Thursday, May 20, 2010

Some interesting charts at Sociological Images question whether Americans truly are more individualistic than other nations. Their findings are that, when you define individualism as "giving priority to personal liberty," you find that many other unexpected countries are more individualistic.

Some possible explanations are provided by the researcher, Claude Fischer:
(1) Americans aren’t really individualistic (anymore).

(2) Americans means something else by individualism (like freedom from government or pulling yourself up by your bootstraps). Fischer thinks that these are different values, though: anti-statism and laissez-faire, pro-business economics.

(3) Americans are individualistic, but they are also religious and sometimes religion outweighs individualism. If that’s so, Fischer argues, then maybe it is true that we’re not that individualistic.

(4) American individualism is found not in people’s opinions, but in how we organize our society. Fischer calls this “undemocratic libertarianism.”

Finally, (5) maybe what is meant by individualism is really voluntarism, the right to leave and join groups as we see fit.

I might be curious if her findings were the same if, when she asked questions such as “In general, would you say that people should obey the law without exception, or are there exceptional occasions on which people should follow their consciences even if it means breaking the law?” she were to replace the word "people" with "you" whenever it occurs, i.e., "would you say that you should obey the law without exception...?" There's a chance that we might find, when asking those questions, more of what we mean by American individualism (i.e., inherent cognitive biases).

I'd also be curious if there was a way to control for priming. Were the people who were asked the question “People should support their country even if the country is in the wrong,” most recently reminded of the Iraq invasion, the TARP bailout, or the Health Care Bill? I imagine, too, that if we were able to control for such priming, you'd find that the responses might split down demographic or party lines.

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