Self-esteem and Individualism in Britain after 1945

Lead Research Organisation: University of Glasgow
Department Name: School of Humanities


The dominant theory of individualism, developed by prominent sociologists including Zygmunt Bauman, Ulrich Beck and Anthony Giddens, refers to the way in which the question of identity is transformed from a 'given' into a 'task', and is commonly cited as a characteristic of late modernity in the Western world, a result of industrialisation and the resulting consumer society which saw the disintegration of previously existing social forms including class, social status, gender roles, and family relationships which Ulrich Beck has labelled 'zombie categories' of identification:
'sociologically alive but empirically dead'.
The idea is powerful and has potentially dramatic consequences. Giddens, for example, views the process in optimistic terms, pointing to the single black mother who is required to be as reflexive and individualised as anyone, so is 'disembedded' from traditional expectations, norms and routines - free as anyone else is to 'make' themselves. Others theorise a monolithic and apocalyptic form of individualism wherein members of Western society are ripped from communities to become 'obsessed with solitary individual fears'.
This tendency to overstate the universalistic and all-encompassing nature of individualism has been repeated in historiographical accounts of the process. In 2000 Robert Putnam tracked a downward trend in 'social capital' and civic engagement in the USA in the last third of the twentieth century, mirroring the claims of individualism theorists as he claimed that Americans had been 'overtaken by a treacherous rip current [...] pulled apart from one another and out from communities'. Putnam's account presents a rigid, monolithic and deeply negative form of individualism that
affected the USA, and presumably the Western world in its entirety.


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