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Individualism emphasizes the importance of the individual, for example the individual’s freedom, interests, rights, needs, or beliefs against the predominance of other institutions in regulating the individual’s behavior, such as the state or the church. A range of theories in different societal domains contributes to the dissemination of individualistic ideas in society. In particular, economic and political liberalism are vehicles of individualism.
The term individualism was introduced by de Tocqueville. Even though he distinguished individualism from egotism, his distinction is essentially one of degree, but individualism would in the long run lead to ”downright egotism.”
A strong impact on the development of individualistic thinking in Western Europe can be traced to religion. The Reformation and the development of Protestantism indicated a shift to more individualistic thinking. This can be linked to Luther’s claim that a personal relationship with God cannot be mediated by the interpretation of the church.
Another important contribution to individualistic thinking was given in economics by Adam Smith’s development of a system of economic liberalism. He assumed that a simple system of natural liberty and exchange of goods and services in free and competitive markets, with as few interventions by the state as possible, would best support societal development and welfare.
A growing political individualism became most influential with the French Revolution and the emphasis on individual rights, referring to the idea of natural justice in contrast to the absolutist state. Several of these developments came together in the bourgeois Enlightenment in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
In Anglophone discourse there is a tendency to interpret individualism as egoistic and selfish behavior. For example, Bellah et al. (1985) prominently argued that the prevalence of individualistic behavior would destroy the moral integrity of American society, though this view was contested. More positively, individualism is interpreted in Beck’s (1992) theorizing on the risk society. Here, individualization indicates liberation from traditional bonds. Thus, it opens up more options from which to choose, but at the same time forces people to choose.
Methodological individualism emphasizes that sociological phenomena can only be explained by the characteristics of individuals. It was developed in opposition to methodological collectivism or holism. For example, Durkheim justified a specific sociological contribution to the examination of the human being by claiming that social phenomena can only be explained socially, and thereby proposed a holistic approach.
Today, this fundamental contradiction is rather outdated. Sociologists are much more concerned with questions of how sociocultural and sociostructural factors on the one hand and individuals, their actions or characteristics, on the other hand, are mutually linked or constitute each other. Instead of stating extreme positions, today’s research is more often engaged with how both aspects combine in social reality.
- Bellah, R. et al. (1985) Habits of the Heart: Middle America Observed. Hutchinson Education, London.
- Beck, U. (1992) Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity. Sage, Newbury Park, CA.