Individualism vs. Collectivism

Contributor: Hallah Elbeleidy. Lesson ID: 10446

The Constitution guarantees individual rights; but we must live in a society that includes other individuals. How does that work? Videos and articles help you understand how it can work in your life!


Civics, World Cultures

Social Studies
learning style
personality style
Grade Level
Middle School (6-8), High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Quick Query

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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  • Do you define yourself based on your personal traits?
  • Do you see yourself as separate from others? An individual? Or are you more inclined to define yourself based on your relationships to others?
  • Would you make a personal sacrifice for the benefit of your group or society?

These concepts, namely, individualism and collectivism, and the dilemma they pose, feed a long-standing debate on how we organize and govern our societies.

Frederick Douglass, a former slave who escaped bondage in Maryland and fled to New York, wrote in a letter to his former master, Thomas Auld,

“I have often thought I should like to explain to you the grounds upon which I have justified myself in running away from you. . . . I am almost ashamed to do so now, for by this time you may have discovered them yourself. I will, however, glance at them. . . . you see, I am myself; you are yourself; we are two distinct persons, equal persons. What you are, I am. You are a man, and so am I. God created both, and made us separate beings. I am not by nature bound to you, or you to me. Nature does not make your existence depend upon me, or mine to depend upon yours. I cannot walk upon your legs, or you upon mine. I cannot breathe for you, or you for me; I must breathe for myself, and you for yourself. We are distinct persons, and are each equally provided with faculties necessary to our individual existence. In leaving you, I took nothing but what belonged to me, and in no way lessened your means for obtaining an honest living. Your faculties remained yours, and mine became useful to their rightful owner.”

Douglass’ letter, while very powerful, expresses key points of individualism — an idea that an individual’s life belongs to her, and she has an inalienable right to live her life as she sees fit.

However, there is another group of thinkers who believe individuals and, therefore, individualism, could not exist without society. Ultimately, an individual’s life does not belong to her but to the group or society of which she is a part. This idea is known as collectivism. These aren’t just concepts from the distant past, but ideas that we go back and forth on even today.

To become more familiar with these terms, watch Culturally Speaking: Individualism and Collectivism (Teacher Tube):

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Now that you are familiar with the concepts of individualism and collectivism, continue on to the Got It? section for some written practice.

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