Habits of the Heart Themes
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Habits of the Heart Themes

Habits of the Heart is a sociological analysis by Robert Bellah, Richard Madsen, William M. Sullivan, Ann Swidler, and Steven M. Tipton. Its primary theme is the centrality of individualism in United States society. While the authors do not make absolute pronouncements, in considering both the positive and negative effects of individualism, they imply that excessive self-interest poses a substantial threat to democracy. Thus, an important secondary theme that derives from the main theme is the creativity of American people in their efforts to build a society that promotes equality while not restricting personal achievement. In this regard, the declining influence of religion as an aspect of reduced interest in the commonweal is a significant theme.

Bellah and his co-authors combined several social science research methods in studying this topic. Their findings are contextualized through use of historical documents, especially published writings. Beginning with commentaries from early observers such as Alexis de Tocqueville, the authors trace the focus on the individual to the roots of U. S. national formation. To probe the contemporary relation between individual and group as both ideology and practice, they interviewed several hundred subjects. The book includes findings from quantitative analysis of the interviews’ results, but also depends heavily on the view of four subjects.

On the one hand, their findings promote individual achievement, such as by entrepreneurs and statesmen, and they highlight especially high achievers. In this respect, the possible negative effects on groups less often represented among that upper echelon are not fully considered—the four highlighted individuals are all white, and three are male (presumably cis/straight). Thus, a lack of attention to diversity is notable.

On the other hand, the authors examine a broad spectrum of social institutions—not just churches but other “communities of memory”—in their effort to understand the continuity and decline of collective efforts. Overall, the critical aspect and a pessimistic tone dominate the book, and the material on current (as of the 1980s, when written) and future positive prospects do not receive the in-depth consideration the authors say they merit.