How Individualism Is Changing the World


Jul 27, 2017


The average Indian family is changing – how it is made, whom it comprises, and what their roles and obligations are — and a new study suggests that the change could be rooted in our own, simple efforts to give our kids a better life.

Psychology researcher Henri C. Santos of the University of Waterloo, senior study author Igor Grossmann, also of the University of Waterloo, and study co-author Michael E.W. Varnum of Arizona State University took 51 years’ worth of census data detailing individualist practices and values across 78 countries, crunched the numbers, and found that individualism is increasing not just in India, but globally. And the biggest predictor of increasing individualistic values and behaviours is a society’s socioeconomic development.

To measure individualistic practices across cultures, the researchers examined data on household size, divorce rates, and proportion of people living alone. To measure individualistic values, they examined data on the importance that people place on friends versus family, how important people believe it is to teach children to be independent, and the degree to which people prioritize self-expression as a national goal.

Santos, Varnum, and Grossmann also looked at data on specific socio-ecological factors — including the level of socioeconomic development, disaster frequency, incidence of infectious disease, and extreme temperatures in each country — to examine whether they might account for any shifts in individualism over time.

Overall, the results showed a clear pattern: Both individualistic practices and values have increased by about 12% worldwide since 1960. Santos said there wasn’t enough India-specific data to put a precise percentage the progression of individualism in India from 1960 to today, but that the same trend was clear in the country.

“Individuals with greater personal resources have the freedom to pursue personal goals, whereas people with less resources need to work together in order to survive,” he explained.

Still, economic development does not spell some cosmic, cultural fate.

“I think that while countries are becoming more individualistic, they still remain distinct cultures. Our data shows that there are still significant differences in individualism across multiple countries,” Santos continued. “So, while a country may become more individualist, how that individualism is shown would vary depending on the culture of the people or place.”

Which might explain that amid this individualistic ascent, communal (and some might say traditional) family practices like joint living are on an upswing. According to a recent report by the Times of India, between 2001 and 2011, the practice of joint family living in metros – those bastions of individualism – grew by 29%. (In India’s rural areas the practice rose only by 2%.)

“That doesn’t mean that ideas of individualism, certain expectations of the conjugal relationship, or women working outside the home, haven’t seeped in,” University of Delhi sociologist Janaki Abraham said in the report.

Santos is quick to downplay individualism-fueled clashes between specific generations (like Millennials), but admitted that “as you go back in time — at least in the last century — any older group of people will see a shift towards more individualist values among younger people.”

It’s in the spaces those shifts create that people fall through the cracks. Two years ago, The Swaddle reported that suicide had become the top cause of death for Indian teens. At the time, Vikram Patel, Goa-based psychiatrist and co-director of the Centre for the Control of Chronic Conditions at the Public Health Foundation of India, credited half of those suicides to a push-and-pull that sounds very like the clash between rising individualism and the expectations of a more traditional, collective concept of Indian family (the other half he said were linked to mental illness):

“Adolescence is a period of profound psychological and social change,” Patel says. “It’s the period of life when you are doing some major things about your adulthood: finding a partner, completing education, finding a job.”

However, the economic and social reality that confronts Indian teens today is often very different from the possibilities they’ve been exposed to through education or the Internet, he explains. A girl with an education, who has the opportunity for a higher education or a career, may struggle to conform to expectations that prioritize marriage and motherhood. A boy is more likely to struggle with expectations he pursue a high-earning job above all other interests.

This problem of mismatched expectations largely accounts for the rising divorce rates in India, too. But that’s far less tragic and more difficult to decry; as we reported earlier this year:

…the availability of gender-neutral divorce for men and women is correlated to other markers of women’s empowerment, such as access to contraceptives and women’s health care, access to financial assets or ownership rights, equal access to, and enrollment, in education for girls and boys.

Individualism need not look the same the world over. As families are adapting living arrangements that accommodate members as well as their freedom, so too might family ties adapt to better accommodate personal goals and choice. In India, where family has been such an important factor in individuals’ life choices, it remains to be seen how this increase in individualism will reshape traditional expectations. For now, the flux is creating tension between old traditions and new aspirations. But when the dust settles, we may find ourselves with a newer, more inclusive breed of individualism — and family — the world hasn’t seen.


Written By Lila Sahija

Lila reports on health and science news for The Swaddle. She has loved biology ever since she dissected her first frog in eighth grade, and now has a keen interest in examining human behavior. She also loves animals and takes at least one adventure a year through rural India. Oh, and she bakes a mean German coffee cake.


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