“And this is explained by collectivism…”
I cringe inside every time it occurs.
During a presentation or classroom discussion, a student will articulate a cultural difference and follow up with an explanation that, with a certain degree of finality, labels the observed difference as a result of collectivistic or individualistic (C-I) cultures. But the elaboration on what kind of collectivism or individualism never comes. Neither does the possibility that the situation could simultaneously reflect both collectivism and individualism.
Whenever there is a concerning pattern among my students, I take a step back and assess my role in the situation; too often, my students’ tendencies serve as a mirror to my own habits. And I am definitely guilty of this overreliance on the C-I conceptualization. In 10+ years of teaching at a Christian higher education, I am positive that the most frequently cited reason for cultural differences in my classrooms, both by students and myself, is some variation of the C-I dichotomy. Although the C-I framework is a necessary step in the right direction of acknowledging culture, I also find that the oversimplified C-I framework in the classroom can become pedagogically ineffective, and at times, even do harm; examples of harm include the gross oversimplification of the diversity among God’s people, and the violation people’s dignity, whose lives deserve much more depth than the simplistic labels of C-I.
Of course, this overreliance is not limited to the classroom. Joel Wong, Shu-Yi Wang, and Elyssa Klann1 provide an important critique of the empirical literature on C-I in a cleverly titled piece, “The Emperor with No Clothes: A Critique of Collectivism and Individualism.” This article pinpoints the weaknesses of the current literature (e.g., inconsistent definitions of C-I) and articulates a way forward for researchers and practitioners. It’s an important read for academics who want to extend their multicultural and cross-cultural research beyond the C-I framework. My blog piece is an extension of this critique to the realm of teaching in the social sciences, especially contextualized to the Christian higher education setting. Following my earlier confession to being prone to favoring a simplified version of the C-I framework in my teaching, in this blog piece, I would like to provide personal reflections on the possible reasons I default to the C-I conceptualization and list some ways that I have found effective to counter this tendency. It is my hope that my fellow educators in Christian institutions will find some connecting points with my perspectives and improve the way that they discuss culture within their classrooms.
To be clear, I am not arguing that we abandon the C-I dimensions (or other cultural dimensions) and instead adopt a racially color-blind (or culture-blind) approach to understanding human behavior; a culture-blind approach in the social sciences is deeply problematic and can result in injurious invalidation of the experiential realities of those in our communities. Especially on Christian campuses, this type of (I assume) well-intentioned, culture-blind approach can result in adverse outcomes for students from underrepresented backgrounds (e.g., see my recent work with Dana Kendall and Elizabeth Bau2 on racial invalidations prevalent on Christian campuses).
What I am saying is that too often, I have observed my academic community (again, including myself) quickly resort to the C-I bifurcation to explain human behavior, failing to engage a much richer, complex perspective that the particular situation might call for. Why might we, as an academic community that seeks to deeply recognize the diversity within God’s people and honor all individuals as image bearers, engage in some teaching practices (e.g., oversimplification of cultural difference as C-I) that go against those very principles?
Let me personalize this as I promised I would earlier: Why do I feel drawn to the C-I distinction so much more than other explanations? Here is a short list.
(Deep breath because this type of vulnerability is so very difficult) – I favor the C-I framework in the classroom because:
- I am cognitively lazy, and the C-I explanation is the easiest and clearest explanation within my mental reach. This is especially true when I am riffing during a classroom discussion, when I might experience internalized pressure to rapidly produce a meaningful commentary.
- I enjoy the immediate, emotional impact of the stories I tell (e.g., story of my father being raised by mothers in his village because his biological mother died when he was a baby), but not necessarily the tales that are complicated, contradictory in some ways, and without a clear-cut C-I bifurcation. The glitziest of stories in my back pocket are powerful illustrations of radical individualism or self-effacing collectivism; but often it is the messy, contradictory everyday experiences that most meaningfully connect to the daily experiences of my students.
- My own mentors also relied on the C-I framework to explain cultural differences. They presumably learned it from their mentors. And now, I have passed the overreliance onto some of my own students. After providing a C-I explanation during a presentation or classroom discussion, I sometimes catch students glancing my way, as if looking for a nod of approval from me. So, there is a generational issue here that I am perpetuating whenever I turn to a simplistic integration of the C-I framework.
There are many more things that I can list, but this is a sufficient list for me to repent of my shortcomings in this area and think about how I might respond to counter these tendencies. Here is a list of things that I have tried in my teaching in case you find these to be helpful.
When teaching about C-I, I find it helpful to:
- Experiment with novel descriptions and examples. As Wong, Wang, and Klann suggest, there are numerous promising alternatives to the terms C-I. For instance, I teach the vertical and horizontal dimensions of collectivism3 to help students differentiate between aspects that emphasize hierarchy and aspects that emphasize interconnectedness respectively – two very different emphases within the collectivism dimension.
- Evaluate the C-I dimensions. Point out the perils of C-I. Integrate Biblical examples that speak to the importance of these values (e.g., see 1 Corinthians 12:12-27). Discuss historical and contemporary manifestations of C-I as cultural dimensions that can reflect our sinful nature (e.g., valuing of autonomy and freedom over interconnectedness of our health during the pandemic).
- Think of C-I as a conversation starter, and not the concluding statement. The C-I bifurcation can open so many doors to rich conversations and relevant applications. So, it is a shame when I see it more frequently serving as a final explanation to cultural differences instead.
- Keep in mind the dangers of stereotyping. Understand that overutilization of the C-I dichotomy can result in unintentional generalizing and dehumanizing of our students made in the image of God.
- Teach (and learn!) about culture-specific constructs that map onto C-I. Much more on this with the example below.
I teach about han, which is a Korean construct that does not have an exact English equivalent but can be roughly understood as collective, internalized trauma. It has also been described as intense sadness and anger triggered by trauma experiences.4 Han manifests in different contexts for Koreans, including the Japanese colonial period and resulting tension between Japan and Korea (e.g., heartbreaking stories of Korean “comfort women” who were forced into sex work by Japanese military during World War II and the continued collective effort to seek justice on their behalf), mental health (e.g., Hwa Byung, which is literally translated in English as anger disease and as a psychological disorder disproportionately affecting middle-aged women; sociocultural etiology beliefs point to paternalistic societal elements5), and the North-South Korea dynamic (e.g., lifelong separation of families as a result of the division).
Although han is connected to the broader cultural dimension of collectivism – after all, it speaks to a shared experience – it goes beyond a superficial understanding of collectivism. It allows for grappling with the meaning of shared trauma internalized by the individual. It opens up discussions around how historical injustices evolve into contemporary forms of trauma, and my students draw connections relevant for the U.S. context (e.g., historical and current trauma of Black Americans). Students are especially affected by the persistence of shared trauma that is demonstrated in how South Korean students, a few generations removed from the directly affected women, nonetheless passionately protest alongside the now elderly comfort women6; it brings a whole new perspective to what it means to bear the burden of others around us (Galatians 6:2), including pains and sorrows of those who have gone before us. Stories that illustrate han are not necessarily grand in their impact and not neatly packaged; yet they are a way for me to teach about a culture-construct that takes the conversation beyond the C-I framework.
I hope that this blog piece encourages you to think about creative and meaningful approaches to teaching cultural dimensions like C-I.
- Joel Y. Wong, Shu-Yi Wang, and Elyssa M. Klann, “The Emperor with No Clothes: A Critique of Collectivism and Individualism,” Archives of Scientific Psychology6 1 (2018): 251-260.
- Paul Youngbin Kim, Dana L. Kendall, and Katharine E. Bau, “Racial Microaggressions on Christian Campuses: Instrument Development and Exploratory Factor Analysis,” Christian Higher Education(2021): 1-16.
- Theodore M. Singelis, Harry C. Triandis, Dharm PS Bhawuk, and Michele J. Gelfand, “Horizontal and Vertical Dimensions of Individualism and Collectivism: A Theoretical and Measurement Refinement.” Cross-Cultural Research29 no. 3 (1995): 240-275.
- Hyon-Uk Shin, “Melancholy, Acculturation, and Relief: A Brief Essay on the Religion of Ordinarity,” Journal of Religion and Health57 2 (2018): 483-496.
- Jieun Lee, Amy Wachholtz, and Keum-Hyeong Choi, “A Review of the Korean Cultural Syndrome Hwa-Byung: Suggestions for Theory and Intervention,” Journal of Asia Pacific Counseling 4 1 (2014): 49-64.
- KH디지털 [From the scene] Student sit-in shields ‘comfort woman’ statue. The Korean Herald. January 27, 2016. http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20160127000938