Dr. Kwame Owusu-Bempah
University of Leicester
School of Social Work
Leicester, England



It is an irresistible temptation to suggest that human beings have an innate need to understand or make sense of themselves and their environment – their social, physical and spiritual worlds. Social scientists, notably social anthropologists, sociologists and social psychologists, and also modern philosophers claim that it is culture that provides us with the apparatus to meet this need. They present culture as the meaning system learned and shared by members of a group and used by them to interpret experiences and dreams, as well as to organize behaviour. This learned, shared and generationally transmitted meaning system includes ideas about needs – mental, emotional, spiritual, social and psychological needs, and also the means or mode to satisfy these needs. They suggest also that each culture has its cosmology, its own universe of reality, a unique set of concepts, images, a system of values, and a specific type of the perception of the world (e.g. Knappert, 1995; Lomov et al., 1993). It is obvious, therefore, that the means or mode of addressing not only basic human needs, but also these other needs vary from one cultural group or community to another.


Coetzee (1998), amongst others, sees culture as denoting the resources of a community’s material and moral worlds. He proposes that it is through the sharing of these resources that a certain group of people defines itself, and/or is defined by others, as a community or cultural group. According to Coetzee, these resources are shared on the basis and recognition that members owe certain things to one another, that they owe one another duties or obligations which are not normally extended to out-groups (or at least not to the same degree). They owe to members of their community mutual provision of all those things for the purpose of which they have unified and separated themselves from other groups. Coetzee sees the idea of mutual provision or obligation as the glue which binds individual members of a community, as the fulcrum of community which he defines as:

 … an ongoing association of men and women who have a special commitment to one another and developed a (distinct) sense of their common life. The common life is any public discursive space which members construct through action-in-concert. It is constituted by a particular set of social meanings – i.e. shared understandings and interpretations of events to which members have access through their participation in the creation of their commonality. A communal or social identity is the community’s characteristic way of life, one which members have sustained over some considerable period of time as an integrated cultural whole ... (p. 276) (emphasis added)

Coetzee’s portrayal of community is not dissimilar to the traditional understanding of community as comprising a group, large or small, whose members live in communion with one anther, and who share the basic conditions of a common life. In this sense, one may live one’s life wholly within one’s community. It is the locus of social living where members share a common fate; it is marked by some degree of solidarity. This is possible because, inter alia, members of a community have a flexible attitude towards resources, including time. This enables them to foster, service and maintain their various relationships, to meet their obligations to the various members to whom they are bound. In other words, as defined above, and as traditionally understood, a community is more than a mere collection of individuals for the pursuit of specific goals or ends. It is distinct from an association which comprises a group which organizes itself for the sole purpose of pursuing common interests, be they financial, recreational or political.


Participation in the creation of commonality in the above definition implies also the necessity of social structure for the development and maintenance of community. That is, social structure evolves not only to perpetuate given conceptions of humanity or social relations, but also to provide a framework for the actualization of the potential, goals and aspirations of individual members of a given community. In other words, the type of social structure or arrangement that evolves or is supported by a given community largely mirrors, and is influenced by, the actual or perceived needs of its members; it is dependent upon whether that community is founded upon individualist or communitarian principles or values.


This discussion has two main aims: 1) to briefly outline the characteristic features of the two major types of society – libertarian (or individualist) societies and communitarian (or communal) societies; and 2) to consider which type is congenial to community work, to community development and support systems.




Various investigators have attempted to classify societies according to whether they are founded upon libertarian or communitarian values (e.g. Triandis, 1995; Markus & Kitayama, 1991). These investigators suggest that Euro-American (Western) cultures are predominantly individualist; cultures beyond Western frontiers, on the other hand, are characterized by communalism. Does this, in turn, suggest that these broad types of culture have different conceptions of human nature or personhood that individuals in these different types of culture relate differently to other human beings?


Following Descartes, Euro-American writers use such terms as the self, self-concept, self-identity and self-esteem interchangeably to refer to personhood. For them, the starting point of personhood, of being a human being, is usually epistemological and psychological. They employ these terms to imply the importance of self-knowledge – the ways in which we think and feel about our physical, social and spiritual worlds and ourselves as individuals. Namely, in Euro-American societies, it is believed that one needs self-knowledge in order to comprehend one’s place and future in the world. Self-knowledge is also believed to guide one’s aspirations and one’s own conduct as well as ones conduct towards others. The Cartesian conception of the human being places the emphasis on the individual, it places the individual at the centre of the universe; it sees the individual as an atomistic entity – the architect of his/her own actions, an authentic self with a private identity. In this conception, the human being is untouchable; she/he transcends both his/her physical and social milieux. Existing prior to and of his/her interactions with others, the human being is taken to be asocial. The person is generally seen as differentiated and autonomous. Children are, therefore, socialised to regard themselves as independent, as split and free from all constraints, from their social, physical and spiritual environments. ‘Self-reliance’, ‘self-determination,’ ‘self-sufficiency, ‘standing on one’s own feet’ are a few of the terms used to inculcate children with this belief. Thus, in trying to understand oneself and one’s place in the world, particularly during adolescence, one asks: “Who am I?”, “What am I?”, “Where am I?”, “Where did I come from?”, “Where am I going?”.


The main presumed features or characteristics of the individualist (Euro-American) person might be summarized as follows: decontextualization, independence, and differentiation. Extracted from all contexts – social, physical as well as spiritual – the individual is believed to have an independent existence (i.e. independent of others) temporally as well as spatially; it is presumed to be a separate and self-sufficient entity. Consequently, the human being is believed to possess abilities, preferences, needs, and desires of its own. S/he is presumed to be capable of self-reference (i.e. self-description) without reference to other ‘selfs’ (“I’m X”; end of the matter; not “I’m X, the son/daughter, brother/sister, friend, or neighbour of Z or Y”).


Decontextualized, extracted from all contexts, the person is presumed to be capable of reflecting upon him/herself and describing what s/he looks like, of deciding what s/he needs and wants, what it has done, is doing, and will do in the future, independent of others. This conception of the autonomous person sees the individual not only as independent, but also supreme. She/he is assumed to be the be-all and end-all; the individual (even a child) is presumed to be the paddler of his/her own canoe; she/he is presumed to be the architect, creator, controller of experiences and behaviour. Thus, not only must s/he be autonomous, but also hedonistic – an omnipotent, pleasure-seeking agent out to fulfil his/her own needs, wishes and whims. The person must, therefore, have a right to autonomy or self-determination. Individualist cultures value this ‘attribute’ so much so that they regard it as a sign of ‘solid personality’, as evidence of good mental health. Consequently, members of these cultures often describe other cultures as undeveloped or developing, and their members as psychologically not individuated, as undifferentiated or plainly childlike.


To exercise his/her right and autonomy, the person must control, and never be controlled. S/he must regard the ‘non-person’ realm (i.e. everyone else and everything) as instrumental, as an object that must be tamed, managed or manipulated and ultimately vanquished and used by him/her. Other persons and everything exist solely to serve the individual’s needs and desires. Hence, one speaks, for example, of using, controlling, and exploiting situations, including interpersonal situations. On a wider scale, we speak of conquering nature and the universe. In short, it is antithetical to one’s interest to accommodate others and situations. One must be totally selfish. The maxim is: “I’m OK, therefore, you’re OK.”




Since we derive our conception of personhood from our culture, as social scientists suggest, we should expect this to vary culturally. Broadly speaking, we may expect societies with communal values to differ from individualist cultures in their conception of personhood. Thus, considering the individualist picture of human nature, the logical question which Coetzee (1998) poses, and many ponder, is whether a person, living in a human society, is truly a self-sufficient, atomistic individual who is wholly independent of other human beings, who does not depend on his/her relationships with others for the realization of his/her needs – an auto-actualizing individual – so that s/he has priority over the community, or s/he is, indeed, by nature a communal being whose survival depends upon other human beings, and so must have, and does have, natural, essential and reciprocal relationships with others.


In considering this question, Coetzee sees the individualist conception of the person as raising moral issues which relate to: 1) whether the status and right of the individual are so sacrosanct that they may not be interfered with in any circumstance, whatsoever; 2) the place of duty – how the individual sees his/her social and ethical roles in relation to the interests and welfare of others; 3) the existence and appreciation of a sense of common life or common (collective) good. Studies which have incorporated these questions argue that the Cartesian or Euro-American individualist conception of the person begs the question, of whether (or not) the Euro-American view of the person is not universal (e.g. Triandis 1995; Markus & Kitayama, 1991) (see Owusu-Bempah & Howitt, 2000 for a summary discussion). Indeed, some have stressed that it is alien to most world cultures (e.g. Lesser, 1996; Roland, 1988; Triandis,1995). They also maintain that it is rare amongst certain groups even in Euro-American societies. For example, Gilligan (1982) and Lykes, 1985 claim it to be rare amongst white women. Furthermore, Teffo & Roux (1998) suggest that this notion of human being, which dichotomizes between the ‘self’ and the ‘non-self’, which tries to sever the person from the non-person – the person from his/her environment, is an unacceptable account of human nature.  They contend that Cartesian dualism reduces the person to some isolated, static quality of rationality and will.


On the contrary, these and other investigators, as well as observers, point out that cultures beyond Euro-American frontiers emphasize and foster human as well as ecological interdependence, and so prepare their children for reciprocal relationships in adulthood with the social, physical and spiritual worlds. They inform us that, within the context of world cultures, an actualized person is one who is most deeply connected to others and society as a whole. For example, Lesser (1996) informs us that there are Pacific Island groups who view themselves not as bounded, distinct entities, but as integral pieces of an eternal life scheme; Roland (1988) points us to Asian cultures where the deep inner self, upon maturity, is not seen as achieving unbridled autonomy, but as merging with the social and spiritual worlds; similarly, there are African cultures where one is less than human without “Us”, where the individual seeks the answer to the question: “Who am I?” not only in the question “Who are we?” but also in the question “Who were we?” (de Witte,2001; Holdstock, 2000; Mbiti, 1969; Owusu-Bempah & Howitt, 1995; 2000). In the extreme, there is the Innuit (Eskimo) culture that does not even have a word for self-reference (Page & Berkow, 1991). In these cultures, the status, place or duty of the individual is never in question. Communal societies’ response to such questions as those raised by Coetzee is that the purpose of one’s existence is to fulfill one’s role towards the well-being and survival of the community of which one is a member.


Ho (1993) summarises the status, place, and the social and ethical role of the person in communal cultures thus:

The principles guiding social action are as follows: a) collective or group interests take precedence over those of individual, b) the fulfilment of external social obligations take precedence over the fulfilment of internal individual needs, and c) securing a place in the social order takes precedence over self-expression. (p. 250)

In a nutshell, the principles or values upon which communal societies are founded are: group-identity, mutual goal setting, and mutual meeting of needs. Regarding the first principle, communal cultures define ‘self-identity’ in terms of group-identity, interdependence with the members of one’s group, as opposed to individualist cultures which conceive the person as autonomous and independent of others. In these cultures, a person seeks self-knowledge through group-knowledge, through such questions as: “Who are we?”, “What are we?”, “Where are we?”, “Where did we come from?”, “Where are we going”? In short, in communal or group-oriented cultures, personhood derives from and embodies the corporate self of one’s family, group or community, such that members’ needs and desires become synonymous with those of the group.


Generally, communal cultures are socio-centric (i.e. group-oriented). They emphasize interdependence, and so prepare children for symbiotic or reciprocal relationships with the social, physical and spiritual worlds in which they grow up. In education, formal and informal, the emphasis is on whose obligations towards the community and their role and place in it. In other words, in a typical communal culture, there is no individual–community split. Within the context of these cultures, the whole (i.e. the family/community) is greater than its constituent elements (i.e. individuals members). Hence, a psychologically healthy person is seen as one who is most deeply embedded in the community and the ecology as a whole. In communal cultures, group goals have primacy over individual goals. For example in these cultures a failure to perform one’s role, for example, as spouse, mother, father, daughter, son, or grandparent, or even a friend means a failure to be a person at all. Individuals do not have the right to privacy (e.g. personal problems), autonomy (to do whatever s/he likes) and self-determination (e.g. to make decisions without consideration of others), but, rather, duties and obligations to perform their roles within the community. Characteristically, the communal person’s duties and obligations extend beyond one’s kith and kin to the wider community; one pays more attention to the needs of the group to which one belongs than one’s own needs. For example, if a relationship is desirable from the point of view of the group (e.g. the family), but costly from the point of view of the individual, the individual is likely to stay in the relationship (the parent–child relationship may serve as an illustration). In contrast, individualists engage in exchange relationships (‘‘What is in it for me?”), so that if the ‘costs’ of being in a relationship exceed the benefits, individualists terminate the relationship.


To summarize, in communal cultures, kinship groups and the community, rather than individual, have goals, desires, and needs; individuals exist to meet the needs of these units, rather than vice versa. The ‘social-role-self’ does not have rights (autonomy or self-determination), but duties and obligations to the larger units, the family and the community. Consequently, the failure to perform one’s role as family and/or community member robs one of one’s personhood/humanity. Thus, contrary to libertarian ideals, communitarian societies measure the meaning of one’s life by one’s commitment to social ideals and communal existence.

The question: What is your existence for?” is posed when a person has been judged to be useless to his/her community. It is therefore a challenge, a call to serve. It presupposes a conception of human existence which sees it as purposeful, and the purpose is to contribute to the totality of the good in the universe. This is achieved by a life of selfless devotion and sacrifice to the communal welfare. Here, selfishness and individualism are abhorred and are expected to be superseded by a developed sense of community. (Gbadegesin, 1998; p. 168)

Which model?


Communitarianism (communalism) relates to a model of social organization which stresses human connectedness, ties of affection, kinship, and a sense of common purpose; it refers to cultures where the kinship system or the community functions as the social and psychological nucleus of life of community and its members. Social, personal, economic, spiritual, and status needs of the person are largely played out and fulfilled overwhelmingly within the community. As such, the person is usually defined in terms of roles which exist for the good of the group rather than individuals. In communal cultures, the status of personhood is contingent upon social achievements which contribute to the common good, to one’s kin and the wider community. Failure to do so in whichever way possible is treated as an instance of a general failure to live up to a moral precept. The concept of a person (or the self) is, therefore, a social rather than a psychological concept. From an African perspective, Gyekye (1998) observes that in these communities, nobody is an isolated individual; first and foremost s/he is several people’s relative and several people’s contemporary. He presents the following picture of the African view of the person to typify communal cultures. In the African view, in contrast with the Euro-American view:

  • it is the community which defines the person as person, not some isolated static quality of rationality, will or memory;
  • personhood is acquired; it is something that has to be achieved, and not given simply because one is born of human seed;
  • personhood is something at which individuals could fail. (p. 319)

Communal cultures, therefore, see the human person as an essentially communal being, embedded in a context of social relationships and interdependence, and never as an isolated, atomistic individual. Consequently, as Gyekye points out, these cultures see the community not as a mere association (or collection) of persons whose interests and ends are contingently congruent, but as a group of persons linked by interpersonal bonds, biological and/or non-biological, who consider themselves primarily as members of the group and who have common interests, goals and values. The notion of common interests and values is crucial to an adequate conception of community. In Gyekye’s view, it is the notion of common interests, goals, and values that differentiate a community from a mere association of persons. He echoes Coetzee’s (1998) claim that members of a community share goals and values; they have intellectual and ideological, as well as emotional, attachments to those goals and values and as long as they cherish them, they are ready to pursue and defend them.


With its emphasis on the common good or communal welfare, the welfare of each and every member of the community, communitarianism considers duty as the main principle of morality, as the moral quality par excellence. It regards the individual’s duty to contribute to the welfare and survival of the group at large as paramount. This account of the person often leads outsiders to assume that individuals are denied rights and personal choice; their choice of way of life in these communities is constrained by the community’s pursuit of shared ends; that in the pursuit of the common good as the prime goal, one sacrifices one’s individuality or uniqueness. Is this, however, the case? Does it actually mean that the individual is suffocated or ground under the might of the community and its moral order? Teffo & Roux’s (1998) answer is: ‘Not at all!’ These authors argue that communal societies recognize the difference between individuals, on the one hand, and sets of individuals on the other; they recognize the uniqueness of human individual beings, their fates, fortunes and misfortunes; they recognize the difference between person A and person B as separate and unique individuals. They recognize individuals’ unique talents and contributions, for instance, in terms of originality and creativity in problem-solving and other activities of the community. They caution that, although to an outsider, members of collectivist cultures may seem to relinquish primary control and autonomy through their socio-ethical role or commitment to the well-being of community, we must not lose sight of the fact that they gain a sense of purpose, belonging and security in their families and communities.




Libertarianism is the converse of communitariasm. It is a model of (a) social organization which de-emphasizes human interdependence. Instead, it is a morality of selfishness, contractual or exchange relationship between individuals. Libertarians of often argue against communitarianism; they are inclined to devalue communitarianism which stresses self-sacrifice as a morally unjust social organization, on the supposition that, with its emphasis on and concern for communal values, it is antithetical to the doctrine of individual rights. In this sense, detractors of communitarianism seem to conflate individual rights with human rights. As Gyekye (1998) asserts, communitarianism is not necessarily antithetical to the doctrine of rights. Although, in Western morality the highest value is accorded to autonomous individuals rather than kinship relations, or kinship groups, the individual attains this status at a price. Howe (1997) argues:

A heavy concentration on individualism removes people, both psychologically and politically from the formative and steadying influences of their social context. This allows libertarians to argue that there is no such thing as society, merely people acting independently in pursuit of their own rational self-interests. Although psychological individualism credits the person with hugely increased amounts of freedom, choice and opportunities for personal creativity and responsibility, such an individual remains psychologically alone and disconnected. The thrilling aspects of freedom pull against the security and emotional comfort of belonging. When discourses of liberation are in ascendancy, individuals become ‘socially disembedded’. They lose touch with their communities and they pull apart from one another under the compelling logic of psychological individualism.

Howe argues further that an emphasis on individual rights and responsibilities disconnects people from their social context, that this makes it difficult for practices based on individualism, with it’s emphasis on the rational, autonomous self, to understand and pursue practices, including social work, based on communitarian models of development and the concept of the ‘socialness of self’ (p. 367).


A case in point is Western professionals’ obsession with such principles as confidentiality, privacy and self-determination (Kossal & Kane, 1980; Silavwe, 1995). Bearing in mind that concepts have different meanings in cultures beyond the West, some have argued that these values are inconsistent with the use of family and community support systems and social networks (e.g. Owusu-Bempah, 1999a,1999b; Silavwe, 1995). They are inconsistent in that they may undermine support systems based on the family and community which provide the resources for problem-solving. This claim is supported by Hylton’s (1997) study of ethnic minority families in Britain, which demonstrated the importance of communitarian values to the well-being of ethnic minority families. Confidentiality, for example, as understood in individualist societies, takes for granted a split between the individual and the community; it assumes that the individual is autonomous from his/her family and community. In other cultures beyond Western frontiers, however, the individual is so embedded in the community that the sense of selfhood, psychological and spiritual sustenance, is through the corporate being of one’s family, group or community. Personal problems are inevitably group problems, and so are collectively resolved by the community. In Western professional practice, confidentiality requires secrecy and concealment. In communal cultures, on the other hand, ‘personal’ problems warrant the attention to and concern for one’s extended family or group.


Even within Euro-American frontiers, as we saw earlier, this deep sense of community should not be ignored when working with families from communal backgrounds or groups with communitarian values, such as women (Gilligan, 1982; Lykes, 1985), otherwise one might well impose an alien conception of individualism, via confidentiality, on those clients requiring much more a sense of kinship or group solidarity. This is not to imply that Western values, such as confidentiality, should be seen as invariably inappropriate for work involving ethnic minority clients. The caution is that the application of Western principles is risky and fraught, warranting an ethic of sensitivity and caring when dealing with radically different cultures (see Owusu-Bempah, 1999a; or Silavwe, 1995 for a detailed discussion). Owusu-Bempah (1999a) has suggested that for ‘confidentiality’ to be appropriate for professional work with communal communities, it must be defined more broadly as information to be confined to or held within the family and community; that is, confidentiality is information or knowledge not to be shared with out-groups. In this context, the significance of confidentiality is its provision of safeguards for the group or community as opposed to its individual members. In the Euro-American context, however, community implies a group of people with whom the client or family has close relationships, people who are interested in the client’s well-being. This involves a gemeinschaft relationship with others rather than individuals living in close physical proximity with the client.


Contrary to libertarian assumptions, a person cannot be isolated from the social reality of which s/he is just a part. It is here that Gbadegesin (1998) finds the limit of individualism. He concurs with other writers that the purpose of individual existence is inseparably linked with the purpose of social existence, and cannot be adequately grasped outside it. He asserts:

Persons are what they are by virtue of what they are designed to be, their character and the communal influence on them. It is a combination of these elements that constitute human personality. The “I” is just a “we” from another perspective and persons are therefore not construed as atomistic individuals. A person whose existence and personality are dependent on the community is expected in turn to contribute to the continued existence of the community. The crown of personal life is to be useful to one’s community.


If one finger is sore, the whole hand will hurt (Chinese proverb, quoted by Smith & Bond, 1993, p. 119)

The preceding thesis obviously favours the spirit of communitarianism as the model for developing community support systems or programmes. Nonetheless, readers may wish to consider further the following before reaching their own conclusions.


Members of communal societies are best studied and understood from an ecosystem perspective. The key feature of this perspective is the individual’s goodness-of-fit with their environment, an intimate interaction between individuals and their environment (Compton & Galaway, 1999; Wakefield, 1996; Richeport-Haley, 1998). According to this approach, a person forms a symbiotic relationship with their environment in which both are mutually influencing. In Wakefield’s view, a social work intervention, for instance, based on the ecosystem perspective, begins with such questions as: Is it more fruitful to study human needs by isolating individuals and focusing on their individual motivations and cognitions, or by examining the way social structures mould a person’s behaviour and thought? So, in community work, the issue might be expressed as whether intervention should focus on an individual member(s), on the whole family, or adopt a broader perspective to understanding and supporting the family, or the community as a whole.


In communal cultures, the self or personhood is defined in relational terms, so that the closest one could get to the practice of self-determination, for example, is ‘group-determination’. Hence, a pivotal aim of community programmes must be to change individual members’ sense of helplessness and alienation in order to energise them towards group activities; to reinforce their commitment to a larger unit based on sharing, co-operation and support. In other words, a community development project must be:

  • a movement designed to promote better living for the whole community, with the initiative and/or active participation of the community’
  • based on the expressed or felt needs of the community – be they health care, water supply, housing, education, etc.

In such an enterprise, the role of professionals becomes an empowering role, one of mobilising the efforts of the whole community for the purpose of improving their own lot. It is evident that Western principles like ‘self-reliance’ or ‘self-determination’ form an inappropriate basis or model for developing effective community support systems.


Any effective community programme must be based upon the principle of empowerment. Such a programme seeks to help a group to gain power over its life by heightening awareness of its position and common needs, and allowing the group to assess the means to meet them. The assessment must be based upon social and cultural definition of goals and means of achieving them. A failure to take this into account is de-skilling as well as disempowering, and likely to lead to a reliance (or over-reliance) on foreign (Euro-American) models of autonomy and self-reliance by collectivist societies. This, in turn, frequently leads to the design of services and service-delivery mechanisms that are either rejected by the people or, when imposed upon them, are counterproductive. Therefore, for foreign tools to be effective, they must be adapted to the local conditions in which they are applied. If they cannot be adapted, they must be discarded.


In today’s so-called global village, where Euro-American hegemony is the order of the day, where obsession with the idea of individual rights is ossified, the danger of slipping down the slimy slope of selfishness is real. Communal societies, as well as programmers of community support systems, must resist the temptation to adopt the individualist conception of the human being and other concepts and methods wholesale in order to avoid the danger of heading for this slope.  In the clinical field, for example, Moghaddam questions seriously, if it is useful or desirable to export Western clinical services to traditional collectivist societies where there already exist traditional supportive psychologies, mainly based upon indigenous religions and values. Allen (1997) provides a further caveat emptor:

The [Western] concept of the self [person] as a separate, atomistic, private, autonomous individual has been constituted by specific, complex, social, economic, historical, cultural and psychological relations … not only is [it] philosophically inadequate, but it also serves neocolonial and imperial goals of domination. ( p. 9)





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Copyright for the I.U.C. Journal of Social Work Theory and Practice is owned by the Social Work Program, Department of Social Relations and Services, Bemidji State University, Bemidji, Minnesota, USA. One copy may be made (printed) for personal use; teachers may make multiple copies for student use if the copies are made available to students without charge. Permission must be secured from the editors for sale of any copies of articles or for any commercial use of the material published in the Journal.
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