Universalism means that everybody is treated as subject to the same rules. Particularism, on the contrary, means that some people are more equal than others. If you need friends or relationships in the government bureaucracy in order to get your imports cleared or your license extended, then that means particularism.
Particularistic treatment is not only a matter of society at large. The director of a company as well may have his preferred employees and staff members who have more influence than others. That is almost unavoidable, but there is a fine, but not always clear line between listening to somebody because of his expertise, or because there is just a long-standing relationship of friendship. Do people get a promotion because they really deserve it due to achievement and ability, on an equal footing with the others? In the case of a company director privileged treatment of his personnel is considered a matter of personal integrity or values (or lack thereof). If in a society nothing can be arranged without the use of private networks of trust and loyalty, we will be more inclined to talk about particularism as a matter of institutions: clientelism, patrimonialism.
In both ways (value or institution) the distinction between particularism or universalism is not a black and white opposition, but a continuum. Somebody who has shown good performance as minister in the government may afterwards get a nice job as a major of a city – that happens in the Netherlands. And it is well accepted: in such a position the major is supposed to make use of his network within the government bureaucracy. That helps the city forward: he knows many of the people personally.
So the question is not either/or, but how much? And: in which cases do we allow such particularism and where should it stop? Many societies maintain rules for open competition, tendering, more or less objective indicators of achievement and performance etc. as countermeasures against an excessive use of personal relationships. And there is a constant moral awareness as well that the best person should get the job etc. But what to do where the rules are not so clear or not enforced and where such a moral awareness is not present? In such a case you have built trust by working on the relationships with important people.
A cultural value distinction that is often used in the literature on cultural differences can be explained from this perspective: the distinction between high context – low context; diffuse and specific. In many cultures there is a lot of small talk and social talk before people come to business. It is impossible just to walk in into a person’s office without taking a lot of time informing about one’s well-being, family etc. This is done for two reasons. First, one has to establish trust and a personal relationship, because that is the basis on which the other person will take the request seriously. Secondly, the request, when answered, may almost be dealt with in an insignificant way, as if it is not important. In this way, if the request is rejected, the other person doesn’t lose face and thus the existing relationship is not harmed.
Especially in southern Europe, but also elsewhere, another solution has been found to create trust and loyalty. Showing emotions, gestures, loud confirmations that the other person gets a good deal, or affectionate behavior as among friends, creates relationships of trust. In this way the other person is as it were incorporated in the family. In the northern countries in Europe and North America, where a strong state, law enforcement, playing by the rules and treating everybody equally is important, a more neutral behavior emerged. You shouldn’t be too close in a business relationship. That might lead to particularistic behavior. This is reinforced by the work ethic and time management: getting things done. Playing by the rules creates a situation of anonymous trust.
The examples used make it clear that the distinctions in values and institutions is deeply ingrained in social traditions. In some way or another societies diverged in the course of history quite a lot. This is not by accident. Always social struggles have been going on between different social groups not only about their material interests, but also about the values by which the members of a society should deal with each other. In old societies and traditions the family lineage or a clan consisting of related family lines has been the dominant model. It can be considered as the first achievement of our humanity: the ability to pass on our acquired faculties to the next generation. Animals cannot do that. To establish a connection between the generations by transmitting a body of language is the basis of all civilization.
Consider the enormous difference between family loyalty and the social contract theory which is dominant in Western society. The social contract theory entails that society has been established by decision on the basis of a “contract” between individuals, promising each other to accept rational rules and laws. This fiction confirms individual responsibility and agency.
But you were not born as an individual! Yet, our modern sociology and to a large extent our judiciary system is shaped according to precisely this myth. We consider tribal societies who believe in the authority of ancestors as mythical. But Western individualistic societies have their own myth after all. Individualism and social contract theory are no more natural than belief in ancestral spirits.