The Sum of the Parts

Thinking about research my light bulb moment came when I learned that families, communities, organizations and structures have a greater influence on us than individuals, and that, when it comes to individual attributes, we often silence ourselves for the sake of the community.

We don’t do it consciously.

An example is the individual news reporter, who becomes the focus of critics for being “too liberal.” Truth is that reporters are much more likely to follow the ideology of the news organization rather than follow her personal beliefs, at least when it comes to her work.

We adopt the values of our communities and cultures, most likely because we are much more compelled to want to belong rather than stand out.

Researchers stumbled on this long ago, and yet we still blame individuals rather than organizations when something goes awry. One reason is that it’s just plain easier to charge Rupert Murdoch with wrong-doing.

But think about it: the shenanigans at News of the World would never have been so widespread without the journalism community writ large endorsing the practice.

Indigenous communities have known all along that individuals are only as influential as the willingness of the community to embrace them. Singling out individuals and making them heroes or villains is a Western and modernist perspective.

Although we look to single individuals as the target of greatness or failure, the focus is too narrow. And it’s a mistake—but easy–to blame President Obama for the current failings in the federal government. Step back for a broader view and you’ll see that the current turmoil is largely a function of the members of that community to work together, or in this case, refuse to work together.

And that’s a pity.


About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. Dr. Coleman is an enrolled citizen of the Osage Nation.
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