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Individualism and civic engagement

Shihyi Albert Chou, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


The notion of individualism has been misunderstood among social scientists. Individualism, for them, automatically means economic nonintervention, economic self-reliance, and personal financial responsibility and is often referred to as economic individualism (EI). Social individualism (SI), on the other hand, has been overlooked among political scientists. The first meaning of SI is that one expresses indifference to the feelings of others and only stays within a small circle of confidants and family members. Second, it means that one is willing to root his or her individuality in a communitarian context. ^ SI has tremendous implications for civic engagement. In the 1830s, De Tocqueville was worried that Americans’ belief in individualism drives them away from participation, but he also pointed out that individualism is compatible with the participation ethos in America. This vague relationship between political participation and individualism is known as “individualism ambivalence”, a concept that has received little attention from political scientists. This dissertation, therefore, provides a theory of individualism with which to distinguish SI from EI. In this theory, there are three types of SI-communitarian, parochial, and accountability. Each of them functions differently in the context of political participation. The communitarian perspective gives rise to political participation whereas the parochial perspective leads to political nonparticipation. The simultaneous existence of these two perspectives in American society is the root cause of individualism ambivalence. Finally, supporters of economic nonintervention (EI) are likely to participate because they want to see economic conservative policies enacted and economic conservative candidates elected. ^ The signature contribution of this dissertation is that I introduced, theorized, conceptualized, and measured SI and empirically examined it in the context of political participation. I also integrated SI into the individualism framework with EI as the other important component. Satisfying political scientists and other social scientists may prove difficult, but the grand theory of individualism ultimately provides an interdisciplinary dialogue about individualism.^

Subject Area

Political Science, General|Psychology, General|Sociology, General

Recommended Citation

Chou, Shihyi Albert, "Individualism and civic engagement" (2008). ETD collection for University of Nebraska - Lincoln. AAI3338797.