LCSR 4th International Annual Research Conference
Cultural and Economic changes under cross-national perspective
10 – 15 November 2015, St. Petersburg, Russia
[Conference homepage...]

Inherited Individualism: Evidence from Language Structures


Recent literature suggests that individualism is not an exclusive feature of Western societies but a universal phenomenon rooted in the human aspiration to freedom of choice. Even so, quantitative analysis across cultural zones has shown that long-standing individualist traditions outweigh socioeconomic factors in the prediction of modern values. The goal of my project is to develop an empirical measure of traditional individualism independent from survey data. Building on the hypothesis that cultural and behavioural norms correspond with large-scale linguistic patterns (Whorf), I present a linguistic indicator measuring the degree to which individual agency is accentuated by structural features of grammar in a given language. The measure is based on ten dichotomised grammar features mapped in the World Atlas of Language Structures (WALS), all of which contribute to the linguistic salience of a topical agent category (the grammatical subject) in the formal sentence structure. For each language, an average value is calculated by dividing the sum of positive values by the number of features on which information is available (at least five). The resulting Index of Inherited Individualism is strongly correlated with survey-based measures of individualism at the national level. The historical development of the underlying grammar features in Western languages suggests that Western individualism gained most of its momentum during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance period, just prior to the onset of socioeconomic modernisation.