Point 'Oh!' Five


Individualism, Collectivism, and the Foundations of Culture

The word community comes most recently from the late 14th century French comunité which means commonness or everybody. In its Latin roots, it has a meaning similar to universitas (the Latin for universal, from which university is derived) or civitas (the Latin for citizenry, from which city is derived). By this definition, community has a broad, abstract, and inclusive meaning, making it more similar to the concept of community used by ecologists to describe biocoenosis (literally translated as life assemblages), than to how it is used colloquially to describe groups organized around a principal cause or objective.

This picture of Community, is one that is defined by social bonding. As one author put it, “the people make the place.” Whether online or offline, whether kinship (family) or kindred (friends), whether ‘true’ or fictive, the fundamental characteristic of community is people interacting, influencing one another, and sharing an experience. Yes, community, from this perspective, is partially about place and partially about form, but it’s true character is rooted in the social bonds between individuals. Indeed, as pointed out by Schneider, the concept of families of choice (i.e. fictive kin) along with the diversity of kinship patterns documented across the globe blurs the distinction between various categorizations of social behavior. This shifts the focus from what a community looks like, to it’s effect on an individual.

In many ways, this is reminiscent of the “sense of community” proposed by Sarason, which he described as “one of the major bases for self-definition.” The most widely regarded formulation of this construct was advanced by McMillan and Chavis, who describe sense of community using four elements: (i) membership, (ii) influence, (iii) fulfilment, and (iv) emotional connection. These “senses” are created through complex boundary maintenance rituals, which consist of beliefs and behaviors that distinguish members from non-members. Take for instance, Mormons, who in addition to common Christian practices like baptism and confirmation, have developed elaborate rituals and practices to distinguish not only Mormons from non-Mormons, but devout Mormons from less devout Mormons. While their schema, or as one Mormon leader called it “the art” of boundary maintenance, could fill volumes, one interesting example is that of the temple endowment, wherein members who have proven themselves ‘worthy’ are admitted into the temple, anointed, clothed with temple garments (infamously known as the “Mormon underwear”), receive a ‘new name’ (albeit one that is never used nor disclosed to others), and are endowed with sacramental knowledge about their afterlife. While this process might seem purely ritualistic, it serves an important function in Mormon social order. Indeed, Mormons are only allowed into the temple if they are recommended by their ecclesiastical leader. Of course, they are only recommended if they comply to orthodox beliefs about church doctrine and history; live celibate outside of marriage; disaffiliate from those who oppose the church; attend church regularly; pay a 10% tax to the church; avoid drinking coffee, alcohol or tea; and have confessed their sins to their ecclesiastical leaders. To the outsider, these restrictions may seem draconian, but to Mormons they create a sense of emotional safety, a sense of belonging and identification, a sense of personal investment, and they create a shared system of symbols by which people can relate.

Beyond community there is another form of social interaction which can not be ignored. Tönnies and Weber referred to it as Gesellschaft, or society. In their work, Gesellschaft is often contrasted with community (Gemeinschaft). Under this dichotomy, community represents the types of social interaction that are defined by personal and intimate relationships (i.e., kinship and fellowship). In these groups, individuals are subservient to the collective welfare, and indeed their identity is a bi-product of the social order. However, the larger a group becomes the more difficult it is to maintain a sense of community. Role specialization creates the need for greater individualism and ambition. This gives rise to Gesellschaft, a social order where individuals are supposedly driven by “rational will” (i.e., self interest) and the social group is viewed as primarily a means to personal success rather than as a means to self definition. At times, Durkheim and others seem to describe community as the quaint (or exotic) social order of the past and society as the social order of industrial modernity. In reality, both mechanical communities and organic societies, as Durkheim thinks of them, are observable in today’s world.

Associated with these two forms of social interaction are distinct patterns of social control. Bernstein, illustrating their operation in family life, describes them as positional control and personal control. Families operating under positional control follow categorical rules that depend on the relative position of individuals (e.g., the youngest goes to bed first, the father gets the largest portion, the boys mow the lawn, and the girls help with the dishes). Meanwhile, families operating under personal control rely more on personal feelings and wants. In turn, these two forms of family control are related to two divergent sets of rules (or codes) that underlie language, thought, and social behavior. The first, restricted coding, is often associated with positional family control and is exemplified by rigid syntax. The second, elaborated coding, is often associated with personal family control, and is exemplified by a broader range of syntax.

These two codes, Bernstein argues, are transmitted to children by their communities and society. Elaborated code allows speakers to better articulate their own feelings. Therefore, when operating within systems governed by personal control, elaborated codes are reflected in statements like: “Don’t bother your father, he’s tired,” “Don’t do that, you’ll hurt your sister,” “Don’t eat that, you’ll spoil your appetite.” These statements make an appeal to personal feeling because the elaborated syntax better articulates the importance of the individual. On the other hand, restricted coding emphasizes social order and transmits information about that order. In the words of Douglas,

“If [a child] asks ‘Why must I do this?’ the answer is in terms of relative position. Because I said so (hierarchy). Because you’re a boy (sex role). Because children always do (age status). Because you’re the oldest (seniority). As he grows, his experience flows into a grid of role categories; right and wrong are learnt in terms of the given structure; he himself is seen only in relation to that structure.”

Interestingly, Bernstein notes that these forms of social control and syntactic codes follow from the ways social groups are organized and indeed they support “particular forms of significance.” In mechanical communities, the importance of social order emphasizes the need to constantly reinforce the individual’s relative position in the group. As social order is strongly imposed on individuals, the restricted syntax relies on shared knowledge and understanding between speakers. Whereas in organic societies, the division of labour gives rise to elaborated coding, which allows individuals the freedom to pursue their own goals and ambitions. Further, as there is a greater variety of syntactic alternatives to choose from, the elaborated code requires less shared knowledge between speakers. Therefore, elaborated coding emerges where the demand for labour specialization is the strongest.

With that said, social control and syntactic codes do not always flow together. You can imagine a situation where a caregiver raised under one form of social control finds themselves raising children in a society or community that reinforces the opposing syntactic code. In this case, a child’s view of the world and their place in it might deviate from the expected social pattern of either their caregiver or of the broader society. Douglas argues that the intersection of these two constructs give rise to a “hundred, or a million, types of cultural bias may be out there” of which her Group and Grid Theory attempts to construct four parsimonious and comprehensive cultural categories. The first two are akin to Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft:

  1. Hierarchists are high grid and high group. In other words, their position in society is highly stratified and they are strongly influenced by group norms.
  2. On the other hand, Individualists are low grid and low group: their position in society is very egalitarian and they are weekly influenced by group norms.

With each of these two categories, there is a consistency in the relationship between family control and syntactic codes. However, in the other two cultural categories, there is a mismatch between the two: Bernstein argues that these categories represent transitional categories—the result of tension between Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft.

  1. The first of these, Enclavists, are low grid and high group, so their position in society is very egalitarian, yet, they are highly influenced by group norms.
  2. Similarly, Fatalists are high grid and low group, so their position in society is highly stratified, and yet they are weekly influenced by group norms.

The basic principal of Douglas’s Group and Grid model is that individuals are enmeshed in culture via language and their social interaction with others. Unlike some cultural theories, Group and Grid emphasizes that there is diversity in the ways people relate to culture. Group describes the degree to which individuals are pressured by norms and Grid describes the degree to which they acknowledge positional classifications. This raises an important question: What is the relationship between individuals, their cultural values, and the social contexts they find themselves? While much of this can be answered by reviewing Bernstein’s work, two primary hypotheses have been advanced: On the one hand, the stability hypothesis posits that individuals seek out social environments that conform, or can be made to conform, with their cultural values. On the other hand, the mobility hypothesis suggests that individuals, either consciously or subconsciously, change their cultural values to comply with their changing social environments. It is not clear which of these two holds true.

Considering Group and Grid with respect to what some sociologists describe as the rise of “networked-individualism,”56 this theory offers some important implications. First, Group and Grid suggests that what has sometimes been described as declining connectedness in the West, is better thought of in terms of social change. Indeed, research suggests that our social networks are actually more robust now than they were a decade ago. This suggests that while the West may be becoming more Individualistic, individuals aren’t necessarily becoming more isolated (though this may in fact be the case). Regarding social change, sociologists traditionally think of it in terms of intracohort and intercohort effects. Intracohort effects result from changes in how individuals view something, whereas intercohort effects result from changes across generations. If Group and Grid’s stability hypothesis is true that we would weight the importance of intercohort effects in social change, whereas if the mobility hypothesis is true, we would weight the importance of intracohort effects. Either way, Group and Grid attempts to go beyond traditional sociological discussions of social change and emphasize the importance of culture and the social structure within which culture is cradled.


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