Moral Landscapes

Living the life that is good for one to live

Are Individualism and Collectivism Compatible?

Seems our ancestors were happier and freer than we are

Part 1

If we include all human societies through human genus history in our analysis (using anthropological and archeological research showing that we spent at least 90% our human history in small-band, foraging societies) and compare them with modern societies, we might learn a few things.

Overall, band life is characterized by flexible groupings, residential movement and flux, lack of formal social commitments, and generalized sharing. Looking at modern societies today, I can see that there are propensities for these behaviors, especially among spontaneous groupings or those that don't subscribe to particular ideologies that instruct them to do otherwise (e.g., religious or societal rules). Western explorers and missionaries encountering non-Western simple societies remarked on these types of habits with disdain.

Peter Wilson (1988) pointed out that hunter-gatherer sociality is directed by focus rather than by boundaries. That is, band members organize their lives around shared attentional focus (e.g., food collecting) rather than around rigid structures.  Woodburn (1982) described how only the present activity holds the group together, not particular relationships. 

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Bird-David (1994) describes the fluctuation of group membership and extensive movement to be like drops of oil on water that collect together then split up and then coalesce with different drops. Life is a journey of intermingling, joining and separating in changing patterns. Our religious, residential and legal systems don't allow these fluctuations as much.

The band's "companionship" lifestyle (Gibson, 1985) of living together and shared activity is different from kinship because companionship is voluntary and preserves individual autonomy, whereas kinship is the opposite. Band life is a boundary-less context (Bird-David, 1994) that is constituted by food sharing, shared movement and residence, company and memory rather than the obligations and commitments that characterize a formal society. The nuclear family (mother, father, children) is not necessarily what comprises a band, rather siblings and multiple generations of relatives, its constitution constantly in flux. But do our complex societies require us to have these obligations and commitments?

It seems that in such a fluctuating context an individual must be pretty fearless to be so flexible about life's social arrangements, which are neither predictable nor stable immediately. The individual must have trust that the larger group will be available as a general network of support. Indeed, trust underlies relationships and life in the band generally.  "To trust someone is to act with that person in mind, in the hope and expectation that they will do likewise, by responding in ways favorable to you." But no response or action is forced; that would be a betrayal of trust.

Imagine! No one forces anyone else to do anything.  

So one can see that there is an integration of autonomous collectivism and individualism. But band members have a personal autonomy which is the opposite of the individualism in the West. In the West, autonomy means being self-contained and on your own. In the band, autonomy is relational-the freedom to take initiative in joint and practical activities.  Let me quote Ingold here (1999, p. 407) because he nicely compares Western individualism with band individualism:

"The Western individual is a self-contained, rational subject, locked within the privacy of a body, standing against the rest of society consisting of a an aggregate of other such individuals, and competing with them in the public arena for the rewards of success. Relationships in this arena are characterized by their anonymity--that is by the absence of direct, intersubjective involvement. They are brittle, contingent, and transient affairs. By the same token, the autonomy of the individual is given from the start, prior to his or her entry into any social relationships at all.

"For hunter gatherers, by contrast, the dichotomy between private and public domains, respectively of self and society, has no meaning. Every individual comes into being as a center of agency and awareness within an unbounded social environment which provides sustenance, care, company, and support. The people around him, the places he knows, the things he makes and uses, all are drawn into a person's subjective identity (Ingold 1986:239). Selves, in others words, are "grown" within a field of nurture; as their capacities for action and perception develop, so they expand to incorporate the very relationships that nourish them. Personal autonomy arises as the enfoldment of these relationships, and unfolds in purposed action. A person acts with others, not against them; the intentionality driving that action both originates from, and seeks fulfillment through, the community of nurture to which they all belong." The self expands to fill the field of relationships that constitutes it.

This is far from our modern experience. As a child I remember being discouraged from too much autonomy yet encouraged not to bother others too much. Just the opposite of the band lifestyle. Children in modern life get pushed into things, away from intimacy to their own rooms, and are expected to "find themselves" on their own. Children in modern societies have to figure out how to nurture themselves even if they have "helicopter" parents worrying over them. Yet children feel deeply insecure and do not stray far from some kind of structure.

Band life was one of nurturing relations within both freedom and autonomy. Is there anyway to recapture it?

More in Part 2.

References

David-Bird, N. (1998). The giving environment: Another perspective on the economic system of gatherer-hunters. Current Anthropology, 31, 183-196.

Bird-David, N. (1992). Beyond "the original affluent society": A culturalist formulation. Current Anthropology, 33, 25-47.

Bird-David, N. (1994). Sociality and immediacy or past and present conversations on bands. Man, n.s., 29, 583-603.

Ingold, T. (1986). The appropriation of nature: Essays on human ecology and social relations. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Ingold, T. (1999). On the social relations of the hunter-gatherer band. In R.B. Lee & R. Daly (Eds.), The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Hunters and Gatherers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Leacock, E., & Lee, R.B. (1982). Introduction. In E.B. Leacock & R.B. Lee (Eds.), Politics and history in band societies (pp. 1-20). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Myers, F. (1986). Pintupi country, Pintupi self, sentiment, place and politics among Western Desert Aborigines. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution.

Myers, F. (1988). Burning the truck and holding the country: Property, time and the negotiation of identity among Pintupi Aborigines. In T. Ingold, D. Riches, and J. Woodburn (Eds.), Hunters and gatherers, Vol. II, Property, power and ideology (pp. 52-74). Oxford: Berg.

Price, J.A. (1975). Sharing: The integration of intimate economics. Anthropologica, 17, 3-27.

Peterson, N. (1993). Demand sharing: Reciprocity and the pressure for generosity among foragers. American Anthropologist, 95, 860-874.

Peter Wilson, (1975). The promising primate, Man, n.s., 19, 5-20.

Woodburn, J. (1982). Egalitarian societies. Man, n.s., 17, 431-51.

 

 

Darcia Narvaez is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Notre Dame and Executive Editor of the Journal of Moral Education.

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