The concept of individualisation was developed to describe the process where the increasing rapidity of social change and greater uncertainty force individuals to spend more time and effort deciding on what choices to make in their daily lives, and where they have to accept greater individual responsibility for the consequences of those choices.
It is a concept most closely associated with the late modern sociological perspectives of Ulrich Beck and Anthony Giddens.
The easiest way to understand it is to contrast it to the concept of ‘individual freedom’ in postmodern thought.
In postmodernism, the breakdown of traditional social norms and ways of live are presented as something positive – resulting in greater freedom of choice for individuals – since the 1980s especially people do have much more freedom to choose their careers, their family situation (whether to get married or not), their faith, even their sexuality.
In short, postmodern society is one in which people have greater freedom to construct their own individual identity.
HOWEVER, according to Beck and Giddens, postmodernists have overstated the extent to which individuals are free, there is more going on.
The move to postmodernity has also meant that there is more social instability and uncertainty – careers last for a shorter period of time, relationships are more likely to break down, the welfare state provides less security for us if we fall on hard times, and even experts (scientists/ doctors) seem less able to give us definitive answers on how we should live.
THUS, it is not so much a case of postmodern society providing us with opportunities to be free to do as we please, rather we are forced into making hundreds if not thousands of choices in order to simply get-by – we are ‘individualised’, this is NOT the same thing as just simply being free.
Individualisation – In More Depth….
Individualisation is ‘compulsory’ rather than being about genuine personal freedom, and is an integral part of self-hood in the neoliberal (dis) order.
As Ulrich Beck and Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim (2001/2002) have argued, individuals are compelled now to make agonistic choices throughout their life-course – there may be no guidance – and they are required to take sole responsibility for the consequences of choices made or, indeed, not made.
Individualisation is a contradictory phenomenon, both exhilarating and terrifying. It really does feel like freedom, especially for women liberated from patriarchal control. But, when things go wrong there is no excuse for anyone. The individual is penalised harshly not only for personal failure but also for sheer bad luck in a highly competitive and relentlessly harsh social environment. Although the Becks deny it, such a self – condemned to freedom and lonely responsibility – is exactly the kind of self cultivated by neoliberalism, combining freewheeling consumer sovereignty with enterprising business acumen.
This concept is a very advanced one for A-level sociology students who can use it to criticise Postmodernism which they are required to study as part of the second year module in Theory and Methods.
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