INDIVIDUALISM is not an entirely new concept in our African society, none the less; it is a concept that is alien to our culture. From the days of yore, Africans have been known for their collectivism, which stands in contrast to the western ideology of individualism. What is individualism? According to Helen Deresky in her book International Management- Managing across culture and borders, while referring to Hofsted’s value dimensions, individualism refers to people’s tendency to look after themselves and their immediate family and to neglect the needs of society.
The extent of individualism in a society has become a subject of study because it is a component of culture. Individualism along with other elements of culture are subjects of research in the area of International Management because they are measures of the cultural value of a given society. Value is said to be a society’s idea of what is good or bad, and what is right or wrong. It is imperative for us to understand the value system in any society where we find ourselves because it will determine our level of cultural literacy and sensitivity, without which we may not excel in the society. This is why understanding these cultural dimensions is particularly important for co-existence in a global world.
Individualism stands in contrast to collectivism. Deresky says collectivism is hinged on ‘social framework, emotional dependence on belonging to the organization, and a strong belief in group decisions’.
Like they say, one man’s food is another man’s poison. Our value system determines our beliefs. In japan where the collectivism is practiced, the society believes in the will of the group above that of the individual. In that society, collectivism exerts control and pressure on the individual through social pressure and humiliation of the deviant. On the other hand, in America where individualism is a norm, individual initiative and achievement are applauded.
So let us look at the collectivism in the Nigerian context in order to be able to understand individualism. It is believed in Nigeria, that raising a child is not the sole role of the parent but the entire community. We see our collectivism in the solidarity we show each other in time of sorrow and in times of joy. A typical Nigerian wedding is a good example. When a Nigerian gets an invitation to go for a wedding, you can expect the guest to come along with an extra person. No questions asked. We accept this and budget extra costs for every wedding and funeral. When we wear the same uniform for a wedding or a funeral, we are standing in solidarity with our own. By buying the uniform, we contribute a little extra to help the host bankroll the event.
Because we are collective lot, we look out for each other, we share what we have with those who are less privileged amongst us, we carry each other’s family and financial burden and we lean on each other a lot. We protect our own. Individualism on the other promotes self-sufficiency, independence, high performance.
Looking at individualism from this angle, I believe that our society has a lot to learn. While I do not advocate that we throw away our beautiful collectivism, I believe that we can have a hybrid of the two as a form of social reengineering. Collectivism is the reason why a government functionary will steal an organization blind because he or she has to provide for and impress his or her entire village or social circle. Collectivism is the reason why merit and high performance has taken the back sit in our society. If all the graduates in my village look up to me for employment and I am in a position to provide employment, I will ensure that all the unemployed youths in my village are well employed before anyone else smells the job, and this is not minding if my village employees have the prerequisite educational requirement or not. The type of pressure that collectivism exerts on the individual is responsible for the level of corruption and ethnocentrism prevailing in our society. If we are a society that encourages individual high performance and achievement and we reward same, we will enjoy the benefits of meritocracy and high performance.
In Nigeria, our own brand of collectivism breaks itself down into micro-collectivism especially on the ethnic-religious front. It has produced ethno-religious arrogance and hampered our sense of national unity. It has taken us backwards. Even though we share the same national creed, our allegiance will remain with the ethnic collect we come from and its collectivist ideology and philosophy. Our pledge will go to our local collect above national interest. Micro-collectivism has crippled the machinery of rationalization and deep –thought in our society. We have become mentally lazy and physically inert because someone in the collect we come from will do all the thinking and doing for us. This is one of the many reasons why individualism trumps collectivism.
Individualism may encourage the individual to care for self and family while neglecting society. Show me a society that practices individualism and I will show you a people who are emotionally mature and strive to make it for themselves. Collectivism has the disadvantage of encouraging laziness and dependence. How has collectivism worked for us thus far?
Talk about collectivism and teamwork. I have often said that teamwork is over rated in our society. We are a collective lot. We do not need a lesson in how to produce collectively. We do that all right, albeit unimpressively. I believe in individualism in the Nigerian workspace. All the hype about teamwork should go to the Americans who have perfected the art of working alone. When a lazy individual is put in a team to work, he finds a hiding place and will allow others do all the work.
In conclusion, we must learn to borrow the good elements of both spectrum of the equation. A little to the left and a little to the right. While we do not advocate for individuals to curl off and avoid being a part of the collect, we must also, as individuals within a group strive for high performance, self- realization and economic independence. We must see others who are not in our collect as having a distinctively different outlook from ours and be able to respect the outlook in the spirit of individualism and cultural sensitivity. We must be able to accept individuals who chose to walk alone and tow a different path from ours as it is their fundamental individual human rights to associate, dissociate and be different from the collect. It is only then that our society can have meaningful developments. Standing alone does not mean that we cannot lean on each other and leaning on each other does not stop us from standing alone.