Agency

Social psychologist Geert Hofstede is perhaps most well known for his construction of cultural dimensions. Hofstede considers culture as “the collective programming of the mind distinguishing the members of one group or category of people from others.”

Among his six dimensions of culture, Hofstede evaluates a society’s “Individualism versus Collectivism (IDV).” Hofstede explains:

The fundamental issue addressed by this dimension is the degree of interdependence a society maintains among its members. It has to do with whether people´s self-image is defined in terms of “I” or “We”. In Individualist societies people are only supposed to look after themselves and their direct family. In Collectivist societies people belong to “in groups” that take care of them in exchange for unquestioning loyalty.

The United States, as conventional wisdom would indicate, is more individualistic than collectivist.

I’ve been thinking about this recently, because in some ways that finding seems at odds with the lack of agency experienced by so many Americans – particularly people of color, those living in poverty, and others who are marginalized in our society.

As Kelly Oliver argues in The Colonization of Psychic Space: “One’s sense of oneself as a subject with agency is profoundly affected by one’s social position.”

Being an individualistic society, then, puts oppressed people in a double-bind. While Hofstede finds that American society expects “that people look after themselves and their immediate families only and should not rely (too much) on authorities for support,” the message to oppressed people consistently undermines their own sense of agency and self-efficacy.

Frankly, I was always somewhat skeptical of Hofstede’s anaylsis, and not only because he also has a masculinity/femininity scale defined as “wanting to be the best (Masculine) or liking what you do (Feminine).”

But the idea of America as an individualistic place, where everyone’s expected to pull themselves up by their bootstraps…that just sounds like the line you’d get out of the ol’ boys network.

Surely, that has long been an element of our culture, and has often been a strongly expressed element of our culture, but it doesn’t speak for all of us and it doesn’t speak for me.

Oliver argues that “by resisting oppression, one regains a sense of oneself as an agent,” and that the process of resistance can be healing insofar as it can help build agency.

So let’s all, collectively, reject the narrative of an individualistic America. Let us collectively lift each other up and work together to change the dominant narrative. This is our country and we can shape it.

Happy Fourth of July.

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