Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

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),...

(The entire section contains 2849 words.)

Unlock This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this Habits of the Heart study guide. You'll get access to all of the Habits of the Heart content, as well as access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

  • Summary
  • Analysis
  • Themes
  • Characters
  • Quotes
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

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.

Habits of the Heart

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2334

For more than two decades, sociologist Robert Bellah has been the reigning interpreter of how American religion influences America’s unique political culture. In 1967, Bellah published “Civil Religion in America,” an essay that aroused a controversy whose conclusion is not yet in sight. For Bellah maintained that, although the Constitution not only avoids references to God but also forbids the establishment of a state religion, the republic was nevertheless conceived in religious terms. Thomas Jefferson’s appeal to “Nature’s God” in the Declaration of Independence is only the most famous manifestation of America’s “political religion.” James Madison was convinced that prior to one’s membership in civil society, there is the society constituted by one’s allegiance to “the Universal Sovereign.” In George Washington’s farewell address, religion and morality were called “indispensable supports [of] political prosperity.” For Abraham Lincoln, the claims of both slave owner and abolitionist must be placed in a higher context of divine justice. The use of such allusions to religion continues into current history, as when Mario Cuomo, governor of New York—in terms reminiscent of the book of Amos—corrected Ronald Reagan’s appropriation of the biblical symbol of the “city set upon a hill.”

If there has been a sustaining “political religion” in America, one may inquire into its present condition. Bellah has long been interested in tracing the life history of America’s peculiar “public piety.” In particular, he has been concerned to measure its fortunes at the hands of individualism, the dominant cultural value in America. Bellah’s guide in this research effort is Alexis de Tocqueville, the remarkable Frenchman who produced Democracy in America (1835-1840), possibly the most penetrating sociological analysis of a culture ever made. In Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (the title itself comes from Tocqueville), Bellah digests five years of research and reflection into the present condition of American individualism. Specifically, the book attempts to see if Tocqueville’s fears about individualism have been refuted in modern experience. The gravest of Tocqueville’s warnings was that individualism would, if unchecked, lead to a new form of despotism. Bellah does not conclude that Americans are in immediate danger, but the long-range prognosis is not good. For, maintains Bellah, even the inheritors of the tradition of American civil religion have been damaged by the pervasive effects of individualist ideology. Those who find the time to cease the pursuit of “success” and attend to the common good often have difficulty explaining themselves. Public life, its nature and calling, is seriously weakened by the inadequacy of our deepest theories about peoplehood, self-expression, and the status of moral imperatives.

Clearly then, Habits of the Heart is meant to engage our fullest powers of national and personal reflection. That Bellah and his talented associates intend to provoke strong public discussion is clear from their research method. The springboard for theoretical analysis is material derived from interviews with more than two hundred persons. Some of these interviews were very extensive and led Bellah’s team into participant observation. Four interview subjects achieve paradigmatic importance in the work. They are a top manager in a Silicon Valley firm, a public-relations director of a large manufacturing company with a branch office in a small town near Boston, a psychotherapist with a private practice in a large Southern city, and a community organizer for the Campaign for Economic Democracy, a leftist organization in Southern California. Three of these four are males; all are white; all are middle-class.

Whatever the scientific shortcomings of this focus—Bellah defends his methodology in the preface, but critics have not found him persuasive—the fact that Habits of the Heart has “characters” adds immensely to its interest and partly explains the passions that the book has stirred. The four are permitted to speak freely and thoroughly. Their utterances are then discussed and analyzed in terms which sociologists, political scientists, and historians have fashioned to understand the nature of individualism in American culture. The reader is therefore enabled to discover the personal significance of such theoretical concepts as “moral ecology,” “bureaucratic individualism,” “lifestyle enclave,” and “community of memory.”

Individualism is a notoriously tricky notion. Like democracy, or community, or freedom, it is both shibboleth and symbol, analytic construct and social epithet. For the disciplined Communist, individualism represents a failure of scientific and organizational understanding. Military establishments use it as a term of abuse. Tocqueville always tried to distinguish individualism from egoism, a philosophic notion rooted in extreme versions of subjectivist epistemology. The individualism that Tocqueville spoke of was a milder (but perhaps more pernicious) sort: the tendency to look to one’s own fortunes before considering those of the community; the sentiment that the community ultimately benefits from an enlightened and fair-minded pursuit of one’s own fortune; the impulse to withdraw into a small private world of family and a few friends.

Tocqueville was aware that the Puritans had embraced yet another variant of individualism: the right of the individual to interpret Scripture and offer conscientious objections to religious authority in matters of ecclesiastical policy. Puritan individualism was, however, shaped and constrained by the organic metaphors of the Pauline traditions. The Massachusetts Bay Colony saw itself as a covenanted community. Governor John Winthrop reminded his fellow Christians that “we must delight in each other, make others conditions our own, rejoyce together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our community as members of the same body.” The society established by the Puritans did not aim at the fullest and freest possible development of its members—nor were wealth or even happiness the ends to be secured. “Their fundamental criterion of success,” explains Bellah, was “the creation of a community in which a genuinely ethical and spiritual life could be lived.” In short, Puritans sought to embody biblical righteousness and insisted that such righteousness be communally realized.

By Tocqueville’s time, Puritan individualism had been largely supplanted in America by two quite different, essentially secular strains. In characterizing the nineteenth century legacy, Bellah distinguishes between “utilitarian” and “expressive” forms of individualism. The former derives from the ideas of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Jeremy Bentham, Adam Smith, and (somewhat later) Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer. The individual is the source of rights and the locus of value. His communities are voluntary associations formed by contracts. He is presumed to be acquisitive—to have a natural propensity “to truck and barter—and his behavior is largely governed by considerations of profit and loss. Success defined as material security and vocational competence is a principal goal. The common good emerges automatically through the operation of self-interest, guided as if by an “invisible hand.”

An alternative tradition of individualism developed in reaction to the utilitarian type, claims Bellah. This could have been predicted, for the rationality, inner control, and isolating self-reliance of utilitarian individualism left too little room for love, feeling, and a sense of the essential connectedness of all life. Thus, an “expressive individualism,” linked to European romanticism, arose in America, which insisted that “each person has a unique core of feeling and intuition that should unfold or be expressed if individuality is to be realized.” Its emphasis is on spiritual cultivation, mystical identification with nature, ecstatic self-affirmation. Walt Whitman is the quintessential representative of this tradition. Material acquisition meant nothing to him; rather, a successful life was one rich in experiences, contacts with a wide diversity of egalitarian souls, and sensual and intellectual pleasures.

Bellah believes that both traditions of individualism still powerfully influence American patterns of thought. Yet, because both are deeply inadequate accounts of social existence, they persistently lead Americans into blindness, confusion, and ambiguity. Worse, these two traditions encourage Americans to devise social arrangements that undermine the very psychological and moral conditions by which a vibrant individualism might be sustained.

The discussion of the culture of psychotherapy in Habits of the Heart reveals much about Bellah’s central thesis. Since much of their research studied the lives of middle-class Californians, it is not surprising that Bellah’s team developed a preoccupation with therapy and its place in American society. What they found particularly striking was the way therapy combines strains of both traditions of individualism.

That the “expressive” version of individualism is sustained in various forms of therapy should be clear. When therapeutically inclined Americans speak of “getting in touch with their real feelings,” or “dealing with their anger,” or “coming to terms with oppressive memories and fears,” they are partly following a Whitmanesque model. Bellah, however, finds more utilitarianism in the therapeutic mode than one might have thought. He is struck by the fact that many therapists use the language of economics when discussing the self and its relationships. Clients are encouraged to understand their own wants and needs and then seek to fulfill them in the social marketplace. They are counseled to inquire of their vocational and recreational worlds: Am I getting what I want? Am I getting as much as I am giving—as much as I could get elsewhere? As for lasting commitments, these become especially problematic within this “giving-getting model,” for they may require the individual to make very disadvantageous contracts.

Much of Bellah’s critical assessment of American individualism surfaces in his treatment of the therapeutic movement. He observes that, with the manager, the therapist “define[s] the outlines of twentieth-century American culture.” That culture’s social basis is bureaucratic consumer capitalism, a setting dominated by large, impersonal organizations. Because they “cure” people of their resistance to fitting into this setting, therapists can offer no significant opposition to its imperialism. Indeed, their dedication to the logic of exchange reinforces the power of that status quo. What is worse, however, is that the therapeutic world fosters a kind of relativism which renders both political action and commitment to moral communities unintelligible.

For Bellah (as for Robert Nisbet and a host of conservative sociologists), strong individuals owe their strength to strong groups, communities, and moral traditions. In the late twentieth century, however, this wisdom has been lost. The atomistic tendencies of historic individualism have been given full expression, and, as a result, sustaining social wholes are either fragile or gone. The “social ecology” which has knit American life is in poor condition. Whereas we once championed the individual who separated himself from the oppressions of small-town culture, we now long to reestablish that culture. Yet, like Laocoön, we are constricted by our individualist traditions.

Trapped in large rational bcureaucracies, we carry out “expressive individualism” in free time, vacations, and “life-style enclaves” (rather than diversified communities having a rich common history). Little scope is left for the public good. Americans still excel in the art of social voluntarism, but “service organizations” do not constitute social movements. Voluntarism has itself been co-opted by the reigning system.

In what way lies health? Bellah’s final chapter, “Transforming American Culture,” attempts to discern some possibilities. Despite its seemingly inexorable movement toward incoherence, fragmentation, and oppressive disorder, American society still draws strength from its biblical and republican traditions. These must be newly appreciated and extended. So too must authentic “communities of memory” (churches, synagogues, ethnic organizations, neighborhoods, and small towns) be correctly validated. By intruding their calendars, festivals, and rituals into the public domain, they thwart the attempt of television to homogenize the consciousness of the American people and prepare them for the “real world” of constant consumerism.

Bellah also hopes that developments in the world of ideas will speed the necessary transformation. With Fritjof Capra and others, he finds great promise in the emerging interdisciplinarity of the physical sciences. The rise of ecology—as science and social philosophy—is especially significant, for ecology offers concepts (feedback, biome, ecosystemic complexity) which help to measure the interconnectedness of all life. Ecological awareness also compels us to recognize the existence of “moral ecologies”—webs of moral understandings and commitments that bind people together in profound and subtle ways. Bellah eagerly awaits the appropriation of ecological notions in the social sciences (especially economics). Yet even in their present form, sociology and political science have done much to document usefully the “invisible complexity” and destructive fragmentation of American society.

The social sciences have also forced Americans to confront the degree of socioeconomic inequality in their nation. The renewal of politics and cultural life should begin here, argues Bellah, for “the litmus test that both the Biblical and republican traditions give us for assaying the health of a society is how it deals with the problem of wealth and poverty.” He appeals for a new social movement (“the successor and fulfillment of the Civil Rights movement”) which would have such aims as a rechartering of the business corporation, making it a concession of public authority for the performance of a public good; a reallocation of economic rewards, bringing greater security and prestige to those doing routine and boring work; a strong movement toward economic democracy, worker participation in managerial decisions, and a reduction of working hours for those men and women involved in child-rearing; a revival of crafts; a revitalization of the party system; and an attack of the competitive success ethos presently pervading America.

In making these suggestions, Bellah is often tentative and allusive. A sadness bordering on despair seems to overwhelm any visions of “transformation.” He wonders if Americans are simply too satisfied with consumerism and the expressive individualism of private life to respond to the challenge. They may grant that “the time may be approaching when we will either reform our republic or fall into the hands of despotism.” To act, however, may require more than Americans can give. Livy said of his fellow Romans: “We have reached the point where we cannot bear either our vices or their cure.” Bellah believes that these words apply to Americans. He constantly implies, moreover, that prior to “cure” there may need to be catastrophe. That would be the hard way to correct the bad habits of our collective heart.


Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 54

Choice. XXII, July, 1985, p. 1702.

Christian Century. CII, May 15, 1985, p. 499.

Christian Science Monitor. LXXVII, June 17, 1985, p. 25.

Commonweal. CXII, May 17, 1985, p. 308.

Library Journal. CX, March 1, 1985, p. 98.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. May 19, 1985, p. 2.

The New York Times Book Review. XC, April 14, 1985, p. 1.

Newsweek. CV, April 29, 1985, p. 70.

Psychology Today. XIX, June, 1985, p. 72.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXVII, January 4, 1985, p. 64.

Illustration of PDF document

Download Habits of the Heart Study Guide

Subscribe Now