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Collectivism and Individualism in Status Hierarchies: Socialization and Social Identity Explanations


Vincenzo Iacoviello ,

University of Geneva, CH
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Fabio Lorenzi-Cioldi

University of Geneva, CH
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Social scientists have produced major theoretical and empirical advances documenting the importance of group status in shaping the group members’ perceptions of themselves and of society at large. Evidence is accumulating showing that members of high-status groups favor individualistic and autonomous self-conceptions and worldviews, whereas members of low-status groups turn to more collectivistic and less personalized ones. This paper reports on research that has examined this phenomenon with a focus on social class divisions. It outlines two main explanations that have been developed to account for this self-group discrepancy in status hierarchies. One explanation rests on the long run diverging socialization processes that take place in high and low social classes. A complementary explanation is based on social identity dynamics. It suggests that such orientations result from differing motivations among members of high-status and low-status groups: While the former aim to protect a positive social identity, the latter must cope with a social identity threat.

How to Cite: Iacoviello, V., & Lorenzi-Cioldi, F. (2019). Collectivism and Individualism in Status Hierarchies: Socialization and Social Identity Explanations. International Review of Social Psychology, 32(1), 15. DOI:
Handling Editor:
Céline Darnon
Université Clermont-Auvergne, FR
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  Published on 09 Oct 2019
 Accepted on 18 Sep 2019            Submitted on 03 Apr 2019

Group status is the outcome of the rank ordering of groups on valued dimensions. This concept is distinguished from personal status, which defines the rank ordering of individuals in a given context. It is inherently comparative, involving evaluations that one’s membership group occupies a respected position in a social hierarchy. The construct is often used interchangeably with related and somewhat more specific concepts, notably power, privilege, dominance, and social class.1 Social class, like status, conveys judgments of respect and competence (Darley & Gross, 1983; Fiske, 2010). Despite being most of the time an inherited privilege, it is often regarded as having been acquired by individuals’ efforts, competence, and abilities (Bourdieu & Passeron, 1964, 1970; Rosette & Thompson, 2005).

The personal and the collective in status hierarchies

Recent research has demonstrated that individualistic and collectivistic perceptions of self and society can be arrayed on a status continuum (e.g., Kraus et al., 2012; for a similar claim using the constructs of agency and communion, see Rucker, Galinsky, & Magee, 2018). These constructs refer to ‘the degree to which people in a society are integrated into groups’ (Hofstede, 2011: 11; Triandis, 1994). Toward the collectivistic pole, people show attentiveness to others and vigilance to features of situations, and perceive themselves as exemplars of larger groups. Toward the individualistic pole, people show self-directedness, autonomy, and independence, and conceive of themselves as persons endowed with distinct characteristics. Collectivistic perceptions of society emphasize the dynamics that influence people’s fate and behavior, while individualistic perceptions portray people as the main makers of their own destiny (see Markus & Kitayama, 1991).

Our perspective of how in-group status shapes perception of self and society rests on the theory of aggregate and collection groups (ACG; Lorenzi-Cioldi, 1988, 2006, 2017).2 A basic tenet of this theory is that members of high-status groups are motivated to take action to protect the status quo, because experiences of unfairness and injustice among the disadvantaged may lead to social protest (e.g., Merton, 1938; Van Zomeren et al., 2008). High-status groups possess power, authority, and prestige (Magee & Galinsky, 2008) and tend to spread their ideologies (more or less deliberately) through institutions, such as school (Bourdieu & Passeron, 1964, 1970; see Croizet et al., 2017, for a recent review). These ideologies mainly consist of giving priority to individuals’ merit (i.e., talent and effort) over structural forces (i.e., social class membership, barriers to individual mobility) as causes of people’s social standing (see Guilbaud, 2018; Jost & Hunyady, 2005; Sidanius & Pratto, 1999). They allow those high in status to legitimize their privileges by denying that collective support, and therefore social structure, played a key role in securing their advantages.

Despite being widely shared in the society, individualistic ideologies are endorsed to different degrees depending on one’s in-group status. Because of their unfavorable position in the social hierarchy, members of low-status groups often prioritize collectivistic tendencies, and therefore attentiveness to others, vigilance to situations, interpersonal solidarity, collective support, and feelings of community (e.g., Lorenzi-Cioldi & Dafflon, 1998). Thus, whereas members of high-status groups tend to perceive themselves (and are perceived) as collections of unique individuals who act and think according to their idiosyncratic states and goals, members of low-status groups most often perceive themselves (and are perceived) as aggregates of undifferentiated and interchangeable exemplars of a larger social entity. Among the low status, the societal ideology that promotes individualism is tempered by in-group norms that value collectivism (Lorenzi-Cioldi, 2009).

Discrepancies in collectivistic and individualistic tendencies have been acknowledged in a variety of status hierarchies, notably those provided by gender (e.g., Cadinu, Latrofa, & Carnaghi, 2013; Cross & Madson, 1997; Walsh & Smith, 2007) and ethnicity (e.g., Grier & Deshpandé, 2001; McGuire & Padawer-Singer, 1976; Sekaquaptewa, Waldman, & Thompson, 2007). In the next section, we will focus on research that has examined this discrepancy in one of the most meaningful social hierarchies: social class.

The social class divide

The literature provides compelling evidence that the privileged endorse individualistic tendencies to a greater extent than the disadvantaged. Goblot (1925) elegantly epitomized social class dynamics as follows: ‘What distinguishes the bourgeois is “distinction”’ (33). For example, being in the fashion’s forefront allows members of the high social class to express their personal uniqueness by wearing clothes that break with the common ways of dressing (see also Simmel, 1957). As soon as a good is popularized, high-status people part with it for the benefit of a new, uncommon one (see Boltanski, 1976; Boltanski & Chiapello, 2011). This tendency results in greater propensities to communicate individuality and uniqueness (see Daloz, for a review, 2013). Accordingly, Bourdieu (1979) typified the hierarchical ordering of social classes by opposing the choice of the necessary (toward the bottom of the social hierarchy) to the sense of distinction (toward the top).

An appealing illustration of the relationship between social stratification and individualization echoing the ACG distinction comes from surveys that distinguish between omnivore and univore cultural practices, notably in the field of arts. Members of high-status groups display taste eclecticism and interest in a variety of highbrow and lowbrow cultural practices, while members of low-status groups limit themselves to a restricted range of lowbrow practices (e.g., Chan, 2010). A further important way social classes distinguish one from another is language habits and competences. Bernstein (1975; see also Bisseret, 1974; Guillaumin, 1995) observed that people from low social classes tend to use forms of discourse that are relatively generic and collectivistic (e.g., high occurrences of the pronoun ‘us’), while people from middle and high social classes use more individualized forms of speech (e.g., high occurrences of the pronoun ‘me’ and elaboration of subjective intent). In so doing, the advantaged propagate the impression that their group has no substance outside of its members’ personal qualities (see Bourdieu & de Saint-Martin, 1978). This perception echoes Tocqueville’s claim (1835/1980) when he reported on the American society: ‘[T]he elements of which the class of the poor is composed is fixed; but the elements of which the class of the rich is composed are not so. […] Though there are rich men, the class of rich men does not exist; for these rich individuals have no feelings or purposes in common, no mutual traditions or mutual hopes; there are therefore members, but no body’ (303).

There is a growing interest in research that examines cognitive and behavioral markers of collectivism and individualism among people from low and high social classes (for a review, see Piff, Kraus, & Keltner, 2018). Grossmann and Varnum (2011) showed when judging a specific event, the disadvantaged were inclined to make more situational attributions than the advantaged, who tended to make dispositional attributions. Moreover, low social class individuals emphasized their interdependent self, while high social class individuals stressed an independent self. Freedom of individual choice, for instance choice of a scarce goods, is particularly relevant for people from high social classes (Stephens, Fryberg, & Markus, 2011; Stephens, Markus, & Townsend, 2007; Snibbe & Markus, 2005). Relatedly, these people possess a more pronounced sense of being in control of their fate (Kraus, Piff, & Keltner, 2009). Not surprisingly, this self-focus is associated with beliefs in meritocracy, low awareness of social inequalities, and low concern for other people (Faniko et al., 2012; Kraus et al., 2011). The reverse pattern of findings emerges on collectivistic behaviors. For instance, the disadvantaged are more likely to connect with their community, notably in times of crisis (Piff et al., 2012).

A socialization explanation

To account for social class discrepancies in collectivistic-individualistic tendencies, scholars have mainly relied on socialization practices that take place in the long term, through repeated interactions with peers, family members, and in the workplace. Following Gecas (2000), we refer to these practices as ‘the process of interaction through which an individual (a novice) acquires the norms, values, beliefs, attitudes, and language characteristic of his or her group’ (2855; see also Maccoby, 2015). Accordingly, people from low social strata are socialized to endorse collectivistic values and norms, whereas those from high social strata are socialized to endorse individualistic values and norms (see Lorenzi-Cioldi, 2006; Rucker et al., 2018). An effective way to examine socialization processes is to look at parental rearing. A key figure in this research area is Melvin Kohn (1963, 1969, see also Kohn & Schooler, 1969). He examined how parents from contrasting social backgrounds interacted with their children and observed that middle-class parents value the expression of internal states and emotions, such as self-control, curiosity, happiness, and consideration, while working-class parents promote deference and obedience to external authorities. Testifying to the pervasiveness of this social class discrepancy, Bronfenbrenner (1965) analyzed research on a 25-year span and found that middle-class parents tend to be acceptant and egalitarian in their relationships with their children, while working-class parents stress authority over their children (see also Weiniger & Lareau, 2009, for a recent replication of these findings).

Kusserow (1999, 2004) refined these findings by investigating the rearing styles of parents from New York City in districts that varied in the inhabitants’ social standing. In line with shared ideologies legitimizing the status quo (Jost & Hunyady, 2003; Sidanius & Pratto, 1999), parents from all social backgrounds encouraged some degree of individualism. However, rearing styles varied according to social background: Parents from higher social strata promoted what the author named a soft form of individualism, while parents from lower strata promoted a hard form of individualism. Soft individualism refers to educational practices that encourage children to develop a sense of individual uniqueness. Children are like flowers that need to bloom to find their own idiosyncrasies. On the other hand, hard individualism refers to educational practices that promote self-determination. Children must learn to manage an unfriendly environment of threats and constraints and to fight for improving their condition in the society. It is important for them to understand the social structure to find their way throughout the many obstacles and barriers imposed by their disadvantaged origins. Kusserow’s findings suggest that the shared norm of individualism translates into different forms in high and low social classes. Members of high social classes emphasize uniqueness. For them, group membership is a kind of blind spot. Conversely, in low social classes, individualism goes hand in hand with sociocentrism, because developing one’s assertiveness is deemed helpful to move up the social hierarchy. In other words, while children from privileged families are socialized to endorse a straightforward conception of individualism that overstresses their internal states and idiosyncrasies, children from disadvantaged families are socialized to endorse a more balanced conception of individualism, which considers personal characteristics as resources to overcome the collective impediments along the upward mobility path. In line with Kusserow’s findings, Wiley, Rose, Burger, and Miller (1998) showed that parents differ in the kind of autonomy they promote. Among the privileged, self-expression is deemed a children’s natural right, whereas among the disadvantaged, it needs to be deserved and defended.

A social identity explanation

The above-reported research provides strong evidence demonstrating that different sets of practices and norms prevail in high and low social strata. We may however wonder why such normative discrepancy developed. Specifically, are there psychological factors that lead members of high social status to cultivate individualism and members of low social status to promote collectivism? We argue that social identity processes play a major role in the emergence of these tendencies. Social identity theory emphasizes a distinction between personal and social identities (Tajfel, 1978; Tajfel & Turner, 1979). The former may be broadly defined as that part of the self that is based on each individual’s idiosyncrasies whereas the latter is that part of the self that stems from group memberships. People are motivated to achieve and to maintain a positively distinct social identity by establishing favorable comparisons between in-groups and relevant out-groups. However, all else being equal, it is easier for members of high-status than low-status groups to establish favorable intergroup comparisons and to achieve a satisfying social identity. Among the disadvantaged, motivations to cope with the social identity threat arise, which often translate into bonding with the in-group and fostering collectivism to gain collective efficacy and eventually to challenge the groups’ hierarchy (Kelly, 1993; Lent, Schmidt & Schmidt, 2006; Rucker et al., 2018; Wombacher & Felfe, 2012).

Based on this premise, the mere status hypothesis (Iacoviello & Lorenzi-Cioldi, 2015; Lorenzi-Cioldi, 2017) states that, regardless of dissimilarities in socialization histories, the mere awareness of the in-group’s position in the hierarchy (relative to a salient out-group) would trigger the commonly observed differences between high- and low-status groups’ orientations toward collectivism and individualism. Experimental manipulations of social hierarchies are crucial to examine this hypothesis. Random assignment of participants to different status groups may produce situations that override more long-lasting effects, such as those produced by differing socialization histories in more naturalistic settings. Below, we outline two lines of research that examined the impact of social status on collectivistic and individualistic perceptions of the self and the society. In the first line, social status was introduced by means of the subjective perception of the in-group’s rank in the social structure. In the second line, it was manipulated by priming straightforwardly the favorable or unfavorable position of the in-group in a two-group hierarchy.

Experimental investigations of social hierarchies’ outcomes

Subjective status

The first line of research investigating the role of status divides in the collectivism-individualism orientations is grounded in research on subjective and objective social rankings. Kraus and Stephens (2012) emphasized the central distinction between objective indicators of social class (e.g., educational attainment, income, and occupational status) and subjective indicators (the individual’s own perception of his/her location in the social hierarchy; see also Côté, 2011; Hout, 2008). Generally, the correlations between these two types of measures are only small to moderate in size, and they exert independent influences on individualistic and collectivistic tendencies. To illustrate, Kraus et al. (2009) observed a positive relationship between individuals’ subjective rank in the socio-economic hierarchy and their sense of personal control over their lives, such that the high status expressed more control (an expression of individualistic self-representation) than the low status. Interestingly, this relationship persisted after having controlled for objective indicators of social class, such as ethnicity, income, and education, as well as other variables, such as political ideology. This finding makes the case for the important role of feelings about one’s position in the social hierarchy, regardless of their consensual accuracy.

Further research introduced procedures to manipulate the subjective perception of people’s social standing, for instance by asking participants to imagine interacting either with a person from a lower social rank (downward comparison) or a higher social rank (upward comparison; see Kraus & Keltner, 2013). Downward comparison boosts feelings of high social rank, whereas upward comparison fosters feelings of low social rank. Kraus, Côté, and Keltner (2010) and Piff, Kraus, Côté, Cheng, and Keltner (2010) demonstrated that participants in upward comparison conditions were more empathic toward other people and showed more prosocial behavior (which are typical manifestations of collectivistic self-representations) than participants in downward comparison conditions, regardless of their objective social class. Thus, studies from this line of research provide some support for the mere status hypothesis. Indeed, the subjective perception of one’s social standing as compared to others predicts the tendency toward collectivism or individualism independently of, and in addition to, socialization histories as captured by more objective indicators of social class.

The in-group’s location in the social hierarchy

The second line of research involves more straightforward manipulations of in-group status and assesses collectivistic and individualistic tendencies with the use of a variety of instruments. Research on the so-called out-group homogeneity effect (OHE) is an example. OHE refers to people’s tendencies to perceive out-groups as more homogeneous and undifferentiated than in-groups. The most popular explanation of this effect is based on differential familiarity with in-group and out-group members (e.g., Linville, Fischer, & Salovey, 1989; Ostrom et al., 1993). People judge the in-group as more variable than the out-group because they are in more frequent and variegated contact with other in-group members.

However, the familiarity explanation is questioned by research showing the OHE is of greater magnitude among high-status than low-status groups. Oppression theories posit that members of a low-status group learn that their fate is, to some extent, contingent upon decisions and behaviors of members of the higher-status group (see Fiske, 1993; LaFrance & Henley, 1994; Lorenzi-Cioldi, 2008, 2009). Therefore, members of the low-status group are used to steer attention to the out-group, producing an increased familiarity with out-group members. In the end, the OHE is attenuated and on some occasions reversed.

The moderation of the OHE by status has been demonstrated in a variety of naturalistic social hierarchies, such as those based on gender (Lorenzi-Cioldi, 1998; Lorenzi-Cioldi, Eagly, & Stewart, 1995; Voci et al., 2008), ethnicity (Cabecinhas, Lorenzi-Cioldi, & Dafflon, 2003; Park & Rothbart, 1982), and academic achievement (Boldry & Kashy, 1999; Lorenzi-Cioldi, 1998, 2002; Sedikides, 1997), supporting an explanation in terms of socialization. Laboratory experiments were still required to determine whether mere status can also account for the OHE. To that purpose, some research has used the so-called minimal group paradigm (Tajfel et al., 1971). In a typical minimal group experiment, participants first perform a task in which they express preferences for paintings. They are then assigned to a group, allegedly on the basis of their preference (e.g., the group of people who like Klee paintings), and are informed about the existence of an out-group (e.g., the group of people who like Kandinsky paintings). These equal-status groups are minimal because they are based on random assignment of participants to the groups, because they stem from a trivial criterion of classification, and because the participants have no further knowledge about other members of the in-group and the out-group.

In minimally created group hierarchies, the minimal groups are differentially ranked on a valued dimension of comparison. For example, in our research, the task used to create the two groups was based on competence in identifying the best-quality pieces of art, allegedly according to the judgment of experts in the field of arts. Consistent with what was observed in naturalistic settings, the OHE reveals of greater magnitude among participants assigned to the high-status group than among those assigned to the low-status group (see Lorenzi-Cioldi, 1998, 2002, 2008). Given the minimality of the intergroup setting, these tendencies cannot be credited to long-term socialization histories and the ensuing attentional processes that would affect accuracy of in-group and out-group perception. Conversely, the mere status hypothesis derived from social identity theory and the ACG perspective is a likely candidate to account for these findings. People assigned to the high-status minimal group are more inclined to emphasize and to publicize their personal uniqueness than are people assigned to the low-status minimal group, merely as an outcome of the group assignment (see also Humphrey, 1985; Langer & Benevento, 1978; Sande, Ellard, & Ross, 1986).

The role of mere status has been documented on a wealth of indicators of collectivistic and individualistic tendencies. In a first set of studies, Iacoviello and Lorenzi-Cioldi (2018) assigned participants to minimal status groups and measured their tendency to depersonalize the self. Self-depersonalization is defined as the process by which ‘people come to see themselves more as the interchangeable exemplars of a social category than as unique personalities defined by their differences from others’ (Turner et al., 1987: 50), and therefore reveals collectivistic tendencies. In these studies, participants chose a logo to present themselves to the other participants in the study. Participants could choose a logo out of three different logos ranging from a self to a group pole. Toward the self pole, the logo mentioned a freely chosen pseudonym, and toward the group pole, the logo mentioned the in-group’s name. Choice of the group logo uncovers the participants’ preference for collectivism whereas choice of the self logo uncovers their preference for individualism. The findings showed participants assigned to the low-status group were more likely to choose a group logo (i.e., to depersonalize the self) than their higher-status counterparts.

In a second set of studies, Iacoviello and Lorenzi-Cioldi (2015) manipulated in-group status among university students. In the high-status condition, participants were informed that their university ranked higher than a rival, nearby university, and in the low-status condition they were informed that their university ranked lower than the rival university. Preference for collectivistic advertisement messages (e.g., ‘the pleasure of sharing,’ ‘for a happy collaboration’) over individualistic messages (e.g., ‘live the difference,’ ‘become who you are’), and preference for available over scarce products, were used as dependent variables. As expected, participants in the low-status condition indicated a preference for collectivistic messages over individualistic messages, and were less likely to choose a scarce product, as compared to participants in the high-status condition. These findings replicate the status discrepancy in collectivistic-individualistic orientations observed in research on social class. However, they extend them by showing their emergence in experimental settings based on transient, short-term contextual parameters, providing support to the mere status hypothesis.

Concluding comment

The research reviewed in this article has been selected and is far from comprehensive (see Lorenzi-Cioldi, 2017, for a more comprehensive review). Much remains to be said and to be documented about representational outcomes of the groups’ positioning in social hierarchies. This review underlines that the commonly-assumed socialization explanation may be importantly complemented by a social identity account. The reported findings have much relevance for understanding how—and to some extent why—collectivistic norms develop in low-status groups, while individualistic norms are prevalent in high-status groups. Status conveys judgments of competence and respect, and research on the mere status hypothesis suggests that minimal information is needed to activate contrasting self-representations along status lines. The findings further suggest that identity motives—and specifically, the motive for a positive social identity—may play an important role in shaping collectivistic and individualistic tendencies and, ultimately, the formation of norms specific to low- and high-status groups. Our message comes close to Fiske’s (2010) appraisal after reviewing studies that examined the outcome of various long-term and short-term status markers:

The correlational evidence for these [gender, age, race, and class] effects necessarily differs from the experimental evidence for effects of short-term status. Nevertheless, much of the message is the same: On the whole, higher status carries undeniable privileges, as it does for short-term status. Short-term status […] garners attention, access, credit, respect, and agenda setting. Long-term status works much the same way’ (958).


1See, for instance, Sidanius and Pratto (1999) who refer to social classes in terms of dominants and subor-dinates. 

2Though most social hierarchies are composed of multiple groups (Caricati, 2018), in this paper we focus on dichotomous status hierarchies that involve an in-group and a relevant out-group (see Turner et al., 1987). 

Competing Interests

The authors have no competing interests to declare.


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