Individualism in Culture and Psychology

Individualism is central to the folk psychologies and moral visions of many western high-income societies. The ideology of individualism holds the self as separate from others, society, culture, and nature. That is, although individuals are in dynamic interaction—like atoms or billiard balls—they are taken to be fundamentally independent (Bishop, 2007). Many feminist thinkers have found fault with individualism as a cultural ethos. For example, socialist feminist thinkers promoted ideals of collectivism, com- munitarianism, and group solidarity over individualism. Other feminists have argued that the ideology of individualism is class-bound (e.g., Fox- Genovese, 1991). Coming from a different vantage point, cultural feminists of the 1980s saw self-contained individualism as inimical to women. They extolled what they saw as women’s intrinsic propensity for connection, interdependence, and care of others (e.g., Miller, 1976). Other feminists criticized these ideas of womanly ways of being for their essentialism and their failure to acknowledge diversity among women (Hare-Mustin & Marecek, 1988). Nonetheless, the ideas remained popular among a broad swathe of women for several years, at least in the USA.

The psychologies of western high-income countries—especially the USA— are permeated by the ideology of individualism, as many critical psychologists have observed (Christopher, Wendt, Marecek, & Goodman, 2014; Cushman, 1995; Morawski & Bayer, 2013; Sampson, 1977). For example, psychological theories of human development equate maturity with being self-defining, that is, capable of rising above cultural constraints and freely choosing who one will be. Theories of development often describe adolescents’ rebellion against their parents as a necessary step towards adulthood. Even though such “breaking away” from the family does not occur in many cultures, it is portrayed as a natural and universal step to adulthood. Furthermore, psychologists’ definitions of optimal mental health often include such elements as autonomy, independence, and nonconformity (“marching to the beat of one’s own drum”).

Some feminist psychologists have criticized the notion of the individual as solitary, bounded, and self-contained. For example, Hare-Mustin and Marecek (1986) argued that ideals of mental health such as autonomy and independence rest on the privileges conferred on high-status men. Such men’s apparent independence and self-sufficiency often depends on the invisible labour of subordinated others, such as secretaries and wives. Thus, the “autonomy” is largely illusory. Other feminists have argued that goals of child development construct a solitary, self-controlled, and autonomous individual (Miller & Scholnick, 2015). Miller and Scholnick pointed to children’s executive function (or cognitive self-control), a topic that currently commands much attention among developmental psychologists. Miller and Scholnick argued that theorizing about executive function “places the competitive corporate model in the brain” (2015, p. 271). Yet other feminist psychologists have criticized technologies of change that promote self-improvement and self-actualization to the exclusion of social change (Becker, 2014). Psychotherapy is the prime example, but social psychologists have devised several such technologies as well. Consider the numerous self-help books and apps that purport to offer scientific methods to improve one’s happiness, love relationships, optimism, stress management, and the like (Becker & Marecek, 2008).

In what follows, we examine how the individual-centred model of the person has shaped theory and research in psychology. First, we explore the individualist construal of the person and the focus on static interests, capabilities, and desires that are supposedly rooted “inside” the person. Then, we examine the way that the “social” is configured in large parts of social psychology, noting how limited and sterile that configuration often is.

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