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Independent and interdependent views of self: implications for culturally sensitive vocational rehabilitation services.

The contrasting concepts of individualistic (i.e., independent) versus collectivistic (i.e., interdependent) orientations are increasingly noted in recent literature addressing issues of cultural differences (Bochner & Hesketh, 1994; Lee & Boster, 1992; Parks & Vu, 1994; Triandis, 1990). These contrasting orientations, in turn, are woven into corresponding world views, values, attitudes, and behaviors that are at the very foundation of culture and, therefore, have profound effects on personal, family, and community systems (Markus & Kitayama, 1991; Triandis, 1993). While the U.S. majority culture, considered by some the most individualistic in the world (Hofstede, 1980), lies at one extreme of a worldwide individualistic-collectivistic continuum (Triandis, 1993), most U.S. minority groups (e.g., Mexican-Americans or Latinos, American Indians, and Asian-Americans) have contrastingly collectivistic orientations, reflective of their respective cultural origins (Chan, Lam, Wong, Leung, & Fang, 1988; LaFromboise, Trimble, & Mohatt, 1990; Lowrey, 1983; Medina, Marshal, & Fried, 1988). The U.S. Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) culture, like the U.S. culture in general, also strongly emphasizes individualism (Nisbet, Rogan, & Hagner, 1989; Nosek, 1992), which may limit its effectiveness when serving clients with more collectivistic cultural orientations.

The intent of this paper is to examine the basic concepts of these contrasting views of self and culture, and their impact upon the U.S. VR structure and on persons with different cultural orientations. Topics discussed will include: (a) a comparison of collectivistic cultural attributes to those of the individualistic U.S. Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) culture; (b) problems that may result when applying VR's individualistic system with more collectivistically oriented clients; and (c) rehabilitation counseling techniques and practices that better correspond to collectivistic cultural factors and that are, therefore, likely to be more effective with clients who espouse more interdependent views of self or collectivistic cultural values.

It should be noted that the terms "individualism" and "collectivism" were recently used by Hofstede (1980) to define these contrasting cultural constructs identified when comparing cultural differences among workers from 50 different countries. These terms have been subsequently adopted and extensively used in cross-cultural research and literature referring to this phenomenon, or "cultural syndrome" (Triandis, 1993), found among different cultures (see Bochner & Hesketh, 1994; Lee & Boster, 1992; Parks & Vu, 1994; Triandis, 1990, 1993). In contrast, the terms "independence" and "interdependence" were selected by Markus & Kitayama (1991) to represent diverging views of self that are often related to and/or derived from the above cultural views, but which may vary among individuals in all cultures. As these two sets of terms are consistently used in the literature to differentiate between cultural and individual differences, they are likewise used in this paper: "individualism" and "collectivism" refer primarily to cultural differentiations, while "independence" and "interdependence" are used in relation to contrasting views of self.

Independent and Interdependent Views of Self

The independent view of self is grounded in a belief of individual primacy where the self is considered unique and autonomous while family and community are of secondary consequence. Behavior is interpreted through one's own thoughts, feelings and actions rather than those of others, emphasizing more private, internal aspects of the self expressed as distinctive, personal attributes. Self-worth is measured by personal achievement, and the individual is believed to be in control of his or her own destiny. Valued behaviors include: individual creativity, self-expression, recognition of personal attributes, and promotion of personal goals (Markus & Kitayama, 1991). Although such an idiocentric ego identity is peculiar to "Western" (i.e., U.S. and Northern European) cultures, where its prevalence has markedly increased in recent decades (Hoare, 1991), these same cultures have also been dominant in the current world order since the practices of both psychotherapy and vocational rehabilitation have evolved.

In direct contrast to Western cultures, persons from most other cultures of the world (e.g., in Asia, Africa, South America and Southern Europe) tend to have more interdependent views of self (Triandis, 1993), where the social unit (i.e., group, family, community) takes primary consideration over the individual. Consequently, harmony is highly valued as is the ability (and flexibility) to maintain it, which are the bases for measuring self-worth. Correspondingly, valued behaviors include: belonging and fusing in; staying in one's place; engaging in proper action; and promoting the goals of the group (Markus & Kitayama, 1991). This interdependent orientation focuses on relationships rather than on the individual, and it values tradition, the status quo, hierarchical structures, and loyalty, all as means of maintaining group harmony. Persons from collectivistic cultures also tend to be more fatalistic, believing that one's destiny is in the hands of external forces (Kunce & Vales, 1984; Ramisetty-Mikler, 1993), suggesting recognition and acceptance of an external locus of control.

Attributes of Collectivistic Cultures

In-group versus out-group behaviors. For collectivistic cultures, the in-group (i.e., the basic social unit of human survival whose common fate is interconnected) is the extended family, whose links are strong, long-term, and cooperative. The community is regarded as an expansion of the extended family and the well-being of both family and community is of foremost importance to the interdependent individual (Triandis, 1990). To maintain harmony, the in-group's subjective boundaries are controlled by tightly structured hierarchies that exact a high price on anyone wishing to leave them. The out-group, in contrast, includes persons that are not critical to and/or that may threaten the survival of the in-group (Triandis, 1993). Behaviors expected among in-group members (e.g., generosity, trust, mutual respect and support) are not customarily extended to out-group members (Parks & Vu, 1994; Triandis, 1993) which, for most minority populations in the U.S., could include all or most members of the dominant culture.

Importance of family and community. Since the extended family is the primary in-group for members of collectivistic cultures, its importance to the individual's feelings of self-worth is paramount. Not surprisingly, the role of family is discussed frequently in rehabilitation and/or counseling literature when addressing cross-cultural issues (Chan et al., 1988; Herring, t992; Kunce & Vales, 1984; Lowrey, 1983; Medina et al., 1988; Ramisetty-Mikler, 1993; Zhang, 1994). Important aspects of family include family structure and specified roles to ensure its proper functioning (Ramisetty-Mikler, 1993), and emphasis on harmony, obedience, and proper conduct (Lam, 1992). Contrastingly, psychological,problems within collectivistic family structures have been attributed to lack of family loyalty and continuity (Herring, 1992), which are effectively overcome by support and sharing from the extended family (Lee, Oh, & Mountcastle, 1992).

Hierarchy and traditions. Value and respect for hierarchical structure is also related to maintenance of harmony within the social order. In this context, hierarchy relates to both community and to family/extended family structures (Kunce & Vales, 1984). Such roles and customs are strictly adhered to and valued, an extreme example being the caste system, still an important element of India's social structure in spite of the current legal sanctions prohibiting discrimination against persons of a lower caste (Scorzelli & Reinke-Scorzelli, 1994). Similarly, recognition and respect are paid to parents as the family leaders (Swensen, 1994), and also to elders and to birth order (Chan et al., 1988).

Mental and physical health. Collectivistic cultures also tend to view both mental and physical health as manifestations of group harmony. For example, both Navajo and Chinese-American concepts of health are based on harmony with one's natural universe while illness is evidence of being out of harmony, often the result of broken taboos or family rules (Chan et al., 1988; Lowrey, 1983). Accordingly, such cultures tend to see disability, especially psychological disability, as something shameful that has been visited upon the family by spiritual forces and, therefore, as the family's responsibility to manage (Chan et al., 1988). Such beliefs often lead to a preference for and use of nontraditional medical/spiritual sources that can return the affflicted person to harmony with the group, thereby resolving the problem through in-group resources (LaFromboise et al., 1990).

U.S. Vocational Rehabilitation Culture

In viewing the U.S. Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) service delivery system as a culture, its development, organization, philosophy and values reflect the American individualism and independence-based culture. Individual uniqueness, achievement, and ability to maximize personal independence are considered the underlying goals of vocational rehabilitation services in the U.S. (Arokiasamy, 1993; Jenkins, Patterson, & Szymanski, 1992).

A brief review of the recent legislative history of VR illustrates the increasing role of independence in VR's development, closely mirroring similar changes in the U.S. majority culture. The 1973 Rehabilitation Amendments introduced Individual Written Rehabilitation Plans (IWRPs) for every client, demonstration projects for independent living programs, consumer involvement in state agency policy, and access for disabled persons to federally funded programs and facilities. In 1978, Independent Living (IL) services were established as part of State-Federal Rehabilitation programs; in 1986, authorization of culturally "unique" services to American Indians (Section 130 of 1986 Amendments) was introduced; in 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) guaranteed to disabled persons reasonable accommodation by employers, access to all state and county government buildings, public transportation, and public accommodations (Jenkins et al., 1992; Marshall, Martin, Thomasen, & Johnson, 1991).

A closer look at the model of Independent Living (IL) programs further exemplifies many of the aspects that would be expected in an individualistic culture. The IL movement grew, philosophically, out of numerous social movements in the 1970's including civil rights, self-help, demedicalization and deinstitutionalization (Nosek, 1992). Defined as "control over one's life based on the choice of acceptable options that minimize reliance others ... in the least restrictive environment" (Nosek, 1992, p.103-104), IL services allow disabled persons to live independently in the community. Such ideas bear striking similarity to the constructs of the independent view of self discussed previously.

Concerns have been addressed recently regarding the growing emphasis on independence in VR's theory, goals and practices. Arokiasamy (1993) suggested that, to some degree, all persons require interdependence. Similarly, Nisbet et al. (1989) discussed problems that have arisen in supported employment, where full independence may not be an achievable or desirable goal since it discounts the value of interdependent relationships at work.

Vocational Rehabilitation and Interdependent Cultures

In considering the aforementioned cultural differences, there should be no surprise that problems have surfaced in the U.S. Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) system when serving culturally different clients. Many of these problems can be directly or indirectly traced to the clash between contrasting ideologies. For example, underutilization of VR services has been found among persons from Asian-American, Mexican American, and American Indian cultures and, when they were used, have resulted in fewer positive outcomes, suggesting differences in both the quantity and quality of services received by these groups (Chan et al., 1988; Medina et al., 1988; Santiago, 1988; Wright, 1988).

Utilization differences between cultural groups have been attributed to various factors including a general mistrust for all public service systems and a preference for utilizing in-group, community-based resources (Wright, 1988), and a view that disabilities are undesirable and better handled within the extended family network (Chan et al., 1988). Regarding outcome differences, the prevalent preferred use of the person-centered counseling style has been found ineffective and counterproductive when working with Native Americans and many other minorities (Lowrey, 1983; LaFromboise et al., 1990), due to its individualistic focus, emphasis on internal locus of control, and requisite for expressing personal feelings, often seen as anathema by persons with a highly interdependent orientation (Ramisetty-Mikler, 1993; Usher, 1989). Other identified problems that relate to this inter-cultural clash include: lack of consideration for family and community contexts; emphasis on individualistic philosophy; and attempts to influence clients to change their cultural practices and beliefs (LaFromboise et al., 1990).

Recommendations for Improving Cross-cultural Counseling

A variety of suggestions have been made for more effectively working with VR clients from other cultures that appear to be consistent with an interdependent world view. First, more concrete, active-directive counseling methods are generally more compatible with an external locus of control (Atkinson, Thompson, & Grant, 1993; Deane, 1992), and with interdependent cultural expectations for counselors to act as hierarchical authority figures and to take a more directive, advisory role (Chan et al., 1988; Freeman, 1993; Henwood & Pope-Davis, 1994; Lam, 1992; Yee You, Sue, & Hayden, 1992). LaFromboise et al. (1990) suggested behavior therapy techniques (e.g., role modeling and role playing), but warned that any reinforcers employed must also be culturally appropriate. Additionally, LaFromboise et al. recommended use of "network therapy" which involves developing a network of in-group members, and relies on group consensus to deal with the individual's problems while the counselor acts as catalyst. Such an approach is highly consistent with interdependent cultural values discussed previously.

Second, the importance of establishing rapport and trust at the counselor and client's initial meeting is repeatedly emphasized, as is the involvement of family and community in developing and carrying out the rehabilitation plan (Lowrey, 1983; Marshall et al., 1991; Medina et al.,l988; Swensen, 1994). These two points are interrelated, since establishing trust and rapport with persons having interdependent orientations assumes an understanding of the importance and expected role of family, and communication of that understanding to the client during the initial meeting. Arranging this meeting at the client's home with other family members, if possible, is also recommended (Lowrey, 1983; Medina et al., 1988) as it allows the client to feel more comfortable and to have the support and involvement of important family members in the VR process. It also provides invaluable information to the counselor about the client's cultural setting and level of acculturation. A willingness to meet with the client when other family members can be present (e.g., evenings or weekends) would further emphasize the counselor's respect for the family's involvement, as well as her or his flexibility (Lowrey, 1983), both valued traits in interdependent cultures. If this is not possible, then inviting/recommending family members to accompany the client to the office is a second alternative.

During the initial meeting, ample time should be allotted to obtain information about the extended family, their shared values and goals, and their involvement in any community organizations. Use of genograms and eco-maps are also suggested as means of establishing or strengthening the counselor-client (and counselor-family) alliance during the rehabilitation process (Marshall et al., 1991). Such techniques allow an interdependent client to openly discuss topics that are both comfortable and non-threatening. They may also provide the counselor with contacts in the cultural community that can assist in development and completion of a successful rehabilitation plan, while increasing the counselor's understanding of and acceptance by the community as well.

Another important suggestion includes evaluation of the client's current level of acculturation during the initial meeting, using one of the many tests available for different cultures (Smart & Smart, 1993). Questions that reveal information about the client's orientation toward independence and interdependence would also increase the counselor's understanding of the client's acculturation towards the U.S. individualistic world view so that counseling techniques can be selected accordingly. Such questions can also be used as tools for discussing cultural differences with clients to help them better understand the values and priorities of the dominant culture, and how misunderstandings can occur and, hopefully, be prevented or resolved.

Finally, subsequent VR services should continue to build upon the concepts presented previously. This would include ongoing interventions that focus on both extended family and community involvement in selecting, developing and carrying out the rehabilitation plan. Other practices that incorporate interdependent values might include more "in group"-related activities during vocational exploration, job seeking, and placement activities that better utilize the interdependent client's networking skills with extended family and community.


In summary, it is apparent that the concept of dichotomous individualistic and collectivistic cultural paradigms highly corresponds to many problems encountered in the Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) system when attempting to serve persons from non-majority cultures. This concept could therefore be used as a guideline for counselors to continuously check their own attitudes, values, and behaviors as well as those of each of their clients, making adjustments accordingly, to facilitate clearer communication and understanding. Such a view of cultural differences is, of course, quite broad and may not apply to all cultures or to all clients from any given culture since, as Triandis (1993) notes, there are varying degrees of both types in all cultures.

In reviewing the current VR practices in the U.S., it is clear that further research and consideration of critical aspects of cultural orientation are needed if services to members of collectivistic cultural minorities are to improve. For example, development of an acculturation test that incorporates scales of independence and interdependence would be very helpful to identify the client's cultural orientation and to apply counseling practices and other VR services accordingly. Additionally, more effective counseling approaches for persons from interdependent cultures should be researched, developed, and practiced, and should also be taught in counselor education programs. Such research efforts would certainly increase the appropriateness and quality of current services to cultural minorities and likely increase their participation in and benefit from these services as well.

Finally, the current emphasis on independence in the U.S. vocational rehabilitation culture should be examined (Arokiasamy, 1993; Nisbet et al, 1989) to determine its appropriateness when considering other cultures and subcultures within our own country. In other words, the role of interdependence should be considered as an equally viable alternative to independence in the current philosophy, goals, and practices of vocational rehabilitation in the United States if we wish to equally serve persons from all cultural orientations.


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Virginia C. Thompson, MA, MS, Ph.D. Student, Department of Rehabilitation Psychology and Special Education, 432 N. Murray Street, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, WI 53706. Email:
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Author:Thompson, Virginia C.
Publication:The Journal of Rehabilitation
Date:Oct 1, 1997
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