functional tasks and as such they only exercise a functional responsibility, meaning that they have to do what they are told to do. That may function in an organization with very simple work. If people are reduced to their functional role in an organization they are more or less the reduced to an “it”, like a cog in a machine. For that reason hierarchy and functional responsibility are related, and both of them serve to organize the outside world. Factories can produce on a massive scale if everybody sticks to his own role as a repetitive part of the machinery.

However, the more complicated the technology is that workers have to deal with, the more individual judgment they need to apply themselves. They should be able and competent workers, but the more competent they are, the more independent they will also be and the more egalitarian treatment is required. For professional work, like in the case of teachers and nurses, a professional attitude is indispensable, including some level of independent judgment. Hierarchical organizations may be inclined to treat the employees as functions in the machinery nevertheless, but that makes them demotivated and they will do a less good job. If they feel responsibility and they have freedom to exercise that responsibility, they will be more committed. That is the paradox: real commitment can only freely be engaged.

In order to be healthy and function well an organization needs both, hierarchy and egalitarianism. A feedback loop from the bottom to the top is required. Otherwise the people at the top will take uninformed decisions that don’t really work at the shop floor.

In collectivism belongingness to the group is of paramount importance. Such a group may have a common understanding in terms of belief system and moral values: they speak the same language, they are a “we”. Collectivism always has a ring of solidarity and loyalty, but it should be noted that there is a downside as well. Often the solidarity is confined to the in-group. Group identification may lead to constantly blaming the others, looking upon oneself as victims of the others and excluding other groups from the moral community.

Individualism mostly means being independent and making choices yourself. This is true, but it is a later phenomenon. The origin of individualism is in the fact that also private persons and people of lower status could raise their voice. The origin of our present-day individualism is with religious dissenters, where individuals had the courage to go against the group, and where individuals had the power to stand alone to fight injustice and promote the cause of the downtrodden.

Collectivism is related to the past, because it is past experiences that created a common language and group identification. Individualism on the contrary should be put on the side of the arrow pointing to the future. One could think of whistleblowers that uncover untoward practices. There is a striking parallel between their social roles and the function of the imperative in grammar: in both cases there is a problem waiting for somebody to act. The imperative is a verb without a subject, a verb in search of a subject.

What really works and is efficient is: mutual interpenetration of these opposites. If a boss does not only give commands, but also can listen and takes his workers seriously, then the organization will function better. If the group also is prepared to listen to dissenters and take them seriously, then probably the group will perform better. Speech makes it possible to interrupt each other and correct each other and find the right way forward as a group. Speech creates mutual interpenetration of opposites. Talking to each other makes it possible that both collectivism and individualism, and also hierarchy and egalitarianism can alternate. A healthy social system knows how to cope with all the four fronts of reality (past, future, inside, outside) all at once. That can only be done if people turn towards each other and speak out to each other and listen. Speech keeps a social organism healthy.

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