Individualism and social capital

More than a century ago, Durkheim (1893) pointed out an interesting connection between individual personality and social solidarity. That is the more individualistic, people depends ever more closely upon society. In recent researches, socialist and economist explained the phenomenon from different perspectives. Jüri Allik and Anu Realo (2004) supported the view of Durkheim by empirically studying the relationship between individualism and social capital within and across country. This essay aims to summarize and argue their main findings and conclusion about the interesting relationship between the psychological individualism-collectivism concept and social capital, an institutional one.

Before coming to the question of Durkheim, it is worth to review the emergence of individualism as an investable trend today. Archaeologist and historian proved with evidence that the human society started with the high collectivism level in order to tackle with the challenges from nature. Indeed, people in pre-agricultural societies have had little conceptions of separation and been undistinguished between the group, the individual and nature. The development of agriculture and industrial revolution changes the ways people work and help some them accumulate the asset. Social classes were emerged and due to the variety in demand among different classes, people started pursuing their interests which may differ from those of general society. This is one of the first form of individualism. Nowadays, as a consequence of the economic development in many countries, the individualism is seemingly inevitable.

However, the evolving of individualism is also subjected to the opposition from its rival, the collectivism. In last century, the fierce tension between capitalism and communism is actually the conflict of individualism and collectivism in which the psychology phenomenon was translated to the political ideology.

Hofstede (1991) defined the individualism as a psychology concept relating to societies in which the links among members are weak. Everyone is expected to take care of himself or herself and his or her immediate family first. Collectivism is, on the other hand, integrates strongly and cohesive. His study also claimed that industrialized, wealthy and urbanized society strengthens individualism.

The main question in this essay is that whether the individualism alters the social capital. Literature review, however, still shows the considerable divergence on this matter. From the communitarian point of view, one can argue that individualism demolishes the social trust and isolates the members of society. If the social capital is defined as the scarification of individual’s interest to act in the goal of the group, the individualism is completely not supportive to this form. However, on the other hand, one might contend that individualism is essential for the social capital. Individuals are only voluntarily cooperate, unite and trust each other if they have autonomy, self-control and a mature sense of responsibility (Drechsler, 1995). Individualism, in this perspective, is also the tend to join in many associations, which are able to provide many sources of interest, norms and social supports.

Using the quantitative indexed of individualism-collectivism and two available measures of social capital, namely scores of interpersonal and organizational membership index, within American and across 37 countries, Jüri Allik and Anu Realo (2004) shows a high overall correlation two dimensions. In detail, their research showed that the countries which have higher levels of social capital tend to be more individualistic. Similarly results are also proved among states within American. In other words, the more time people spend with their community or a higher degree of civic engagement and political activity, the more individualistic they are.

However, the study of Jüri Allik and Anu Realo (2004) also comes up with a noticeable exceptional result of China. This country scores lowest point of individualism, but stays at nearly top of interpersonal trust. In line with some previous studies about the in-group and out-group culture, the authors faced challenges to explain this case. They argued that the social capital in China stems largely from the family or in other narrow circles of relationship, and, therefore, it is surprising that people to trust those who are outside of these circles.

Another point which should be considered in the conclusion from Jüri Allik and Anu Realo (2004) is that the correlations emerging from aggregated survey do not necessarily reflect the individual correlations. Also, the result of study might remarkably change over time due to external factors such as personal experience and social status or even weather. Therefore, the robustness of the research should be test via many repeat survey.

The 21st century can be marked as the age of globalization. As discussed above, individualism is an inevitable trend in this process. When the more people connect to each other, or higher level of globalization, the more individualistic they are. The view of Durkheim, therefore, implies that the globalization would finally lead to social solidarity. This is an absolutely idealistic implication. Although it takes time to confirm the realistic of Durkheim’s conception, this view raise the hope of a new world where people can have freedom of thought and pursuing their interest, while the society also expect to be well united.

This essay review the research of Jüri Allik and Anu Realo (2004) in the relationship between individualism-collectivism behavior and the level of social capital within a country and across 37 countries. Their conclusion supports the view of Durkheim about the positive correlation between these two dimensions. While my opinion is also in line with this, I criticize the result of Jüri Allik and Anu Realo (2004) in the case of China. The question of Durkheim a hundred year ago, therefore, is not simply solved by this research.


Allik, J., & Realo, A. (2004). Individualism-collectivism and social capital. Journal of cross-cultural psychology, 35(1), 29-49.
Durkheim, E. (1893). 1984. The division of labor in society.
Dumont, L. (1986). On value, modern and non-modern. Essays on Individualism: Modern Ideology in Anthropological Perspective, 234-268.





One thought on “Individualism and social capital

  1. In my opinion, individualism should be regarded as a negative and selfish way to interact with the members of society. I do agree that neither high level of collectivism should be a standard for a society but to consider individualism as a causality to gather capital is an exaggeration. Therefore, individuals that act on their own could become “manipulators” in a society rather than being civic engaged. Individualism is a pure form of survival. This is of course a low cost measure in order to filter capable individuals of gathering capital from those that find it much harder. In addition, i do not believe that industrialization promotes individualism, but rather it makes people more selfish and thus they become more individualistic.


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