Community before individualism

Posted on March 23, 2011


Columnist David Brooks the only conservative at the New York Times just published a book about brain science, The Social Animal. However, this post is not about Mr. Brooks, NY Times or that he may be the only conservative in NY! This post is about a question that was posed in an interview with Mr. Brooks about his book: Does your book’s emphasis on community over individualism clash with the American ideal of self-reliance? Mr. Brooks answered, We have this mythology about the lone cowboy. But the West was built by people joining together. We may think of ourselves as lone wolves, but that’s not how we behave.

Photo by Alexander Kesselaar –

The following reflection is not about American history or a critical approach to Mr. Brooks answer but merely a follow-up and a continuation in another direction about related issues…

Community and individualism as discourses
If you for a moment look at community and individualism as discourses I will argue that both can be seen as the major dynamics that have helped develop mankind from Stone age to Post Modernistic age (or what ever label you prefer).

Physical and psychological aspects of community
As the biggest mega trend ever (my opinion of course – e.g. you could see the mega trend “Mega-cities” as a direct function of community) you can say that community is the overall reason for humans overcoming challenges like making energy, making shelter, grow the land, transport, control of the water and creation of security. It was never and has never been physically possible to take on any of these challenges alone. Further the community creates a psychological sense of yes we can – a sense of security and power within the participants of the community. Together the physical and psychological acknowledgment produces the motivation; the energy to be launched to take on the challenge.

Individualism integrated in community
Maybe individualism only exist within the community? I mean how can you be individual if you are not part of a community! Inside the community individualism can also be seen as a driver and motivator. In this perspective I see a close relation to the leader role; group psychology includes theories about group behavior where the group looks towards a single person that can lead the work. This because the physical work needs to be coordinated to focus the total strength of the community in a single effort. Lack of leadership makes the participants focus their energy in different directions. The need for someone to take on the overall responsibility and lead delivers to the individualistic discourse. In this discourse you can find values as courage, integrity, moral etc.

The leader and group dilemma
In this respect I never saw community as a forgotten or less used discourse. But with the impact from American culture focus has been pro individualistic; though we always needed the focused effort of the community I nevertheless see entire states build on the pro individualistic discourse. Just look at the school systems today where behaviorism still rules. Until 20 years ago the behaviorist approach a rather positivistic approach may have been usable; but today with a hyper complex reality that evolves at high-speed we have reached a situation where none is able to comprehend alone. This leaves the leader in a dilemma: he needs to work out a common understanding of the situation before he can make the decision. This can only be done together with his group. Further the situation has presented the community with a parallel dilemma: They can no longer lean back and let the leader make the decision alone; they need to work it out together with the leader. (…and suddenly “dialogue” becomes the primary function of the group. Maybe this is why constructionist theory and with it discourse theory has become so popular; it has proved to support a far more meaning full understanding of reality?).

Collaborative Man®
Where do all this leave us? Community has again moved forward as the dominating discourse it has always been. Helped by the situation, the evolving of modern times, community will now play a more central role as we take on present and future challenges. The question is how do we optimize the work of the community? This points towards focus on group dynamics and with it best practice forms of cooperation. This is where Collaborative Man® comes in handy; the social technology advocates a new form of cooperation named: Collaborative work. The essence of collaborative work is that it is far better to take on complex and development based challenges than the well known cooperative work model.

The competence to support learning
Individuality may still be considered a dynamic force and motivator within the community; though today a more integrated part and aware of the new internal dependencies through relations. This brings new values to the individualistic discourse: The competence to support learning processes that produce new. Or in other words: The competence to facilitate social work processes.