A ‘individualisation thesis’ is believed to stem from

A topic which
has been evident as a central issue since the beginning of social theory has
been the question; “what role does an individual play within the social world?”
(Ritzer, G.
2007). German sociologist Ulrich Beck raised this issue again within
society for other sociologists to debate by creating the ‘individualisation
thesis’. Whilst there have been many sociologists and other influential
individuals who have attempted to understand these questions, this essay will
look at the key proponents involved within the creation and adaptation of the
‘Individualisation thesis’ alongside Ulrich Beck who are Elisabeth
Beck-Gernsheim, Anthony Giddens and Zygmunt Bauman. These sociologists share a common
interest in researching and understanding the consequences of social changes in
late modernity, where individuals are required to construct their own lives.
The second part of this essay will be a range of critiques found in the second
half of the lectures to help evaluate the work in relation to the
individualisation thesis.

We can see that
individualisation has affected society throughout time in many ways. Within
Beck’s Interview he stated that it was evident in the “Renaissance, in the
courtly culture of the middle ages, in the inward asceticism of Protestantism
the emancipation of the peasants from feudal bondage and in the losing of
inter-generation family ties in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries” (Beck, U.
& Beck-Gernsheim, E. 2002- Interview pages:202-213). Within
social theory the ‘individualisation thesis’ is believed to stem from the
changes within society that are associated with industrialisation. We have
witnessed a disintegration of previous forms of structures that define an
individual’s life through preventing them from making certain decisions and
choosing their own life course. From this stemmed the ‘individualisation
thesis’ which states that society has moved away and become freed from these
previous traditional roles. Which placed a large influence on individuals lives,
and have now provided society with the freedom to make their own decisions and
choose their own life plan. Key proponent Beck and fellow sociologist Giddens,
through the thesis claim that outdated structure which used to once be
important within society such as class, gender and family have now lost their
hold and power over individuals. Beck stated that “‘standard biography’ has
been overtaken by the ‘do it yourself biography'” (Agnihotri, R. 2017). People have
moved away from the life course that society previously expected an individual
to take and has turned to a course that they should build for themselves. Individuals
are no longer witnessing their fates as being shared with other groups and are
instead defining their life as a self-steered or reflexive phenomenon. Gidden’s
work on social structure and Human Agency are linked to some ideas provided by
the ‘individualisation thesis’ as it looks at answering the question “How far
are we creative human actors, actively controlling the conditions of our own
lives?” (Giddens, A.1991).

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Since there has been a decline in power that previous norms and structures hold
over an individual race, class and gender are now argued to be less important
and have no influence over an individual’s life and their life choices. The
concept of ‘Postfeminism’ uses some ideas as the ‘Individualisation Thesis’ to
speak to women in a similar way. This concept shows that women are free to
choose a self/ identity themselves in an attempt to further their own
wellbeing, instead of making the decision based on trying to further the
wellbeing of women or society in general. In the 19th Century women
as a whole scarcely had any opportunities or resources to shape their own
lives, especially those who belong to the ‘lower classes’. (Agnihotri, R. 2017) For these
women the material constraints were so severe that all their energies and
efforts were placed into the task of daily survival for them. Alongside the
bourgeoises it was the structures and the new model of these women’s roles
which confined them to their home due to the expectations that were placed on
them by society which excluded women from most developments to help shape their
lives. Whereas today whilst some women still feel like they face obstacles and
restrictions that results in them being unable to have control over their life
and destiny, women as a whole have been given more freedom and access to
materials which provides them with the opportunities and power to take their
life into their own hands. (Agnihotri, R. 2017)

Individualisation
today, has a grip on most generations, however is ‘most pervasive to
individuals who were born after 1970’. It is thought that the younger a person
is, the more individualised they have become as in society. The youth are born
and raised within a society, social space and home where they are raised to
believe that it is accepted and okay to think for themselves. Individualisation
has gone from being “an elitist phenomenon to being a mass phenomenon” (SlideShare,
2011). The importance that
Individualisation has on today’s society is due to several factors such as;
“‘the growth of economic independence’, reflection becoming the rule – rather
than the exception’, ‘the creation of our own identities’, ‘and choices
becoming basic condition'”. (SlideShare, 2011). 
A key idea of the ‘individualisation thesis’, is based on the notion that the
primacy of the rights an individual has, is dependent on ensuring a modicum of
social equality within society. In result this would create a greater sense of
security amongst the population, with the notion that individualisation for all
has become both desirable and possible for individuals to achieve. (Alastair Hudson, 2018)

Whilst some
theorists work towards the individualisation thesis shines a positive view on
the thesis, others have a counter view on the work of the individualisation
thesis. Theorist Zygmunt Bauman is thought to provide the best summary of a
counter view as within his work he states that “the other side of
individualisation seems to be the corrosion and slow disintegration of
citizenship” (Alastair Hudson, 2018).
Bauman’s main concern with the thesis is that he believes it causes a
‘weakening of the ethical self’ which sociologists such as Beck require, to
drive the altruistic connection which Beck hopes will be a result of an
individualised society.
Sociologist Beck and Beck-Gernsheim together published a book on
individualisation which identified issues such as ‘the progression of norms
beyond traditional social myths’, the ‘continuing power and influence of zombie
categories of social ideology’, ‘changing demographics in family structures’
and many other issues. Beck-Gernsheim suggests in the book that there needs to
be a distinction made between the idea of the free-market individuals and the
concept of individualisation. (Beck, U.
Beck-Gernsheim, E. 2001). 

Criticisms of the
Individualisation Thesis

Whilst many
people agree with the notion that society has now moved away from predetermined
life plans for individuals based on previous norms and structures that were
influential at the time, other influential people/ theorist’s work and opinions
provide criticisms to the ‘individualisation thesis’ that goes against the previous
points mentioned.

When looking at
the concept of social class within society, whilst the individualisation thesis
states that institutions such as class has broken down and become less
influential on an individual’s life, Marxist sociologists have a different
view. Through their work and ideas Marxist theorists would argue that
capitalist societies, despite the changes that are presumed to have been made
within society, shows the “differences between groups of individuals that are
seen to occupy the bottom, middle and top” (Beck, U. & Beck-Gernsheim, E. 2002- Interview
pages:202-213) sections within society haven’t really changed. These
theorist’s go on to argue that this provides evidence that society is still
living under the influence and structure of social class which remains the “dynamic
of modern capitalism” (Beck, U. & Beck-Gernsheim, E. 2002- Interview
pages:202-213). It can also be made apparent that these institutions
such as social class are still relevant within today’s society as people are
still finding the way they are perceived, to other people as an obstacle.
Throughout their life individuals are always scrutinized by people who believe
they are of a higher value in society for their appearance and characteristics
and due to this these individuals focus on making sure their appearance and
other factors such as a career/materialistic ownership either portrays their
class if they are comfortable with their identity or ensure that these factors
portray a higher class then what they are from (McRobbie, 2004: 100). Class can also be seen as an influential
factor in an individual’s life in today’s society, when looking at Bourdieu’s
work on parental involvement and influence over their children, in relation to
emotional capital. It is thought that class differences play a large section in
determining whether mothers could redirect their emotional involvement, into
creating academic profits for their children, through providing access to
certain resources that other mothers, from a lower social class find it
difficult to gain access to. Some working-class mothers find it difficult to
teach and assist their children through their development due to not being
happy and accepting of their own milestones such as education. Whilst these
mothers are emotionally involved in their child’s education, they lack the
requisite social, psychological and cultural resources to provide their
children with emotional capital which other classes are able to do (Diane, R. (2000).
 Both the works provided by
Marxist theorists and Bourdieu, whilst providing a different idea of social
class, they both agree that the institution of social class is still relevant
in today’s society which can be seen when looking at an individual’s life. They
also both believe that they provide obstacles for individuals who are unable to
gain access to certain resources that other people from a higher class are able
to do. This goes against the idea provided by the Individualisation thesis that
these institutions have broken down and have had their power of influence taken
away.

The works of
post feminism and neoliberalism are linked with the work of the
individualisation thesis and together provide the notion that individuals have
more freedom than they previously had which was a result of the structures they
had to follow in living their life to benefit themselves instead of a group,
however where this seems to be beneficial for the individual and society when
looking at the concept of ‘Disarticulation’ this is not the case. The causes
and needs of individuals which are similar to one another are now being ignored
and downplayed which makes it come across that there are no longer aim’s and
concerns shared between them and as a result of this the alliances between
different subordinated groups, especially groups of women are being
disarticulated causing them to become disempowered (Mcrobbie, A 2009). Whist the individualisation thesis states that
they now have more freedom and power to choose their own life course, when
looking closer at society individuals may not have as much freedom as they
believe which can be seen through the concept of disarticulation.

One of the main
focal points of the individualisation thesis is the idea that previous
institutions that once restricted an individual from choosing their own path in
society, such as class, gender, race and so forth, have broken down and hold
less to almost no power on their life. However according to Ulrich Beck and his
work on ‘Zombie categories’, this may not be the case. Beck believed that due
to the thesis individuals and society are now living with a lot of ‘Zombie
Categories’ which are also known as ‘living dead’ categories. These ‘Zombie
Categories’ govern our way of thinking but are not still able to capture the
contemporary milieu. (Beck 2011: 262).
Despite the challenges and ideas that these institutions no longer have any
influence over an individual’s life, there is still a familiar stigma that is
attached to the idea of these institutions such as class. It is believed that
class has been re-materialised due to the conditions of late modernity. A good
example of a ‘zombie category’, that shows how these institutions are breaking
down, is the institution of family; in the sense of how much power they hold
over an individual. Previously in society it was apparent what a household and
family should consist of, and what each member of the family role was in
ensuring the smooth function of family life. However, the core of family life
is beginning to disintegrate under conditions such as divorce. Families today are
now made up of different constellations of relationships. This is due to
individuals now having freedom to remove themselves from previous structures
such as marriage through divorce and as a result of this families are now being
multiplied in numbers. (Beck, U. & Beck-Gernsheim, E. 2002- Interview
pages:202-213 Families can now consist of same sex couples, adopted/
foster parents, single parent families and many more however whilst an
individual has more control over choosing members to be involved in their
family. The family structure that an individual has can still have some sense
of influence over their life and life choices whilst also providing some
obstacles throughout their journey.

Despite an individual having the freedom to choose the members of their family,
without realising, many still strive to have a sense of a traditional family
structure. Whilst families can have a number of grandparents, step parents,
children, siblings through different mediums such as divorce, adoption, same
sex couples, people still strive for a traditional family consisting of two
parents, children which can be achieved through fostering/ adoption instead of
the traditionalized form of reproduction and grandparents. Ulrich Beck states
that ‘a family is determined by an individual’s decisions and choices as they
must choose who their main parents are and who they choose to be their main
grandparents’ (Beck, U. & Beck-Gernsheim, E. 2002- Interview pages:202-213).
This shows that despite people having the freedom to decide how they want
their family to be constructed, people are still controlled by the traditional
sense of a family, and how their family is perceived within society. Whilst the
idea provided by the thesis states that we have more freedom as a society which
is supported by the ideas mentioned, when looking at the institution of family
in relation to zombie categories this provides us with the notion that the
individual’s decisions whilst being made with the notion of freedom, actually
have an underlying influence from the previous structures and institutions we
believed as a society we had moved away from.

Overall from this
essay I have concluded that when looking at the work and creation of the
individualisation thesis, the theorists and key proponents involved with its
work, Ulrich Beck,Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim, Anthony Giddens and Zygmunt Bauman all
provide different views and different opinions as to whether the thesis
benefits society or not. Whilst as a whole the individualisation thesis shows
that society has moved away from influential factors such as institutions that causes
obstacles and influences an individual’s life and the choices they make, it has
also been made apparent when looking at the works and opinions provided by the
sociologists that individuals within today’s society may not have the amount of
freedom to make their own choice the thesis originally stated.

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