Life in an individualised society is not an easy and enjoyabe one if you do not have access to the resources. A concept at the foundation of the individualisation thesis is the de-traditionalisation of society. De-traditionalisation has seen old-fashioned ideas around communities, families and the way that norms and values are passed down from one generation to the next become fragmented and displaced.
However, the question of whether humans have really and truly transcended traditions remains uncertain. Do they still matter in terms of decisions made to an individuals life? It could be argued that en mass, people have replaced old externally-structured traditions such as organised religion in favour of internalised personal growth and development. It appears as though society has become everincreasingly future oriented and looking back to past traditions in reference of how to act in the present has become of less importance; instead, meaning is placed upon the individuals’ own personal life and experiences. While some may argue that detraditionalisation is detrimental to society, I believe this creates, new and diverse family forms and norms, some of which previously unaccepted by general society, for example, same-sex parents and marriage. De-traditionalisation allows for women and men to be released from the rigid, traditionally ascribed roles of society and become more freely able to live their lives according to their own morals and standards, rather than being judged or mistreated for openly expressing who they are. According to some scholars such as Jayne Baker (2010), race, class and gender are argued to now hold considerably less significance than in previous years. This weakening of structures and traditions is said to have lead to factors such as gender and race to be seen as so called “zombie catagories” (Beck, 2011).
These are catagories which govern our thinking, but are unable to properly capture the times we live in. For instance, we are aware of gender, however this is generally not nearly as important in our lives as it once was; today, women and men, by enlarge, are not expected to live stereotypically gendered lives. On the other hand, sociologist Rosalind Gill (2007), argues the opposite – that gender is important, and that essentially, we still live in a society whereby a persons gender decides their social standing, opportunity and what is expected from them.A significant factor to consider in order to understand the individualisation thesis is the industrial revolution. Beginning in the UK, this was the period of time from around the 1760’s to the 1840’s which saw the production of hand made goods decline with an increase in the use of steam power and machinery and the rise of the factory system. Before the industrial revolution, people lived in small rural communities, which were heavily centred around farming. Contrast this with the process of de-industrialisation that we can see today, which has seen vast amounts of people moving away from factory work, shifting from an industrial based working society, towards a working culture which is extremely technologically based. Some may argue that we are moving towards a society in which work is no longer thought about as being the central value in our social world, rather life is becoming more structured towards leisure-based activities as work is increasingly done for us by robots and artificial intelligence.
Of course, for less privilaged members of society, the other side of the debate does not seem like a eutopian, leisure based life; on the contary, less work caused by the sudden shift from manual labour to machinery will put certain vulnerable members of society in precarious risky positions, as Casey (2017), investigated and found a relationship between the rise in technology and the rise in unemployment. “Individualisation as ideology can thus be thought to disempower those whose lives are more at the mercy of structural constraints than others” (Brannen and Nielsen, 2005: 424).An integral cog in the workings of individualisation is Neo-liberalism. This is the social change which saw the development and expansion of the free market, along with the rolling back of the state which first took place in the 1980’s under heads of state Margaret Thatcher (UK) and Ronald Raegan (USA). The idea tends to be based upon individualism, with the individual having more choices, freedom and a new sense of responsibility for their own actions, as opposed to being reliant upon the State. Sociologist Michel Foucault (1991), argues that even though the State has retreated and appears to have taken a step back from our lives, this does not necessarily mean that it is not still important for who we are as people.
Rather, neo-liberalism produces different types of citizens and so it is not that we are necessarily free with more choices, but that power is operating in a different way. The traditional way to think about power is in terms of repression or violence, however Foucault suggests that the most important kind of power in our modern societies does not repress at all, instead, it works in more indirect, subtle ways. This kind of power is what Foucault calls “normalising power”. This type of power is ever-present, and causes people to self-police their behaviour because of the construction of an idealized norm of conduct.
However, he was not entirely critical of power structures, recognising that it can be a productive and necessary force in society: “We must cease once and for all to describe the effects of power in negative terms: it ‘excludes’, it ‘represses’, it ‘censors’, it ‘abstracts’, it ‘masks’, it ‘conceals’. In fact power produces; it produces reality; it produces domains of objects and rituals of truth. The individual and the knowledge that may be gained of him belong to this production” (Foucault 1991: 194). In “Foucault and Feminism”, Shane Phelan (1990), argues that Foucault helped to open up a dialog around the notion that there is not just one single kind of power operating within society.
Postfeminist sensibility, is intimately connected to neoliberalism, given that it shares a focus on individualism, choice and autonomy and deflects notions of social and political forces constraining individuals. Postfeminism is a type of feminism which tends to benefit from, rather than building on the advances of 19th century 1st wave feminism (which focused on government mandated inequalities, predominantly on gaining women’s right to vote), and 1960’s 2nd wave feminism (which concentrated on every area of women’s experience including family, sexuality and work). Postfeminism tends to speak to women through a reassursion of traditional values, especially feminity, emphasising individual power and personal responsibility, with a focus on earning and consumer power. Also believing that sexualisation generates power, postfeminism is an example women “doing it for themselves”, rather than looking at the broader causes of 1st and 2nd wave feminism. However, sociologist Jayne Baker (2010), argues that the dialogue of such an extremely individuated new femininity leaves little room for questions around gender inequality or to express experiences of women’s struggle and disadvantage. Self actualisation (Maslow, 1943), represents growth of a person towards achievement of the highest needs.
It suggests that every individual has levels of need, and the lower, fundamental needs, are required to be met before the higher needs. For instance, food and sleep must be attained before one can achieve the following level of self-esteem and self-respect. This theory may provide motivation for individuals to move from basic needs, providing a clear plan for personal growth, however, it fails to address why some individuals prefer to ignore lesser needs in search of higher ones for example, chosing to miss paying rent in order to go on holiday. This may be explained by the sudden change to human culture through the explosion of mass consumerism. There has been a shift since the expansion of capitalism, towards a more consumer based culture, whereby life has moved from a productivist one, into one that is based heavily in consumption.
It appears that now, our identities are formed through consumption, rather than through production in the workplace and social class. Through consumerism we decorate ourselves with items in order to express our personal brand and individuality. Through personal choices around appearance and how we act, our job, car and house all become part of a persons identity, which is why it must all be selected carefully. There is an argument here that while individualisation may have displaced tradition, heritage and religion, this has allowed for out-dated practices and norms to become eroded in fundamental ways. It may be argued that what is more important for a meaningful life is that we make our own choices, take the consequences, create our own identity and are no longer dictated to about how we should behave by structural organisations such as the church. The individualisation thesis, and the aforementioned factors that are embedded within the individualised society that we now live and experience today, are contentious issues amongst scholars.
Some argue that neoliberal sentiments benefit community development (Cheshire & Lawrence, 2005), while others argue that consumption, contrary to what we are led to believe, does not account for higher levels of subjective wellbeing (Ahuvia, 2002). Proponents of the individualisation thesis, such as Giddens and Beck, while they are not neo-liberal thinkers per se, are complicit with the neo-liberalism ideal. Research by Lazzarato (2009) shows that the aim of neoliberal politics is the restoration of the power of capital to regulate the distribution of wealth and to establish the idea as the prevailing form. In my opinion this is dangerous, seeing as the neoliberal economic ideology has been shown to be creating major social inequalities (Navarro, 2007).Veenhoven, (1999), found a clear positive relationship, whereby the more individualized the nation, the more citizens enjoy their life. This suggests that the benefits of individualization are greater than its costs, and could be argued through an evolutionary lens, that this is the inevitable and natural path for humans to take. While some may argue that the transition into individualisation is detremental to human survival, it is clear to see that humans remain social creatures. This can be evidenced by observing the fact that modern communities are still growing and flourishing, which suggests that it is possible for an individualised way of life to coexist within modern society.
Gone are the days where the majority of people follow blindly, some organised religion; as Voas & Crockett (2005), showed in their study, the decline in religious beliefs of British people. It could be argued that we are reaching a new stage of enlightenment, turning evermore inward for a life filled with personal growth and spirituality.