Bases of Individuation in the Modern World
Helen M. Hacker Originally published 1955
Many observers of current social trends believe that the world, despite conflicts of power interests, is moving toward a cultural uniformity which they view as destructive of individual values and productive of dull mediocrity. Terms such as “mass society,” “popular culture,” and “good-think” reflect this aversion to standardization. Yet other elements in the value system to which these observers subscribe may lead in their implementation to the tendencies deplored; this essay examines some of the historical and ethical aspects of the problem of individuality in the modern world.
Modern individualism arose from the disintegration of the old ascribed status groups of blood and soil. In the continuing momentum of the Industrial Revolution, personalities formed in provincial cultures were swept away from ancestral attachments and set down in factory and office cheek-by-jowl with other personalities nourished in different but equally provincial cultures. It created jobs—created new and disestablished the old, thus breaking the occupational inheritance of father and son. Production became organized on a social and relationship basis. No longer was the family the productive unit, but the individual. But the individual did not stand alone, since his labor counted for nothing unless it was dovetailed into the work of countless other individuals in the factory division of labor. Thus, the capitalistic mode of production has a contradictory effect on the emergence of individualism. On the one hand, the employer, if he be truly rational, is interested in only those attributes of the worker which are relevant to the job he performs. Race, name, creed, or previous condition are discounted in favor of skill. And an industrial society committed to ever greater efficiency and the raising of productive levels must seek to widen the arena of effective competition. When consideration of ascribed status—family, national origin, religion, race, or sex—prevent broad groups from acquiring skills, talent is wasted and industrial efficiency limited; therefore, one strong drive present in the economic organization of industrial capitalism is toward the elimination of all minority groups.
On the other hand, there is the tendency for achieved statuses to become infused with elements of ascribed status. Occupations like plumber, stenographer, lawyer, physician, and draftsman summon up group stereotypes. The income tax return of a lawyer may be more carefully checked than that of a teacher. A clergyman may be offered a soft drink instead of a cocktail. An applicant for a job at an airplane factory may be turned down if his I.Q. is too high. Thus, personality traits are ascribed and personality development limited on the bases of achieved as well as ascribed statuses. And in the modern factory, the reverse side of the coin of neglecting the ascribed attributes of race, religion, nationality, etc., is to consider the worker only in his functional capacity, thus denying his individuality. The employer thinks in terms of the drafting gang, the section crew, and the various departments.
Although, from the point of view of the individual, being born into an ascribed status group may place brakes on his personal development, from the point of view of the larger society the presence of many subcultures, each contributing its own distinctive personality type, leads to a rich patterning of the social fabric when these distinctive personalities interact in later life. The question may therefore be raised whether the disappearance of minority groups as the breeding grounds of their unique personality types may not result in the diminution of individual differences in the larger society and the impoverishment of social life.
It is in this light that current efforts of minority group leaders to preserve their group and its way of life may be viewed. To the sociologist impressed with the levelling tendency of technological and social changes through which “folk cultures are being increasingly drawn into the vortex of world civilization” the attempts of “nationalist” leaders to resist assimilation seem futile in the long perspective. Yet must all traditional group differences be lost? The conflicts about assimilation versus cultural pluralism center around which cultural differences serve as barriers to economic, political, educational and, sometimes, social opportunities. Education for the acceptance of differences may not keep pace with the individual's desire to belong to a “higher” social group. Furthermore, the culture traits and complexes developed in a peasant, village, or household economy either lose or change their function in an industrial, secular, mobile, and heterogeneous environment. The fete for a saint in New York does not hold the same meaning for its participants as it did in the Sicilian village. The Indians who don war paint and feathers to enact a dance drive back and forth in “tin lizzies.” The first generation may cling to orthodoxy; the second enters the half-way house of compromise, adaptation, and re-interpretation; the third, unless external pressure dictates a defensive retreat, has lost all traces of “folk” consciousness. In the face, or perhaps teeth, of all the Americanizing or standardizing influences of work, recreation, and information, artificial respiration is required to keep the folk or national culture alive. The drift away is relentless. Even if minority group leaders were disposed to exact sacrifices from their members—and for the most part they protest any disfranchisement from the larger society on the grounds of minority group affiliation—they become less able to do so.
Apart from the desire of some minority group members to preserve group values which they consider precious, what reasons are there for regretting the passing of minority groups? As stated above, many observers feel that the dissolution of “national” and religious groups, with their distinctive child-rearing patterns, will destroy the matrix of individuality and individual differences. In support of this contention, they may say that the existence of many differentiated groups provides the opportunity for the person to participate in more than one culture. Participation in two groups of divergent values supplies a basis for objectivity, forces the revaluation of values, and raises the level of consciousness. In the words of Robert E. Park, progress takes place in the mind of the marginal man. For some the participation may be vicarious; they take the roles of others through the medium of books, and in this sense the intellectual and the artist are marginal men.
It may be true that some alienation (or freedom), some detachment is a prerequisite to great accomplishment. Silence, exile, and cunning constituted Joyce’s recipe for the writer. A stranger and afraid in a world one never made underlies many a work of genius. This is not to argue that the artist must be a neurotic, but in some way he must transcend ordinary experiences. Thorstein Veblen, himself a marginal man, provided an illustration of this point. Because Veblen had always expressed great praise for Jews, a Zionist magazine asked him to contribute a piece on the Jewish renaissance-to-be in Palestine. But the magazine did not print Veblen’s article. He said that although in America Jews had contributed to art, science, and literature, in the Jewish homeland they would become a nation of happy farmers and mediocrities.
In the interests of what values are like-mindedness, Gleichsaltung, kitsch, der Massemensch terms of opprobrium? Are plaids preferable to black or white or grey? Several arguments may be adduced in favor of individual differences.
The cake of custom flattens without the leavening effect of deviant personalities. Innovators are recruited from the ranks of the uncomfortable, and fructifying cultural exchange cannot take place when all trade in the same wares.
Conversely, the existence of many acceptable patterns of life holds the promise of affording congenial roles to larger numbers of the population. Both Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead have written movingly of the plight of the deviant in societies which hold strictly to one ideal personality type. The aggressive, enterprising man is hanged as a witch in Zuni; the trusting individual is a fool in Dobu; the humble, noncompetitive nobleman is an anomaly among the Kwakiutl. Such persons are bereft of human nature in their societies, but more complicated problems arise when the culture prescribes ideal personalities according to the ascribed statuses of sex, occupation or family. Violent, possessive, passionate persons, both men and women, were unadjusted among the Arapesh and normal to the Mundugumor, but only men of this description would be abnormal among the Tchambuli, where sex roles are differentiated in the opposite direction from the Western world. In our own society the businessman who is more absorbed in chess moves than in the moves of his competitors is not carrying out his status personality. The possibilities of finding a congenial role and status in a culture depends, in Linton’s phrase, upon the number of alternatives presented. Such possibilities are severely limited in a society of many universals and few alternatives. Amitoa who fought against the traditional role of Arapesh women would have been happy with the Mundugumor; whereas Kwenda, the Mundugumor woman who loved children, would have been successful as an Arapesh. The homosexual in our society is regarded as neurotic or criminal but could be a useful citizen in Zuni; those who do not seek something “worthwhile” (an American word for money) become either hoboes who are thought vicious or artists who are silly. Cultures limit the personal expression of participants by either not supplying a sufficient number of alternatives or by denying some statuses to categorical groups of people.
Communication and understanding which depend on a certain degree of like-mindedness are also highly valued as prerequisite to a well-functioning social order. The problem arises as to what degree and kind of differences can be tolerated without impairing a sense of community in a society nor threatening the values which it posits as universal. In his Ideology and Utopia Karl Mannheim has called attention to the “talking past one another” characteristic of contemporary thinkers who vainly shout over the walls of their respective universes of discourse, and has expressed the hope for a universal perspective which shall embrace all particular perspectives. The problem is to establish that minimal body of shared values which can bring unity into diversity.
From the individual’s point of view, we must agree on the differences which will not serve as barriers to the kinds of participation on which we also agree must be afforded to everyone. For example, should the wearing of a beret symbolize unfitness for college teaching? Should the desire to observe Saturday as the Sabbath bar one from unemployment benefits? Should treason to the United States prevent one from receiving a poetry prize? Food habits, details of dress, tastes in music, art or home furnishings, and religious ceremonials are areas in which many feel tolerant. But one is tolerant only about the things which do not matter very much. The hero in Green Mansions put meat-eaters beyond the pale of humanity. The high school girl whose mother enforces cotton stockings suffers untold agonies. The music critic often feels that a sour note justifies mayhem. The practitioners of what to some appears to be a harmless religious rite are regarded by others as fearful idolaters. Indeed, consensus is difficult to reach on this problem.
The question of permissible participation may also be viewed in its converse; to wit, how much individually willed non-participation can be tolerated? How much of the individual’s leisure time can society leave unorganized? How much time may we have for dreams, fantasy, and quiet meditation? What should be the proportions between responding to external and internal stimuli? Should there be a telescreen directing every thought and action? Must one always prepare a face to meet the faces one meets? Must one join spontaneous demonstrations, view parades, listen to elder statesmen, read the daily papers, vote in elections, federal, state and municipal, function in organizations devoted to worthy and practical causes? What rights of apathy may be respected? What degree of vigilance should be the price of liberty? How much social responsibility is required before one can cultivate one’s own garden with an unburdened conscience? Is a minimum amount of constant activity sufficient, or are violent swings of intensive participation and isolation preferable? What are the correct proportions between knowing and doing? These questions partake of the age-old problem of the proper relationship between the individual and the group.
How much sacrifice of certain opportunities is it fair to ask an individual to make as the price of his deviant values? Should the unappreciated artist starve in his garret or does the world owe him a living even if he refuses “socially useful” work? Or more precisely, who has the right to be an artist—those whose works sell, those judged competent by their colleagues, those approved by government officials? Should professional opportunities be curtailed because of unorthodox opinions? Are name, dress, color, or creed ever relevant to certain kinds of social participation? What degree of martyrdom or isolation must a self-respecting person be prepared to accept in defense of his non-conformity? The above is only suggestive of the unresolved questions in the problem of reconciling social cohesion with individual differentiation.
If we may grant the desirability of individual differences (although mindful of the dangers to social solidarity), what bases for them can be found in modern life, once distinctions of race, nationality, and sex have been broken down?
Every man is like all other men in certain respects; is like some other men in other respects; and is like no other man in some respects. That is, some determinants are universal; some are shared by some; and some are not shared at all. Here we are not concerned with such determinants as upright posture, three-dimensional and color vision, speech apparatus, and the uniquely human repertory of responses which are universal to all men, but with the shared-with-some and unique determinants. These latter may be found even at the biological level. Although brothers and sisters share the same gene pool, no individual, with the possible exception of identical twins, has a gene structure exactly like any other.
It is also necessary to consider biological universals as productive of individual differences. Psychologists are swinging to the view that there are certain irrefragable elements of human nature which elude central conditioning. Gardner Murphy has said that to hold to extreme cultural relativity is almost as grievous an error as to assert a constant human nature. It is customary for conservatives to stress the biological immutability of man’s nature and for progressives to emphasize the social plasticity of his character structure. Freudian revisionists like Homey and Fromm have practically emptied man of instinct and reduced the Id to a translucent thing. Then where can they find the wellspring of the spontaneity and freedom they celebrate? Ironically enough, today it becomes radical to hold to the primacy of instinctual gratification, that there are cultural molds into which human protoplasm will not fit, that outraged instincts will protest. In George Orwell’s 1984 the hero, Winston Smith, wishes desperately to believe that the power to transform the totalitarian society, which has carried the mortification of the flesh and the mortification of the spirit to a marvelous degree, lies in the “proles” who are left free to live out animal existences. Can their “orgastic potency” make a revolution? Wilhelm Reich believes that sex repression is the first and most fundamental repression—political quiescence, fear of irrational authority, mental intimidation, are all predicated upon it. Orgastically potent people, he says, will not tolerate authority nor meaningless work, but will instinctually create new forms. The Grand Inquisitor, O’Brien, disabuses Winston of this hope, and indeed the dynamics of revolution may be more readily located in conflicts between institutions than in a tension between biology and institutions. The relevance of imputing universal conative forces to man is that they form a counterpoise to cultural shaping, and the vicissitudes in their development result in individual differences of personality. The testimony of Malinowski, Mead, Benedict, Kardiner, etc., indicate that the homogeneity of personality attributed to preliterate groups by older anthropologists was greatly exaggerated and that institutional thralldom did not mark every person. Linton has said that skeptics are to be found in even the most “sacred” of societies and that swings from institutional norms may be very wide indeed. While accidents of personal upbringing undoubtedly contribute to aberrancy, the point still remains that the human material is not infinitely malleable. As George Herbert Mead put it, the “biological I” forever escapes the socialized “me."
Only the most brief consideration can be given to “idiosyncratic” determinants of personality. The biological components have already been discussed in a general way. Peculiarities of stature, physiognomy, or glandular makeup (and their social evaluation) would be included here. Then there are physical “accidents,” such as being hit by lightning, or suffering frostbite, and social “accidents,” such as the death of a parent, being adopted, or meeting particular people who serve as “influences.” (Casual social contacts not foreordained by the cultural pattern of social interrelations may be crucial.) Also to be mentioned is the position of the child in the family. Of course, the effects of “accidents” upon the individual and upon the behavior of others toward him are influenced by culture. For example, among the Mundugumor only those born with the umbilical cord around the neck can become first-rate artists, and in our culture being born with a caul indicates genius. Kardiner accounts for deviations from the basic personality structure among the Alorese in terms of family accidents.
We turn now to the group differentiations which Kluckhohn has termed role determinants. First to be noted here is the influence of caste, which we have already posited as being in the process of disintegration, at least with respect to national, racial, and religious groups and possibly even age and sex. Culturally differentiated sex roles are too familiar to require more than one example. Housekeeping and baby-tending are largely female tasks in America and male responsibilities among the Marquesans. Passing to age, growing old is a problem in the United States, but not in Australia. The discontinuities in cultural conditioning to which Benedict has called attention were prominent among the Comanche (Linton). In middle years a man was called upon to be a warrior, vigorous, self-reliant, and pushing. Ignoring slights was a sign of weakness. But an old man was expected to be wise and gentle, to give advice and settle feuds, and to overlook abuse. The transition was so difficult that many warriors preferred to be killed in action. Sometimes old men became malevolent and resorted to magic to compensate for bodily weakness. Age is so potent a factor in social expectations in the United States that one hardly knows where to begin. Recent sociological studies show that, in general, middle-class children are expected by their parents to assume responsibility earlier than lower-class children are expected to assume similar responsibilities by their parents. It is likely that middle-class children suffer more frustration of their impulses, and become, at an earlier age, orderly, conscientious, responsible, and tame persons. (This discussion, of course, overlaps the influence of class, which will be mentioned below.) Primitive children, too, are given responsibility and made to look after themselves at an earlier age, but here too there are cultural differences. The Manus people stress physical proficiency, but not social discipline. The Samoans condemn precocity, except in dances. Adolescent Sturm und Drang are unknown to the Samoans, but expected in Western societies. The problem of adolescence as a distinct age category is met in different ways. Some societies elect to prolong childhood into the teens; others push the adolescent into premature adulthood. In our complex society, says Klineberg, there is no fixed age at which certain privileges are automatically obtained—no rites de passage—and for a number of years an adolescent must fight for his independence. For example, when may a boy have a house key or take the family car; when may a girl go out unchaperoned? Kurt Lewin has likened the adolescent to a marginal man, uncertain of his status, desiring the privileges of adulthood and abjuring the obligations of childhood, unhappy in his previous age group and not fully accepted as a member of an older age group. Other aspects of the age factor can only be alluded to. Both Parsons and Lynd have stressed the accent on youth in our “youthful” country. Most Americans agree with Bernard Shaw that childhood is too precious to be wasted on children. Margaret Mead has shown how mothers compete with their adolescent daughters—a favorite theme in the movies. Preserving the appearance and attributes of youth is more important for women than for men. Many are reluctant to exchange the “glamour” for the “domestic” pattern. Despite the idealization of the youth culture by adults there is also emphasis upon achieving the responsibilities of adulthood. Particularly in the male, the “boy” or the “perennial adolescent” is in disfavor. Following the period of experimentation or wild oats or Wanderjahren (depending on the subgroup culture), the man is expected to achieve a home and a calling. In Plainville a young married couple was expected to “settle down,” rent or purchase a farm, and to raise a family. In middle-class circles it is not sufficient to be a gentleman and a scholar, an all-round humanist; one must have a specialty, a definite occupation with well-marked rungs to “success.” Old age calls for new personality patterns. In comparison with other societies, the United States isolates old people from participation in the most important social structures and interests. Largely responsible for this situation are the conjugal family, which limits the household to husband and wife and their dependent children, and our occupational structure which makes little provision for gradual retirement. One either holds a job or one does not. In Plainville retirement from social importance begins when the children are grown up. Oldsters are disregarded for the most part, but tolerated if they do not complain about their pains and aches. Gossip and whittling form their major activities. This discussion has been concerned with personality differentiation arising from cultural expectations of social roles for different age groups. But independent of culture, age acts directly on personality, though there is no clear-cut evidence as to the exact nature, timing, and influence of the physiological changes associated with changing age. Yet with reference to our problem of retaining individual differences in the wake of the passing of minority groups, age is seen to be a differentiating factor.
What other possibilities are there besides sex and age? Class comes immediately to mind. Social classes have distinctive cultures and produce distinctive personalities. Personality differentiation on a class basis derives not only from the divergent values and behavior patterns of the various classes, but also from their differential access to material goods. Although one may hope that differences in income will progressively diminish, a “classless” society in the sense of equality of prestige (and perhaps even power) seems to most culture-bound sociologists (including the writer) barely a theoretical possibility. The criteria of class membership may shift, but the factor of class would appear to be the most potent and long-run determinant of personality differentiation.
Our inquiry is primarily centered on the question of whether new group formations will yield as complex and differentiated a world as the national cultures of the past. Are the differences engendered by participation in these cultural-interest groups as rich in character as those stemming from national groups? On the negative side of this question the following points must be entered. Participation in these groups is largely voluntary and occurs later in life. Their influence, therefore, is not so irremediable and pervasive as the primary groups of family and neighborhood which delimit the child’s world. Then, too, the feeling of belongingness to clique and special interest groups is less intense than to groups into which one is born. Since there is less ego-involvement, there is less ego-modification. Also, overlapping group memberships weaken the influence of any one. Most people strive to integrate their personalities, and this is typically accomplished either by hierarchizing values, i.e., arranging group values in their order of importance, or by segmentalizing values, i.e., changing value-observance to fit the group in which one is currently acting. The latter solution of water-tight compartments is difficult to maintain, since the attributes of one role come in time to affect the “core” personality. Thus, returned servicemen sometimes found themselves using barracks language in polite drawing rooms. The sociological truism that a person has as many personalities as the groups in which he participates must be modified to allow for a dominant role.
(It may be objected that the family as the chief primary group and cultural transmitter will continue to exist, but the question then becomes: what will be the bases of family differences?) Suggestive here is the family typology given in James Bossard’s Family Situations.
If it is decided that cultural-interest groups provide an inadequate basis for individuation, are we then justified in perpetuating ascribed statuses? This is a question of aesthetic versus ethical values. The aesthetic view of life admits of inequality, suffering, and limitation in the interests of a total pattern. Like science, its lexicon does not include the words of “good” and “evil.” The artist may joy in a pair of gnarled hands, but does their possessor? Charming stories may be written of the lives of cocottes in Paris, but are they sufficient warrant for their uncharming lives? Nietzsche is the classical exponent of suffering for art’s sake. In his essay on “The Greek State” he says:
Therefore we may compare this grand Culture with a bloodstained victor, who in his triumphal procession carries the defeated along as slaves chained to his chariot, slaves whom a beneficent power has so blinded that, almost crushed by the wheels of the chariot, they nevertheless still exclaim: “Dignity of labor! Dignity of Man!”
He holds that in order to provide a broad, deep, and fruitful soil for the development of art, the enormous majority must, in the service of a minority, be slavishly subjected to life’s struggle to a greater degree than their own wants necessitate. And art is required to redeem life. In his beautiful essay, “The Birth of Tragedy,” Nietzsche speaks of the Apollonian concept which permits the spectator to transform the world of actuality in all its tragic horror into a world of appearance which he may view with god-like delight as an aesthetic phenomenon. But is the whisper of art sufficiently seductive to drown the call of justice? Here one may only allude to the old strife between Hebraism and Hellenism.
Ethics speaks for complete equality of opportunity, including freedom of knowledge. No one must be allowed to glorify his own slavery, himself as means, as tool of genius. The man who remains on the farm without seeing “Paree” is not free. Nor is he who eats prunes for breakfast, not knowing of the existence of orange juice, grapefruit, applesauce, etc. Freedom means knowledge of alternatives. And if everyone has an opportunity to become acquainted with all possible ways of life, with everything that has been thought and said, then “instinctive” or habitual adherence to any group smaller than a world society will be undermined.