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We Are Unique

Sample Paper 1 By Jennifer Headley-Osawa Spring 2012

As Americans we heavily value our individuality among our peers. I have for most of my life felt quite pleased at being one in a million, but a recent class discussion points out that maybe I am really one among a million. How can such a seemingly personal idea apply to an entire society? This is exactly what I hope to explore and clarify.

In efforts to figure this out, I came across an article from the Candian Journal of Sociology; "The Origins of American Individualism: Reconsidering the Historical Evidence" by Edward Grabb, Douglass Baer, and James Curtis. In this article the authors challenge the historical evidence that S.M. Lipset sites in order to demonstrate that modern American concepts of individualism came about during the American Revolutionary War era. Through the course of reading this article I felt that I gained an understanding of Individuality as a societal value instead of a personal trait, while also gaining the opportunity to see some of the social theories at work.

Henslin (2011) notes that in developing conflict theory, "He (Marx) concluded that the key to human history is class conflict."(p18). Conflict theory seems an obvious choice in application to the American Revolution, where conflict between British government and loyalists (the bourgeoisie) and the American colonists (the proletariat) led to uprising and war. It seems logical that this kind of social climate could develop in the people a "... belief that the individual should generally be free from collectivist or communitarian constraints..." this is essentially what Lipset thought. Grabb, Baer and Curtis (1999) point out that the error in Lipset's evidence is that he only takes into consideration the ideas of the revolutionary leaders which very well may not have reflected those of the general population.

The errors that Lipset made does not change that generation after generation of our society has been taught about the American Revolution and every year celebrates independence day. I imagine that these among other things support independence as a valued symbol in American society. While independence and individualism are different the idea of independence closely ties to individualism in modern society, as seen in the following definition "Individualism: the principle or habit of or belief in independent though or action." These things considered it seems reasonable that American society may have internalized the concept that conflict opens opportunity to individualistic ideals. Based on this it is easy to favor conflict theory when thinking about the behavior of American Society.

After secondary analysis of more recent historical research, Grabb, Baer and Curtis (1999) point out that the general population of the revolutionary era were primarily rural settlers living in small isolated agricultural communities where "...neither unconditional personal freedom, nor strong commitment to a wider national polity, was widely encouraged..." and the churches at the centers of these communities tended to be rather intolerant of individual freedom. The article also states that despite discouragement of individualistic ideals "... the analysis of written sources suggests there was a widely accepted belief that the community itself should be autonomous..." and people "...harbored a marked distrust of elites situated outside their communities..." Understandable considering the revolution still fresh in social memory.

In light of the more recent historical research noted, I can see how both conflict theory and functional analysis could help in trying to understand. The understanding that the general population was spread among small rural communities all wanting autonomy from each other seems to fit well with the concepts of conflict theory. While functional analysis helps us understand how communities began to come together as states began to specialize in their functions, thus further developing society. The structure of American society at this point consisted of a new government (functioning to govern the people) with states of rural land. As the states began to develop and specialize in their functions (cotton production, manufacturing, food production) they were each able to do their part and support each other's functions in harmony. A possible manifest function would be the use of slave labor. When tension rose over state's rights and social locations with strong views over slavery confronted, conflict pursued (latent dysfunction). The occurrence's that developed through slave labor and states' rights also fit nicely into conflict theory.

Grabb, Baer and Curtis (1999) feel that American individualistic ideals were longer in developing than Lipset thought. The article sites the US Census Historical tables as an indication of the "massive influx" of immigrants coming to America "...who were a major force in the western expansion, who greatly enhanced the religious and cultural diversity of the society, and whose search for a prosperous life in their adopted country underscored both the image and the reality of the United States as a land of individual freedom, opportunity, and achievement...". The other event the Grabb, Baer and Curtis (1999) article credits our societies modern view of individualism to is the Civil War and formal abolition of slavery, of which he notes "enabled the American people to embrace with somewhat greater conviction their cherished beliefs about individual liberty and freedom of choice for all."

Symbolic Interactionism describes the growth of American individualism through how the meaning of the symbols of independence, freedom and individual, have changed over time. For example, during the American Revolution, independence and social freedom from British rule was the forefront of thought. Freedom of the individual was likely not even considered. Grabb, Baer and Curtis (1999) note the churches at the center of each community discouraged self-autonomy as a sin, instead encouraging selfless service, although "...a shift to moderate individualism after the civil war..." is also recognized. Maybe in part from the large number of individuals displaced due to war and newly freed slaves mixed with a lack of social integration and trying to start over again.

In conclusion I feel I have a better understanding of how the three different theories we have been studying can overlap and work together to help describe how different ideas and events influence and guide society. In the case of individualism I now realize that sociology can study the possible reasons that a value can become so ingrained in a society, but the study is about the shaping and transformation of the society not the individual within the society.

Henslin (2011). Down to Earth Sociology Customized. The Intersections Collection: Pearson Custom Sociology, Portland Community College, Sociology 204 and 205, 1-34.

Grabb, E., Baer, D., & Curtis, J. (1999). The Origins of American Individualism: Reconsidering the Historical Evidence. Canadian Journal of Sociology 24, 4(1999):511-533. www.cjsonline.ca/articles/grabb.html

Dictionary.com. HYPERLINK http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/individualism?s=t