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Individuality: An Element of Social Change and Vitality

Sunday, Apr 08, 2007
"Every man is in certain respects like all other men, like some other men, like no other man"
[Kluckhohn & Murray]


Individuality is defined as "aggregate of qualities, that distinguishes one person or thing from others" or "separate and distinct existence". Every human being is rendered unique by heredity, life experiences and context. Being "social animals" however, we also acquire common beliefs, behaviours and attitudes through socialization - a process whereby individuals learn to behave willingly in accordance with the prevailing standards of their culture. The purpose of this article is to highlight the sociocultural significance of individuality especially with respect to social change.

Individualism vs. Collectivism

The treatment of individuality varies in different cultures. An individualist culture such as the United States or Western Europe, promotes individual independence, self-reliance and freedom. Individualists encourage people to pursue their personal goals and desires independent of the goals of the group or society or the social context (and at times in conflict with the aspirations of the majority). With such favourable conditions the individual feels more confident in making life choices in accordance with his own nature and preferences which further develops his individuality and unique character making him more "different" (in nature, choices, outcomes and life experiences) than the rest.

A collectivist culture such as ours, stresses on collective goals, aspirations and wellbeing as against individualism. Thus beliefs, assumptions, attitudes and behavours that are not in line with the "best interest" of the group are discouraged. While group decisions and actions are the norm, solitary drives may be viewed negatively as "selfish". A collectivist view can be held by a group of individuals, class, race, society etc. Under the burden of "collective wisdom" and "larger interest" individuality is often underdeveloped and "unexplored". This is because the characteristics and behaviours in line with the norms of the larger whole are positively reinforced by the group (or society as a whole), whereas the true individualistic characteristics are negatively reinforced if not inhibited entirely.

While no culture is "good" or "bad", the natural process of social decay can render its values ineffective over time. When that occurs, the very characteristics that led to its growth and development can cause it to rot.

The Importance of Individuality

Diversity and uniqueness of individual character is an asset without which no social system can thrive. The following section highlights the utility of individuality for the larger whole.

Right Person for the Right Job

Every social system, organization and society can be viewed as a complex web of functions that must be performed to survive or thrive (teaching, healing, designing, constructing, fixing, producing, selling, fighting etc.). Each function, role or job involves different sets of tasks and work context. Different roles (or context) demand different capabilities, attitudes, styles and mental and physical characteristics. Having a diverse pool of individuals helps choosing the best fit for the desired function.

Specialization and Efficiency

Each one of us is a born specialist. While every human being is capable of performing diverse functions, each individual is born with a few innate abilities or tendencies which are more highly developed than others. These areas may be referred to as our core strengths. For instance a child may be a slow learner at school but a great runner in soccer. An "ugly" face may have a beautiful voice. A failure at school and work may be overflowing with the most creative ideas around. A "heartless" person could be the most sought out surgeon in an emergency center.

This fact was very well understood by the ancient Greek, when they said: "know thyself". Identifying one’s innate gifts and pursuing goals or career that capitalizes on these competencies leads us to the road to excellence. That’s the competitive advantage that each one of us carries within ourselves – knowingly or unknowingly. Engaging in roles concerning these strengths involve minimal costs (learning, time, physical or mental effort) but has a very high probability of success. On top of that, doing what we want or exploiting our innate nature makes us happy, relaxed, healthy and more satisfied.

Stretching the Limits

Humans in general do not break world records while pursuing something against their will, desire or nature. A pianist may feel "exhausted" within hours filing papers at work but get "lost" in music, playing his notes all night effortlessly. An engagement that is in harmony with your inner self and aspirations, yields much higher levels of energy, motivation, focus and excitement. This state is often described as "going with the flow" and has the prospects of attaining the highest levels of productivity. And it makes a daunting task look not only possible but also worthwhile. Modern society with its obsession to "produce more" must learn to assess and respect individuality to have any hope of realizing its goals for productivity. The pervasive mediocrity that surrounds us is in part a consequence of our gross indifference to this glaring reality.

Nature and Perspectives

Human personality is shaped by two forces – heredity and environment. And our personality influences our thoughts, feelings, attitudes, decision styles, life choices and behaviour. For instance, people faced with a decision may adopt a judgment pattern that is either high on "thinking" or "feeling". Thinking individuals would base their decision primarily on "cold" facts whereas people high on feeling would intensely think on the anticipated responses and consequences of the judgment on people. When faced with a complex challenge, a heterogeneous group is more probable in arriving at an effective decision or solution than a homogenous group. In these circumstances, "collective wisdom" may lead to disaster, while "deviant" voices could either avert a catastrophe or propose the most worthwhile solution.

Innovation and Change

Innovation is defined as:

"the introduction of new ideas, goods, services, and practices which are intended to be useful"

"a novel, beneficial change in art or practice"

"the act of introducing something new and significantly different"

Innovation therefore is all about positive change. And the devices of this beneficial change are vision, idea, creativity, invention and experimentation. By definition, innovation demands diversity, heterogeneity, spontaneity and wild imagination. It rests on a new line of thinking and a shift in approach. It is antonym to history, norms, standards, and status quo. It is about challenging the system, not abiding it. Promoting innovation warrants nurturing "differences", empowering individuals and appreciating diversity and individuality.

Creativity and innovation can suffocate under a self-righteous whole, be it a family, organization or society. There are more people to kill an enthusiastic idea than encouraging it. People become risk averse and avoid taking new initiatives to avoid unpleasant resistance and consequences.

Individuality of individuals can be related to the chemistry of elements. Different individuals like atoms excite each other by offering something that is missing in the other element (like missing electrons in the outermost shell). In systems that nurture individuality, people (and systems) can be viewed as highly charged particles, ever ready and willing to undergo change with the slightest change in environment. They float freely like gases (freedom of choice), combine with other elements and molecules (social and institutional arrangements) to form new substances (social change). On the other hand, in systems that do not view individuality favourably, people can be viewed as stable substances that hardly participate in a change reaction even when the environmental conditions are altered significantly. This environmental indifference could at times, become an issue of survival.

Sacrificing Individuality for "Larger Interest"

The case for collectivism and holism is not without merits. The whole is undoubtedly greater than the sum of its parts. Without a systems view and the formation of institutions, the progress of human race would be marginalized. But a healthy system also provides an environment that protects, nurtures and facilitates its constituent parts. It is essentially a mutually beneficial relationship.

The problem arises when the system corrupts and assumes a tyrannical position against its own elements hampering their growth and progress. The parts being livings systems themselves begin to react in defence and assume a new role which is in contrast to their normal function and in conflict with the larger purpose. This state can be paralleled with cancer which is also a growth form but a negative one which if unchecked can paralyze the entire system.

Apart from the above extreme scenario, the earlier discussion is sufficient to highlight the price paid by a system that comes in the way of its own individuals. To summarize, the cost includes inefficiency, loss of potential and opportunities, low energy and sociocultural vitality, higher degree of failure, lack of creativity and innovation, and finally stagnation, social decay and system failure.

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"The eternal mystery of the world is its comprehensibility."

[Albert Einstein]