First developed by German sociologist Ulrich Beck (1992), the individualisation thesis suggests that each individual person is becoming, everincreasingly, the central element in their own social life and world, with the importance on individual autonomy taking the place of formerly favoured social inter-conectedness. In this essay, I will argue that the individualisation thesis, although some may criticise for negatively effecting the community-based life which was once the norm, is overall an ineivitable force for good that is changing out-dated traditions and norms in fundamental ways, allowing people to live more satisfied lives than ever before. There are many complex and layered concepts involved in the phenomenon of individualisation, too many for the scope of this essay; hence I will outline and explain some of the important ideas which help us to understand and which underpin the individualisation thesis. A brief historical context is needed in order to understand the sudden and immense shift in mind-set, from a collective way of being, to the contemporary individualistic way of life we experience today. During antiquity, there was little time for the individual, as society and State were considered above the needs of the individual. In concurrence of the protestant doctrine of earning salvation in this life, 16th century protestant reformation made it possible for the individual to not only acquire goods, but be virtuous in doing so. Previously, it had been considered sinful and detremental to the rest of the community for a person to accumulate goods for personal benefit. What followed this mind-set, was the contrasting view that to be a decent and reputable member of society, one was to be productive in both work and family life. The 18th century saw the development and rise of Psychology, which understood individualisation and personality as the internalisation of social norms. In the early 20th century, psychologist Sigmund Freud developed psychoanalysis to explain the internalisation of character development. While German sociologist Max Weber (1905) noticed how the growth of capitalism was linked to Protestantism, today, the individualisation phenomenon has been linked to modernization, globalisation and capitalism. The individualisation thesis proposes that the phenomenon has occured as a consequence of the individual becoming more and more unrestrained by collective identities such as social norms and values and that people no longer view their purpose in life as being directly shared with other group members, as they had done in the past. Rather, the individual is increasingly defining their life as a reflexive experience. Reflexivity, famously theorized by individualisation proponent Anthony Giddens (1991), is key to the thesis. It describes a process of self awareness and self reflection, interconnected to self change, transformation and autonomy. Giddens proposes that the de-traditionalisation of culture has lead the individual to view their self-identity as a reflexive project. In other words, instead of taking for granted who we are as individuals, we actively shape, reflect on, and monitor ourselves, creating and building on our biographical narratives as we go through life. Giddens believes that we treat our identities as something that we actively construct and ultimately, only we are responsible for. Giddens’ theory, however, does not take in to account where people are positioned at a given time and that some people will inevitably have more access to resources in their lives than others, so a reflexive attitude may be seen as being an elitist idea – an opportunity to some, but not possible for many and people may be left behind.
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