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CSI62110.1177/0011392113512496Current SociologyAraujo and Martuccelli

Current Sociology

Beyond institutional
2014, Vol 62(1) 24­–40
© The Author(s) 2013
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individualism: Agentic
DOI: 10.1177/0011392113512496
individualism and the

individuation process in
Chilean society

Kathya Araujo
Universidad Academia de Humanismo Cristiano, Chile

Danilo Martuccelli
Université Paris Descartes, IUF, CERLIS, France

The sociological study of individuation processes in modern occidental societies has
mobilized the thesis of institutional individualism as a key concept. This article argues
that this thesis may not be appropriate to understand societies with different cultural
traditions and institutional practices. Based upon the results of qualitative research
conducted in Chile the article discusses the existence of a specific path to individuation
in this society. The data show the analytical preeminence within the individuation
process in Chile of a group of competences that must be generated and developed
in confronting social life itself. Individuation leads in Chile to the constitution of
relational hyper-actors based upon four dimensions: self-effort, abilities, interpersonal
relationships and pragmatic consistency. This is what we propose to understand as
agentic individualism.

Agentic individualism, Chile, individuation, institutional individualism, relational hyper-

Corresponding author:
Kathya Araujo, Universidad Academia de Humanismo Cristiano, Condell 343 Providencia, Santiago de Chile,
Santiago 7500828, Chile.

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Araujo and Martuccelli 25

The production of individuals has been related in modern occidental discussion to a par-
ticular cultural tradition and a group of specific institutional practices. In sociology, the
thesis of institutional individualism has been without doubt a key concept in explaining
this process (Bourricaud, 1977; Parsons, 1951, 1964). According to this thesis, in mod-
ern societies the most important institutions (work, school, family, etc.) are specifically
and explicitly oriented towards the individual. They compel each person to develop and
constitute themselves as a subject according to pre-established institutional models.
Based upon this conceptualization, for a long time social sciences affirmed the inex-
istence or insufficiencies of individuals in semi-peripheral or peripheral societies
(Araujo, 2009a; Martuccelli, 2002, 2010a). Individuals from other societies – or from the
same societies before modernity and institutional individualism – were perceived from
the point of view of their anomalies. The fact that canonical theoretical versions about
the production of individuals hypostatized specific features of occidental modern socie-
ties obstructed comparative analysis and veiled the existence of other individuation
modalities from those described by institutional individualism.
This distinction between terms is fundamental. Even though the notion of individua-
tion is not exclusive to sociology, in this discipline and since classical authors, the pro-
cess of individuation defines the type of individual structurally produced in a society
(Martuccelli, 1999, 2010b). Classic sociology described the emergence of the individual
in western civilization associated with different structural factors (social differentiation,
secularization, urbanization, rationalism, industrialization, etc.). Nevertheless, it must be
recognized that in the end all these features were subordinated to the institutional indi-
vidualism model. Without disregarding the importance of this model, in this article we
argue that this should not be considered as the only historic path to individuation. In this
regard, we will discuss the existence of another way of production of individuals.
To argue this thesis we rely upon the results of an empirical qualitative research on the
individuation process in Chile developed between 2007 and 2010. In this research 96
semi-structured interviews were conducted in three different cities (Santiago, Concepción
and Valparaíso) with a sample of men and women between 30 and 55 years of age from
middle- upper-middle and low-income sectors.1 We develop our argument in four steps.
First, we analyse the most important axes of the sociological tradition of institutional
individualism. Second, we present the four relevant competences through which our
interviewees constitute themselves as individuals (effort, personal abilities, interpersonal
relationships and pragmatic consistency). Third, we develop a conceptual discussion of
the kind of individual to be found resulting from the individuation process (the relational
hyper-actor). Lastly, we propose a sociological definition of the distinctive individualism
model in Chilean society (agentic individualism).

Institutional individualism and the subject in the modern

western world
A brief presentation of the theoretical discussion
Louis Dumont (1985) has proposed a very important distinction. It is necessary to
distinguish between individuals as empirical agents, therefore existing in every human

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26 Current Sociology 62(1)

collectivity, and individuals as moral beings attached to a particular subject representa-

tion. It is only in this second sense that individualism should be seen as an occidental
distinctive historical feature (Dumont, 1983). The difference with traditional societies
(holistic) should be considered enormous. For centuries in these societies the individ-
ual was mainly considered as an anomaly because she or he was seen as a particular
deviance from the common features of a social group. The general takes precedence
over the particular so that the individual dimension is understood as a fairly contingent
specialization of the ‘community’ (Tönnies, 2005 [1887]). Against this interpretation
the thesis of institutional individualism meant a real revolution. Individual was no
longer perceived as a singular deviance of a general model. It became itself the insti-
tutional model to be incarnated. The importance of this transition should not be over-
looked. Therefore, it is relevant to define precisely the sense of the transformation
produced in occidental modernity by this notion.
What institutional individualism thoroughly changes is that the individual is regarded
now as a result of a collective central imperative that impels that person to the constitu-
tion of her- or himself as an individual-subject. This is to be seen in the economic sphere
(as shown by the importance of possessive individualism), in the political sphere (under
the prevalence of equality), or even in the sentimental sphere (with the cultural triumph
of love).
The primacy of this thesis was never questioned in sociology. This was the case
despite the existence of very clear national differences within modern occidental indi-
vidualism (Dumont, 1991; Kalupner, 2003; Lukes, 1973; Martuccelli and de Singly,
2009); the acknowledgement of a plurality of historical models of the subject
(Macpherson, 1962; Weintraub, 1978; Taylor, 1989); the existence of diverse cultural
and political traditions in a society (Bellah et al., 1985); or, even, the emergence of new
modalities of individualism (Elliott and Lemert, 2006; Lasch, 1979; Lipovetsky, 1983;
Riesman et al., 1950; Sennett, 1977).
The contemporary individualization thesis, which was originally produced in
Germany (Junge, 2002) and then developed in England and France, is a good illustration
of the former statement. This thesis contends that the growing individualization is an
outcome of the shift to a society (‘second modernity’ or ‘late modernity’) in which insti-
tutions do not transmit harmonious prescriptive norms to the actors but impel them to
give sense on their own to their social trajectories through reflexivity (Bauman, 2001;
Beck and Beck-Gernsheim, 2002; Giddens, 1990, 1991; Kron, 2000; Le Bart, 2009).
This does not imply that individuals are freer. This means that they are subdued by a new
historical process that produces them through other institutional commandments. What
remains untouched is the idea that individuals are required and produced by a sum of
institutions that oblige them to develop a personal biography. Certainly, as Beck points
out, individuals must give biographical solutions to systemic contradictions, but this
must not veil the fact that these personal solutions are answers induced by an institutional
prescription (Araujo, 2012; Martuccelli, 2010b).
In other words, the individuation process in the modern occidental society is related
to a set of social representations and especially to institutional interpellations, a fact well
expressed by the importance given to the relationship between the welfare state and indi-
viduation modalities (Castel, 1995; Esping-Andersen, 1990; Therborn, 2009), the amount

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Araujo and Martuccelli 27

of support that they have available to answer to institutional prescriptions (Ehrenberg,

1998) or the effects of the institutional subjection mechanisms, as discussed by Foucault
(Fassin and Memmi, 2004; Memmi, 2003).
In no society do individual actors invent subject ideals. These ideals are offered and
put at their disposal. They are part of the culture and society in which an individual is
forged. The specificity of occidental modernity and institutional individualism is that the
individual is interpellated to constitute her- or himself as an individual-subject by institu-
tions. Institutions are the ones that offer representations and support.

Latin American anomalies?

The institutional individualism thesis has been scarcely explored in Latin America.
Social sciences in this region concluded the inexistence of the individual due to many
reasons, even those related to critical and anti-occidental arguments. There has been a
vivid contrast between the importance and richness of studies dedicated to moderniza-
tion, and poverty – at least for some decades in this last case – and those devoted to
modernity strictly speaking (Brunner, 1992; García Canclini, 1989; Pinedo, 1999).2 It is
true that the situation has varied thanks to the inflexions produced in the debates about
modernity with the contributions on the role of culture to understand Latin America’s
specific path to modernity (Brunner, 1992; García Canclini, 1990; Martín-Barbero and
Herlinghaus, 2000; Monsiváis, 2000). The originality and strength of these studies need
not be underscored here. However, although these works admit some particular features
of individuals in the region they generally fail in paying consistent attention to the differ-
ences between these individuals and those forged in modern occidental societies by insti-
tutional individualism (Brunner, 1994; Domingues, 2009; Ortiz, 1988).
Thus, the theoretical aggiornamento is not sufficient because it does not take into
account the specificities of Latin America’s individuation modality. To achieve this task
it is necessary to dissociate the study of individuation processes from occidental moder-
nity. More precisely: to stop privileging the preeminence of a theory of the subject
reduced to the analytical predominance of its institutional production. As we have already
pointed out, for a long time this thesis has led to the conclusion of the insufficiency of the
individual in Latin America. As Octavio Paz (1979) has stated, the individual in this
region would have never reached the full exercise of autonomy, an important reason
being the fact that pillar institutions such as the Church and the Army would have
imposed a tutelary order over individuals (Nugent, 2001). As long as the study of the
individual privileged the influence of institutions, it concluded that individuals did not
exist, even in the case of Chilean society, one of the most institutionalized in the region.
Our argument here is that a variant of institutional individualism is not a fruitful con-
ceptual tool to approach the individual in Latin America, not only because individuals do
exist in these societies but also because as our empirical results show for the case of
Chile, a set of nuclear initiatives that actors perceive as constitutive of their individuality
are to be seen as independent of institutional prescription. Actors do not only feel
impelled to ‘fulfil’ the insufficiency of institutions, but at the same time individuals do
not perceive themselves mainly under the effects of an institutional interpellation.
Individuals set themselves up based much more on their intrinsic abilities to deal with

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28 Current Sociology 62(1)

social life than on their capacities to adhere to a prescriptive institutional programme. A

closer analysis of our material will allow us to argue this point. We start by discussing in
the next section the components of the individual. After that we will carry out a more
conceptual discussion of this modality of individual, which we would like to name the
relational hyper-actor.

The individual: Practical skills and competences

Our argument is that in our study case the constitution as individual leans upon a particu-
lar set of practical skills and competences. We found that there are four strongly related
features that make up the relational hyper-actor: effort, personal abilities, interpersonal
relationships and consistency. They are all different faces of the same experience. For
example, in individuals there coexists an open heroic discourse about themselves and the
non-explicit recognition of the nevertheless decisive support they have received from
some people or networks. On the other hand, even though all these dimensions are
always present they are not evenly or similarly mobilized among individuals. The state-
ment about the importance of personal abilities is far more prevalent within low-income
sectors (especially women) than in middle sectors. In this last case the role of networks
and relational capacities is more often recalled. Even though a more detailed analysis of
all these different nuances is not possible in this article, we will point them out when

First, individuality is constituted assuming the structural character of the lack of protec-
tion in society which drives a strong development of agency. Against age-old stereotypes
about the laziness and isolation of Chileans (Larraín, 2001; Quevedo, 2000), our inter-
viewees praised personal effort as a prerequisite to succeed over adverse situations. In
this context, personal effort and the recognition of merit obtain a particular meaning.
‘Effort’ has plural cultural roots in Chile that go from a Christian to Socialist tradition not
to mention the most recent neoliberal model. But what characterizes this notion nowa-
days is the confidence that individuals place in it and their frustration when they judge
that it is not recognized. This is a testimony to the fact that merit has become a core ele-
ment of the idea of justice in Chile today (Engel and Navia, 2006). Success, although
counter to the reality people face (Núñez, 2004), is, for many of them, first of all the fruit
of effort and an expression of expanded expectations of horizontality in social life that
traverse Chilean society. ‘To succeed’, says a woman who has experienced significant
social mobility thanks to her work, ‘you have to be super persistent’, or to have, as
another woman, an entrepreneur originally from a low-income sector, says, ‘persever-
ance’, before acknowledging that ‘not everybody has the same, I don’t know how to say
it, the same courage, the same strength to not get discouraged’. A man, a security guard,
gave a masculine version of this same attitude: ‘With my morale very high, I never cried,
never went there [to his parents] … You know, I don’t have this, I never told my mom,
you know, I do not have enough to eat, never … I have never knocked on any door.
Because of dignity. I am a proud person.’ He insists: ‘I have lived life with ups and

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Araujo and Martuccelli 29

downs, and I have got over it. I haven’t stayed at the bottom [of society] … maybe if I
had been a lazy person I would have been there, I would have been down there now.’
What the interviews clearly show is an individual who copes with vicissitudes by means
of self-effort, hence more as an ideal than as a concrete experience. The implicit critique
of other people or of abuse (Araujo, 2009b) disappears behind this enthusiastic praise of
personal courage. Nothing shows this better than the strong contrast observed when com-
paring the effects of precariousness and flexibility on individuals, as a significant amount
of specialized literature has discussed.3 Where contributions that rely on institutional
individualism underscore new forms of subjection, social exclusion or subjective destruc-
tion (Castel, 1995), our study shows that even though these realities are not unknown
(Ramos, 2009; Soto, 2008) and there is a vivid perception of the strength of coercion and
the weakness of social protections, work was in general evoked as a very important and
necessary expressive realm.
In this modality of the individual, the lack of institutional support does not justify any
failure. For some it is even important to live without turning to this support. This is a
frequent experience within low-income sectors. If many of them usually or exceptionally
appeal for public assistance, many (sometimes the same ones) exhibit a legitimate pride
in rising from the difficulties on their own. This is a fact that contends a tradition of
thought that reviles poor people by distinguishing between the ‘good poor’ and the
‘assisted poor’. Certainly, pride appears many times mixed with resentment. A woman, a
single mother, recalls how she overcame a very difficult situation with courage. ‘Veronica,
I told myself, you are an important person and you have to be self-reliant and get over all
of this … because if the system closes all doors to you, I won’t shut them to myself. And
that’s what I did.’ Life is a struggle with or without institutional support.
This modality even though present in middle sectors has a particular strength within
popular sectors. Affirming the will of not depending on public assistance, a woman
recalls: ‘We got the house by our own effort, we fought and we got ahead. I think every-
body should do the same.’ She is proud of having achieved the ‘objective, alone. Of
depending only on ourselves, and that nobody may say “it is because of me that you have

Personal abilities
The second dimension of the individual specifies the nature of the effort: individuals
emphasize their abilities more than their strength when talking about the way they cope
with uncertain and adverse situations. To confront ordinary challenges in social life it is
necessary to find in oneself the required skills. ‘Whole life is a challenge’, contemplates
a male dress designer, ‘and it is not worth seeing only the negative part of it.’
To be skilful is to be able to take advantage of opportunities.4 Opportunity is the natu-
ral companion to the skilful individual in societies defined by the experience that every-
thing is hindered and that every acquired position is unstable (Araujo and Martuccelli,
2011). It is a way of intelligence that combines sagacity, prudence, daring, alertness and
‘instinct’. What is really important is to know how to avoid obstacles.
To take advantage of opportunities is a deeply optimistic and individualized ability. It
is a way in which to depart from adversity many of them take their fate into their own

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30 Current Sociology 62(1)

hands. A shop-keeper narrated to us how he adapts his business very fast to the market
by changing his products (fruits, clothes, shoes) and being flexible. He says he is perma-
nently alert. This attitude is not exclusive to this kind of activity. Many workers are proud
of being always available for every work opportunity that may appear (Díaz et al., 2006).
In a society where asymmetry of power has been structurally durable, practical skills
are a way of introducing contingency in necessity. It is a way of opening exchange hori-
zons and in so doing to install openness in the interactive realm. This attitude is often
momentary because in the end ‘structures’ generally have precedence over ‘agents’.
Nevertheless, what is important is to keep open situations to which opportunity gives a
philosophy of life. To achieve it, one must be smart, quick, astute, but also have enough
flexibility to avoid obstacles. ‘You have to be bright, very smart, we are living in the
world of the astute ones, nowadays you cannot stay still, nowadays you cannot trust,
nowadays you have to be very alert, it is not enough with two eyes you have to have four,
you have to be focused, and to know that you have to take opportunities, all of them
because they do not come back again’, a male social educator explained to us. ‘If you
don’t take them somebody else will. Yes it is so. It is so in every perspective. If you do
not marry him, somebody else will. If you don’t eat that piece, somebody else will. I
think life is like this’, says a female attorney. Opportunity is not evident: it is a sign that
you have to decipher and take advantage of.
What is important in this regard is not introspection but a state of alertness. It is a
moment and not a condition. On the other hand, even though opportunism is an indi-
vidual performance, it is at the same time an authentic collective value. This makes it a
component of the modality of the individual in Chile. Individual astuteness is to be cel-
ebrated and a source of esteem and self-esteem. A man from the low-income sector told
us how some years ago the opportunity ‘appeared’ to him. A friend of his who was a
postman offered him work on some of his postal rounds. ‘I made myself a friend of the
postman that ceded to me a part of his territory. Postmen have quadrants and he gave me
some he had. I always remember that they were 289 houses. I went there and delivered
[letters] twice or three times a week and monthly I made around 450,000 or 400,000
pesos at the time, and I charged more than for the letters for the service I gave.’ A good
‘business’ demands a good ‘technique’. The business, he explains, is a ‘matter of skin’,
a reason why many times he stayed chatting more than necessary with people to whom
he delivered the mail, time he charged at the end of the month.
Nevertheless, the mandate of taking advantage of opportunities may not be applied at
any price. Here one must navigate the winding border with transgression (Girola, 2005;
Méndez et al., 2002; Nino, 2005; Portocarrero, 2004). Opportunism may be an object of
admiration, which is not the case with transgression. Although opportunism might be
seen as a collective vice, it is often considered a personal virtue.

Interpersonal relationships
The two dimensions discussed above show how the individual appears as a hyper-actor.
But this representation is accompanied by another one. Individuals acknowledge that
they ask for help. They lean on others and receive help from them. To some, this support
takes the form of ‘exemplary persons’. To others, it is a matter of material support. Such

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Araujo and Martuccelli 31

was the case of one woman. After her first marriage broke up she remained ‘alone with
my daughter, I had to struggle so that nothing was lacking … It was hard for me to work
alone to rise up.’ This was a process in which she recognizes she received active support
from a man who would become her second husband. The true dynamic is a combination
between effort and support from others, but as we shall see even this second element
requires the display of personal skills.
Support is basically associated with interpersonal relationships. When it came to insti-
tutions, situations were always far more categorical, univocal and hostile. Some speak
about an institutional abandon, like a stallholder who recalls how she had to ‘work with
my children, I couldn’t leave them alone. Those were years and years of my life that were
like a big, big nightmare.’ In this context, family plays a decisive role as a multidirec-
tional and multifunctional support (Valenzuela et al., 2006). ‘The most important thing is
family’, declared a man who works as a real estate agent. Family is without doubt a
central institution that compels certain roles and obligations in Chilean society. However,
there is another dimension that is strongly present in our results: family is seen primarily
as a strategic relational resource for individual affirmation. It is only in those cases in
which family is absent or has serious limitations that other relationships are mainly
referred to as a source of support. This is the case of a woman in her thirties. As long as
she has no familiar network, she says, she must develop ‘the virtue of cultivating differ-
ent networks’. Social relationships appear also as bonds clearly and explicitly associated
with professional strategies: ‘I have made very good friends on my job, and making good
friends at work allows me to do a lot of interesting activities’, affirms emphatically a
middle-aged university professor. Lastly, social relationships are seen as a source of
profit in different spheres, from politics to religion, as the commentary of a middle-
income man reveals: ‘the boom of the Legionnaires of Christ is not to be explained but
as a social network’.
It is from sociability and thanks to the competencies acquired by means of their rela-
tional skills, that individuals assume their existence and reaffirm it daily. As a male engi-
neer explained to us: ‘In this world, at least in this country … people move thanks to a
network of contacts, and you make contacts at school, the group of friends you had then
are the ones that finally can give you a hand, get you a job, help you to get a business,
there is your base, your strength for the rest of your life.’ Of course such a representation
dismisses everything that individuals owe to institutions. The solitude in the face of insti-
tutions, even when this discourse omits the different kinds of support that people do
receive from institutions (rights, infrastructure, assistance, etc.), is coloured by the
knowledge of being able to achieve through the support received from others, or at least
some others. Individuals are propelled to incarnate relational hyper-actors, a trait that
highly differentiates them from the self-made man model.

Lastly, the individuals that emerge from the individuation process studied seek to pro-
vide themselves with a practical consistency. Within the frame of institutional individu-
alism, the production of the individual is closely related to the work through which under
an institutional prescription the individual achieves the constitution of oneself as a

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32 Current Sociology 62(1)

subject. From Marxism to psychoanalysis, from feminist works to those of Foucault,

even if theorizations have shown extremely important differences (collective subject,
subjection, intra-psychical work and so on), subjectivation has in all cases been analysed
as the product of a work of individuals assisted or compelled by institutions, and defined
as a path to obtain a moral consistency.
The process that we studied shows a different direction, in that individuals as rela-
tional hyper-actors seek to constitute themselves around a practical personal consistency.
In other words, for individuals it is not the case basically to ‘choose’ or to ‘decide’ but to
‘do’ and to ‘be’. In Chile today the individual must display a set of consistencies which
seek to achieve a peculiar form of pragmatic consistency. With this notion we are not
referring to psychic self-esteem but to a specific form of confidence in one’s practical
competencies; that is, in the skills individuals possess and through which they strive to
cope with the situations they must confront. It is a source of pragmatic assurance in a
society perceived as a permanent source of insecurity.
By facing life’s vicissitudes, the pragmatic consistency and the self-confidence that it
provides are an important element. Of course, underlying this type of self-confidence is
evidence of an expansion of self-help literature in Chile, especially among the middle-
income sectors (Méndez, 2008). But this is not the only explanation. The permanent
allusion to self-confidence gains its complete significance if we understand it as the
indispensable fuel to confront everyday challenges. It is this attitude, for example, which
allows many interviewees to consider that if their financial situation severely worsened,
they would find in themselves the necessary strength to go forwards. What interviewees
recalled was confidence in their practical skills and not psychic self-esteem. Pragmatic
consistency is a tool to face life and for the constitution of oneself as an individual.
Here too, as with the other three dimensions discussed, pragmatic consistency is more
a product of personal elaboration while confronting social life than an answer to institu-
tional prescriptions. This is a reason why individuals underscore the endogenous charac-
ter of their strength, even though they might appeal to the support of cultural
representations or even some institutional resources. Consistency appears as a trait of
character or as temperament. In order to confront the difficulties faced in society, char-
acter (which means, our results suggest, to have a strong temperament) appears as an
important resource to develop pragmatic consistency. For example, to explain why she
does not let herself be intimidated by her employers, a domestic employee says: ‘I have
character … I have a special character, so when I don’t like something, I just walk away.’
Character as temperament appears to be mobilized as the indispensable support of a per-
sonal attitude that would not be possible to sustain otherwise due to the persistence of
verticality in social bonds in Chile.
The existence of this modality of consistency does not mean that there are no subject
configurations or moral performances in Chile. We do not subscribe at all to those theses
that conceive individuals in the region as transgressors or as morally weak (Nino, 2005).
Indeed, this type of consistency based on a pragmatic self-confidence may on occasion
turn into actions that are critically judged from a moral point of view. Among our inter-
viewees nobody expressed this tension better than one man, who was a lawyer: ‘I try [to
make] people assume responsibility when they have screwed up. In Chile guilt is always
put outside and people never assume the responsibility; as a result, they are condemned

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Araujo and Martuccelli 33

to repeat the story permanently.’ The pragmatic consistency of the relational hyper-actor
is a resource for action and not a principle of moral rectitude. However, this does not
deny at all the constant moral work of individuals but frames it. This may be associated
with the fact that ordinary moral performance is closely related to the effects of social
experiences and it is not the sole effect of the internalization of institutionally provided
norms and social ideals (Araujo, 2009b).

Individuation in Chile: The relational hyper-actor

The relational hyper-actor as the modality of the individual in Chile must be put in con-
text. Chilean society has undergone a set of transformations related, on the one hand, to
the turn to neoliberalism in the 1970s, with the country becoming the first laboratory of
this model (Harvey, 2007). On the other hand, these transformations were associated
with demands for equality which have led to increased exigencies of horizontality within
interpersonal relationships as well as in the relationships with institutions. The neoliberal
politics redesigned the borders between the market and the state (Garretón, 2000;
Góngora, 1981; Tironi, 2005). The relationships between social groups underwent a deep
modification, to the extent that the country’s economy was strategically opened to inter-
national markets and later to capital markets. New forms of regulation in the labour
market appeared. Public protections and regulations decreased and workers’ responsibil-
ity for their work trajectories, health and pensions was emphasized. Salaries were thor-
oughly individualized (Ramos, 2009). Principles of social protection were modified
(Raczynski and Serrano, 2005): health services, education and social security privatized.
Consumption and credit became the structural elements of social relationships and per-
sonal life (Moulian, 1997). As an effect, a feeling of positional inconsistency spreads
through society. This feeling refers to the perception that every social position may suffer
active processes of destabilization due to the transference to individuals of the tasks
related to the level and quality of their social integration (Araujo and Martuccelli, 2011).
In this context, individuals are the ones that must constantly face macro-sociological
(inflation, political instabilities, changes associated with globalization …) and micro-
sociological (family events, health problems, dismissals …) challenges.
It might be correctly argued that these are transversal transformations that face many
if not all contemporary societies. True. But it is important to acknowledge that there are
specific ways of confronting this issue behind the apparent similitude of these situations.
It is precisely this specificity which defines the different individuation models. In Chile
this situation produces, as we have seen, individuals that must take charge of themselves
in a very different way to that referred to by institutional individualism. Even though the
strength of the representation of the individual might be at the institutional level (some-
thing well expressed by rights), the individual does not perceive her- or himself and is
not perceived primarily as a result of institutions, as other studies have pointed out
(Robles, 2000). A major consequence of this situation to be emphasized is that in this
society social integration takes precedence over systemic integration (Lechner, 1987).
These individuals sustain and build themselves based upon their capacity to ‘do’. Of
course, every individual is an actor, that is, somebody that reacts and transforms her or
his environment. Nevertheless, in the occidental tradition, this dimension of the

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34 Current Sociology 62(1)

individual was subordinated to the notion of subject due to the strength of mechanisms
(market, citizenship, school or emotions) that compelled individuals to constitute them-
selves as subjects. In this regard we find a deep analytical coincidence between Durkheim
and Weber, Parsons and Bourdieu, Elias and Foucault, Althusser or Touraine (Martuccelli,
1999). This is not what our study shows in the case of Chile. In this case, the individual
presents and conceives her- or himself fundamentally as a hyper-actor. To make our point
clearer: the models of subject (that do exist) to which individuals might appeal, are sub-
ordinated to the set of practical competencies that individuals as actors must develop to
deal with the challenges of social life. Individuals are not essentially actors that consti-
tute themselves departing from a normative figure of the subject institutionally provided.
Individuals constitute themselves as individuals because they perceive themselves as
actors capable of practically dealing with challenges.
But individuals are also propelled to constitute themselves based on a specific rela-
tional management. They must take charge of themselves, counting on their interper-
sonal relationships. This dimension is experienced as a basic resource and a source of
support, even though it is at the same time perceived as undergoing strong tensions and
contradictions. The individual is to be conceived as a relational vertex and weaver of
networks, loyalties and bonds (Barozet, 2006; Lomnitz, 1971). This explains the reason
why the individual is not allowed to disregard either interpersonal relationships or
Certainly, the relational nature of the individual has been actively described within the
frame of institutional individualism. This has underscored the importance of the ‘signifi-
cant others’ and interactions (Blumer, 1969; Goffman, 1974), the issue of recognition
(Honneth, 1992) or, from a more instrumental perspective, social capital (Bourdieu,
1980; Coleman, 1990; Granovetter, 1973). All these elements are to be found in Chilean
society and in its individuals’ experiences. But what is essential in this case is something
different. Individuals conceive themselves as intimately being their relationships. Their
practical competencies include a set of relationships that are not to be dissociated from
their agency in society (‘contacts’, networks or ‘favour chains’). These relationships are
far more significant in this sense than as supports in their everyday care (Tronto, 1993).
Nevertheless, these individuals do not perceive themselves based upon their position
within a lineage or an exclusive relational network, as in the so-called traditional socie-
ties.5 Their personal conscience is not framed by communitarian obligations.
The relational realm has clear individual and even individualistic features. These
should be understood as skills that the individual must have in order to deal with the chal-
lenges of social life. Relationships are a core component of the social resources that
individuals possess that bring them to temper their own interests with plural forms of
commitment, responsibilities, reciprocities or gifts. This fact explains the double nature
of many social relations: at one and the same time, affective and instrumental. A new
conceptual precision results from this feature of the process of individuation in Chile. It
is not the case here of an individual based on her or his autonomy, as contended by clas-
sical sociological and before them philosophical authors in the European debate.
To avoid misunderstandings we would like to underscore our point. Of course there
are institutions in Chile as in any other society, but it is not by departing from them that
the path to individuation in this society should be defined. It is worth to recall here the

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Araujo and Martuccelli 35

fact that institution is a polysemic notion. Some authors give it such a wide definition
that every social phenomenon (ways of making, thinking or feeling) that reproduces
itself is meant to be an institution (Mauss and Fauconnet, 1981 [1901]). In this article we
use a more restrictive conception of this notion: institution defines a reduced number of
legitimate principles usually incarnated in specific social organizations under the form of
a recognizable and explicit institutional programme (Dubet, 2002). It is from this under-
standing that we contest the importance of institution to understand individuation pro-
cesses in Chile.

An agentic individualism
To review our argument before going further: the process of individuation in Chile
differs from that of the institutional individualism model.6 Certainly, the work of
institutions is active and explicit in many realms of social life. However, individuals
are not forged basically in reference to institutional prescriptions. Individuals are
forged confronting social life’s vicissitudes by means of their capacities and skills,
which include the mobilization of interpersonal relationships, and through a singular
set of strategies and competencies. Thus, empirical individuals should be defined as
relational hyper-actors.
What our results show is that the absence or weakness of a cultural and political indi-
vidualistic tradition linked to a strong institutional programme of individualization as in
modern occidental societies does not impede the formation of individuals. The individ-
ual is produced on another basis.7 This means that we do not face here an institutional
individualism but what we would like to call an agentic individualism. That is to say, a
social, cultural, political representation of the individual and its preeminence constituted
upon competencies for agency. Individuals are produced and conceived by means of
their practical skills and competencies and is from these that subject ideals or models to
which they may eventually be attached derive.
Institutions in this context are at the most just another resource to mobilize in a prag-
matic and specific way. Institutions are not the main support of the individual. Moreover,
in Chile, and probably in Latin America as a whole, the situation is almost inverse: actors
not only perceive themselves as unprotected by institutions but also in many cases have
the feeling that they have to protect themselves from the prescriptions that these institu-
tions transmit to them. This is clear in the case of Chile: individuals feel that have to
protect themselves from the excesses of consumerism or time expected to be spent at
work (Moulian, 1998). This is also to be seen in the excessively high levels of mistrust
in institutions present in the region (Rojas, 2010). This fact evidences the risk of inter-
preting individuals in this region according to the conceptualizations proposed, for
example, by Robert Castel (1995) or Sennett (1998) about the negative effects of institu-
tional abandonment.
To summarize and point out the differences between these two modalities of individu-
alism: within the framework of institutional individualism the role of institutional pro-
grammes in the production and interpellation of individuals as subjects is essential.
Within the context of agentic individualism what takes precedence is the self-sustainability
of individuals as social actors. In the first path, individuals must measure up to a model

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36 Current Sociology 62(1)

proposed by institutions. In the second, individuals must primarily achieve to get along
by relying upon their own skills and competencies. In the first model, the individual as a
subject is never ‘first’, she or he is always a consequence of institutional or disciplinary
principles or mechanisms. On the contrary, in agentic individualism individuals con-
ceives themselves as obliged to take charge of themselves, on their own. It is only from
their concrete and ordinary experiences of inhabiting the social, and not from institu-
tional prescriptions, that these individuals develop the work of constituting themselves
as moral subjects.

This work was supported by the Chilean Sciences and Technology National Council (grant number

1. For a detailed presentation of this research see Araujo and Martuccelli (2012).
2. Such an interpretation may also be found in studies concerning other regions such as Asia
(Shayegan, 1996: 163–188), and specially Sub-Saharan Africa (Copans, 1990), where the
existence of an economic modernization without modernity has been insisted (that is, without
the spirit of Enlightenment).
3. A visible process is the way in which different authors from different perspectives have inter-
preted informal work as a complex source for the production of individualities (but see Matos
Mar, 1984; De Soto, 1986; and in Chile, Lavín, 1987).
4. This is individuality trait is not only to be found in Chile. This matter has been discussed, for
example, by Brazilian authors like Amante and Garramuño (2000) and Wisnik (2008).
5. A fact that differentiates the Latin American path to individuation from the individuation
modalities found in some contemporary Sub-Saharan African societies (see Marie, 1997,
6. For a more detailed presentation of the social processes of individuation related to agentic
individualism see Araujo and Martuccelli (2012).
7. Certainly our results are circumscribed by the case of Chile, but it is worth recalling that this
is a country with one of the highest levels of institutionalization in the region.

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Author biographies
Kathya Araujo is a Professor of Sociology and Psychology at the Universidad Academia de
Humanismo Cristiano at Santiago de Chile. Her main research fields are individuation and subject
configuration and the relationship of individuals with norms, and gender and feminist studies.
Currently she is conducting research on authority and democratization processes. She is author,
among others, of Habitar lo social (2009), Dignos de su arte (2009) and editor of ¿Se acata pero
no se cumple? (2009). She is co-author (with Danilo Martuccelli) of Desafíos communes: La socie-
dad chilena y sus individuos (2 vols, 2012).
Danilo Martuccelli is a Professor of Sociology at the Université Paris Descartes. He is member
of the Institut Universitaire de France (IUF) and affiliated with the research centre CERLIS –
CNRS. His work focuses on social theory, sociology of individuation and political sociology.
He has published more than 20 books, among them: Sociologies de la modernité (1999),
Grammaires de l’individu (2002), Forgé par l’épreuve (1996), ¿Existen individuos en el Sur?
(2010) and La Société singulariste (2010). He is co-author (with Kathya Araujo) of Desafíos
communes: La sociedad chilena y sus individuos (2 vols, 2012).

L’étude sociologique des processus d’individuation dans les sociétés occidentales mobi-
lise la notion d’individualisme institutionnelle comme concept-clé. Cet article suggère
que cette thèse n’est pas forcément appropriée à la compréhension de sociétés ayant
des traditions culturelles et des pratiques institutionnelles différentes. A partir des résu-
ltats d’une enquête conduite au Chili, nous examinons l’existence d’un parcours spéci-

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40 Current Sociology 62(1)

fique qui conduit à l’individuation dans cette société. Nos résultats mettent en évidence
la prééminence analytique d’un ensemble de compétences qui naissent et se dévelop-
pent dans les conflits de la vie sociale. L’individuation au Chili aboutit à la constitution
d’hyperacteurs relationnels à quatre dimensions : auto-effort, qualifications, relations
interpersonnelles et cohérence pragmatique. C’est ce que nous proposons de concep-
tualiser comme individualisme d’agent.

Individuation, hyperacteur relationnel, Chili, individualisme institutionnel, individualisme

El estudio sociológico de los procesos de individuación en las sociedades occidentales
modernas ha movilizado la tesis del individualismo institucional como un concepto clave.
En este trabajo se discute que esta tesis no puede ser apropiada para entender socie-
dades con diferentes tradiciones culturales y prácticas institucionales. En base a los
resultados de una investigación cualitativa desarrollada en Chile, problematizamos la
existencia de un camino específico hacia la individuación en dicha sociedad. Nuestros
datos muestran la preeminencia de análisis, dentro del proceso de individuación en
Chile, de un conjunto de competencias que deben ser generadas y desarrolladas para
enfrentar la vida social misma. La individuación en Chile conduce a la constitución de
hiper-actores relacionales, basados en cuatro dimensiones: el auto- esfuerzo, las habili-
dades, las relaciones interpersonales y la consistencia pragmática. Esto es lo que pro-
ponemos que se entienda como individualismo agéntico.

Palabras clave
Individuación, hiper-actor relacional, Chile, individualismo institucional, el individualismo

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