Realism, Reflexivity, Conflation, and Individualism

The New Individualism: The Emotional Costs of Globalization. Anthony Elliott and Charles Lemert. Revised Edition. London: Routledge, 2009. 248pp. 10 0415560705 paperback, £20.99. 

Originally published in 2006, this revised edition is updated to respond to critics and to review its thesis in light of the financial crisis. In essence though, that thesis remains unchanged. As Elliott and Lemert continue to argue, contemporary globalization has enmeshed individuals throughout the world in historically unique circumstances placing an unavoidable burden on each individual to reflexively manage their own life – creating a new and pervasive individualism. Though the authors distinguish their work from other approaches the core point is not fundamentally original. Elliott and Lemert acknowledge their debt to Bauman, Beck, and Giddens, in terms of whom the general conceptualisation is stated as ‘the individualisation thesis’ rather than the ‘new individualism’.

In any case, The New Individualism remains the most recent and most intellectually enthusiastic statement of an idea which, more than perhaps anything else sociology has produced in the neoliberal age, captures the spirit of that age.  As such, it is worthy of sustained critical engagement.

The New Individualism asks the right questions but gives the wrong answers and this failure is a consequence of the theoretical and methodological inadequacies of the approach adopted by the author. Furthermore, these failures are symptomatic of much wider problems in the body of work which Elliott and Lemert are drawing on in this book. However, there are elements of enduring value that can be salvaged from the individualization thesis. I argue that Archer’s recent work holds the key to this salvage operation.

Below I highlight which aspects of The New Individualism ought to be retained  and, through doing so, map out the contours of a theoretical and methodological approach more suited to understanding the personal and emotional ramifications of contemporary social changes. I argue that, in realist terms, what is missing in regard of the focus on the individual is a conceptualisation of reflexivity as mediating between the structural and the agential or global forces and psychic life.

Pre-print available here. Published in the Journal of Critical Realism.

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