Individualism and Family Values
This essay will examine the historical evolution of notions of ‘family values’ and ‘individualism’, using historical criticism and semiotic analysis; it will demonstrate how these terms have historically been very fluid and tied to the socio-cultural concerns of their day. Focus will be on establishing a historiography of the key terms, from the late Elizabethan to the modern era. Particular attention will be paid to the Victorian era, wherein, this essay will argue, the true archetype for the modern ‘nuclear family’ was established. This essay will look at key works of art throughout the stated timeframe, works reflective of the era’s common sentiment, in order to establish socio-cultural patterns. The aim of the essay will be to show that the anti-collectivist, increasingly nuclear, and specifically consumer-based nature of modern ‘individualism’ is inimical to traditional conceptions of family values. when considering individualism and its effect on traditional family values, it is important to clarify the understanding of the terms. In terms of Individualism and for the sake of analytical focus this paper shall stick to a relatively modern conception of the word: ‘individualism connotes a dynamic capitalist economic rationality—utilitarian, competitive, and profit-maximising—inimical to the supposed torpor of feudal and tribal mentality alike’ (Meer, 1). On a more fundamental level it could be said that individualism is the opposite of collectivism; it refers to the endeavour, the interests, and, to some degree, the gratifications, of a single person rather than a group of people.
The concept of traditional family values is rather more complex. Even within the confines of the United Kingdom, one family’s notion of ‘tradition’ may vary greatly from another’s. After all, the U. K. is a heterogeneous society, comprised of many religious, cultural, and ethnic groups; which is to say the U. K. is the composite of many traditions. Nevertheless, for the sake of simplicity, this paer will adopt a working definition, one which roughly approximates a conventional majority of U. K. society. With slight modification, according to the critic Collins’(2011, 47) the description of a traditional Western family will serve the purpose. Traditional families, then, encompass: ‘heterosexual, racially homogenous couples who produce their own biological children’ (here, we may append nominal Christian religious affinity). Such families have ‘a specific authority structure, namely, a father-head earning an adequate family wage, a stay-at-home wife and mother, and children’. Moreover, the traditional family, states Hill Collins, has overtones of being a ‘private haven from a public world’ (2011, 47).
The obvious temptation in this instance is to dismiss individualism outright as contradictory to traditional family values. On the surface, the family seems after all to be a microcosm of collectivism, the very antitheses of individualism; and, undoubtedly, in large part this evaluation holds true. However, this explanation is somewhat monolithic and irons over some of the more problematic subtleties of the case; indeed, individualism presupposes a kind hermetic insulation that would not be possible in the familial context, and vice versa. The reality is that the two concepts are not so hermetic, and are in fact bound to overlap. Consider that for the majority of history the family unit was very much a strategic entity, a way of forging advantageous marital and blood ties. This particular tradition, as one critic has noted, is a longstanding staple of ‘Eurasian family patterns’ (Lal 2006, 178). Considering that, until very recently, males have monopolised authority within the family unit, it is not too difficult to perceive in the tactical manoeuvres of allied kinship, a distinctly individualistic bent. At every level, notes one critic, ‘families looked to dynastic marriage strategies to find...
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