Individualism is characterized by autonomy and loose ties between individuals, while collectivism is characterized by interdependence between individuals and the subordination of individual goals for the good of the group. Historically, the individualist versus collectivist distinction has been one of the main organizing frameworks for understanding cultural differences in family life. For example, parents from individualistic cultural groups are believed to socialize their children to be self-sufficient and independent, while parents from collectivist cultural groups are believed to socialize their children to be obedient and fulfill their duties to their family. .
However, neither cultures nor families are static over time. Instead, cultures and families evolve in response to social transformations, such as changing gender roles, urbanization, globalization, and the adoption of technology. Entire cultural orientations can change, and changing demands resulting from social transformations can alter parents’ attitudes if they perceive that new parenting behaviors, child characteristics, or both will be more adaptive in changed social contexts.
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Large-scale social changes are partly responsible for changes in parental attitudes. For example, the Internet and social media have dispersed global perspectives that were not part of traditional family discourse in pre-Internet times. Parenthood has been shaped by exposure to different perspectives via technology, as well as urbanization, globalization, and other social forces that change over time, and these exposures may have contributed to the merging of individualistic orientations and collectivists. Individualism and collectivism are not polar opposites, but rather can coexist within a cultural group and even within an individual in different situations or at different times.
In order to understand the individualism and collectivism of mothers and fathers at this point in history, we examined parents from nine countries that varied significantly in rankings of individualism at the country level, Colombia, China and Thailand, which are among the least individualistic. countries in the world, in Kenya, Jordan and the Philippines, which are a little less individualistic, in Sweden, Italy and the United States, which is one of the most individualistic countries in the world. (Country profiles on individualism are available here.) We included equal proportions of black, white, and Latino families in the United States.
When children were 10 years old, mothers and fathers completed an individualism and collectivism measure in which they rated the importance of different values related to their autonomy and membership in a social group. (For example: “I prefer to depend on myself rather than on others”. “For me, pleasure consists in spending time with others.”
For individualism and collectivism, we found larger differences in country that between countries. Differences within countries were more pronounced for collectivism than for individualism. It is possible that a collectivist orientation exploits aspects of social relations that are more universally valued across cultures than aspects of autonomy that are embodied in individualism, so that the variance of collectivism is driven more by intracultural factors, such as personality.
These findings support conceptualizations of individualism and collectivism as discrete constructs rather than opposite ends of the same dimension. Correlations between mothers’ individualism and collectivism and fathers’ individualism and collectivism were modest and positive (0.26 and 0.22, respectively). That is, mothers and fathers who were more individualistic were also more, not less, collectivist. Although countries are often categorized or categorized by whether they are more collectivist or individualistic, individual parents (as well as countries) can have collectivist characteristics in addition to individualistic characteristics. Particularly in the 21st century, as parents have access to a wide range of global perspectives via the internet and social media and have experienced social changes associated with urbanization and globalization, parents may be even more susceptible today than in previous generations to have characteristics of both individualism and collectivism.
We found no consistent predictor of mothers’ individualism across all cultural groups, but more educated fathers were less individualistic in 10 of 11 cultural groups. Maternal collectivism was predicted by greater importance of religion in all cultural groups, lower father education in 10 of 11 groups, and higher family income in 8 of 11 groups. Father collectivism was predicted by younger father age in 10 of the 11 groups. Other significant predictors were less consistent across cultural groups. These results suggest that although individualism and collectivism have often been treated as nation-level constructs, they can also be understood to be predicted by certain individual-level factors.
Taken together, the results suggest two main conclusions. First, differences in individualism and collectivism are explained more by intracultural factors than by intercultural factors. Second, broadly consistent across mothers and fathers and across cultures, individualism and collectivism are predicted by a range of socio-demographic factors, in particular mothers’ and fathers’ education and mothers about the importance of religion in their lives. Changing gender roles, urbanization, globalization and the adoption of technology from the 20th to the 21st century may have contributed to some of the similarities between mothers and fathers and between the nine countries included in this study. As parents are affected by social contexts and also influence social change over time, understanding parenting in the 21st century depends on understanding the cultural and socio-historical contexts in which parents are embedded.