Towards an American Sikh collective

collective.htmBloggers have discussed past achievements in the Sikh community and ideas for future efforts in collective action. But we haven’t yet really talked about what this collectivism is, where the contrasting individualism stems from, and what both entail.

Whats the difference between an individualist and a collectivist psychology? Collectivists emphasize group harmony and duties to the group over their individual, personal goals. They emphasize cooperation, respectfulness, and loyalty. Collectivists tend to communicate in spirals, taking a scenic route to tell a story and generally avoid conflict because it disrupts group harmony. In contrast, individualists value personal freedom, self-reliance, competition, and personal achievement over anyone else’s. Individualists see conflict as a positive opportunity for change and prefer to address it directly. Strong individualists like many Americans are rigidly linear in their communication.

I’m sure we’ve all experienced spiral communication. Think of your dadaji telling a story in a way that incorporates the broad history of the era, and every group in the village, maybe even details like the type of birds that were flying through the air at that moment in time. He will get to the pointof the story in a winding, colorful manner.

If you prefer stories that get straight to the point, youre a linear thinker, heavily influenced by an individualist culture from the US, Western Europe, Australia, or South Africa. These areas are predominantly individualist societies while the rest of the world tends to be more collectivist. There are many exceptions to this generalization, variations within nations/societies, and these trends may shift (if they’re not already) with increasing western influence.

A recent study echoed these trends by noting that American and Japanese observers judge facial expressions differently.

How do you know how someone is feeling? For people in Western societies, it is usually easy: Look at the person’s face. But for people from Japan and other Eastern societies, a new study finds, it may be more complex – having to do not only with evaluating the other person’s face but also with gauging the mood of others who might be around.

The two groups – American and Japanese – were given pictures of groups of people and told to judge whether the person in the middle was happy. Americans look solely at the individual while Japanese observers studied the entire group and judged the individual partially based on the assessment of the group:

The Western students did not much change their assessment of a character’s mood no matter what was happening with the other characters. But for most of the Japanese participants, it made a measurable difference. If the figure in the center had a happy face but those in the background were sad or angry, they tended to give the happy figure a lower score. If everyone was happy, they gave the figure in the center a higher one. When the images were shown to two other groups of students wearing equipment that tracked their eye movements, the researchers found that the Japanese had spent more time looking at the children in the background of the pictures.

The different ways that collectivists and individualists deal with conflict are interesting. Individualists prefer to deal with conflict directly and see it as an opportunity. In contrast, collectivists find conflict very, very uncomfortable and tend to avoid it like a pothole because it upsets the harmony of the group.

We’ve mentioned that we are tired of avoiding the many problems that our community faces. This direct approach to solving problems/conflicts no doubt stems from our individualist leanings. Yet we want our goals to be collective, for the good of our greater Sikh community. How should we take into account the collectivism i.e. wariness of disrupting status quo (or what others might see as group harmony) of the elder generations? It seems that we are part of a hybrid individualist/collectivist culture. Is it inevitable that later immigrant generations will be more individualist or is the inherent collectivism in Sikhi enough to counteract the individualism in our schools and on our streets?


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15 Responses to “Towards an American Sikh collective”

  1. Camille says:

    I feel like there's an equivocation on the term "individualism" — an "individualistic solution or response" is quite different from trying to address problems/concerns directly. I personally feel that Sikhi asks for balance between the individual and collective. It wouldn't be right not to speak up for fear of "rocking the boat," but there's also a caution against individuals acting out on behalf of others. I think the "inevitability" of individualism depends on how we communicate Sikhi to future generations. I certainly meet a lot of people who subscribe to the materialistic, individualistic bootstraps-myths of the U.S., but I also meet plenty of Sikhs who are passionately committed to justice because they have a strong sense of being connected to other human beings.

  2. Camille says:

    I feel like there’s an equivocation on the term “individualism” — an “individualistic solution or response” is quite different from trying to address problems/concerns directly. I personally feel that Sikhi asks for balance between the individual and collective. It wouldn’t be right not to speak up for fear of “rocking the boat,” but there’s also a caution against individuals acting out on behalf of others. I think the “inevitability” of individualism depends on how we communicate Sikhi to future generations. I certainly meet a lot of people who subscribe to the materialistic, individualistic bootstraps-myths of the U.S., but I also meet plenty of Sikhs who are passionately committed to justice because they have a strong sense of being connected to other human beings.

  3. Reema says:

    Camille,

    I agree that an 'individualistic response or solution' is quite different from addressing problems directly. I think what this theory of cultural psychology notes is a relationship , not necessarily a causal one, between groups/cultures that are more individualistic and a preference to address problems directly, in contrast to groups that are more collective and prefer to avoid direct confrontation. There seems to be a lot of data backing the relationship, but I'm not aware of the theories that explain why (if there are any yet).

    I'm sure there are lots of limits to how far this can be applied, and I'm not clear on all of them. But it did resonate with me when I thought about generalizations of how older generations/individuals deal with (or avoid) problems in our families and communities in contrast to younger generations who are more heavily influenced by American environments.

    I'm not sure if this completely addresses your concern about the equivocation…

    That's an interesting point about Sikhi being a balance of individualistic and collectivist.

  4. Reema says:

    Camille,

    I agree that an ‘individualistic response or solution’ is quite different from addressing problems directly. I think what this theory of cultural psychology notes is a relationship , not necessarily a causal one, between groups/cultures that are more individualistic and a preference to address problems directly, in contrast to groups that are more collective and prefer to avoid direct confrontation. There seems to be a lot of data backing the relationship, but I’m not aware of the theories that explain why (if there are any yet).

    I’m sure there are lots of limits to how far this can be applied, and I’m not clear on all of them. But it did resonate with me when I thought about generalizations of how older generations/individuals deal with (or avoid) problems in our families and communities in contrast to younger generations who are more heavily influenced by American environments.

    I’m not sure if this completely addresses your concern about the equivocation…

    That’s an interesting point about Sikhi being a balance of individualistic and collectivist.

  5. Harbeer says:

    I think you are oversimplifying and confusing many disparate issues here. I don't, for example, see any connection between a discursive story-telling style and "individualist vs. collectivist" thinking.

    I've also been in many non-hierarchical collectives wherein individuals could be considered negligent (to themselves individually, and to the group) if they did not voice their concerns/reservations about group decisions. Shaky acquiescence to a perceived group will does not do anybody any good–it does not preempt conflict, it delays and amplifies conflict.

    Maybe it's the long discussion process that is often necessary to build consensus which you refer to as "spiral communication." I know that it can take hours, days, weeks, even months or years to achieve consensus, and the discussions that lead there will often cover the same or similar ground. But story-telling? That's something else, entirely.

    William Burroughs is probably the most famous English-language critic of "traditional" narrative and its inherent privileging of certain subjectivities (or one, sole subjectivity over the possibility of multiple points-of-view). I'm not sure what I'm getting at, and that's partially because I'm not sure what you're getting at, though I am pretty sure that you're exoticizing one form of storytelling and trying to cast it as some sort of superior "Eastern" worldview. And in my family, it's our dadi who's the storyteller (and not just because she the one of the pair who's still alive!) My dada was all business. He didn't have much use for rambling stories.

  6. Harbeer says:

    I think you are oversimplifying and confusing many disparate issues here. I don’t, for example, see any connection between a discursive story-telling style and “individualist vs. collectivist” thinking.

    I’ve also been in many non-hierarchical collectives wherein individuals could be considered negligent (to themselves individually, and to the group) if they did not voice their concerns/reservations about group decisions. Shaky acquiescence to a perceived group will does not do anybody any good–it does not preempt conflict, it delays and amplifies conflict.

    Maybe it’s the long discussion process that is often necessary to build consensus which you refer to as “spiral communication.” I know that it can take hours, days, weeks, even months or years to achieve consensus, and the discussions that lead there will often cover the same or similar ground. But story-telling? That’s something else, entirely.

    William Burroughs is probably the most famous English-language critic of “traditional” narrative and its inherent privileging of certain subjectivities (or one, sole subjectivity over the possibility of multiple points-of-view). I’m not sure what I’m getting at, and that’s partially because I’m not sure what you’re getting at, though I am pretty sure that you’re exoticizing one form of storytelling and trying to cast it as some sort of superior “Eastern” worldview. And in my family, it’s our dadi who’s the storyteller (and not just because she the one of the pair who’s still alive!) My dada was all business. He didn’t have much use for rambling stories.

  7. Reema says:

    Harbeer,

    Thanks for pointing out that the post is oversimplified and puts a lot of disparate issues together. You're absolutely right, it's completely oversimplified. I ran across a discussion of these 2 cultural psychological theories- yes, they're just theories- and major over-generalizations, and individuals are complex. But I also had multiple encounters that seemed to indicate that there is at least a grain of truth to them.

    The linear vs. spiral communication methods were just an interesting side note. What I really thought was interesting and should maybe be given a little more attention was the preference to avoid group disharmony in collective leaning groups- just something to be conscious of or take into account.

    There are people who know much more and have written much more than there is in this very short post (some of the links in the post are to books). I was hoping this would just be part of the larger conversation about what collective action should/could look like. I thought the idea that avoiding problems stemmed from a desire to not rock the boat explained some of the actions of some individuals I've known. But you're right, definitely oversimplified- sorry :-/.

  8. Reema says:

    Harbeer,

    Thanks for pointing out that the post is oversimplified and puts a lot of disparate issues together. You’re absolutely right, it’s completely oversimplified. I ran across a discussion of these 2 cultural psychological theories- yes, they’re just theories- and major over-generalizations, and individuals are complex. But I also had multiple encounters that seemed to indicate that there is at least a grain of truth to them.

    The linear vs. spiral communication methods were just an interesting side note. What I really thought was interesting and should maybe be given a little more attention was the preference to avoid group disharmony in collective leaning groups- just something to be conscious of or take into account.

    There are people who know much more and have written much more than there is in this very short post (some of the links in the post are to books). I was hoping this would just be part of the larger conversation about what collective action should/could look like. I thought the idea that avoiding problems stemmed from a desire to not rock the boat explained some of the actions of some individuals I’ve known. But you’re right, definitely oversimplified- sorry :-/.

  9. Camille says:

    I’m sure there are lots of limits to how far this can be applied, and I’m not clear on all of them. But it did resonate with me when I thought about generalizations of how older generations/individuals deal with (or avoid) problems in our families and communities in contrast to younger generations who are more heavily influenced by American environments.

    I guess I would attribute the (general) problem avoidance of older generations to that — generational (or cohort) difference, than to individual vs. collectivist thinking. Older generations of native-born Americans (of all colors) also find it distasteful or inappropriate to talk about social/community problems, including drug/substance abuse, domestic violence, mental health, etc., etc., etc. The pushback we see among American-born Sikhs and younger Sikhs is paralleled (imo) in other ethnic, religious, and migrant communities.

    I think you're right — there are plenty of people who do not want to rock the boat. I think these people span generations and migration status (although, until recently, there was arguably more at stake for an immigrant in rocking the boat than for a citizen). There's a lot of theory around these issues within generations of immigrant communities as well; within the first generation you often see deference, within the second assimilation, and within the third, resistance and disagreement.

    I know that doesn't at all address your last point (what collective action could/should look like), but maybe we can revisit it as this comment thread, or another post, builds on your questions? :)

  10. Camille says:

    Im sure there are lots of limits to how far this can be applied, and Im not clear on all of them. But it did resonate with me when I thought about generalizations of how older generations/individuals deal with (or avoid) problems in our families and communities in contrast to younger generations who are more heavily influenced by American environments.

    I guess I would attribute the (general) problem avoidance of older generations to that — generational (or cohort) difference, than to individual vs. collectivist thinking. Older generations of native-born Americans (of all colors) also find it distasteful or inappropriate to talk about social/community problems, including drug/substance abuse, domestic violence, mental health, etc., etc., etc. The pushback we see among American-born Sikhs and younger Sikhs is paralleled (imo) in other ethnic, religious, and migrant communities.

    I think you’re right — there are plenty of people who do not want to rock the boat. I think these people span generations and migration status (although, until recently, there was arguably more at stake for an immigrant in rocking the boat than for a citizen). There’s a lot of theory around these issues within generations of immigrant communities as well; within the first generation you often see deference, within the second assimilation, and within the third, resistance and disagreement.

    I know that doesn’t at all address your last point (what collective action could/should look like), but maybe we can revisit it as this comment thread, or another post, builds on your questions? :)

  11. Reema says:

    Camille,

    I guess I would attribute the (general) problem avoidance of older generations to that — generational (or cohort) difference, than to individual vs. collectivist thinking. Older generations of native-born Americans (of all colors) also find it distasteful or inappropriate to talk about social/community problems, including drug/substance abuse, domestic violence, mental health, etc., etc., etc. The pushback we see among American-born Sikhs and younger Sikhs is paralleled (imo) in other ethnic, religious, and migrant communities.

    There may also be a generational component, but I don't think this means there isn't a cultural component. I understand your resistance and hesitancy to box entire cultures or groups into certain traits or patterns and that is not my intention. My intention is only to understand the factors that explain why we behave the way we do, and for that to inform our future communication and action.

    For example- why do we place such a great importance on the idea of personal space here in the U.S. and such less importance on it in Punjab? Of course this differs from individual to individual, from rural to urban, amongst different levels of economic resources, from family to family and between generations. However, I still think there generally is a stark distinction between the level of importance placed on personal space in the U.S. as compared to rural Punjab. This reflects how we view ourselves as individuals first here in the U.S. and as part of a group first in Punjab. There may be other factors that are also reasons for this, but our view of ourselves is one of them.

    I certainly meet a lot of people who subscribe to the materialistic, individualistic bootstraps-myths of the U.S., but I also meet plenty of Sikhs who are passionately committed to justice because they have a strong sense of being connected to other human beings.

    I don't think individualistic means materialistic- it just means putting the individual first and the group second (immediate family is considered to be part of the individual). Someone could be individualistic and very non-materialistic, but they would have arrived at their value according to what they considered important to them as an individual, instead of their group.

    Where does our idea of justice come from? It's probably a mixture of individualistic (personal experience, personal reflection) and collectivist (understanding what it means to others) processes. But I wonder if the meaning of justice is more influenced by what it means to the "group" in Punjab than it is here. When I think of my friends in Punjab, some are definitely more individualistic than others. But I think generally, their ideas of what justice means are more heavily influenced by what it means to the groups they consider themselves a part of, rather than what it means to them as an individual. The opposite is true of my friends here (generally, of course the various differences exist according to the myriad factors that make this a complex calculation)- what justice means to my friends who grew up primarily in American schools and in American society is probably an idea first of what it means to them personally, which may be informed by what it means to the groups they consider themselves a part of- but the group idea is secondary. I do think the U.S. is a strongly individualistic society (though of course this differs regionally, amongst different groups within the U.S., and across many factors). This isn't necessarily problematic, just something to be aware of.

  12. Reema says:

    Camille,

    I guess I would attribute the (general) problem avoidance of older generations to that generational (or cohort) difference, than to individual vs. collectivist thinking. Older generations of native-born Americans (of all colors) also find it distasteful or inappropriate to talk about social/community problems, including drug/substance abuse, domestic violence, mental health, etc., etc., etc. The pushback we see among American-born Sikhs and younger Sikhs is paralleled (imo) in other ethnic, religious, and migrant communities.

    There may also be a generational component, but I don’t think this means there isn’t a cultural component. I understand your resistance and hesitancy to box entire cultures or groups into certain traits or patterns and that is not my intention. My intention is only to understand the factors that explain why we behave the way we do, and for that to inform our future communication and action.

    For example- why do we place such a great importance on the idea of personal space here in the U.S. and such less importance on it in Punjab? Of course this differs from individual to individual, from rural to urban, amongst different levels of economic resources, from family to family and between generations. However, I still think there generally is a stark distinction between the level of importance placed on personal space in the U.S. as compared to rural Punjab. This reflects how we view ourselves as individuals first here in the U.S. and as part of a group first in Punjab. There may be other factors that are also reasons for this, but our view of ourselves is one of them.

    I certainly meet a lot of people who subscribe to the materialistic, individualistic bootstraps-myths of the U.S., but I also meet plenty of Sikhs who are passionately committed to justice because they have a strong sense of being connected to other human beings.

    I don’t think individualistic means materialistic- it just means putting the individual first and the group second (immediate family is considered to be part of the individual). Someone could be individualistic and very non-materialistic, but they would have arrived at their value according to what they considered important to them as an individual, instead of their group.

    Where does our idea of justice come from? It’s probably a mixture of individualistic (personal experience, personal reflection) and collectivist (understanding what it means to others) processes. But I wonder if the meaning of justice is more influenced by what it means to the “group” in Punjab than it is here. When I think of my friends in Punjab, some are definitely more individualistic than others. But I think generally, their ideas of what justice means are more heavily influenced by what it means to the groups they consider themselves a part of, rather than what it means to them as an individual. The opposite is true of my friends here (generally, of course the various differences exist according to the myriad factors that make this a complex calculation)- what justice means to my friends who grew up primarily in American schools and in American society is probably an idea first of what it means to them personally, which may be informed by what it means to the groups they consider themselves a part of- but the group idea is secondary. I do think the U.S. is a strongly individualistic society (though of course this differs regionally, amongst different groups within the U.S., and across many factors). This isn’t necessarily problematic, just something to be aware of.

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