Not Just Individualism: Studying American Culture and Religion after "Habits of the Heart

Author(s): Kelly Besecke
Source: Sociology of Religion, Vol. 68, No. 2 (Summer, 2007), pp. 195-200
Published by: Oxford University Press
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Sociology of Religion 2007, 68:2 195-200
Not Just Individualism: Studying American
Culture and Religion after Habits of the
Kelly Besecke
Kenyon College
How do people construct religious meaning in their conversations with each
other? What kinds of religious culture exist in American society? How do people
draw connections between their religion and their social context? These are the
kinds of questions I work on answering in my research. I study American religious
culture, and I focus my attention on talk and communication; it would be impos
sible for me to avoid engaging with Habits of the Heart, even if I wanted to!
Everything I've written has engaged the ideas in Habits, and I assign all or part of
the book in four of the classes I teach at Kenyon College. Here I offer my reflec
tions on its legacy-the good, the bad, and the ways forward.
Socially engaged sociology. Habits of the Heart defies conventional discipline
centered sociology and aims instead for a sociology that engages society. Long
before there was a name for what is now called public sociology, the authors of
Habits articulated and successfully acted upon a commitment to engaging the
general public in sociological reflection. Their success reminds us all that sociol
ogy does not have to be a closed profession, dependent on expertise and jargon,
but is our best and perhaps only institutionalized system for societal self-reflec
The white middle class. Habits is sometimes faulted for focusing its attention
on white middle class Americans, but this attention is very necessary. White mid
dle class Americans are an extraordinary powerful social group-and getting
more powerful all the time. Habits' attention to this group makes it clear that cul
ture isn't just something that "other" people have. More importantly, this atten
tion begins to help us understand how hegemonic meanings and practices get
*Direct correspondence to: Kelly Besecke, Department of Sociology, Ralston House 203, Kenyon
College, Gambier OH 43022 (
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developed and perpetuated through the ordinary talk and behavior of this pow
erful group of people.
Talk. Anthropologists have long recognized that language is the essence of
culture. Jurgen Habermas (1987:124) has argued more recently that language has
"a certain transcendental status" with regard to social life. More than any other
work in sociology, Habits opened the way to talk-based empirical studies, to rec
ognizing the central importance of communication to social life. In approaching
individualism as a set of languages, it focuses readers' attention on the empirical
dimension of public culture, the shared meanings we can understand by studying
Everyday life and the "unmarked." As Wayne Brekhus (1998) has argued,
much sociology engages with culturally "marked" categories of social phenome
na-things that have been constructed as standing out in some way, as particu
larly unusual or problematic. Habits engages the terms of ordinary life, the cul
tural patterns within which the unmarked mundanities of everyday life are expe
rienced as meaningful. Its interrogation of these taken-for-granted patterns helps
readers understand the power of the ordinary.
Individualism and the ties that bind. Habits' critique of individualism, and its
driving concern with the cultural obstacles to recognizing the ties that bind us
together, is just as relevant today as it was in 1985. Twenty-plus years later,
American society still has trouble with togetherness, and the questions Habits
asks are perhaps even more important now. Do Americans have the cultural
resources to effectively envision, plan, and act as a collective? Are shared proj
ects culturally possible? Can Americans see themselves as responsible for each
other, as necessarily connected to and dependent upon each other? Hegemonic
individualism makes recognizing these connections difficult; it makes it difficult
to think in terms of "we."
The question, then, is where will the "we" come from? The authors of Habits
suggest reinvigorating religious and civic individualism. But where will this rein
vigoration come from? Perhaps the angry and belatedly organizing religious left,
with its brand new collective identity and its emphasis on love and caretaking,
will reinvigorate religious individualism. I don't see a similar move by the domi
nant part of the secular political left to reinvigorate civic individualism, although
the Greens and other third parties
trying. It is worth considering, however,
the potential social role of the discipline of sociology. The discipline itself is soci
ety's primary institutionalized source of alternatives to hegemonic individualism.
Consider the introductory sociology classes taught
colleges and universities,
and the fact that 27% of American adults have a college education (Stoops
2004). As writers, as well as teachers, sociologists have the potential to commu
nicate a sociological imagination, to offer terms for an alternative discourse, and
to raise public consciousness about the mutual interdependence of individuals
and the social systems that bind them.
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Like all things in social life, Habits of the Heart both enables and constrains;
that is, it enables certain kinds of inquiry and makes it difficult to engage in other
kinds of inquiry. The constraints I describe here emerge less from the book itself,
and more from the disciplinary response to the book. Habits has become so sanc
tified within the discipline that it has become limiting. We can move forward by
acknowledging some of these limitations.
Individualism and commitment. Habits offers the classic analysis of individual
ism. This analysis is now so taken for granted that it is difficult to see aspects of
individualism that go beyond the terms of the book. In particular, recent studies
show that individualism as actually practiced can have a connective dimension,
and enhance people's commitments, rather than only fostering isolation and
weakening commitments. These studies suggest that individualistically articulat
ed commitments are experienced as part of one's character, as thought through,
hard-won, and earned through careful reflection, such that each commitment is
in some way one's own.
Two examples come to mind: Paul Lichterman's work on political commit
ment and my own in the area of religion. Lichterman (1996) shows people using
expressive individualism to sustain and articulate strong political commitments
in what he dubs a personalized politics. He saw personalized politics most evident
ly in his study of the U.S. Greens, and also saw strains of it in less organized and
more dominant sectors of society, including anti-toxics groups in white, middle
class suburbs. My own work suggests that a similar phenomenon exists in the reli
gious sphere (Besecke 2001, 2002, 2005, 2006). Religious individualism has often
been cited as evidence of the weakening of religious commitments and of reli
gion's social power in general. My observations show people for whom religion
became more compelling, and whose religious commitments became more solid,
once they adopted a mode of religiosity that prioritizes individual reflection, dis
cernment, and authority.
If we assume that individualism-or certain kinds of individualism-are
opposed to commitment, then we miss the complex ways in which people use
individualism to heighten their social commitments. Our understanding of indi
vidualism can move forward by investigating it more deeply, as a practice and as
a discourse. How does individualism really relate to commitment, connection
and institutional vitality
in practice, as it is used by people in the course of nav
igating social life?
Social solidarity. Perhaps because Habits opposes American individualism to
social connection and obligation, we have very few studies of the cultural pat
terns with which Americans sustain social solidarity. Individualism is just one
example of a cultural resource that Americans use to imagine their connections
to other people. What are the others? How do people
make togetherness? How
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do people make connections with unknown others? How do people make con
nections with others at a distance, and with those nearby?
One study that asks these kinds of questions is Susan Munkres' work on priv
ileged allies to social movements of the disenfranchised. Munkres (2003) ana
lyzes gay and lesbian ally groups, groups of men fighting sexual assault against
women, and American organizations that support the empowerment of people in
the developing world. This work engages important questions about social soli
darity: What cultural resources are available to help privileged people imagine
themselves as connected to the disenfranchised? What are the potentials and
limitations of these cultural resources?
There are many other questions we might ask about culture and social soli
darity. Studies of nationalism, for example, often emphasize the state, but also
lend themselves to cultural questions, as demonstrated by Lyn Spillman (1997).
How do people experience themselves as connected to or disconnected from
other Americans? Or, consider the global justice movement-what cultural pat
terns are sustaining these activists' solidarity with imagined global others? More
generally, how do we make connections, and what cultural resources are we using
to make them? What are the potentials and limitations of these cultural
resources? How are people trying to fill the gaps by inventing new methods of
making connection culturally possible? By expanding our view beyond individu
alism, these questions point us towards a richer understanding of the cultural
underpinnings of American social life.
The individualism lens obscures other processes. It seems we get a little blinded
by individualism. We're quick to see individualism, and the analysis often stops
there, as in, "Oh, yes, another example of individualism, now we have that
pegged, that's just individualism." This individualism lens can hurt us in two
First, stopping our analysis at individualism makes it hard for us to see other
important features of the social phenomena we're studying. In my work on reli
gion, for example, I have observed social processes that look like individualism,
and are sustained in part by hegemonic individualism, but that individualism is
also being used in really interesting ways that I would miss if I stopped my analy
sis at "individualism." My work addresses reflexivity in the sphere of religion. To
be reflexively spiritual is to maintain a constant awareness of the ever-increasing
variety of religious perspectives available in the world, and to engage in an ongo
ing process of reflecting on and assimilating these other possible perspectives into
one's own spiritual outlook. This process often, although not always, looks like
individualism. It often relies on individual authority, effort, and discernment. We
could stop the analysis there: "Oh, this is religious individualism." If we do so,
however, we miss the significance of the reflexivity itself. It's important, then, to
recognize that Americans do many things with individualism and to ask what is
being done with it.
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A second way that the individualism lens can hurt our analysis-and this is
probably the most important point I can make on this topic-is the obstacle it
presents to an adequate conceptualization of culture. There is an irony, or para
dox, in the influence Habits of the Heart has had on the sociological study of cul
ture. Communication, as Habits successfully argued, is the core of culture; there
fore it is important to study talk. Because Habits is a cultural study of individual
ism, however, and because it relies so heavily on interviews with individuals, its
analysis ends up highlighting individualism and actually downplaying communi
cation. Because of this, the book ends up supporting an inappropriate analytic
dualism that we see in much of sociology and particularly in the sociology of reli
gion. Religious individualism is an important concept in the sociology of religion,
and equally important is an associated conversation about the consequences of
religious individualism for religion's social power in modern society. The terms of
this conversation have effectively divided the social world into two analytic
dimensions-institutions and individuals-and labelled as "individualism" any
thing that doesn't look institutional. This analytic dualism misses out on reli
gion's cultural dimension. Culture is an analytically separate sphere that is most
notably about communication and communicative processes that interpenetrate
both the individual and the institutional dimensions of society. Culture cannot
be reduced either to individuals or to institutions.
Here is what I think is happening. Individualism has become such a promi
nent concept in the sociology of religion that when we see people communicat
ing about anything in an individualistic way, we focus on the individualism and
not on the communication. In doing so, we miss the fact of communication itself.
Communication-even communication that sounds individualistic-is inher
ently public, social, interactive, and collective. As such, it is socially very power
ful. As the authors of Habits of the Heart write, "Cultures are dramatic conversa
tions about things that matter to their participants" (Bellah, et al. 1985:27).
When we hear people talking, or read what they write, it isn't enough to notice
that they are talking in a way that emphasizes individuals' autonomy or individ
uals' inner truth. We must also ask, what are they talking about? To truly under
stand American culture, it isn't enough to know that Americans talk in individ
ualistic ways-we must also listen to the content of the American conversation.
William M.
and Steven M.
ton. 1985. Habits
the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American
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Religion: Religion
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