The Individual and the Community

“No man is an Island”, said John Donne. It is one of those statements which looks obvious once it is said. Man is a social animal, brought up in families, living in neighbourhoods and wider communities, working in teams of varying sizes, forming partnerships, agreeing complex laws and regulations and codes of conduct about acceptable interactions, and even negotiating a world-wide approach to managing human affairs through the United Nations and other such organisations. No other animal has matched that. There are a few loners and hermits, but nearly half of humankind already lives in cities of over a million people. So John Donne was quite right.

When we come to look at the comparative value placed on the individual and the family or community, though, we find sharp differences between different cultures.


In many western countries an emphasis has been built up over many years to value individuals, both for their personal contributions and in preserving their rights. In child care this is reflected in both legislation and practice, with complex systems to plan and monitor the care of each child, to preserve their rights, and to enable them to make their views known and get their complaints heard. The aim is to help the child to be fulfilled and to enable him or her to become a responsible adult citizen. The outcome in social work and social care practice has been an increasing bias against group care and an increasing emphasis on services for the individual, including one-person children’s homes.

This philosophy of child care reflects western society’s wider views on the value of individual lives, the need to give patients choice, universal suffrage, the use of the jury and a host of other ways of making society function, summarised under the umbrella term of democracy. Its advocates see democracy as the best form of government to which everyone should aspire, and at times they fail to recognise that other approaches may also be valid.


Elsewhere in this issue we report on a visit to see children’s services in Israel. The widespread use of children’s villages there would be seen as anathema on some western countries. Their group living emphasises the need for children to learn to live together, to function as team members and to tolerate each other’s behaviour. They still value people as individuals and use education as a way of helping each child achieve his or her maximum potential, but playing in an orchestra is valued as well as learning to play solo.

It could be argued that the children’s village system reflects Israel’s current needs and capacity. Certainly running children’s villages is a lot cheaper than running one-person children’s homes, and in any country the state of the economy is an important factor to bear in mind. But there are also other demands faced by the wider community in Israel, such as the ever-present need to be prepared to defend the country and the drive to develop the economy. These demands put pressure on citizens to identify strongly with the state and to put the wider community first. To survive and develop, Israel needs its citizens to give priority to their roles as citizens, rather than as individuals.

In consequence, children in Israeli children’s villages learn Hebrew, regardless of their country of origin. They sing their group songs. They have tasks to fulfil in sharing the running of their communities. They look forward to serving their country in the Israel Defence Force.

The balance between the group and the individual is different in Israel from many other western countries, but it would be presumptuous to criticise it. It could be argued that it is western countries who have got the balance wrong, and that individual rights have been overemphasised to the point that responsibility to wider society has been overlooked and that a generation has been bred who look primarily to satisfying their own needs.

Relative or Absolute Standards?

It could also be argued that each country needs to devise its own philosophy of child care to match its own culture, economy, values and religions. Emphasising the importance of the wider community was, for example, a key element in communist child care practices. In this editorial Israel has been used as a graphic example, but similar arguments could be used of any country in the world. Every country has to develop services for children that reflect their economic situations, their cultures and their religions.

If the conclusion of this line of thinking were that standards are simply relative to the situation, it would be logical to reason that there are no grounds for arguing that some standards of child care are better than others, which is patently untrue. Fortunately, almost every country in the world has signed up to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, and they are checked against its standards.

The difficult task for professionals in this field is to tease out the difference between cultural factors and professional standards. In the end, we all remain individuals, even in countries where uniformity is set as the norm, and we are all citizens who need to play our roles and contribute by taking our share of the community’s responsibilities, even in the most individualistic societies. It is a question of balance.

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