Fr. Individualisme


® Actor, state, universalism, cosmopolitanism

Individualism (Berting 2006, 151ff.) is a way of thinking and acting that considers the rational individual as the primary source of human behaviour. Empirical observations and logical deduction are necessary to test the traditional and religious ways of thinking. In our time, the Enlightenment as the source of this individualism is receding and several new types of individualism come to the fore, such as the instrumental market-oriented individualism, hyper egoistic types of behaviour, types of individualism enclosed in virtual worlds, individualism that rejects all rules imposed by political and economic authorities, etc.

Individualism must not be confounded with individualisation

Individualisation is the gradual fading away of the institutions of society in which most persons were embedded during specific periods of their life: living quarters, life-long employment in an economic organisation, or long-lasting memberships of certain associations. Individualisation means that the members of society are increasingly liberated from their original social environment and that they can organise their way of life according to their own ideas. This trend does not necessarily imply that most persons become        increasingly individualistic. In several cases persons reject this way of life and opt sometimes for extreme collectivistic opportunities. This collectivism may be a continuation of traditional types of collectivism, or it may be a choice for new types of collectivism.

Collectivism and individualism are concepts which are narrowly tied. In spite of this they are mostly used in political discussions as oppositions that exclude each other. When we look a bit more attentively around us, we discover that social life contains different types of collectivism and individualism. And most types of collectivism and individualism do not exclude the other side. On the contrary, they are to a certain degree dependent on each other.

Seven different types of individualism

We will now look at the different types of individualism that we can observe in our society today. Let us begin with the different types of individualism.[1]

1. Substantial-rational (critical) individualism can be observed in many domains in our society (e.g. in research, the organization of production processes, and also in many individual actions), but it is accompanied by several other types of individualism and collectivism (see: collectivism).

2. Instrumental market-oriented individualism

Instrumental market-oriented individualism must not be confounded with the preceding type of individualism. Market-oriented individualism is a rather restricted type of individualism. The market-oriented individualist is a person who enters into exchange relations on the basis of an assumed perfect knowledge of the market. Imperfections of the market-mechanism are in this view related to traditional constraints and by types of policies which tend to continue those imperfections.

3. Achievement-oriented individualism

Achievement-oriented individualism is in some respects related to the preceding type of individualism. In contradistinction to this, however, achievement-oriented individualism is not connected with exchange relations in an open market, but with professional careers in (large) organizations.

4. The revolt against formal rules: populist individualism

Achievement-oriented individualism necessitates the compliance of the persons concerned with the rules of the organization in which they are working. Their opportunities for advancement depend also on their conformity to the rules of the organization. Modernization as a process of rationalization is necessarily connected with the dominance of legal-rational leadership. But those persons, who are subjected to the rules of this leadership, issued in the name of this system-rationality, do not always understand the meaning of those rules and the changes of these rules within their own context. People can easily become alienated in these situations, both as workers and small entrepreneurs, as clients of bureaucracies and as voters.

5. Immoderate assertive egoistic individualism

The tension between formal rules of rational systems and the (partial) rejection of them by certain persons can be observed in their sometimes exaggeratedly assertive and egoistic types of behaviour. Employees of public services, such as health services, education, or police-services are increasingly confronted with aggressive behaviour of individuals, who want to be served immediately because they have the ‘right’ to it. Their slogan is: ‘Me first’. Such egoistic assertive persons are likely to join populist protest movements when these arise in political life. This trend is certainly related to the individualisation of social life, a process that may release person from the (traditional) bond without having acquired a form of individualism that enables them to cope with a social environment in a positive way.

6. Personal identity individualism

   Many persons in who live an individualized, disenchanted and rational environment feel alienated and disoriented. They try to overcome the rift between reason and sentiment by a search for their ‘essential’ identity, an identity that is not imposed on them by an institution and less so by fundamentalist collectivist conceptions. The persons concerned fly from a world dominated by rules and control. Theirs is a search for the ‘real’ meaning of their life as individuals.

7. The flight into virtual worlds

The flight into virtual worlds is an option that is not only restricted to leisure activities, because also ‘real’ jobs can become touched by the virtual worlds of information technology. However, this is until now only the case in a limited number of professional activities, especially in architecture and in artistic professions.

   Such a flight was already a possibility before the coming of information technology individuals could withdraw into the virtual worlds of the cinema and literature. This is a valid observation, but especially for the younger generations the withdrawal into the interactive worlds of cyberspace in which no, or only a few, basic rules, are imposed is much more rewarding than what non-interactive virtual worlds offer.