Individualization and Social Ties

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The individualization process has emancipated humans from the web

of mutual dependencies existing within the traditional community. The

individual has been freed from the ascribed, inherited, and inborn determination

of his or her social standing, which is now ruled by selfdetermination.

Choice and change of identities have replaced the former

determination. Growing autonomy and freedom have resulted from the

individualization process, but there is another aspect aswell. In thewords

of the indefatigable commentator of postmodernity, Zygmunt Bauman,

“the other side of individualization seems to be the corrosion and slow

disintegration of citizenship” (2001: 49; see also 1997, 1998). Individuals

tend to be skeptical of the common good or the “good society,” and

individual troubles do not easily add up to a common cause anymore.

In Bauman’s view modern individuals are increasingly selfish, cynical,

and indifferent to long-term life projects. He perceives signs of an overwhelming

feeling of disorientation and loss of control over the present

world, resulting in a fading of political determination and a disbelief

in the effectivity of collective or solidary action. In Western Europe one

can indeed observe an increasing dissatisfactionwith thewelfare state and

politics as such. The institutions of thewelfare state are the object of growing

resentment. The traditional efforts of the welfare state – providing

support to those who, for whatever reason, are not able to support themselves

– are sensed as “normal,” and the millions of people who, thanks

to these provisions, are able to live a decent life are not heard about.

As welfare has transformed into being a right instead of a favor, people

seem to have lost their interest in the welfare state. At the same time

in many countries a substantial resentment about the political inefficacy

can be observed; in the Netherlands the main concerns are health

care, education, and public transport. This resentment, however, is not

an exclusively Dutch phenomenon but is broadly felt in other Western

European countries as well (Misztal 2001).

Various commentators have pointed to a decline of people’s involvement

in long-termcommitments, whether in work or with other people.

Social bonds and partnerships would be increasingly regarded as things

to be consumed, not produced. Bauman, for instance, observes rather

gloomily that the human bond “is not something to be worked out

through protracted effort and occasional sacrifice, but something which

one expects to bring satisfaction right away, something that one rejects

if it does not do that and keeps and uses only as long as (and no longer

than) it continues to gratify” (Bauman 2001: 157).

In the same vein Beck (1986) argues that in our individualized society

contemporary social relations are subject to high risk and are therefore

facing high levels of uncertainty. The nuclear family as the last form of

synthesis between generations and genders has disintegrated, and individuals

have become increasingly burdened with the responsibility for

their own fate. The individualization process has resulted in a growing

confusion over the stability and duration of marriage. The result for the

individualized citizens is that their life patterns and careers are increasingly


Another cultural critic, Richard Sennett, describes in his book The

Corrosion of Character (1998) how radical changes in the way work is

organized have influenced the individual’s sense of identity and experience

of self. Whereas in the past the world of work was hierarchical and

rigid, nowadays it has become less embedded in hierarchical relations and

more flexible.Whereas the formerwork ethic asserted the self-disciplined

use of one’s time and the value of delayed gratification, the contemporary

organization of work requires short-termteamwork, adaptability to

circumstances, and risk taking. As a consequence contemporary citizen’s

ability to develop a sense of sustained purpose and longer-termcommitments

would be threatened. In Sennett’s view the new economic order

and the way work is organized are undermining interdependency – one

of the main conditions for the coming into being of social bonds. The

organizational structure of large-scale institutions obliterates themutual

dependency and reciprocity among those involved. The anonymity and

bureaucracy of these organizations diminish the sense of mattering as a

person,whereas it is only in direct interactionwith others that people can

feel they are needed. Feeling superfluous may lead to a lack of responsiveness

and mutual trust and is thereby a potential threat to solidarity,

according to Sennett.

The picture arising from the views of these cultural critics – fromboth

the United States and Europe – is that in the new society feelings of being

rooted to a certain place or of being bound together by collective interests

have diminished and, in many cases, even got lost. People’s capacity to

initiate relations of trust have decreased, whereas at the same time trust

is seen as an important condition for solidarity (Misztal 1996; Putnam

2000).Within organizations themutual dependency between individuals

has diminished. Institutions that formerlywere capable of binding people

together, such as the family, the neighborhood, religion, or the nationstate

are in decline (Turner and Rojek 2001). Social ties have lost their

predictability and have become more transitory.