Type: Creative Essays
Sample donated: Freda Steele
Last updated: September 27, 2019
A topic whichhas been evident as a central issue since the beginning of social theory hasbeen the question; “what role does an individual play within the social world?”(Ritzer, G.2007). German sociologist Ulrich Beck raised this issue again withinsociety for other sociologists to debate by creating the ‘individualisationthesis’.
Whilst there have been many sociologists and other influentialindividuals who have attempted to understand these questions, this essay willlook at the key proponents involved within the creation and adaptation of the’Individualisation thesis’ alongside Ulrich Beck who are ElisabethBeck-Gernsheim, Anthony Giddens and Zygmunt Bauman. These sociologists share a commoninterest in researching and understanding the consequences of social changes inlate modernity, where individuals are required to construct their own lives.The second part of this essay will be a range of critiques found in the secondhalf of the lectures to help evaluate the work in relation to theindividualisation thesis.We can see thatindividualisation has affected society throughout time in many ways. WithinBeck’s Interview he stated that it was evident in the “Renaissance, in thecourtly culture of the middle ages, in the inward asceticism of Protestantismthe emancipation of the peasants from feudal bondage and in the losing ofinter-generation family ties in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries” (Beck, U.& Beck-Gernsheim, E. 2002- Interview pages:202-213). Withinsocial theory the ‘individualisation thesis’ is believed to stem from thechanges within society that are associated with industrialisation.
We havewitnessed a disintegration of previous forms of structures that define anindividual’s life through preventing them from making certain decisions andchoosing their own life course. From this stemmed the ‘individualisationthesis’ which states that society has moved away and become freed from theseprevious traditional roles. Which placed a large influence on individuals lives,and have now provided society with the freedom to make their own decisions andchoose their own life plan. Key proponent Beck and fellow sociologist Giddens,through the thesis claim that outdated structure which used to once beimportant within society such as class, gender and family have now lost theirhold and power over individuals.
Beck stated that “‘standard biography’ hasbeen overtaken by the ‘do it yourself biography'” (Agnihotri, R. 2017). People havemoved away from the life course that society previously expected an individualto take and has turned to a course that they should build for themselves. Individualsare no longer witnessing their fates as being shared with other groups and areinstead defining their life as a self-steered or reflexive phenomenon. Gidden’swork on social structure and Human Agency are linked to some ideas provided bythe ‘individualisation thesis’ as it looks at answering the question “How farare we creative human actors, actively controlling the conditions of our ownlives?” (Giddens, A.1991).Since there has been a decline in power that previous norms and structures holdover an individual race, class and gender are now argued to be less importantand have no influence over an individual’s life and their life choices. Theconcept of ‘Postfeminism’ uses some ideas as the ‘Individualisation Thesis’ tospeak to women in a similar way.
This concept shows that women are free tochoose a self/ identity themselves in an attempt to further their ownwellbeing, instead of making the decision based on trying to further thewellbeing of women or society in general. In the 19th Century womenas a whole scarcely had any opportunities or resources to shape their ownlives, especially those who belong to the ‘lower classes’. (Agnihotri, R. 2017) For thesewomen the material constraints were so severe that all their energies andefforts were placed into the task of daily survival for them. Alongside thebourgeoises it was the structures and the new model of these women’s roleswhich confined them to their home due to the expectations that were placed onthem by society which excluded women from most developments to help shape theirlives. Whereas today whilst some women still feel like they face obstacles andrestrictions that results in them being unable to have control over their lifeand destiny, women as a whole have been given more freedom and access tomaterials which provides them with the opportunities and power to take theirlife into their own hands. (Agnihotri, R.
2017)Individualisationtoday, has a grip on most generations, however is ‘most pervasive toindividuals who were born after 1970’. It is thought that the younger a personis, the more individualised they have become as in society. The youth are bornand raised within a society, social space and home where they are raised tobelieve that it is accepted and okay to think for themselves. Individualisationhas gone from being “an elitist phenomenon to being a mass phenomenon” (SlideShare,2011). The importance thatIndividualisation has on today’s society is due to several factors such as;”‘the growth of economic independence’, reflection becoming the rule – ratherthan the exception’, ‘the creation of our own identities’, ‘and choicesbecoming basic condition'”. (SlideShare, 2011).
A key idea of the ‘individualisation thesis’, is based on the notion that theprimacy of the rights an individual has, is dependent on ensuring a modicum ofsocial equality within society. In result this would create a greater sense ofsecurity amongst the population, with the notion that individualisation for allhas become both desirable and possible for individuals to achieve. (Alastair Hudson, 2018)Whilst sometheorists work towards the individualisation thesis shines a positive view onthe thesis, others have a counter view on the work of the individualisationthesis. Theorist Zygmunt Bauman is thought to provide the best summary of acounter view as within his work he states that “the other side ofindividualisation seems to be the corrosion and slow disintegration ofcitizenship” (Alastair Hudson, 2018).Bauman’s main concern with the thesis is that he believes it causes a’weakening of the ethical self’ which sociologists such as Beck require, todrive the altruistic connection which Beck hopes will be a result of anindividualised society.
Sociologist Beck and Beck-Gernsheim together published a book onindividualisation which identified issues such as ‘the progression of normsbeyond traditional social myths’, the ‘continuing power and influence of zombiecategories of social ideology’, ‘changing demographics in family structures’and many other issues. Beck-Gernsheim suggests in the book that there needs tobe a distinction made between the idea of the free-market individuals and theconcept of individualisation. (Beck, U.
Beck-Gernsheim, E. 2001). Criticisms of theIndividualisation ThesisWhilst manypeople agree with the notion that society has now moved away from predeterminedlife plans for individuals based on previous norms and structures that wereinfluential at the time, other influential people/ theorist’s work and opinionsprovide criticisms to the ‘individualisation thesis’ that goes against the previouspoints mentioned.When looking atthe concept of social class within society, whilst the individualisation thesisstates that institutions such as class has broken down and become lessinfluential on an individual’s life, Marxist sociologists have a differentview. Through their work and ideas Marxist theorists would argue thatcapitalist societies, despite the changes that are presumed to have been madewithin society, shows the “differences between groups of individuals that areseen to occupy the bottom, middle and top” (Beck, U. & Beck-Gernsheim, E. 2002- Interviewpages:202-213) sections within society haven’t really changed. Thesetheorist’s go on to argue that this provides evidence that society is stillliving under the influence and structure of social class which remains the “dynamicof modern capitalism” (Beck, U.
& Beck-Gernsheim, E. 2002- Interviewpages:202-213). It can also be made apparent that these institutionssuch as social class are still relevant within today’s society as people arestill finding the way they are perceived, to other people as an obstacle.
Throughout their life individuals are always scrutinized by people who believethey are of a higher value in society for their appearance and characteristicsand due to this these individuals focus on making sure their appearance andother factors such as a career/materialistic ownership either portrays theirclass if they are comfortable with their identity or ensure that these factorsportray a higher class then what they are from (McRobbie, 2004: 100). Class can also be seen as an influentialfactor in an individual’s life in today’s society, when looking at Bourdieu’swork on parental involvement and influence over their children, in relation toemotional capital. It is thought that class differences play a large section indetermining whether mothers could redirect their emotional involvement, intocreating academic profits for their children, through providing access tocertain resources that other mothers, from a lower social class find itdifficult to gain access to.
Some working-class mothers find it difficult toteach and assist their children through their development due to not beinghappy and accepting of their own milestones such as education. Whilst thesemothers are emotionally involved in their child’s education, they lack therequisite social, psychological and cultural resources to provide theirchildren with emotional capital which other classes are able to do (Diane, R. (2000). Both the works provided byMarxist theorists and Bourdieu, whilst providing a different idea of socialclass, they both agree that the institution of social class is still relevantin today’s society which can be seen when looking at an individual’s life.
Theyalso both believe that they provide obstacles for individuals who are unable togain access to certain resources that other people from a higher class are ableto do. This goes against the idea provided by the Individualisation thesis thatthese institutions have broken down and have had their power of influence takenaway. The works ofpost feminism and neoliberalism are linked with the work of theindividualisation thesis and together provide the notion that individuals havemore freedom than they previously had which was a result of the structures theyhad to follow in living their life to benefit themselves instead of a group,however where this seems to be beneficial for the individual and society whenlooking at the concept of ‘Disarticulation’ this is not the case. The causesand needs of individuals which are similar to one another are now being ignoredand downplayed which makes it come across that there are no longer aim’s andconcerns shared between them and as a result of this the alliances betweendifferent subordinated groups, especially groups of women are beingdisarticulated causing them to become disempowered (Mcrobbie, A 2009). Whist the individualisation thesis states thatthey now have more freedom and power to choose their own life course, whenlooking closer at society individuals may not have as much freedom as theybelieve which can be seen through the concept of disarticulation.One of the mainfocal points of the individualisation thesis is the idea that previousinstitutions that once restricted an individual from choosing their own path insociety, such as class, gender, race and so forth, have broken down and holdless to almost no power on their life. However according to Ulrich Beck and hiswork on ‘Zombie categories’, this may not be the case.
Beck believed that dueto the thesis individuals and society are now living with a lot of ‘ZombieCategories’ which are also known as ‘living dead’ categories. These ‘ZombieCategories’ govern our way of thinking but are not still able to capture thecontemporary milieu. (Beck 2011: 262).Despite the challenges and ideas that these institutions no longer have anyinfluence over an individual’s life, there is still a familiar stigma that isattached to the idea of these institutions such as class. It is believed thatclass has been re-materialised due to the conditions of late modernity. A goodexample of a ‘zombie category’, that shows how these institutions are breakingdown, is the institution of family; in the sense of how much power they holdover an individual. Previously in society it was apparent what a household andfamily should consist of, and what each member of the family role was inensuring the smooth function of family life.
However, the core of family lifeis beginning to disintegrate under conditions such as divorce. Families today arenow made up of different constellations of relationships. This is due toindividuals now having freedom to remove themselves from previous structuressuch as marriage through divorce and as a result of this families are now beingmultiplied in numbers.
(Beck, U. & Beck-Gernsheim, E. 2002- Interviewpages:202-213 Families can now consist of same sex couples, adopted/foster parents, single parent families and many more however whilst anindividual has more control over choosing members to be involved in theirfamily. The family structure that an individual has can still have some senseof influence over their life and life choices whilst also providing someobstacles throughout their journey.Despite an individual having the freedom to choose the members of their family,without realising, many still strive to have a sense of a traditional familystructure.
Whilst families can have a number of grandparents, step parents,children, siblings through different mediums such as divorce, adoption, samesex couples, people still strive for a traditional family consisting of twoparents, children which can be achieved through fostering/ adoption instead ofthe traditionalized form of reproduction and grandparents. Ulrich Beck statesthat ‘a family is determined by an individual’s decisions and choices as theymust choose who their main parents are and who they choose to be their maingrandparents’ (Beck, U. & Beck-Gernsheim, E. 2002- Interview pages:202-213).
This shows that despite people having the freedom to decide how they wanttheir family to be constructed, people are still controlled by the traditionalsense of a family, and how their family is perceived within society. Whilst theidea provided by the thesis states that we have more freedom as a society whichis supported by the ideas mentioned, when looking at the institution of familyin relation to zombie categories this provides us with the notion that theindividual’s decisions whilst being made with the notion of freedom, actuallyhave an underlying influence from the previous structures and institutions webelieved as a society we had moved away from.Overall from thisessay I have concluded that when looking at the work and creation of theindividualisation thesis, the theorists and key proponents involved with itswork, Ulrich Beck,Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim, Anthony Giddens and Zygmunt Bauman allprovide different views and different opinions as to whether the thesisbenefits society or not. Whilst as a whole the individualisation thesis showsthat society has moved away from influential factors such as institutions that causesobstacles and influences an individual’s life and the choices they make, it hasalso been made apparent when looking at the works and opinions provided by thesociologists that individuals within today’s society may not have the amount offreedom to make their own choice the thesis originally stated.