The Boundaries of Collectivism

Wikipedia defines collectivism as, “any philosophic, political, economic, mystical or social outlook that emphasizes the interdependence of every human in some collective group and the priority of group goals…over individual goals.”

That definition describes a lot of what I see and experience in Nepal. Nepalis I know recognize the importance of interdependence and gravitate towards and actively work to support each other.

Much of that collectivist attitude and interdependence is seen in the family structure. Family needs are often put above individual needs. People are consistently expected to do things that will benefit their family. Few young people live away from their parents, and there is not much of a tradition of “striking out on your own.”

There are also certain built-in cultural expectations that increase the interdependence of Nepalis on one another. In the US, when friends go out to eat, they often each pay for themselves. In Nepal, the expectation is that one person will pay for the whole group. The person who invited everyone to go out might pay or sometimes friends take turns. This increases the interdependence of people on each other and tends to increase social interaction. If you paid for me last time when we went out to eat pizza, I’m more likely to suggest we go out to again so that I can repay that favor.

People here also tend not to separate themselves out from the group. When eating out with friends, no one will order a particular dish for themselves unless they have some kind of restriction (like an allergy or are vegetarian). Instead, multiple dishes are ordered, and the same food is eaten by everyone. People also always share food that they have bought or brought from somewhere else. While traveling or hiking, if someone pulls out a snack, it’s very rude not to offer some of it to everyone. In the US, although people share food with each other, it’s acceptable to bring food for yourself and only yourself.

Another Nepali custom that promotes interdependence and reciprocal relationships is gift giving. As I mentioned in this post about achaar, people often bring little gifts (especially for those younger than they are) when visiting others.

This collectivism and interdependence is present in almost every social encounter I have. At work, when I go out, when I meet new people, I sense this tendency to stick with the group, do things for the whole.

But just how far does this collectivism extend?

Residents of Kathmandu often don’t often take care of public spaces or think carefully about what’s good for others when it comes to the streets and roads. People litter all the time, just chuck their trash right out of the car window. When I studied abroad, I was suprised to see all of the fences carefully built around houses and property. People here keep their own little space nice and neat, but throw their trash right over the fence into public areas and even onto others’ property. Drivers are also often not thoughtful about other drivers and pedestrians on the road. It’s not uncommon to see cars or buses stopped squarely the middle of the streets, mindless of other commuters. It particularly irritates me to see the buses letting passengers off in a busy spot, clogging up the road when there is a convenient place to pull off just 20 feet away. In Kathmandu, it seems that there’s little attention paid to doing things for the “greater good.”

In the US, there are plenty of public spaces that are dirty, and it’s certainly not like everyone is always keeping the “greater good” in mind. I remember my parents telling me that my grandmother (who was a smoker) used to dump the ashes from her cigarettes out of the window of her car onto the road. They said that a few decades ago, people used to throw trash out of their windows without a thought. But I think that there have been successful governmental campaigns to promote the preservation of public areas, and certain traffic regulations and their successful enforcement keep the roads a bit safer than the ones in Kathmandu.

Although there are people here who are really trying to raise public awareness about the upkeep of urban areas, people like Anil Chitrakar, I don’t think there have been any large, successful campaigns that have really changed the way Nepalis treat their public spaces.

I think an important way to promote people to do things for the “greater good” is to make sure they feel ownership for the place they’re living in. While I was talking with Tri about this topic, he mentioned an interesting fact about Kathmandu that helped me understand what I’ve been experiencing. Many people who live in Kathmandu moved here from outside of the Valley, so they may not feel like this is truly their home or “their place.” A lot of people here have a gaun, “village,” outside of Kathmandu that they visit during holidays; maybe they have some land or family there. Sometimes their grandparents, parents, or they, themselves, moved into the Valley from those areas looking for better opportunities. Others settled here during or after the 10-year conflict to escape the sometimes more dangerous rural areas. Could the fact that Kathmandu is a valley of migrants be affecting the way that residents here treat their public areas and each other?

There is such a culture of collectivism in Nepal. If this could be harnessed somehow and extended beyond the boundaries of family and friends, I think there could be some real change. Pollution would decrease and politeness and consideration for others on the roads and streets would go up. Now somebody has to figure out how to get that in motion. Any ideas?


8 thoughts on “The Boundaries of Collectivism

  1. In the U.S. First Lady, Ladybird Johnson was instrumental in changing the mindset of Americans about littering. She promoted beautifying highways with plantings. The Keep America Beautiful and Don’t Be a Litterbug campaigns were started and they have been amazingly successful. It really did take a change in peoples’s attitudes about responsibility for the environment. I definitely think that could happen in Nepal.

  2. Your grandmother used to throw her full ashtray of cigarette butts out the car window with gusto before the “Beautify America” campaign. After that she was more surreptitious. I even saw her throwing them out in the trash eventually (after admonishing her). It is the young people who will shame the elders into behaving in a different way by changing the vision of what is public. Now such littering would be unthinkable.

  3. Oh yes! blame it on immigrants. They are the scapegoats everywhere. Why is Kathmandu Polluted? People coming from outside Kathmandu did it? It doesn’t make any sense. Rapid increase in population has contributed a a lot to the pollution but its not that natives from Kathmandu keep things clean but the ones from outside will pollute. By the way, Natives are used to living in the polluted environment and pay not care about cleanliness as much as the outsider. I think whoever comes from outside Kathmandu, will after a while learn to live the same way Kathmandu natives are living for years and contribute for more pollution.

    Btw I hated that paying together stuff. it always creates awkward situations and gives unfair advantages to cunning people. Some people keep digging into their purse for 10 minutes when it comes to paying the bills and once someone else pays, he/she will pull out the bill and say, “Oh why did you do that, I wanted to pay for it.” its always good to know who is paying the bill, before you go out than just be a victim of it.

    • First of all, I didn’t say that “People coming from outside of Kathmandu did it.” I’m not blaming the problems in Kathmandu on the people who come in from outside of the valley. All I’m saying is that when people feel increased ownership for a place, they are more likely to take care of it. I raise the possibility that because there are lots of people and families who originated outside of the valley and are now living in Kathmandu (my husband’s family and myself included), they (or we) do not necessarily feel ownership for our public spaces. And that potentially contributes to the littering in Kathmandu.

      There are lots of things that contribute to pollution. You mention rapid population growth as one of them. I didn’t write that lack of ownership is the only thing that’s contributing to the pollution. I’m just suggest that it might be one possible contributing factor.

      • I bet you don’t litter Kathmandu as much as you are claiming you do. So your argument is false already. 🙂 Lack of ownership? definitely. Seems like Kathmandu-people are not taking the ownership of the pollution that’s in Kathmandu. That is not a positive sign.

        I know you are not blaming anybody, but you mentioned, that could be a possibility and this is not the first time i heard this. All I can tell you is no matter who polluted, no one will come from outside and clean it up for Kathmandu-people, as long as they don’t choose to clean it up, it will remain the same or worse. So do you see where the problem lies?

  4. Great topic… where does the line between collectivism and individualism cross over?
    The above said points apply to India as well – perfectly. Like you have mentioned, its about ownership of the place/space. But people clearly demarcate their boundaries. If its their home, its clean but while throwing paper on the road there is no second thought. In the name of collectivism we also have honour killings(in case of love marriages), sacrificing everything for the family, women discrimination et all.
    But I also know that too much of Individualism also has its bad effects – of being lonely and being selfish. There needs to be some balance.

    • Like you say, there are some really bad things that come out of collectivism. The idea of honor killings chills my blood. But I also think this tendency towards collectivism can be a powerful tool used for good.

  5. Hi Zoe, nice post 🙂 Exploring collectivism and individualism is always so interesting! Taking an academic approach here – anthropological writings on personhood and kinship indicate that notions like ‘the greater good’ tend to be prevalent in societies where people are brought up to be more individual and independent. This might seem counter intuitive at first, but to me it makes a lot of sense. Just like you described, collectivism in Nepal involves rooted, concrete interaction with people you know, and who you are in an actual relationship with (often through kinship connections, which bring on a whole host of other cultural obligations which sustain the relationship and interdependence). But having a relationship with ‘the greater good’ or ‘civil society’ is a more abstract kind of relation – a relation that’s probably more natural for somebody who identifies as an individual, or a citizen belonging to a nation of other individuals/citizens. Due to the more abstract nature of this relation we don’t have to have concrete relationships or interdependence with all other individuals in the world to feel a sense of civic duty/greater good. For a Nepali (not necessarily all Nepalis) who’s primary identification is grounded in concrete relationships with kin which need to be sustained through various social and cultural rituals, a sense of doing greater good for the benefit of a collective of ‘strangers’ who they do not have concrete relations with is probably of secondary (or no) concern. By it’s very abstract nature, civic duty doesn’t permeate one’s everyday world of reciprocal gift-giving, dinner parties, weddings etc. Maybe this also helps explains why volunteering in civic organisations tends to be more a of a western phenomenon?…At least in my family, people are much more likely to help out family members or spend time just chatting and nourishing relationships with kin than volunteering to plant trees or help wildlife or help out in soup kitchens or all the multitude of civic options that are available in the west. I’m a pretty avid volunteer myself and my parents have always encouraged it but found it a bit funny that I choose to ‘help strangers’ than say, sit and chat with my grandmother. But I know that in my professional and civic life, I am more motivated by the sense of a greater good (made up of society/individuals who I have no personal connection with) than I am by my collectivist side – i.e by the knowledge that I’m part of a family with certain social obligations and expectations (like sitting with my grandma!).
    Sorry for the rambling comment…hope some of this makes sense!

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