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Individualism vs. Collectivism

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Which is the better way to live? To be part of a community in which you support your peers and are supported by them in turn? Or to go it alone with all the freedom that it entails?

While generally never falling completely on either extreme, it is a common theme in media to favour one side or the other.

In media that favours the group, expect the works to emphasise the value of things like social interaction, teamwork, altruism and the creation of a collective legacy; in such works it is not uncommon for antagonists to possess self-serving character traits, and for it to turn out that The Complainer Is Always Wrong.

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On the other hand, media that favours the individual are more likely to place value on concepts like freedom of thought, self-sufficiency and personal growth; in these works it common for antagonists to be part of an oppressive society or social structure.

Related to Romanticism Versus Enlightenment.


Examples:

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    Anime & Manga 
  • Ghost in the Shell presents a philosophy of trying to retain your individuality in a society where humanity is literally integrating with cybernetic technology. As the leader of a counter-terrorist organization called Secion 9, Major Motoko Kusanagi realizes that teamwork and synergy is necessary just to make sure everyone survives at the end of the day, but also yearns for a chance to find out who she is by working as an individual, free from the general laws of society. Throughout most of the incarnations of the series, Motoko eventually discovers that she feels confined and limited from personal growth when given the chance to seek out her own path, and that she can truly be an individual when she works within a confined system.

  • My Hero Academia: One of the Central Themes of the series, with the dichotomy not only playing a key role in the conflict between Hero Society and Shigaraki's organisation respectively but also on an individual by individual basis.

    Comic Books 
  • Jonathan Hickman's X-Men (and by extension, Dawn of X) is basically this trope extended over an entire run/runs. The narrative paints the mutants of Krakoa finally embracing their sense of collectivism, which they feel is destined to prevail over the individualism of the human race.
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    Fanworks 
  • Home: While Coda rejected the Builders Association's request for funding, Hordak allowed it. Coda is trying to keep Dryl's economy steady by only funding what he sees as necessary enterprises, preferring to fund the mining operations and making sure that their workers are safe and payed, that money eventually reaching their families and other businesses and thus spurs economic growth. Hordak on the other hand believes that the money should be used to provide for the everyday citizens, putting in the efforts to rebuild Dryl to higher living standards so that they have enough to work at maximum efficiency. It reflects Real Life arguments of Libertarian and Socialist arguments when it comes to labor and welfare and neither of them are completely wrong in their reasoning.
    Hordak: ...it's best not to have its people live like beggars. People who don't have to worry about dying from the cold and elements can put their efforts into finding work and earning wages to buy what they need.
    Coda: If you keep putting money in the people's hands, then they'll keep expecting handouts! The people work harder when they are properly motivated.

    Literature 
  • Night Watch (Series): This dichotomy is, at least in theory the basis of the divide between Light Others and Dark Others, with Light Others standing for collectivism/altruism (though with a constant dilemma of killing a hundred to save a thousand), and Dark Others standing for individualism (albeit with low-level/low-ranked Dark Others being bossed around and restricted by those on top). Keep in mind whether you become a Light or a Dark Other is highly dependent on your mood at the moment of your initiation: if you happen to be elated and happy, you have a good chance of becoming a Light Other even if you are usually more on the selfish side.
  • Zigzagged in The Stand between the Boulder Free Zone and Flagg's empire in Las Vegas: While the Free Zone has a rudimentary government and elects Stu sheriff, everyone is still free to live and do however they like (so long as no one is harmed). Las Vegas quickly becomes a fascist society, where everyone is assigned a job and crimes as small as drug use are punishable by torture and death. Yet because of their discipline, Vegas has electricity and supplies while the Free Zone struggles to even turn the lights on. In the end, as the Zone becomes closer to a pre-plague society, Stu notes that it's probably best for everyone to go their separate ways.
  • This is the primary focus of the work of Ayn Rand with her coming down hard on the side of individualism. In fact a collection of non-fiction essays is unironically titled The Virtue of Selfishness
    Tabletop Games 
  • In Magic: The Gathering's different color-coded factions, this is the key conflict between White and Black. White is characterized as prioritizing the society, while a Black character's main focus is him- or herself. Neither one is officially considered inherently good or evil: White at its best makes sure all are cared for, but at its worst loses sight of the individual and becomes draconian and xenophobic. Black has a much harder time getting a heroic portrayal as its extreme selfishness usually comes at the expense of others (and sometimes even of basic decency — Black is known for messing with death magic and necromancy), but the creators maintain that you do need to give consideration to your own wants and needs; and its self-serving arguments are sometimes treated as Hard Truth Aesops and times where the Jerkass Has a Point.
    Video Games 
  • Bioshock: The second game delves into this trope by introducing Dr. Sofia Lamb, the new Big Bad and foil to her ideological rival from the first game, Andrew Ryan. In this case, the conflict is one of Evil vs. Evil, and neither side gets any sympathetic treatment.
    • Andrew Ryan is an industrialist who founded the underwater city of Rapture as an objectivist Utopia, where citizens can become self-made men and women free from regulations, inhibitions, religion, and fetters, and where cutthroat capitalism reigns supreme. For all his preaching about individual freedom and the "Great Chain", Ryan ultimately becomes a megalomaniac and tyrant who tries to silence his critics and grip his city with an iron fist once said ideology is used against him, culminating in the Civil War that left Rapture in the state the player finds it in. Ironically, his biggest competitor at the time — Frank Fontaine — is the very embodiment of Ryan's objectivist beliefs, being an unfettered self-made man who does everything for his own benefit at the expense of the city.
    • Meanwhile, Sofia Lamb is a psychologist and an obssessive believer of absolute collectivism, to the point of denouncing individuality and sentience as a curse and obstacle to serving the common good. Posing a threat to Andrew Ryan's ideology and authority upon her arrival to Rapture, she was thrown into prison along with the rest of Ryan's enemies, where she was able to gather supporters and eventually found her own cult — the Rapture Family — centered around her collectivist outlook. Unlike Ryan, Lamb believes in what she preaches, but her ideas of altruism and serving the common good only manifest as a callous disregard for human life, viewing her followers as tools to be evetually sacrificed — even her own daughter — if it suits her goals.
  • Persona 5's endgame deals with this as the Phantom Thieves face off against Yaldaboath, the summoned god that represents humanity's desire to have someone control them. The humans in the game at first begin worship the Thieves as saviors until the Conspiracy and Yaldaboath makes them denounce them as villains, and later not even acknowledge they exist. In the final dungeon, all of the humans' shadows choose to let themselves be placed in prisons and lose their sinful desire as it makes their lives easier and "happier". The Thieves, who let themselves be controlled by the masses opinions of them, decided to save the world against the masses' wishes for oblivion.
  • In Stellaris, Collectivist and Individualist were a spectrum of opposed Ethics (alongside Spiritualist/Materialist and Militarist/Pacifist) which influenced the Civics and government types available to your empire. In Patch 1.5 they were replaced with Authoritarian and Egalitarian, after the devs decided their mechanics contradicted their respective philosophies.

    Web Video 
  • Parodied in a Nostalgia Critic Christmas Special, which turns the It's a Wonderful Plot formula on its head by revealing that everyone would have had a better life if the Critic had never existed, including the angel that was originally sent to convince him otherwise. After defending himself when said angel tries to eliminate him, Critic concludes that it doesn't matter if everyone else's life is worse without him, because he knows one person who benefits from it: himself.
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    Western Animation 
  • Ready Jet Go! generally supports themes like friendship and teamwork. Each of the members of Team Propulsion contribute to the exploration of space and conduction of science experiments. Quite a few episodes emphasize teamwork: in "Sounds Abound", Sean wants to do his sound experiment alone and quietly but realizes that he needed his friends' noises all along. The closest thing the show has to an antagonist is Mitchell Peterson, whose smug, pretentious attitude and desire to be alone drives his potential friends away, saddening him. Mitchell realizes that having people help him can be worth it, and actually hangs out with and helps the gang in later episodes.
  • Rick and Morty:
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