individualism 2285

natural liberty and exchange of goods and ser
vices in free and competitive markets, with as
few interventions by the state as possible, would
best support societal development and welfare.
A growing political individualism became
most influential with the French Revolution
and the emphasis on individual rights, referring
to the idea of natural justice in contrast to the
absolutist state. Several of these developments
came together in the bourgeois Enlightment in
the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
In Anglophone discourse there is a tendency
to interpret individualism as egoistic and selfish
behavior. For example, Bellah et al. (1985)
prominently argued that the prevalence of indi
vidualistic behavior would destroy the moral
integrity of American society, though this view
was contested. More positively, individualism
is interpreted in Becks (1992) theorizing on the
risk society. Here, individualization indicates
liberation from traditional bonds. Thus, it
opens up more options from which to choose,
but at the same time forces people to choose.
Methodological individualism emphasizes
that sociological phenomena can only be
explained by the characteristics of individuals.
It was developed in opposition to methodological
collectivism or holism. For example, Durkheim
justified a specific sociological contribution
to the examination of the human being by
claiming that social phenomena can only be
explained socially, and thereby proposed a holis
tic approach.
Today, this fundamental contradiction is
rather outdated. Sociologists are much more
concerned with questions of how sociocultural
and sociostructural factors on the one hand and
individuals, their actions or characteristics, on
the other hand, are mutually linked or consti
tute each other. Instead of stating extreme posi
tions, todays research is more often engaged
with how both aspects combine in social reality.
SEE ALSO: Collectivism; Durkheim, Emile;
Liberalism; Tocqueville, Alexis de


Beck, U. (1992) Risk Society: Towards a New Mod
ernity. Sage, Newbury Park, CA.

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Jens Zinn

Individualism emphasizes the importance of
the individual, for example the individuals
freedom, interests, rights, needs, or beliefs
against the predominance of other institutions
in regulating the individuals behavior, such as
the state or the church. A range of theories in
different societal domains contributes to the
dissemination of individualistic ideas in society.
In particular, economic and political liberalism
are vehicles of individualism.
The term individualism was introduced by de
Tocqueville. Even though he distinguished indi
vidualism from egotism, his distinction is essen
tially one of degree, but individualism would in
the long run lead to downright egotism.
A strong impact on the development of indi
vidualistic thinking in Western Europe can be
traced to religion. The Reformation and the
development of Protestantism indicated a shift
to more individualistic thinking. This can be
linked to Luthers claim that a personal rela
tionship with God cannot be mediated by the
interpretation of the church.
Another important contribution to individua
listic thinking was given in economics by Adam
Smiths development of a system of economic
liberalism. He assumed that a simple system of