Saturday, October 24, 2009

SOCIETY AND INDIVIDUALISM

"One man's ceiling is another man's floor."


SOCIETY

Society or human society is the manner or condition in which the members of a community live together for their mutual benefit. By extension, society denotes the people of a region or country, sometimes even the world, taken as a whole.
The word society emerged in the 16th century, derived from the French société which stemmed from the Latin societas, a "friendly association with others," from socius meaning "companion, associate, comrade or business partner." The Latin word is probably related to the verb sequi, "to follow", and thus originally may have meant "follower".
Used in the sense of an association, a society is a body of individuals outlined by the bounds of functional interdependence, possibly comprising characteristics such as national or cultural identity, social solidarity, or hierarchical organization. Human societies are characterized by patterns of relationships between individuals sharing a distinctive culture and institutions. Like other communities or groups, a society allows its members to achieve needs or wishes they could not fulfill alone.
More broadly, a society is an economic, social or industrial infrastructure, made up of a varied collection of individuals. Members of a society may be from different ethnic groups. A society may be a particular ethnic group, such as the Saxons; a nation state, such as Bhutan; a broader cultural group, such as a Western society. The word society may also refer to an organized voluntary association of people for religious, benevolent, cultural, scientific, political, patriotic, or other purposes. A "society" may even, though more by means of metaphor, refer to a social organism such as an ant colony.
 In political science, the term is often used to mean the totality of human relationships, generally in contrast to the State, i.e., the apparatus of rule or government within a territory:
In the social sciences, a society has been used to mean a group of people that form a semi-closed social system, in which most interactions are with other individuals belonging to the group. Society is sometimes contrasted with culture. For example, Clifford Geertz has suggested that society is the actual arrangement of social relations while culture is made up of beliefs and symbolic forms.

INDIVIDUALISM

Individualism is the moral stance, political philosophy, ideology, or social outlook that stresses independence and self-reliance. Individualists promote the exercise of one's goals and desires, while opposing most external interference upon one's choices, whether by society, or any other group or institution. Individualism is opposed to collectivism, which stresses that communal, community, group, societal, familial or national goals should take priority over individual goals.

In the English language, the word "individualism" was first introduced, as a pejorative, by the Owenites in the 1830s, although it is unclear if they were influenced by Saint-Simonianism or came up with it independently. A more positive use of the term in Britain came to be used with the writings of James Elishama Smith, who was a millenarian and a Christian Israelite. Although an early Owenite socialist, he eventually rejected its collective idea of property, and found in individualism a "universalism" that allowed for the development of the "original genius." Without individualism, Smith argued, individuals cannot amass property to increase one's happiness.  William Maccall, another Unitarian preacher, and probably an acquaintance of Smith, came somewhat later, although influenced by John Stuart Mill, Thomas Carlyle, and German Romanticism, to the same positive conclusions, in his 1847 work "Elements of Individualism".
In political philosophy, the individualist theory of government holds that the state should protect the liberty of individuals to act as they wish as long as they do not infringe upon the liberties of others. This contrasts with collectivist political theories, where, rather than leaving individuals to pursue their own ends, the state ensures that the individual serves the whole society. The term has also been used to describe "individual initiative" and "freedom of the individual." This theory is described well by "laissez faire," which means in French "let [the people] do" [for themselves what they know how to do]. This term is commonly associated with a free market system in economics, where individuals and businesses own and control the majority of factors of production. Government interferences are kept to a minimum.
Individuality may be described as the consciousness of the individual as to what he is and how he lives. It is inherent in every human being and is a thing of growth. The State and social institutions come and go, but individuality remains and persists. The very essence of individuality is expression; the sense of dignity and independence is the soil wherein it thrives. Individuality is not the impersonal and mechanistic thing that the State treats as an "individual". The individual is not merely the result of heredity and environment, of cause and effect. He is that and a great deal more, a great deal else. The living man cannot be defined; he is the fountain-head of all life and all values; he is not a part of this or of that; he is a whole, an individual whole, a growing, changing, yet always constant whole.
Individuality is not to be confused with the various ideas and concepts of Individualism; much less with that "rugged individualism" which is only a masked attempt to repress and defeat the individual and his individuality So-called Individualism is the social and economic laissez faire: the exploitation of the masses by the classes by means of legal trickery, spiritual debasement and systematic indoctrination of the servile spirit, which process is known as "education." That corrupt and perverse "individualism" is the strait-jacket of individuality. It has converted life into a degrading race for externals, for possession, for social prestige and supremacy. Its highest wisdom is "the devil take the hindmost."

BASE OF SOCIETY

Physical Stage
When humans first evolved on earth say 100,000 years ago, and in particular over the last 10,000 years, individuals were mostly focused on their very survival and existence; everything else was secondary. The atmosphere was one of physical and psychological insecurity. Threats were perceived everywhere -- from threats in nature to threats from other tribes or collectives. 

In this physical stage people's social awareness was limited to the tribe. To think and act outside of the tribe and tradition was considered treasonous. In other words, humans had a very limited sense of their own selves. They were beyond to the concerns and authority of the collective.

Vital Stage
Over time society, the collective, overcame these threats from nature, from the outside. Plus they began to develop better cohesion and unity within the collectives they were a part of. We began to master the basic productive operations of life, and we gained control of the physical forces around us. This enabled the emergence of a new vital human. Another way of saying this is that humanity organized themselves at a higher level in the physical stage, enabling a more expansive vital stage.
So what is this vital age? In this stage we see a willingness of people to engage others not of their own tribe or collective. We begin to see the beginnings of trade with other tribes, more interaction with others. This leads to the desire for more travel and exploration to expand trade and resources. Gradually there is an awakening that the individual can improve his own lot, and that he does not have to only focus on the concerns and needs of the collective. 
In this vital stage there is a broadening of the social interactions, of interchange with others. We could now begin to focus on our own individual self-interests. We could become prosperous and enjoy life. There was thus a vast expansion of vitality in the vital stage.
Where the physical stage of life was the culmination of an evolution that began 100,000 or so years ago, and formed more fully around 10,000 years ago, the vital stage has only been there around 500 years, roughly corresponding to the Renaissance and the centuries of exploration and discovery. In the last 100 years, and in particular the last 50, there has been the rapid emergence of the next stage of human development; the mental stage

Mental Stage
The first thing that we notice about the mental stage is that society begins to value the vast amount of accumulated knowledge of the past. In the modern era this knowledge base of the past began to be organized, codified, and then disseminated to the population. Information that was formerly unfocused and scattered is now distributed through systems of training and education. That in turn energizes individuals to further advancement in work, their careers. And then that in turn accelerates people's achievement in life, which we can see expressed in the vast developments in science, communications, and technology of recent years. 
Then through that rapidly expanding technology base, through exposure to the vast knowledge base presented in media, in the Internet, people become even more aware of what can be achieved. They become aware of possibilities for achievement; and see that others are doing it. That in turn leads to an era of ever rising expectations; people want and demand more in their own lives. 
It's actually been going on for centuries. Freedom, democracy are unstoppable forces that have emerged in the last century or two. These are products of the rationality of the mental age; an acknowledgement of the needs for these essential values in life. Now that same freedom is extending further as we each as individuals become aware of our ability to fulfill our individual dreams, our own self-fulfillment and human potential. 
So in this emerging mental stage that we have now begun to enter, with its possibilities of freedom, initiative, and self-determinism, we are very far from the determinism of the physical stage, where we deferred to the collective will to survive.
The quantification and dispersion of accumulated knowledge, the qualitative improvements in life in areas such as education and social benefits, the demand and ability to fulfill one's potential, the awareness and concern for the plight of others, the demand of the individual to be involved in the decisions of the collective, and the emerging political and social freedom are some of the indicators of the mental stage of social evolution.

Spiritual Stage
Then there is a spiritual stage beyond the mental. That is obviously further out. As we begin to emerge through the mental stage, we perceive that even the power of mind cannot be the ultimate salvation for humanity; for after all the faculties of mind as we have said are decidedly limited. So there begins to develop a longing for a unity of awareness and perception that mind cannot hold; an openness to greater truths, greater insights, spiritual knowledge and vision. To an understanding that our individual will, the collective will, and the Divine will are all bound together. 
At some point individuals who have experienced the inner life of the spirit, who have begun to transform themselves to a higher physical, vital, and physical existence, who have experience the spirit in action in life, who have felt and opened themselves to a greater spiritual power to effect life, become the harbingers of a new collective life, a new divine life on earth. 


DISCUSSIONS

How could individualism add to quality-of-life?
If we accept that individualized society breeds greater happiness than collectivist society, the
next question is how. A plausible explanation would seem that individualized society fits human nature better than collectivist society does. That explanation pre-supposes that humans are not fully determined by society (not born as a 'tabula rasa'), but that human nature sets its own demands, which may fit more or less with the supply of society. In this view, we look at society in the way biologists look at the habitat of a species. Biologists see success of species as a matter of fit with their natural environment. The better the match, the more the species thrives. Humans represent a particular flexible species, which can flourish in varied conditions. Still there are limits to human adaptability. We cannot live in all physical conditions and neither can we be happy in all societies.
Better chance of 'fit' The basic idea of this explanation is that any society sets restrictions to the way its members develop psychologically and to the way they live. This inevitably involves frictions with personal needs and capacities. These frictions gives rise to dysphoric reactions and may harm mental and physical health. Freud (1930) referred to this phenomenon as the "discontents of civilization". Though friction is inherent to organized social life, it is not equally rampant in all societies. In collectivist society, the person is molded very much to the demands of society. The array of psychological modes is limited (few identities, personality types) and social roles are narrowly defined. In this limited assortment, the individual has little choice. How one develops and what one will do depends very much on ascription. Advantages of that system are easy socialization and social allocation. One of the disadvantages is a high rate of 'misfits'. Individualistic society allows more variation. Its socialization produces more variation in mental modes. Psychologically, its members develop more different and more differentiated, and over the lifetime they change more. Its social roles are more 'abstract' and leave more room Ruut Veenhoven 11 QOL in individualistic society for negotiation. Role allocation is largely a matter personal choice. An obvious advantage of this system is that people have a better chance of living a life that fits their nature. An equally obvious disadvantage is that choice has its costs.
There are two reasons why chances for fit are likely to be better in individualistic society.
One reason is the variation of its life-style assortment. The more variation in ways of life, the
greater the chance that the individual finds one that suits his/her needs and capacities. The
second reason is that individualistic society is more responsive to (change in) individual
demands. The variety of its array facilitates the evolution of new practices, whereas in
collectivists societies new life-styles meet strong opposition. The first reason makes that unaverage citizens are better served. The second reason reduces the risk that society ignores the needs of the modal citizen.

Why then are there still collectivist societies? If individualistic society fits human nature so well, why then is this pattern not universal? One reason seems to be that this type of social organization is not always feasible. Another reason could be that its advantages balance its disadvantages only if specific conditions are met.

Individualism not always viable There are good reasons to assume that early human societies allowed a fair amount of freedom. Coercion is difficult in hunter-gatherer bands, where members can leave the group if necessary. Maryanski & Turner believe that the human preference for loose ties evolved in this social context. In their view, success of the species gave rise to scarcity of natural resources, which pressed to another mode of existence, which on its turn gave rise to a more coercive kind of society. Agricultural societies in particular tend to collectivism and become a 'social cage'. Various functional reasons seem to be involved. Though individuals suffer in this system, the quality of their life might even be worse if the social system collapsed. The later shift to industrial society created more room for autonomy. Increasing division of labor enabled a move from 'mechanical solidarity' to 'organic solidarity' (Durkheim 1893) and made individual differences more functional. At the same time the spectacular rise of life-expectancy made investments in differentiated development both more profitable and better possible.

Individualism not always propitious Still, individualistic society is no sure ticket for great
happiness of a great number. As noted, autonomy has its price. In individualist society, one is
confronted with continuous choice. Nothing is self-evident, not even marrying and having children. In choosing one's way of life, one is constantly at risk of making wrong choices. Intimate ties are no longer given by tradition, but things one must establish and maintain.
Successful coping with these problems requires specific capabilities. Opportunity to
choose requires capability to choose. Freedom one cannot handle works out negatively on
happiness. So, the advantages of individualistic society can be reaped only if the appropriate
psychological capabilities are developed. If not, the disadvantages prevail.

So, individualization will add to the quality-of-life only if the mode of existence permits such
social organization, and if socialization develops the necessary capabilities. These requirements seem to be met in the modern nations at hand here.

Why the belief that individualism makes unhappy?
If individualization adds to quality-of-life indeed, why then do so many respectable scholars
believe that it is detrimental to it? One reason is in conceptual confusion. Another reason is
misreading of reality.

Conceptual confusion
Many claims about detrimental effects of individualization mix up 'quality of society' with
'quality-of-life in society'. For instance, individualization is seen to reduce respect for tradition (a quality of society) and on that basis it is concluded that individualization reduces the quality-oflife in that society. A related problem is in the definition of 'quality-of-life'. As noted above, the term is used in two meanings: presence of conditions deemed good for people ('assumed' quality-of-life) and how well people actually thrive ('apparent' quality-of-life). Often these meanings are equated. For example, respect for tradition is assumed to be good for people, and that presumption is extended to the claim that people are happier in traditional society. Lastly, specific 'qualities of life' are mixed up with 'overall quality of life'. In the same example, it is established that individualization reduces respect for tradition (a specific assumed quality of life) and on that basis it is concluded that individualization decreases overall qualityof- life. Sloppy thinking is still a vex in sociology.

Misreading of reality
Still there are scholars who do refer to final 'apparent' quality-of-life, and claim that individualization of society reduced that. Why do they believe so? One reason seems to be that the costs of individualization are more salient than its benefits. Misery is more visible than happiness. A related point is that it is not easy to asses the balance of effects. For long, there were no good measures of overall quality-of-life. By lack of a better indicator, investigators used incidence of suicide and admissions to psychiatric hospitals, which suggest adverse effects of individualization. Comparable data on happiness are only recently available. Another ground may be that the balance of effects has probably been less favorable in the past. Firstly, the change towards individualization involved costs of transition. Secondly, the development took place in less favorable conditions: less capability to choose (education and information) and less alternatives to choose (economic development). So, in their time, earlier sociologists were possibly right in estimating that individualization is detrimental to the quality-of-life.

INDIVIDUALISM AND SOCIETY

An individualist enters into society to further his or her own interests, or at least demands the right to serve his or her own interests, without taking the interests of society into consideration (an individualist need not be an egoist). The individualist does not lend credence to any philosophy that requires the sacrifice of the self-interest of the individual for any higher social causes. Jean-Jacques Rousseau would argue, however, that his concept of "general will" in the "social contract" is not the simple collection of individual wills and precisely furthers the interests of the individual (the constraint of law itself would be beneficial for the individual, as the lack of respect for the law necessarily entails, in Rousseau's eyes, a form of ignorance and submission to one's passions instead of the preferred autonomy of reason).
Societies and groups can differ, in the extent to which they are based upon predominantly "self-regarding" (individualistic, and arguably self-interested) rather than "other-regarding" (group-oriented, and group, or society-minded) behavior. Ruth Benedict argued that there is also a distinction, relevant in this context, between "guilt" societies (e.g., medieval Europe) with an "internal reference standard", and "shame" societies (e.g., Japan, "bringing shame upon one's ancestors") with an "external reference standard", where people look to their peers for feedback on whether an action is "acceptable" or not (also known as "group-think").
The extent to which society, or groups are "individualistic" can vary from time to time, and from country to country. For example, Japanese society is more group-oriented (e.g., decisions tend to be taken by consensus among groups, rather than by individuals), and it has been argued that "personalities are less developed" (than is usual in the West). The USA is usually thought of as being at the individualistic (its detractors would say "atomistic") end of the spectrum (the term "Rugged Individualism" is a cultural imprint of being the essence of Americanism), whereas European societies are more inclined to believe in "public-spiritedness", state "socialistic" spending, and in "public" initiatives.
John Kenneth Galbraith made a classic distinction between "private affluence and public squalor" in the USA, and private squalor and public affluence in, for example, Europe, and there is a correlation between individualism and degrees of public sector intervention and taxation.
Individualism is often contrasted with either totalitarianism or collectivism, but in fact there is a spectrum of behaviors ranging at the societal level from highly individualistic societies through mixed societies (a term the UK has used in the post-World War II period) to collectivist. Also, many collectivists (particularly supporters of collectivist anarchism or libertarian socialism) point to the enormous differences between liberty-minded collectivism and totalitarian practices.
Individualism, sometimes closely associated with certain variants of individualist anarchism, libertarianism or classical liberalism, typically takes it for granted that individuals know best and that public authority or society has the right to interfere in the person's decision-making process only when a very compelling need to do so arises (and maybe not even in those circumstances). This type of argument is often observed in relation to policy debates regarding regulation of industries, as well as in relation to personal choice of lifestyle.

CRITICISM

Some critics of individualism state that societies are groups of social animals and thus collectivist whether collectivism is formally accepted or not.
Others criticize it as being inherently elitist and prone to abuse and oppression. The anarchist and feminist Emma Goldman has criticized individualism for creating inequality:
‘Rugged individualism’ has meant all the ‘individualism’ for the masters, while the people are regimented into a slave caste to serve a handful of self-seeking ’supermen.’…Their ‘rugged individualism’ is simply one of the many pretenses the ruling class makes to mask unbridled business and political extortion.
Individualization of society adds to the quality-of-life of citizens, at least in present day
developed nations. Although life in individualist society is not without problems, the costs of
individualism costs are clearly outbalanced by its benefits. There is no support for the claim that individualization has gone too far. Though there is obviously an optimum level, the turning point is not yet in sight.

Sources :

b) New York Times
c) QUALITY-OF-LIFE IN INDIVIDUALISTIC SOCIETY- A comparison of 43 nations in the early 1990's By Ruut Veenhoven
d) The Individual, Society and the State
by Emma Goldman

e) Yahoo!



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