The Freefloating Individualistic Structure Of Identity

The trend toward individualism is the most frequently cited contributor to the modern health crisis, and in particular the diffuse emotional craving that derives when the private self becomes the locus of reality. The individualistic self refers to an identity that is centered within itself, motivated more by personal consideration than by social consideration. It is associated with traits and survival strategies such as self-dependence, private achievement, competition with others, and self-gratification.

The goals of the individualist take top priority, even when their quest is detrimental to the group. Loyalty is mostly self-directed, and emotional bonding to the wider group is diminished. The term neoindividualism is used to describe the extreme levels of individualism that have emerged in the United States and, increasingly, European countries. This contrasts to many non-Western cultures, where social relations are of primary importance and an individuated member would be regarded as socially patho-logical.3

Modern individualism involves a rearrangement of human relations in which social consensus is no longer the principal guiding force. With the waning of unanimity, and the subsequent arrival of the indeterminate other, moderns have been transported into an increasingly pheno-menological consciousness style wherein truth and knowledge are accessed by private subjective interpretation. The modern self has become so constricted, and so far removed from a wider social context, that some people find themselves unable to share with others anything except consumption and leisure.4

Rather than interfacing with a stable cultural reality, the self has become a fluid vehicle for ongoing negotiation. Its open free-floating design allows it to accommodate itself to an environment that has lost a quality of permanence. Furthermore, it represents a type of self-investment, operating via internalized control, that is a realistic solution to new social circumstances that offer little reassurance in terms of deep security.

Although non-Western cultures usually have more collectivist social structures, some exceptions have been pointed out, such as the Mbuti Pygmies of Africa and the people of Bhutan in the Himalayas. But, upon closer inspection, the individualism that can sometimes be identified in non-Western settings turns out to be embedded in traditional cultural learning. For example, Bhutanese culture still rests on a monastic system that instills in its members an urge to acquire and live in accordance with Buddhist knowledge and wisdom.5 At the heart of their belief system is the tenet that evil and the full range of this-world ills are the result of greed and ambition, and that enlightenment involves transcendence from the social sources of these contaminants. They learn about an interpretation of karma that inclines members to develop a conceptually bounded separate self that entails very few sociocentric themes or injunctions. In this way, members are free to accept the full karmic consequences of their actions. Yet this type of individualism differs considerably from its Western counterpart in that its motivations and manifestations are merely an extension of a long-standing cultural model of selfhood.

In modern Western settings, individualism involves independent self-construal strategies that require members to cope through personal control, direct action, and confrontation with others. By contrast, people from collectivist cultures make more use of interdependent self-construal techniques that achieve coping less directly, by way of cooperative effort and alignment with the group. If changes are necessary, collectivists tend to participate in the changes to the group, rather than making abrupt changes to the private self. If change is difficult or impossible, collectivists are more likely than individualists to accept the situation and modify their wishes accordingly. By contrast, individualists would be more inclined to persist independently at altering circumstances in order to achieve their personal preferences.

Some benefits have been associated with an individualistic identity structure. Among these are accelerated economic development, less likelihood of government corruption, increased creativity and innovation, and better responsiveness to situations that require change. Heightened creativity and greater flexibility are also possible when individuals are no longer bound by preordained cultural knowledge, goals, and routines. The cultural exile has greater freedom with which to magnify the number of opportunities that life offers. There is also a certain amount of romantic appeal to the prospect of a powerful individual prevailing over a dull fate of mindless following and spineless other-reliance. Several nineteenth-century philosophers fueled the notion that dumb society was the enemy of the noble individual, and that only cowards and weaklings allow themselves to be tyrannized by dreary convention. This attitude has given birth to more than a few ardent supporters of American-style individualism.

But the picture is not so bright when one considers the relationship between individualism and mental health. Of the reviews that have been carried out on this topic, most have concluded that individualism is associated with specific social and psychological ills, including clinical depression, suicide, crime, divorce, child abuse, stress, and anxiety-related disorders. Although collectivist cultural structures have certain potential drawbacks, research shows that they are more conducive to mental health.

One explanation is that collectivism emphasizes harmony within the group, which, in turn, reduces the stresses and conflicts of everyday life. The fact that collectivism is associated with lower levels of competition may lead to greater security and perceived coping ability. It seems that collective coping eases the person's task of dealing with difficult life experiences. The burdens of life are lightened when the group can absorb some of the responsibility. In a related way, members of collectivist cultures make internal attributions of failure less frequently than their counterparts in individualistic cultures.

Many traditional cultures have not even evolved lexical concepts to communicate the possibility of an autonomous self. The rituals and customs in such settings tend to revolve around sociocentric themes, with the aim of forging identity along the lines of group solidarity. One psychological advantage of such an arrangement is that members have ready access to well-established formulas that provide structure to their sense of self. They feel supported by historical templates that facilitate the interpretation and management of life events.

The utilization of socially sanctioned identity templates promotes an other-connected self in which the person is keenly aware of his or her place in the group. The self achieves depth and substance only when it has been defined in a broader social context. But modernity has brought about a situation wherein identity is forged within a partial social vacuum, thereby replacing official practices with discretionary techniques.6 When the self begins to define itself in isolation, a subsequent loss of emotional flexibility and hardiness that limits coping ability results.

Avariety of psychological disturbances became more likely once Western culture grew individualistic to such a degree that people lost membership with the group. This is reminiscent of Emile Durkheim's claim that Western culture has become a disorganized dust of individuals who have been freed too much from all genuine social bonds. Martin Seligman argues that, as hedonistic islands adrift from a larger social support network, increasingly we have come to function as market pawns who closely resemble the commodities we are being conditioned to consume.7 The trend toward all-consuming individualism is accompanied by a loss of personal control, as well as the emergence of what Seligman calls the maximal California self.

This California self is the ultimate expression of modern individualism in its most inward, narcissistic, self-centered, and self-serving form. To the California self, the primary reason for living is to make the right choices and to consume the right things in order to maximize pleasure and minimize pain and, in general, to get the most from life. Yet this identity structure operates at a distance from the stabilizing effect of the wider community. The California self succumbs easily to states of psychic disruption due to its lack of emotional commitment to the commons and an identity that places inordinate emphasis on personal and product outcomes.

Generally speaking, it is not difficult to understand why collectivism might be more friendly to mental health than individualism. In the Cook Islands, for example, one is quickly struck by a profound sense of belongingness that derives from their collectivist orientation.8 Despite acculturative forces that may eventually erode their collective identities, their traditional social organization structures still exert a dominant influence on selfhood formation. It is interesting to note that no cases of home-lessness have ever been documented in the Cook Islands. Members of this culture speak with pride about the "Cook Island family" and the way in which one never feels alone there. The overarching social embrace experienced by members of such a culture are certain to impede the psychopa-thology-proneness that seems to exist in the West.

Whereas individualism tends to be associated with mental ill health, it has been argued that there are different types of individualism and that some types may be less harmful psychologically than others. For instance, one can distinguish between alienating individualism and reciprocal indi-vidualism.9 Alienating individualism, which is rooted in Calvinistic theology, is regarded as the type that exists in contemporary Western culture. It is associated with anxiety, loneliness, existential isolation, powerlessness, and compensatory egocentric preoccupation.

By contrast, reciprocal individualism involves a form of independence and self-reliance that remains tied to the goal of group harmony and concern with the welfare of the collective. As we have seen, the individualistic activities found in some non-Western cultures are acted out in the wider perception that the person is fused to, as well as responsible to, the community. Individualism of the reciprocal variety entails self-differentiation that is associated with high affiliation and with a social distancing process that entails a simultaneous relatedness. The community remains the person's center, rather than the person's becoming centered in himself or herself. This permits the unfolding of the individual's potentialities while he or she enjoys the benefits of a symbiotic connection to the wider community.

In Habits of the Heart, Robert Bellah refers to the radical individualism that exists today in the West, noting how it yields a disorienting nihilism that leaves people with a disturbing compulsion somehow to overcome "the emptiness of purely arbitrary values."10 However, in trying to understand Western individualism, one must be careful not to suggest that the individualistic self lacks a cultural conditioning framework. It is true that the modern self is an adaptable, improvising, and malleable one that has less psychological grounding than in previous ages. But there is a functional aspect to the cultural practice of constructing identity as a constituency of self-investments. It makes possible an unprecedented degree of pragmatism that is not diluted by ingrained histories related to obligation, duty, and morality. The self is free to profit, and that capacity is the underlying all-pervasive cultural motivation that is absorbed by members: I profit; therefore I am. As a bundle of desire requiring utmost maneuverability of identity, the interchangeable feature of the modern self enables the person to stay dissociated from an enduring core, and that dissociation in turn allows it to manipulate better, and profit from, fluid and novel circumstances.

The free-floating nature of the modern self is consistent with the growing impression that one's fate is determined at all levels by market forces, rather than sources of power that reside in the social domain. This situation does not mean, however, that individuals are doomed to doubt and uncertainty. Most members are able to superimpose cognitive biases on market unpredictability in order to extract hope of winning as a result of favorable market movements. Beyond that, a certain solace can be forthcoming from the knowledge that one can tip the market odds in one's direction through acquired expertise or clever manipulations. This carries with it the positive illusion that market success could be converted eventually into greater social visibility and reward. However, the emotional attachments that can be made with the market are less sustaining than those that develop from a sociocentric milieu. Likewise, market support lacks many of the mental health advantages of social support, a rapidly disappearing facet of contemporary life.

Gergen's concept of the pastiche personality captures the notion of a self that is constantly adrift from any stable core. He defines this new creature as "a social chameleon, constantly borrowing bits and pieces of identity from whatever sources are available and constructing them as useful or desirable in a given situation."11 The identity of the pastiche person is a thoroughly managed one wherein success is actually dependent upon avoidance of a true self. This type of self is provisional and pragmatic, pieced together in order to extract the full potential from any presenting set of circumstances. The person is deposed sufficiently from a deep abiding self that shame is not experienced as a result of inauthenticity and self-serving manipulation. True character loses its value as the person becomes an exercise in false advertising, and as life becomes a kaleidoscope of fleeting and ever-changing choices that feed one's developing appetites.

In this vein, Robert Jay Lifton uses the label the protean self to describe a modern self that is preeminently adaptable, with few of the traditional psychological moorings.12 The fountainhead of this identity is the current condition of rapid flux, confusion, and restlessness. It also traces to a cultural environment where beliefs, partners, jobs, and residences change on a regular basis. Like the modern world itself, the protean self is inconstant, unpredictable, and unattached. This self structure allows short-term allegiances, but, when the need arises, the person can just as easily discard these and move on to the next set of demands. Proteans are even reluctant to forge a relationship with thoughts and ideas since those too may need to be modified on short notice.

Modernity has been compared to a type of psychological exile wherein individuals become metaphorical strangers as a result of detachment from overarching cultural schemas.13 The loss of these schemas makes it more difficult to operate within a world of certitude, conviction, and truth. In the absence of adequate boundaries, the self also lacks the ordering capabilities that establish the foundation for personal potency. Many types of psychopathology can emerge when the boundaries of the self collapse, and when the person is left with insufficient structural integrity to experience inner mastery.

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