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Two Dragons welcome the sunrise with an improvised dance atop the Andes. Photo by Ryan Gasper.

Thoughts on & Answers to our Pre-Course Assignment and FOI

Hello again from Tabita! I won’t pretend that I know what I’m talking about after only a bit of online research, but here are some thoughts I’ve found on individualist and collectivist cultures. (A tiny heads up: I tend to ramble, as will probably become obvious here. I swear that I did edit this before posting it! 🙂
It seems that the main difference between collectivist and individualist cultures can be found in questioning which of the goals set within that culture are prioritized. In a collectivist culture, the goals and well-being of the group or community as a whole are generally perceived to hold more value than the individual’s goals, whereas, in an individualist culture, the opposite is true.
In an individualist culture, the individual person’s goals and desires for their own life are highly valued. They can be seen as fairly independent from the group that they belong to. This can mean that while some of their personal rights may be more highly valued in their culture, and while they might have more flexibility to lead a lifestyle that deviates from some (potentially restricting) societal norms, they are also more likely to feel hesitant or even ashamed to reach out and show signs of dependence on other members of their community, even when they need help. Their perception of their “best” characteristics may differ from what that of a person from a collectivist culture’s would; they may define their best qualities to be things like their talent for their chosen profession, their intellect, or simply the fact that they are interesting or unique.
In a collectivist culture, a person may define their best qualities by referencing their ability to care for others in their community. They may say that they are a good sister, friend, etc. A unified society is viewed as important in collectivist cultures. Individuals in collectivist cultures are likely to value selflessness and dependability, generosity and hospitality. They may be likely to put the comforts and happiness of other members of their community above their own.
To be fair, this whole analysis that I am giving is fairly shallow. As I write, I realize how much my place in my own individualistic culture influences the things that I say. I’m very likely to have a real bias towards my own way of life. (Ethnocentrism!) It’s really interesting. I wonder, if I were a part of a collectivist culture, would I have written instead that the person who is a part of an individualist culture can be seen as potentially estranged or lonely when they are encouraged to lead a life independent from the community that should offer them reliable patterns of living and support? Would I be thinking more about how certain ways of thinking in individualist cultures can be inefficient and possibly alienating, eg. the (very American, obvious example) phrase “pull yourself up by your bootstraps”? Again, here I am writing from my own cultural perspective. Of course, individualism and collectivism are not opposing cultural concepts, but it’s interesting to contrast the two.
In my family, I can recognize strains of the collectivism that is a theme in the culture my father grew up in. We sit together for meals and pray together, and when I opt to do either of those things on my own there’s a bit of disappointment from my father. To him, time spent with your family and the people who share your culture and religion is important, even vital, to a well-lived life. Most of the rest of my life is led with a sense of individualism. I am encouraged, especially by my peers, to choose and pursue a lifestyle that will sustain me personally, and I’m praised when I make a “unique” decision (like choosing to take a gap year). Rarely does anyone ask me how I will fit into my society as I mature, or how I will relate to the people in my life. Apart from my father, that is! In what I think might be an interesting mix of the individualistic and the collective, he’s told me that he hopes that my goals and plans for my life, while serving me as an individual, will follow a similar path to and will certainly not be at odds with the general goals of our family and community.

To answer the question about Bolivian culture and whether or not it is collective/individualistic: I read that Bolivian culture is very diverse, but a family-oriented lifestyle was the most common characteristic that I found written about Bolivian communities. That seems to support the general idea that Bolivian cultures tend to lean more towards the collective. However, it was difficult to find concrete examples of this online. I want to keep this question in mind and delve further into answering it once I am in Bolivia!

After reading Chapter One of “The Hold Life Has”, I think that the natural world can be seen as a part of the collective, and can definitely be included in the demonstration of collectivist values.
The people in the community described in The Hold Life Has watch each other in their daily motions, their comings and goings. It seems to me that this is indicative of collective values in their culture, because even when individuals in their community don’t speak to each other on a regular basis (or otherwise), they are aware of each other’s daily motions and of each person’s relationships and connections throughout the community. Can I assume that because of this awareness, there is also an underlying interest in those relationships and connections? If so, I assume that the fabric and structure of this community are somewhat reliant on the harmoniousness of those interactions- even the minimal ones. If this kind of social awareness is indicative of a sense of collectivism in their community, then I think it can be said that that collectivism extends to the landscape surrounding the community, too, because the landscape is an important and powerful part of the community.

“It is not only people who are being watched. The landscape, too, has its changing aspects. (…) Runakuna have an intimate knowledge of their landscape; every wrinkle in the Earth’s physiognomy- every hill, knoll, plain, ridge, rock, outcrop, or lake- possesses a name and a personality. (….) And the Places themselves are watchers- the greatest watchers, against whom there is no concealment, who know and remember one’s every move.”

The Earth is understood to be an animate being that holds a series of other entities in this community. From that place of understanding comes the idea that the people’s interactions with the land are as meaningful as their interactions with other humans are; perhaps even more so, because the beings that make up the land hold power, desires and needs and are sacred (in varying degrees). (Bear with me, as my understanding of these concepts is very very new!)
“(The Places) observe the life of the community; everything that happens concerns them. Affronts to group harmony and social wellbeing anger them, and they can bring down poor health on herds and their owners in punishment for moral lapses.”
Everything seems to be interconnected in Sonqo, and each being holds concern for the balance within each connection: the people to each other, the people to The Places.
“The two communities of Runakuna and local Tirakuna are closely bound together by these ties of ongoing reciprocity, for without the Runakuna’s offerings, the Places are hungry and sad, and without the care and support of the Places, the Runakuna are poor and unhealthy.”

The kind of communal interdependence that is expressed in the passage above supports my idea, I think, that the natural world can absolutely be thought of as a part of the collective. In fact, I wonder: if my own community were to adopt these ways of thinking about the environments around us, would we be better able to keep our surrounding ecosystems healthy, as a result of “listening” to the land and its changes? Would having that kind of perspective change the way my culture is viewed (as individualist)? This post is already long, so I’ll keep from rambling too much more, but I’m thrilled that this book has been so thought-provoking already! I regret having only started reading it this week. It is so beautiful and fascinating. Thank you for giving us the chance to read a little bit before this trip!

Finally, ethnocentrism is such an interesting concept to begin to understand, especially from the perspective of one who is about to travel. I am excited to see the ways that this course will bring me face to face with my own potentially ethnocentric thoughts and ideas, and I’m humbled and grateful to have this chance to shift my own perspective! I think that by traveling as the locals do, by living with a local family, and by keeping my mind open to noticing my own perception of the cultures I encounter, I’ll learn more about ethnocentrism as it occurs in our personal experiences. I’m also guessing that by learning about the political and social histories of Bolivia and Peru, I’ll get a chance to witness some of the realities of ethnocentrism’s effects on different communities and cultures as they come into contact with each other. I’m really looking forward to it!!

Tabita