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Іntricacies of individualism and collectivism: Why Russians understand only force and have never been Ukraine's fraternal people

Sunday, 27 March 2022, 11:25

In active discussions around the potential cease-fire negotiations between Ukraine and Russia, Western democracies have been analyzing the aggressor’s motives using their habitual logic, in which it’s possible to reach an actionable agreement with Russia, which it will further uphold. In this logic, Ukraine should not have been able to fight the allegedly ‘second potent army in the world’, let alone prevail. Through the lens of this logic, the Ukrainians appear to be acting ‘irrationally’, while Western world is looking on ‘how long they can hold out’ and wondering ‘why they aren’t negotiating to stop the war’. If Russia were a developed democracy with functioning institutions, independent civic volition, and checks and balances imposed on those in power, the said logic would have made sense.

However, Russia has never been a democracy – in fact, all evidence points to it being an authoritative state, and it’s institutions remained punitive and corrupt, not having changed much since the soviet times. Not only it’s an authoritative country (one of many in the world), but it’s also vertically-collectivist. Societies like that are predominantly ineffective in non-violent (‘horizontal’) interaction, while dominance through pressure and coercion (‘vertical’) is the surest way to move up the hierarchy, to obtain some degree of ‘freedom’, albeit limited by one’s position in the system. Moreover, the decades-long limitation of the individuals’ decision-making autonomy have caused the inability of the Russian population to form a unified movement, let alone protest or expression of dissent, of any significance.

Individualism or collectivism? It’s tricky, but both!

Cross-cultural analysis measures ‘dimensions’ of national culture in countries and their separate regions, through which it manifests in the key societal processes. The level and the nature of these processes explain why certain logic of making decisions and patterns of behavior are peculiar to some societies, but not the others. One of the most complex and parsimonious ‘dimension’ of a national culture is ‘individualism-collectivism’. It demonstrates whether a society prioritizes the interests of a group as a monolith or those of separate individuals – inside that group or not belonging to any group at all. The more collectivist a society, the less it encourages dissent of any kind or expression of thoughts and opinions, contrary to those of the dominant majority. Individual achievements in a collectivist culture bear less significance than those of a group and are not considered separately from the group’s achievements.


How national culture forms and ‘steers’ institutions and how it evolves, please, see the previous article.

Most systems of cross-cultural analysis (Hofstede, GLOBE, Trompenaars, Lewis, Schwartz, Hall) view individualism and collectivism as ‘ends of the spectrum’ and, therefore, mutually exclusive cultural ‘dimensions’. Though such approach has been validated by decades of academic and empirical research, it does not fully explain the differences in the social norms and the institutionally embedded behavior patterns in countries that formally fall under the definition of ‘individualist’ or ‘collectivist’

For instance, formally USA, UK, Canada, France, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Australia are individualistic societies, however, individualism in the first four countries on this list manifests distinctly differently from the remaining four. Say, the assertive and notably confident negotiations style (so-called ‘hard sell’), expected in the US and the UK (to lesser degree) will not be taken well in Sweden and Denmark, where it can be perceived as bordering on rudeness. Or, blunt and fault-focused feedback, habitual in the French workplace environment, will definitely ‘ruffle feathers’ in Australia, where, despite a degree of straightforwardness of feedback, openly putting someone on the spot and ‘pointing fingers’ is not exactly optimal.

Same goes for collectivism – in China, India, South Korea, Russia, Italy, and Spain it manifests differently from, say, Latin America and Ukraine. If one tries (even respectfully) to openly express doubt in a superior’s proposal or idea in China and in Brazil, the career repercussions in the former case will be damaging, while in the latter – there will be none because no one was offended, which is the main thing. Or, if one disobeys a direct order in South Korea or Japan – it’s a serious misdemeanor with long-term consequences, while in Argentina or Ukraine – it really depends on the order.

Despite Russia and Ukraine being predominantly collectivist societies (in all systems of cross-cultural analysis), collectivism in these countries manifests differently and the level of individualism dimension is also different. Research shows that, in Ukrainian culture both individualism and collectivism dimensions are prominent, though collectivism still dominates. In Russian culture, individualism dimension manifests significantly weaker, and the collectivism dimension is dominant and ‘vertical’.

Ukrainians, on the one hand, are focused on gaining status (as means of differentiation from others) and on personal interests. On the other hand, balanced coexistence, and synchronized goals with members of the group, belonging to which improves one’s quality of life are important. Notably, preparedness to sacrifice one’s interests in favor of those of the group (no matter how relevant) is always an conscious, not ‘automatic’ choice. In this form of collectivism, members of other groups, irrelevant to the individual, are ‘out-groups’, but not necessarily ‘enemies’.

Russians demonstrate notably higher manifestations of collectivism than individualism, with different form of collectivism dimension. It’s not only important to differentiate from others, but also to dominate (to the point of coercion and violence) over the group members located lower in the group’s hierarchy. Gaining higher status gives access to more beneficial interaction and support opportunities with people of comparable status. Individualism dimension in this society has limited manifestation – predominantly with those on the higher hierarchical levels, meaning that one has to ‘deserve’ and ‘earn’ the right to self-express and have own desires. In such a culture, sacrificing one’s interests in favor of those of the group is the norm and is expected by default. In this form of collectivism, members of other groups, irrelevant to the individuals, are not just ‘out-groups’, but are frequently perceived as ‘enemies’.

"Ends of the spectrum" or separate cultural dimensions?

It’s possible to explain the differences in manifestations of individualism and collectivism in national cultures, using an approach to national cultures as ‘symptoms’ – rooted in cross-cultural psychology, which was initiated by H.Triandis and further validated through numerous academic and empirical studies. ‘Cultures as symptoms’ approach postulates that, when national cultures are analyzed on both, societal and individual levels, individualism and collectivism manifest as two distinct dimensions (not ‘ends of the spectrum’), which are not mutually exclusive and can coexist within one culture. In other words, there are different ‘kinds’ of individualism and collectivism, and in a national culture they can coexist in different ‘proportions’ and ‘combinations’, as well as they come through in a variety of forms. The most critical differentiating attribute of various types of individualism and collectivism is the degree of focus on ‘horizontal’ or ‘vertical’ patterns of societal relations. Meaning that even collectivist societies can possess some individualistic values, beliefs, and behaviors, as well as individualistic societies can possess the said manifestations of collectivism. The frequency and the degree of these manifestations can fluctuate, depending on contexts and situations, similarly to blood pressure or air temperature.

‘Horizontal patterns’ of societal relations are based on the assumption of egalitarianism, postulating that all members of the society are equal and this equality (in rights, opportunities, status, potential, etc.) is the foundation for the functioning of that country’s institutions. Consequently, individuals realize their uniqueness and agency, strive for the productive interaction with others, and focus on maintaining meaningful connections and relationships. In societies like that, hierarchical systems and relationships are not the key focus, while overall gravitation is towards more egalitarian, than status-driven interaction.

HORIZONTALLY INDIVIDUALIST CULTURES: Australia, New Zealand, Finland, Norway, Denmark, Sweden.

Horizontal individualism is peculiar to the countries where, on the one hand, the government’s role in regulating societal functioning has been significant, and, on the other hand, the government in such countries has never (or for a long time) acted non-reliably or punitively towards its citizens. Moreover, institutions in societies like that are rather effective than not, and interaction with them does not require one to possess acquaintances or connections, ensuring the institution performs its basic function properly.

  • Key national culture values: autonomy and self-reliance.
  • Institutionally encouraged behaviors: realizing and cultivating one’s differentiation from others – without striving to achieve higher status; having one’s own business or area of expertise; having freedom to make decisions, ‘be oneself’, and self-express – comparable to others; thinking creatively, speaking one’s mind and raising concerns; gravitating towards egalitarian, not hierarchical, relations on individual and institutional levels.
  • Factors of success in society: ability and willingness to make decisions autonomously and to think critically; ability to interact with others productively, persuade, and conduct dialogue without coercion or aggression; demonstrate one’s skills, knowledge, or abilities only in situations they are required (no ‘hard sell’); rational underpinning of decisions and actions – emotion-driven argumentation is perceived as ‘weaker’ and less persuasive.
  • Peculiarities of societal relations: relatively superficial level of social relations (no excessive ‘heroism’ or ‘through hell and back’) – even between close relatives; higher level of social isolation and loneliness; demonstration of emotions should ‘by default’ be controlled and should not burden others; an individual is unique, but still a part of the society, whose rules they must comply with and where they should not strive to be ‘better than others’.
  • Approach to interaction and cooperation: focus on consensus and search for common solutions; autonomous sense-making – without imposing one’s views on others; considering the interconnected interests of the parties involved in a matter of interest; stark rejection of direct pressure or coercion of any kind – even for ‘the greater good’ or ‘the higher purpose’. 

Ukraine’s institutions have been historically weak and unstable (especially the government) and during the periods when our country was conquered by different aggressors and had different administrative borders, they performed punitive functions. Consequently, complex and resilient informal connections between Ukrainians have long been a substitute, or even a ‘picklock’, for the formal interaction with institutions. "Someone’s acquaintance" would always receive a better service, greater attention, and more complete information – easier and faster, while a problem of someone ‘from the street’ could be deemed less pressing. Thus, the manifestations of horizontal individualism in Ukraine appear to be relatively low, as they require higher level of institutional resilience and capacity than the current one. An additional factor impeding the level of horizontal individualism in Ukraine is high power distance, among the highest in the world.

Russia, being an authoritarian state and the former empire, with a legacy of punitive institutions and power distance higher than in Ukraine, has likely rather low level of horizontal individualism. In such a culture, hierarchy is the only possible format of societal systems’ functioning because individual volition and ability to make decisions autonomously (consciously, without pressure) have been historically rather low. Moreover, studies of authoritarian regimes, of which Russia is one, show that it’s vertically collectivist cultures with low and limited individualism that gravitate towards authoritarianism.

HORIZONTALLY COLLECTIVIST CULTURES: Latin America, Kibutzim subculture in Israel, Ukraine (partially, but not dominantly).

Horizontal collectivism is peculiar to societies or their segments, in which the institutions have been historically weak or ineffective, while geopolitical factors of the country’s development stimulated collective decision-making and coordination of actions. In difficult times, one relies on a network of relationships with people that have been formed, maintained and tested for a long time. Leadership in societies like that is rather paternalistic, when leaders are expected to not only ‘show the way’, but also support their followers in ‘going in the right direction’, solving their problems, and tending to their needs during hardships.

  • Key national culture values: interdependence and sociability.
  • Institutionally encouraged behaviors: realize one’s similarity to others in terms of rights and opportunities – with mandatory belonging to a group which ‘steers’ common goals, decisions, and actions of its members; prioritized fulfillment of obligations before those, on whom one’s functioning depends: family, school, university, company, sports team, government authority, country, etc.; building relationships based on benevolence and cooperation, not hierarchy – though inside the ‘in-group’; no competition between the ‘in-group’ members.
  • Factors of success in society: rely on belonging to the group and its achievements (instead of only one’s own) in all critical interactions; relatively open expression of opinion in the ‘in-group’ – as an egalitarian member of the collective; invest time and effort in maintaining resilient and productive personal relationships in the ‘in-group’ – even if the cost of such ‘investment’ at times exceeds its benefit. 
  • Peculiarities of societal relations: relatively low institutional productivity – due to the high influence of personal relationships that work effectively only inside the ‘in-group’ and require exponentially more effort to build with the ‘out-groups’; competition between ‘in-group’ members can be perceived as insult and disrespect; productivity of any interaction will be low until the involved parties become ‘in-group’ members to each other or establish other type of personal relationship.
  • Approach to interaction and cooperation: stimulating productive behavior via ‘in-group’ consensus, achieved due to the established relationships; not submitting to authority of those outside the ‘in-group’ or unwilling to invest in building relationships with those whom they intend to rule; to manage the group, a leader must gain legitimacy among its members by the criteria they find relevant.

Ukraine historically has had relatively low level of horizontal collectivism – due to high power distance, relatively conservative orthodox religion, and high level of uncertainty avoidance, which indicated the heightened need in controlling ‘what happens tomorrow’ and having a ‘safety net for the rainy day’. However, the extremely trying conditions that Russia’s war has caused, have a high chance of inducing a change of national beliefs and values towards horizontally collectivist. The scale of horizontal activization of citizens on all societal levels across the country and the scale of impact such connections will have on the country’s values going forward are unprecedented.

Russia is unlikely to have significantly pronounced horizontal collectivism – due to the long legacy of authoritarianism, which is negatively correlated with adaptation and dissemination of any ‘horizontal’ practices. Among the key obstacles to the development of horizontal collectivism in this country is the mass population’s ‘learned helplessness’ that’s been induced for centuries. Research shows that individuals’ ability to interact based on consensus, agreement, and autonomous responsible choice in authoritarian regimes is suppressed. This leads to the society’s atomization (lack of unity or coherence) and the subsequent inability to form any meaningful group movements or protests. Another factor of the underdeveloped ‘horizontal’ interaction is the unpreparedness of those in power to uphold agreements, fulfill obligations, or disclose information in negotiations with those who does not evoke fear or is not perceived as capable of domination.

‘Vertical patterns’ of societal relations are based on the assumption that all individuals in the society are different – by their place in the hierarchical institutions and relations or due to the level of status gained by moving upward in that society’s systems. Consequently, countries like that gravitate towards hierarchical interactions, when individuals strive to differentiate themselves from others or better – dominate them or have higher status, which gives more opportunities of ‘getting ahead’ than lower status. In such societies people and groups are divided into ‘important’ and ‘unimportant’ as related to specific goals, and only interests, rights, and goals of the former truly matter.

VERTICALLY INDIVIDUALIST CULTURES: USA, France, Canada, United Kingdom, Germany, Netherlands. 

Vertical individualism is peculiar to the societies where institutional ways of improving one’s status by making effort (getting education, saving money, career or entrepreneurial success, creativity, innovative thinking) exist, and where obtaining and demonstrating status and being competitive are not merely acceptable, but desired individual behaviors. Notably, the degree of competitiveness in the society may differ (e.g. in the USA it’s rather high, while in Canada and Germany it’s lower), but the overall principle of ‘competing with the best in accordance with the rules’ remains foundational for such national culture.

  • Key national culture values: competition and hedonism.
  • Institutionally encouraged behaviors: being different from others is paramount (via skills, experience, career, hobby, etc.) because being ‘like everyone else’ is not prestigious; having one’s own business or area of expertise; having freedom to make decisions, ‘be oneself’, and self-express; having for oneself and giving children ‘the best one can’, ‘thinking big’, ‘be who one wants to be’, ‘know what one wants and get it’; thinking creatively, speaking one’s mind and raising concerns.
  • Factors of success in society: ability and drive to compete and be competitive; knowing what’s important and doing or getting it; taking care of oneself and not hiding it; demonstrating one’s achievements and status (with differing degree of bluntness, depending on other dimensions of national culture); improving one’s status by making effort (respect-worthy status is ‘earned’, not ‘gifted’ or ‘inherited’).
  • Peculiarities of societal relations: high level of stress due to the constant need to compete and prove one’s competitiveness; institutional stimulation of ‘workaholism’ or the demonstration of it; perception of financial and material success as a sign of one having higher human qualities and life success overall; sensitivity to status elements that improve competitiveness: brands, material attributes, connections, education, employer, publicly renowned achievements.
  • Approach to interaction and cooperation: focus on one’s interests and benefits and their rational assertion in negotiation process; upholding jointly reached agreements (especially formalized); following the established rules and norms; relationships have value until they deliver desired results; people and institutions of higher status are perceived as more successful and competitive; respect and support given to those who ‘strives and acts’, not who ‘complains and does nothing’. 

Ukraine, as research shows, has prominent (though not dominant, for we are a collectivist society) dimensions of vertical individualism, caused mostly by the constant need to fight for the country’s identity, independence, and survival. Comparably important impact on specifically vertical manifestations of individualism comes from the deeply ingrained strife in the national culture for maximum autonomy and avoiding coercion in decision-making and actions – within the existing limitations: hierarchy, relevant group, job, access to resources, etc. A presence of such strife is notable on all societal levels in Ukraine, while competing for the desired results is perceived as a ‘race’ where someone ‘wins’ and someone ‘loses’ – in the domain of professionalism (doing a better job) or trust (being a more reliable partner).

Russia (that is also a collectivist society) demonstrates rather limited dimension of vertical individualism – mainly it manifests on the highest levels of societal hierarchy where one, by default, has relatively more freedom and access to higher quality of life and faster resolution of one’s problems. Notably, the competition in such a society resembles a ‘squid game’ or ‘hunger games’ (as in famous TV-shows and movies) where, to get ahead, it’s not enough to be a better professional or a trusted partner. One has to demonstrate the ability to dominate, coerce, and ensure obedience from those on the lower hierarchical levels or ‘behind’ in the ‘race’. Due to the low level of assertiveness and the predominant inability to get the desired result without aggression, the notion of ‘competitor’ in Russian society is frequently conflated with the notion of ‘enemy’.

VERTICALLY COLLECTIVIST CULTURES: India, China, Korea, Italy, Spain, Japan, Philippines, Eastern Europe, Russia, Ukraine (partially and dominantly).

Vertical collectivism is peculiar to the countries with large populations, extensive territories, multi-level and hierarchical societal structure and institutions that fully depend on the chains of connections between ‘important people’ who work there. Most authoritarian regimes in the world are vertically collectivist because this dimension of collectivism is particularly conducive for subduing individual will and volition, curtailing citizens’ ability to make autonomous decisions, and ‘normalizing’ coercive practices

  • Key national culture values: family integrity (as a construct, involves processes at multiple levels of social organization) and sociability.
  • Institutionally encouraged behaviors: lack of individual’s legitimacy without belonging to the group and a designated place in its hierarchical structure; expected ‘approval’ of one’s actions and behaviors by their ‘in-group’; involving ‘higher ups’ from the ‘in-group’ in making all significant decisions: head of the family, superior at work, senior member of the collective, etc.; striving to improve one’s status in the ‘in-group’ hierarchy – specifically by contributing to attaining its goals, even if it comes with high personal cost. 
  • Factors of success in society: never doubt or debate the authority and the decisions of the ‘in-group’ – even if one disagrees with them; improving one’s status indirectly – through actions valuable to the ‘in-group’; act aggressively, strive for dominance; always protect interests and goals of the ‘in-group’ – regardless of what they are and how they are perceived by the ‘out-groups’; never openly demonstrate one’s ‘autonomy’ or ‘independence’ – such individual is perceived as dangerous because they are not controlled by the group.
  • Peculiarities of societal relations: such types of societies more often than not gravitate towards authoritarianism because most part of their population ‘delegates’ the making of critical decisions to the limited number of people ‘on top’ of the hierarchy, in which they are situated; not making decisions and not being responsible for anything – among the indicative characteristics of mass population’s behavior in vertically collectivist countries; such a society will be ‘rooting’ for their rulers regardless of their deeds and values because those rulers comprise all the ‘agency’ to make decisions the population has given up; another reason for such ‘delegation’ is the implied ‘exchange’ of decision-making agency for access to institutional ‘connections’, without which one cannot receive those institutions’ basic services.
  • Approach to interaction and cooperation: stimulating productive behavior through coercion, pressure, or violence; ‘automatic’ expectation of obedience by ‘higher ups’ from ‘lower downs’ in the hierarchy; to rule a group one must demonstrate their status, dominant position, or ability to ensure obedience by the ‘in-group’ members; upholding agreements is not implied – as well as telling the truth or disclosing full information in the negotiations process.

Ukraine historically has been a vertically collectivist society – among other factors, due to the specifics of religion, high power distance and uncertainty avoidance levels. However, the lack of authoritarianism legacy, complexities of territorial formation and establishing administrative borders, and deeply ingrained tradition of horizontal societal activization, vertical collectivism manifestations are balanced by lower, but still prominent manifestations of vertical individualism. I.e. individual freedom (albeit within one’s ‘in-group’ with legitimate leadership) has been the defining feature of the Ukrainian culture for centuries. Simultaneously, the accepted societal behavior patterns in Ukraine do not include ‘automatic’ obedience of or deference to authority. ‘Displacing’ an illegitimate or unsatisfactory ruler has been the norm on all levels of Ukrainian society – from village heads to hetmans, as well as functioning on horizontal connections – without a single ruler at all. It is highly probable the current unprecedented mobilization of Ukrainian society to defend the country in the ongoing war with Russia will induce the development of horizontal collectivism and gradual decrease of vertical collectivism dimension in our country’s national culture. However, ascertaining that would require decades and additional studies.

Russia has been a vividly vertically collectivist country, in whose national culture this dimension manifests most prominently of all types of individualism or collectivism for that matter. The need in a "tzar-patron-‘tell-us-where-to-go’" type of ruler has been caused by centuries-long legacy of authoritarian regimes, in which any autonomous or conscious and responsible action is curtailed and punished. Because autonomy is one of the individual’s evidence-based psychological needs, it’s constant suppression causes deep individual- and societal-level trauma that further manifests as ‘learned helplessness’ of mass population before the corrupt, inhumane, or plain criminal actions of the leaders. ‘It’s not a war, but a special operation’, ‘peaceful population will not be harmed’, ‘Russia did not attack anyone’ – are not simply Russian propaganda messages, these are literally ‘mantras’ Russian population utters and believes because they’ve been conditioned that ‘higher ups know better’ for generations. Consequently, academics, workers, or managers alike will believe what national television tells them to believe – often despite the obvious evidence of the contrary.

Cross-cultural analysis confirms once again that Ukraine that (as Russian propaganda states) is allegedly ‘Russia’s fraternal people’ has markedly different combination of collectivism and individualism – both, by type and by nature of how these dimensions manifest in society. Ukrainians, unlike Russians, do not gravitate to mandatory centralization of decision-making – particularly in critical situations. Ukrainians need for the leaders to be legitimate before they consciously decide to follow them. Russia, on the contrary, gravitates towards ‘herding’ around the authoritarian leader because it’s citizens have long given up their decision-making agency and responsibility for the consequences. Among the key reasons for such societal predicament is the dominance of vertical collectivism as one of the key dimensions of Russia’s national culture – combined with weak manifestation of individualism (also vertical). Thus, any attempts to interact with Russia ‘horizontally’ (via agreements of mutual concessions) will not only be unsuccessful but will be perceived as weakness and a signal to escalate the aggression. In this society’s logic only ‘vertical’ practices are understood and internalized: force, influence, coercion, as well as significant and unavoidable domination.

Marina Starodubska, Managing Partner, TLFRD consultancy, Adjunct-Professor, Kyiv-Mohyla Business School (kmbs)

Disclaimer: Articles reflect their author’s point of view and do not claim to be objective or to explore every aspect of the issues they discuss. The Ukrainska Pravda editorial board does not bear any responsibility for the accuracy of the information provided, or its interpretation, and acts solely as a publisher. The point of view of the Ukrainska Pravda editorial board may not coincide with the point of view of the article’s author.

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