To a greater or lesser extent, cultures tend to be either collectivist or individualist. In collectivist cultures, the emphasis is on group membership and group achievement. The individual gets her or his identity from the group, and in turn is responsible to that group. Collectivism also often includes a strong sense of duty to family, including extended family.
It’s more complex than that, as most concepts involving people are, and cultures and groups do vary greatly in the degree to which they are collectivist. Sound boring? It’s not, when you think of what it means on a day-to-day basis. Hopefully a few examples from crime fiction will show you what I mean.
There are several intances of the way collectivism works in Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee/Joe Leaphorn novels. In The Ghostway, for instance, Chee is assigned to locate a missing sixteen-year-old Navajo teen Margaret Billy Sosi, who’s disappeared from her school. This case turns out to be related to the death of Albert Gorman, a Los Angeles Navajo who’s recently moved to the Big Reservation. What these cases have in common is kinship. Margaret Billy Sosi is distantly related to Albert Gorman, who at one point stays with Margaret’s grandfather. Chee uncovers this relationship, and since he is also a member of the Navajo Nation, he understands the ties that bind extended families. He tracks Margaret to the Los Angeles area where he gets important information about both investigations. What’s interesting is that it doesn’t occur to Margaret to avoid danger, stay in school, focus on her studies, and so on. She is a part of the web that links all Navajos and her family in particular. So naturally she does what she can to help. And I don’t think it’s spoiling the story to say that the Navajo community takes responsibility for her, too, when she is in need of them.
We also see collectivism in action in Mark Douglas-Home’s The Sea Detective. One plot thread concerns two young girls, Preeti and Basanti, who are members of India’s Bedia group. Their families are in desperate need for money, and their one sure way out is if the girls enter the dhanda, a name for India’s sex trade. The idea is that their families will be paid money for their services. After working for a few years, they’ll return to their villages with yet more money, and be ready to settle back into community life. Instead of being seen as ‘cheap whores,’ young women who do this actually command a type of respect for fulfilling their duties to their families and helping to see that their siblings don’t starve. Preeti and Basanti are taken to Scotland, where they are separated. Basanti gets free of the people who are keeping her as soon as she can, and goes looking for her friend. She soon discovers that the key may be oceanographer Calladh ‘Cal’ McGill. With his help, she finds out what happened to Preeti.
One of Timothy Hallinan’s series features ‘rough travel’ writer Phillip ‘Poke’ Rafferty, an ex-pat American now living in Bangkok. His wife Rose is a former bar girl who has opened up her own apartment-cleaning company. Rose has much to teach Rafferty about the Thai culture in which they live, and one of those lessons has to do with her sense of collective identity and duty to friends and family. She left her home village and ended up as a bar girl so that she could make money to send back to her family. It would never occur to her to do anything else with any extra money she has. And although she’s endured more than her share as a bar girl, it would also not occur to her not to contribute to her family’s welfare. As an aside, Rose’s employees are all former bar girls she’s known who want to get out of that life. Her sense of group membership is strong enough that their welfare is her welfare. So they’re the natural choice when she is ready to hire people.
In Angela Savage’s The Half Child, Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney takes on a new client, Jim Delbeck. His daughter Maryanne was a volunteer at New Life Children’s Center, a Pattaya home for adoptable babies and young children whose families can’t take care of them. She jumped, or fell, or was pushed, from the roof of the building where she lived, and Delbeck’s been trying to find out how it happened. The police theory is that she committed suicide, but Delbeck doesn’t believe it. So Keeney travels to Pattaya to investigate. As she does, she gets to know several of the volunteers at New Life, and some of the young women whose children are ‘boarders’ there. In their lives, we see how important kinship and extended family networks are in this society. Not to have such a network is devastating to someone who’s been brought up in a collectivist culture.
We also see collectivism in Adrian Hyland’s Emily Tempest novels. Tempest is half-Aboriginal, but has spent several years away from her roots at Moonlight Downs. When she returns to her home in Diamond Dove (AKA Moonlight Downs) she is welcomed as a family member and taken in. There isn’t much at the Moonlight Downs encampment, but Tempest is welcome to what there is. She is part of the community. For her part, Tempest feels just as responsible to that community. In Gunshot Road, for instance, she briefly takes in Danny Brambles, a fifteen-year-old who’s going through some personal difficulties. It never occurs to her to do anything else. The Brambles family is part of her group – her mob – so she has a responsibility to them.
Qiu Xiaolong’s Chief Inspector Chen novels take place mostly in Shanghai. While there are many cultures in China, one dominant cultural force is the traditional Confucian belief in filial duty. And in several novels in this series, we see examples of characters (including Chen) who place a premium on caring for loved ones. Other characters send money to their families, or promote the careers of family members. Sometimes that works very well; sometimes it doesn’t. But it’s a clear example of how collectivism has become infused into the Chinese culture. We also see that in another way too. A high degree of loyalty to the state is expected of everyone, and it’s also expected that everyone will make many personal sacrifices to further the good of China. Individuals are strongly discouraged from amassing great personal wealth or calling a lot of attention to themselves. The collective is more important.
Readers of series such as Stan Jones’ Nathan Active novels, M.J. McGrath’s Edie Kiglatuk novels or Scott Young’s Matthew ‘Matteesie’ Kitologitak novels will know know that collectivism is an important part of many Arctic and Far North Native/First Nations communities. In those novels, among many groups, people do take responsibility for each other. Doors are left unlocked, food and supplies are gladly shared and so on. Of course, it’s not quite so simple as that, but there is a sense that one person’s welfare impacts everyone’s. And that makes sense in a place like the Far North, where it’s well nigh impossible to go it alone.
These are by no means the only examples of collectivism that we see in crime fiction (I know, I know, fans of Arthur Upfield’s Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte). But they serve to illustrate how that cultural dimension can add richness to a character or a community.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bryan Adams, Robert John Lange and Michael Kaman’s All For Love.