It’s often said that “individualism” is an invention of the modern West – meaning the approach that defines human beings as independent and autonomous from their social context. The French sociologist Louis Dumont made this claim directly in contrast to India, seeing India as a highly communitarian place where an individual’s community and social status much more. Dumont applied this communitarian view not only to Indian society at large but to its theoretical thought.
Many students of other cultures soon come to see individualism as a Western conceit – a bizarre peculiarity of an eccentric society that went wrong with Descartes. If indeed the modern West is a complete solitary exception to the rule, then there would seem to be something to this view.
I wrestled with it for a while myself. I used to believe Dumont’s classification of India was correct. It certainly resonated with my personal experiences, seeing how much more my Indian family cared about family and community ties. But those experiences, combined with the communitarian stereotype of India found in the likes of Dumont and Max Weber, blinded me to things I read every day in graduate school for years without actually noticing. Continue reading