‘Cause When It’s All For One, It’s One For All*

Individualist and Collectivist CulturesCrime fiction arguably says a lot about the culture from which it comes. This is a very large topic, so I’ll just focus on one aspect of culture. One of the important ways in which cultures differ is in the extent to which they’re collectivist or individualist. Of course, very few cultures are what you’d call entirely collectivist or entirely individualist. But most cultures lean towards one or the other.

Individualistic cultures tend to value individual achievement and efforts. In those cultures, one’s identity comes from individual experiences, choices and the like. In collectivist cultures, on the other hand, individuals’ identities come from their memberships in the larger group. Group goals and achievements have priority over individual goals, and members of the group rely on each other for child and elder care, financial support and the like. The point here isn’t to argue the merits of one type of culture or the other. Rather, it’s to point out that individualism or collectivism really does impact cultures.

We certainly see it in real life, and we see it in crime fiction, too. For example, one aspect of individualistic cultures is an emphasis on individual effort. And that’s arguably reflected in the kinds of sleuths and stories that come from US authors (the dominant US culture is considered highly individualistic). If we look at characters such as Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, Bill Pronzini’s Nameless, or Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski, we see examples of sleuths who generally work alone, and certainly don’t get their sense of identity from membership in a particular group. This doesn’t mean that they don’t have friends, don’t value what they learn from others, and so on. But their individual efforts are really the main point of the stories that feature them.

Another characteristic of a lot of individualistic cultures is what’s often called low power distance. In just about every culture, some people have more power than others. Power distance refers to individuals’ willingness to accept and expect that power is distributed unequally. So, lower-ranking individuals from low power distance cultures are less likely to be comfortable with the unequal distribution of power. To see how this plays out, we can take a look at David Whish-Wilson’s Line of Sight, the first of his Superintendent Frank Swann novels. These take place in 1970’s Perth, in a culture that’s generally considered to be quite individualistic. In Line of Sight, Swann investigates the murder of a former friend, brothel owner Ruby Devine. To get to the truth, he has to go up against a very powerful group of top police brass known as the ‘purple circle.’ The novel shows, among other things, the view that titles and power don’t necessarily equal the respect of others. Certainly they don’t guarantee obedience from others. And that’s not surprising, considering that this is an individualistic culture.

Fans of Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus novels will probably find that perspective familiar, and that’s not surprising, either. These stories take place mostly in Scotland, which is also considered an individualistic culture. The cultural values of low power distance and an emphasis on individual effort and achievement come through very clearly in the series.

These aren’t the only examples of individualistic cultures and the novels that come from them, of course. There are many, many more. And as we look at novels from individualistic cultures, we see how those perspectives and cultural values come through.

That’s also arguably true of collectivist cultures and the novels that depict them. For example, we can take a look at power distance from the point of view of Qiu Xiaolong’s Chief Inspector Chen series. Chen lives and works in late 1990’s Shanghai, a culture that’s considered very collectivist. High power distance (or, the acceptance and expectation of unequal distribution of power) is an important aspect of that culture. And we see that reflected in this series. It is expected that those of higher rank – those considered more important – have more power and make the rules that they see fit to make. That’s not generally questioned very much. You might argue that, in his way, Qiu does question that power structure, since the murders Chen investigates often lead to very high places. But at the same time, there is an acknowledgement of that characteristic of this society.

Another collectivist characteristic that we see in Qiu’s novels is the emphasis on group, rather than individual, goals. One important political goal is social harmony (that’s a main plot point of Enigma of China). The greater good, so the belief goes, is served when nothing disrupts the order and harmony of the group. Fans of this series will undoubtedly be able to think of examples of how this plays out in the novels.

Because collectivist cultures place a high value on group membership, members are responsible for the welfare of other members. Group effort is therefore a very high priority. This is reflected in Swati Kaushal’s Niki Marwah series, which takes place in northern India. There are, of course, many different cultures in India; it’s a large and diverse country. But in general, it’s considered collectivist. Marwah is Superintendent of Police in Shimla, and as such, makes the final decisions. But she’s not really out for personal gain and achievement. And she knows very well that without the efforts of her team members, crimes won’t be solved. Each team member has something to contribute, and each team member is responsible to the others.

This series (and Tarquin Hall’s Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri series, too, among others) also shows the vital importance of family in many collectivist societies. Marwah may be an independent and successful police inspector. But she’s also a member of her family, and takes her responsibilities seriously. She attends family events, she listens to what the older members of her family say (even if she doesn’t end up taking their advice) and so on.

These are just a few examples of the ways that culture impacts stories and characters. And of course, collectivism/individualism is just one dimension of culture. There are many, many more. But even with this small peek at the topic, it seems clear (at least to me) that we can tell a lot about a culture from its crime fiction.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bryan Adams’ All For Love.


Filed under Bill Pronzini, David Whish-Wilson, Ian Rankin, Qiu Xiaolong, Raymond Chandler, Sara Paretsky, Swati Kaushal, Tarquin Hall

15 responses to “‘Cause When It’s All For One, It’s One For All*

  1. Tim

    Slightly off-topic there is this: if a reader not familiar with Icelandic culture wants a crash-course, begin by reading Arnaldur Indridason’s Erlendur mysteries. Fascinating stuff! And I know that because I lived for a year and a half in Iceland.

  2. tracybham

    I had never thought about mysteries in the context of individualistic cultures vs. collectivist, Margot. How interesting. Makes me look forward to reading Qiu Xiaolong’s series even more.

    • I think Qiu’s series is really well written, Tracy. And it certainly shows some of the facets of collectivist cultures. If you read it, I hope you’ll enjoy it.

  3. Margot, you do a wonderful job giving us a different way to enjoy and appreciate the many diverse books in crime fiction. With each new example, it’s an amazing way to understand and appreciate that story and writer in a different way. You give a fresh look to crime fiction and reading.

    • That’s very kind of you, Mason. I’m really glad you enjoyed this post. Culture is woven through books, and that includes crime fiction. I think that makes the genre more interesting.

  4. Margot, I am not surprised that Swati Kaushal’s Niki Marwah series has a strong family angle to it. Families are integral to everything that we do in India, no matter what career or which vocation. They are a huge support system.

    • That’s my understanding, Prashant, from what you and other friends from India have told me, and from what I’ve read in Indian crime fiction. And I can well imagine the strength that a good family network can provide.

  5. Col

    Interesting post and food for thought. Nameless is a favourite of mine, it’s easy to identify with his values.

  6. Great post on this subtle yet crucial aspect of the cultural backdrop to the mystery novel. I can’t help thinking that the individualist cultures provide plenty of fodder for the classic era American sleuth, especially stories about the corruptive influence of capitalist excess.
    It occurs to me that many of these loner, individualistic private detectives aren’t comfortable with the stacked deck, power distance aspect of society and this runs through the stories, albeit often in a subtle way.

    • Oh, I think you’re right, Bryan. For many individualistic sleuths, there’s something that’s just not right – just not part of the culture – in a high power distance situation. Whether those with the power are business moguls or political leaders, there’s a sense that that power shouldn’t be mindlessly accepted. And you do see that a lot in classic American PIs (and some police detectives, too). I think that it’s a part of individualistic cultures.

      Thanks for the kind words 🙂

  7. Oh very interesting, what a great distinction to make. I’ll be thinking of that when I read future books in distinctive settings.

    • Thank you, Moira. I’m really glad you found it interesting. It’s one of those things that I think are inherent in people’s writing that we don’t always consider *shrug.*

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