Culture & Self-Concept

Deep Dive Toolkit

Culture is an expansive concept that includes the shared values, beliefs, and norms that are held by a group and passed down generationally through socialization. Although the intergenerational nature of culture implies constancy, a group’s norms and social behaviors are actually in a perpetual state of change. While cultural change is sometimes quick and revolutionary, more often, subtle shifts occur at the individual level.

Given the changeability of culture (and our mindsets) and the interconnectedness of our world, it is crucial that all global citizens learn to communicate respectfully and effectively with people who have perspectives and backgrounds different from their own. Understanding and respecting our difference, sameness, and the synergistic global perspective is key to fostering a united humanity. We invite you to explore the relationship between independence and interdependence below and then take a deeper dive into culture and self-concept.

Independent and Interdependent Self-Construals

One way to think about “culture” is to consider how your culture(s) defines the ideal self, both independently and in relation to others. In the early 1990s, social psychologists Hazel Markus and Shinobu Kitayama first defined the two primary variations of the self. Through their study of individuals raised in Europe, the US, and East and South Asia, Markus and Kitayama found that the social context in which one is raised determines whether they have a more independent or more interdependent self-construal, or constructions of themselves.

Try this activity

Pick the adjective that describes you best in each of the following pairs: individual/relational, free/rooted, influencing/adjusting, unique/similar, and equal/ranked.

If you mostly picked the first adjective in each pair, then you have a more independent self-construal (self-construal = how you define yourself individually and in relation to others). If you mostly picked the second adjective in each pair, then you have a more interdependent self-construal.

Self-construal = how you define yourself individually and in relation to others.

Self-construal = how you define yourself individually and in relation to others.

Try this activity

Pick the adjective that describes you best in each of the following pairs: individual/relational, free/rooted, influencing/adjusting, unique/similar, and equal/ranked.

If you mostly picked the first adjective in each pair, then you have a more independent self-construal (self-construal = how you define yourself individually and in relation to others). If you mostly picked the second adjective in each pair, then you have a more interdependent self-construal.

Collectivism and individualism has an effect on how people treat in-group and out-group members, social norms, and even foreign policy.

Cultural anthropologists label cultures that promote independent self-construal as individualistic and cultures that promote interdependent self-construal as collectivist. These constructs became popular in the 1980s and since then, have prompted both criticism and acclaim (this paper provides a comprehensive overview of the theory and of existing literature). Collectivism and individualism has an effect on how people treat in-group and out-group members, social norms, and even foreign policy. For example, this journal article investigates the effect of individualist and collectivist tendencies on national and international responses to pandemics.

Collectivism and individualism has an effect on how people treat in-group and out-group members, social norms, and even foreign policy.

Cultural anthropologists label cultures that promote independent self-construal as individualistic and cultures that promote interdependent self-construal as collectivist. These constructs became popular in the 1980s and since then, have prompted both criticism and acclaim (this paper provides a comprehensive overview of the theory and of existing literature). Collectivism and individualism has an effect on how people treat in-group and out-group members, social norms, and even foreign policy. For example, this journal article investigates the effect of individualist and collectivist tendencies on national and international responses to pandemics.

While labels such as “individualistic” and “collectivist” can be helpful to frame cultures, one must not have a monolithic understanding of cultural groups, as cultures are much more nuanced than is often presented in this research. For example, even in “independent” societies like the US, women are expected to exhibit more interdependent characteristics than men. That is, women are expected to be friendly and communal and may be penalized for being too status asserting. Further, individualistic and collectivist cultures are often presented as dichotomous when in actuality, all humans hold both independent and interdependent characteristics.

All humans hold both independent and interdependent characteristics.

All humans hold both independent and interdependent characteristics.

While labels such as “individualistic” and “collectivist” can be helpful to frame cultures, one must not have a monolithic understanding of cultural groups, as cultures are much more nuanced than is often presented in this research. For example, even in “independent” societies like the US, women are expected to exhibit more interdependent characteristics than men. That is, women are expected to be friendly and communal and may be penalized for being too status asserting. Further, individualistic and collectivist cultures are often presented as dichotomous when in actuality, all humans hold both independent and interdependent characteristics.

Are there parts of both individualism and collectivism that play a part in interdependency?

Drawing on how individualistic and collectivistic ideas influence our relations to other groups, and even how they influence foreign policy, how do we relate this to interdependency? Are there parts of both individualism and collectivism that play a part in interdependency? How so?

Are there parts of both individualism and collectivism that play a part in interdependency?

Drawing on how individualistic and collectivistic ideas influence our relations to other groups, and even how they influence foreign policy, how do we relate this to interdependency? Are there parts of both individualism and collectivism that play a part in interdependency? How so?

If you are interested in learning more about this topic, read Clash! by Hazel Markus and Alana Conner which discusses the independent and interdependent selves and argues that building a peaceful world requires everyone to be both, and to understand each other. The image at right gives tips for how to summon both your independent and interdependent selves.

If you are interested in learning more about this topic, read Clash! by Hazel Markus and Alana Conner which discusses the independent and interdependent selves and argues that building a peaceful world requires everyone to be both, and to understand each other. The image above gives tips for how to summon both your independent and interdependent selves.

“Girl with globe” photo by Garidy Sanders on Unsplash
“Picture Frames” photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Read these amazing books

Tiger Writing by Gish Jen

Americanah by Chimimanda Ngozi Adiche

One Beauty by Zadie Smith

The Opposite House by Helen Oyeyemi

The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston (+ this analysis which addresses the book’s criticisms and it’s theme of individual/collectivist cultural influences)

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian by Sherman Alexi

The Underground Girls of Kabul by Jenny Nordberg

With a Star in My Hand by Margarita Engle

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Cities of Salt by Abdelrahman Munif

Palestine by Joe Sacco

Dream of Ding Village by Yan Lianke

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

Funny in Farsi by Firoozeh Dumas

The Making of Asian America: A History by Erika Lee

Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen by Jose Antonio Vargas

Watch these movies & documentaries

On our growing interconnectedness

Children of Heaven directed by Majid Majidi

The Boy who Harnessed the Wind directed by Chiwetel Ejiofor

The Cup directed by Khyentse Norbu

On marginalized communities, tragedy, and practicing empathy

Offside directed by Jafar Panahi

For Sama directed by Waad Al-Kateab and Edward Watts

Persepolis directed by Marjane Satrapi and Winshluss

Roma directed by Alfonso Cuarón

Under the Same Moon directed by Patricia Riggen

Moonlight directed by Barry Jenkins

The Promise directed by Terry George

The Look of Silence directed by Joshua Oppenheimer

I Am Not Your Negro directed by Raoul Peck

Promised Land directed by Sarah Salcedo Samudre, Vasant Samudre

Dawnland directed by Adam Mazo, Ben Pender-Cudlip

Short Films

Developing Global Compassion by Paul Ekman and the Dalai Lama

The Power of Vulnerability by Brene Brown

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