HABITS OF THE HEART: Individualism and Commitment in American Life by Robert N. & Others Bellah

HABITS OF THE HEART: Individualism and Commitment in American Life

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Inspired by Tocqueville, sociologist Bellah and four other well-known academics (Richard Madsen, William Sullivan, Ann Swindler, Stephen M. Tipton) have set themselves ""to think about the kinds of moral problems we are currently facing as Americans"" and, more pointedly, ""to find a moral language that will transcend . . . radical individualism."" Their joint findings, based on four separate research projects, have not only a homogenized feel but the reassuring quality of old-time sociology. They resort to type-creating (the Independent Citizen, the Entrepreneur, the Manager, the Therapist) and, in their analysis, rely heavily on work already done--from Tocqueville's original contributions on the tension between individualism and community to those of Christopher Lasch (Haven in a Heartless World) and Richard Sennett (The Uses of Disorder). It's no big surprise, then, to hear that when people ""are limited to a language of radical individual autonomy . . . they cannot think about themselves or others except as arbitrary centers of volition."" A similar impoverishment occurs, expectably, when such individualists marry. Somewhat more effectively examined is the rise of the therapeutic in relation to friendship--which the authors see being modeled on ""the purely contractual structure of the economic and bureaucratic world."" They reflect on the difference between contracts and commitments, with parties to contracts remaining ""free to choose, and thus free to remake or break every commitment, if only they are willing to pay the price."" Weak public commitments, in turn, are related to our conflicting images of the public good (establishment vs. populism, neocapitalism vs. welfare liberalism, the administered society vs. economic democracy); the central political problem is seen as the reduction of the ""private citizen"" to the ""economic man."" The solution? To overcome the ""poverty of affluence""; and in so doing, to reconstitute the social world. ""It would be well for us to rejoin the human race. . . and to share our material wealth with those in need."" An extended sociological homily, not terribly original at that. See rather Michael Ignatieff's reflective and absorbing The Needs of Strangers (p. 1136).

Pub Date: March 1st, 1984
ISBN: 0520254198
Publisher: Univ. of California Press