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HABITS OF THE HEART: INDIVIDUALISM AND COMMITMENT IN AMERICAN LIFE by Robert N. Bellah, Richard Madsen, William Sullivan, Ann Swidler and Stephen M. Tipton (University of California: $14.95; 355 pp.)

May 19, 1985|Charles Champlin

The title is from Alexis de Tocqueville who, writing about us in "Democracy in America" from 1835 to 1839, discovered habits of the heart--he named family life, religious convictions and participation in local politics--as helping to form the unique American character.

They were habits that would help sustain free institutions, De Tocqueville said. But he also suggested that individualism , a word he was one of the earliest to use and long since a catchword for the American character, could prove dangerous, setting citizens apart from one another, making positive collective action difficult if not impossible, and therefore threatening those same free institutions.

Robert N. Bellah, a UC Berkeley sociologist, and his several colleagues argue in their forceful and controversial new study, "Habits of the Heart," that De Tocqueville was all too prophetic.

"We are concerned that this individualism may have grown cancerous--that it may be destroying those social integuments that De Tocqueville saw as moderating its more destructive potentialities, that it may be threatening the survival of freedom itself."

It is by no means certain that the book fully demonstrates what might fashionably be called the authors' darkest scenario: namely, that a rampant individualism threatens freedom itself. Yet the various case studies that are the heart of the book do paint an unlovely and worrying portrait of historical forces, economic most especially, that have compromised not only the tradition of local-level collective action but the traditional certitudes of religious and civic belief.

The team's method was to examine--primarily in middle-class terms because we are, they note, overwhelmingly a middle-class nation--four areas in which we deal with private persuasions and public action: love and marriage, therapy (that newest avenue to secure private postures), voluntary associations and political activism.

Ann Swidler, a Stanford sociologist, studied marriages in the Silicon Valley around San Jose. Stephen Tipton, an assistant professor at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University, talked with therapists and their clients in the South and in the San Francisco area. Richard Madsen, a sociologist at UC San Diego, studied participation in civic affairs in a Boston suburb and another near San Diego. William Sullivan, an associate professor of philosophy at La Salle College in Philadelphia, looked at two political organizations--the Campaign for Economic Democracy in Santa Monica and the Institute for the Study of Civic Values in Philadelphia.

The key terms that the authors use are established in a four-page glossary, which, among other things, defines the two senses of individualism itself: as a belief in the sacredness of the individual; and as a belief that the individual is real, society only an artificial construct.

The authors also contrast "utilitarian individualism," which sees collective action only as a way of protecting self-interests, and "expressive individualism," the rather more romantic notion of the individual as a special and intuitive being who may merge with others, or nature, or the cosmos.

But, despite occasional lapses into cumbersome jargon, "Habits of the Heart" is, on the whole, lucidly and gracefully written (and despite the collective authorship, with little evident ricocheting from one writing style to another).

The several case histories, which tend to weave through the several chapters and topics, are real and sometimes affecting. "Joe Gorman" works hard and efficiently to give his Boston suburb, in which he was born and reared, a sense of old-time community participation seen as an ongoing and uninterrupted tradition. But the authors point out that most of what Joe achieves is an illusion. The town is little more than a bedroom community, in a specific price class, for Boston itself. The largest employer is a branch of a large corporation with only nominal ties to the community, and Joe is in fact a PR man for the corporation. His own real emotional ties to the town thus serve corporate interests. As came clear in an ugly town debate over some proposed low-cost housing, in which a large Housing and Urban Development grant was turned down, emotionally, over fears of the ethnic undesirables the project might bring from Boston, some traditional values of New England neighborliness were lost to a protective individualism.

"The fundamental question we posed," the collective authors say, "was how to preserve or create a morally coherent life." They speak of "the moral ecology," of "the web of moral understandings and commitments that tie people together in community" and of the urgent need for a transformation of the society. Strong words but, as a call to action, maddeningly vague and unspecific, not unlike suggesting that the best cure for insomnia is a good night's sleep.

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