What is the meaning of INDIVIDUAL in different cultures and how it shapes our understanding of HOME

Written in honour of World Culture Day, 21st of May 2021

The two extreme positions one can take as an individual in society are controversial. Culturally speaking, individualism is often set apart and opposite to communitarian beliefs.

From an ethical and moral point of view, the question of the community over the individual is laden with political dust as it still spreads unsettled after XX century’s birth of extremist movements like fascism and communism. Collectivist living, however, is something that was born long before these modern social stains and in fact, it is arguably the first type of living that ever existed in our species.

Tribal societies merged both extremes into a, at times, balanced whole as there is substantial evidence that individualism has existed in terms of moral and ethical values in parallel with communal living.


So where does that leave us? Basically, we’ve been ruminating between the two our whole existence as humanity is trying to balance them at every point in the way. We balance it in terms of interpersonal cultural and social values but also in terms of negotiating the personal and collective space we live in. And as we nestle into our little comfortable piece of earth that we call home, consider this:

Our homes do not end at the front door

The front door is the GATE-BETWEEN our independent home and the interdependent home.


Our residential communities as we shape them even now take these cultural values into consideration. Despite the somewhat universal models of high-rise living and low-rise homes, we tend to forget that what makes a home a home, is not only the building itself but also the immediate proximity to walkable streets and various services. That’s why neighborhoods and cities are often called homes.

This extension let us call it,ย the appeal of certain neighborhoods and the sense of belonging that comes with it, have a close kinship to collective living. Even if you do not know every person that walks the street, that street that you walk every day you think of it – like yours.

Our homes are structures for both, individual and collective living

If our homes were just about us, we would all be living in a one-bedroom condo. That’s all one needs: a nighttime space, a daytime space, a place to prepare food, and a place to take care of hygiene. And we would all live by ourselves.


The second a home accommodates two or more individuals, that simple normative, mini-collective we call family changes the home itself and makes it now a structure that needs to accommodate multiple individual habits. Lots of questions arise out of the simplest one: does each individual need their own daytime space? While NIGHT comes with fewer spatial restrictions, DAY is more demanding on a home. Being in each other’s face and not having “space” for yourself can pose serious long-term problems for a couple.

Homes need to have both: places of solitude and social interaction

People have various degrees of solitude needs but they all need some of it. Cultural norms sometimes impose a level that may not be your own and emotional conflict arises from that. Homes need to be able to address this spatially. For instance, a married, childless couple is assumed to be ok in a one-bedroom but that more often than not is a financial decision, not a mutual need that is satisfied.

The snail shells in your home

Snails spend a lot of time in their shell especially when the weather is hot and dry. Otherwise, they will simply dry out.

One snail shell per occupant is a must in any home. For some, this means a room of their own. For others, it means a corner, a bubble of space. In hot climates, one can do with a smaller home if there is a garden that offers solitude. The colder climates do not have this advantage.


No matter where you are on earth and on this scale that measures your preference for individual solitude, make sure your home addresses your needs and lets you have your shell. Otherwise, sooner or later, you will look for another.

Looking further into it.. for those who lasted reading this far!

You can stop here or, find out more about it. I find that long-form articles are an intrinsic part of a thinking mind where the perusing and rummaging through research and ideas have the same satisfaction as going through an old and untouched room full of forgotten finds hidden behind dusty storage boxes and crumpled paper. It is not for everyone thus will not hold it against you if you seek an exit!

For those sticking around, here is a bit more on this wonderful and fascinating topic, a look at where we stand right now and data that tells us loads about where we are heading with new housing models in the future. Stay tuned for my predictions on housing later in the year!

Most individuals hold a mix of independent and interdependent views of society.

A recent study done in 2017 examines data from 78 countries that span over five decades. Psychologists H. Santos, M. Varnum, and I. Grossmann while looking at countries from Nigeria to Canada, from Norway to Columbia determined that individualism is on the rise. This was well known in western cultures but this research shows a global trend that reaches even the most collectivistic types of societies.

It is impossible to fathom our way of living – at least here in Canada and the western world by extent – without considering the impact and rapport between the two. We live here in a world where individuality predominates. What does that really mean in a country like Canada that is filled with many nations? Do we see and understand individuality differently? Does that help or interfere with our best achievable way of living?

Yesterday, May 21st, was the world culture day or otherwise called, the cultural diversity day. In 2001 when UNESCO adopted the universal declaration on cultural diversity, this came to be the need to โ€œenhance the potential of culture as a means of achieving prosperity, sustainable development, and global peaceful coexistence.โ€

As a measure of culture in this day and age, is individuality superior to community living? Is there any merit to considering a hybrid system that allows one to maintain autonomy? It is a fragile thought for someone that escaped a communist system and resists with every breath any danger to individual freedom posed by usurping entitlements of abusive power.

Nonetheless, I’ve learned that individuality as a supreme social moral value demands a lot from each of its members. It demands the capacity to manage their own livelihood completely, a task that we do not often realize how emotionally burdensome it can sometimes get.


This article first appeared in My 2 cents on design,
part of FOCUS / Introspection month, May 2021

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