Habits of the Heart

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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 461

Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life is a 1985 sociological study written by sociologists Robert N. Bellah and Ann Swidler, philosophers Richard Madsen and William M Sullivan, and theologian Steven M Tipton. It is an analysis of itself on modern American society, (white) culture, religion (Christianity), and individualism.

The title comes from a phrase used by French political scientist and historian Alexis de Tocqueville in his famed text Democracy in America, in which he wrote that equality should be more important than individualism.

The book is based on interviews made on approximately 200 white, middle-class Americans who were asked about the meaning of individualism, freedom, justice, success, community, and lifestyle. They were categorized in four groups: The entrepreneur, the manager, the therapist, and the independent citizen. Using various Tocqueville’s references on culture and character, the authors distinguish two types of individualism: utilitarian and expressive. According to them, utilitarian individualism is

A form of individualism that takes as given basic human appetites and fears . . . and sees human life as an effort by individuals to maximize their self-interest relative to these given ends. Utilitarian individualism views society as arising from a contract that individuals enter into only in order to advance their self-interest.

While expressive individualism is

A form of individualism that arose in opposition to utilitarian individualism. Expressive individualism holds that each person has a unique core of feeling and intuition that should unfold or be expressed if individuality is to be realized.

Both of these types are considered toxic to the society and are viewed as notions that might completely destroy the concept of freedom. This is why, Bellah et al. suggest a unique solution to the problem of individualism. They write of a “community of memory” and a “community of hope,” where older traditions and older ways of thinking and communicating about life are cherished. They believe that the key component for having a proper and functional society is civic activism, and that the people should put more importance on the interests of the community and the society, rather than prioritizing their own personal interests. The authors also argue that religion (primarily Christianity) plays an important role in the preservation of the real societal and communal values.

The book covers a variety of themes such as the clash between individuality and community, religion, politics and democracy, marriage and family, liberalism, the socioeconomic climate in America and contemporary therapeutic culture. Even though it gained generally positive reviews and even received a Pulitzer Prize nomination for General Nonfiction, Habits of the Heart was criticized for being relevant only for the era it was written in (1980–1990). Some readers argue that the book holds no real value in today’s modern and contemporary society, as society has evolved tremendously since then.

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