Individualism and Family Values

1 January 2017

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.

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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 greater wealth and power’ (James, 39).

In which formulation, we may safely presume, the will of the father was paramount. The altogether calculated manner of pre-modern wedlock is vividly captured in much literature of the time. Vivid examples include Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, wherein the mutual love of the eponymous protagonists is superseded by a blood feud between their respective families; or in Taming of the Shrew, where the prudent father, Baptista Minola, using his children like bartering chips, cannily withholds permission for his much coveted daughter Bianca to marry, before her shrewish sister Katherina is also wed.

There is something decidedly ‘unlovely’, then, about the bulk of history concerning traditional ‘love’. As daughters were exchanged like chess pieces, in a paternal power play, certain other influences ensured a level of valour to these otherwise unromantic unions. ‘Traditional’ values concerning ‘the sanctity of marriage’ were ‘preserved through the fierce guilt culture based on sin promoted by the medieval church’ (Lal, 178).

Much of this ‘guilt culture’ survived into the modern day, because Christianity has survived; consequently the Christian tradition of monogamous and (ostensibly) lifelong matrimony is still very much a part of ‘modern family values’, even if the religious fervour underpinning it is less ardent and literalistic than before. The necessarily religious tenor of marriage and thus ‘the traditional family’ obtains not only to a physical collectivism, but a spiritual one also. Christianity, as one critic has it, ‘sets the values of universal providence and love against the prideful individualism of the sinner’ (Meer, 47).

That said, there is nothing innately selfless about wishing exclusively to possess another person. Contrarily, it is a rather selfish, individualistic act, as is monogamy in general; to pursue such a line of enquiry, however, would be to stray from ‘traditional’ thought and moral stricture and that is a transgression bearing harsh penalties. In which regard, the unhappy fates of two Daniel Defoe (anti) heroines, the eponyms of Moll Flanders (1721) and Roxana (1724), come to mind: their deliberate transgression of sexual and marital mores provoked public censure.

The bedrock of normative matrimony was not easily broken. As the narrator of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813) famously averred, as the nineteenth century commenced, it was yet ‘a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife’ (1995, 3). Its is clear that Individualism, does not square with preindustrial ‘family tradition’, which was largely opportunistic, strategic, and paternally calculated.

Moral standards are of course wedded to their social contexts; and, as the Victorian era progressed, the ‘traditional’ accordingly fell in line with consensus of the day. This accommodated a ‘Romantic individualism’, which was in part a reaction to Classical and Enlightenment stoicism which ‘set universal reason above the merely personal passions’ (Meer, 47). This ‘individualism’ vaunted subjectivism, imagination, and emotion; it was a kind of self-reflexive solipsism, as opposed to the more modern conception of a strictly self-serving egotism.

Thus, for the Romantics, the concept of individual ‘Genius’ held great sway; the lone exalted mind in dominion over its environs. Consider Caspar David Friedrich’s painting, Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (1818), with the sober and solitary watcher stood regally atop a rather wild and craggy rock-face. Also Wuthering Heights (1846), a book possessing ‘a desiring individualism so violent and transgressive that it crosses the material world into the spiritual realm’ (Shires 2001, 66).

This was not in itself inimical to traditional family values; although, it did precipitate a more emotionally involved approach to coupling and romantic love in general. This intellectual sea-change came concurrently with an important societal one: marriage partners, at this time came, to be ‘freely chosen, based on romantic love rather than economics or parental concerns, and the marriage relationship changed from being relatively unemotional and functional to warm and compassionate’ (Popenoe, 2009, 92).

The old tradition, of strategic alliance, was supplanted by a new one, marriage for love. This new romantic and Romantic tradition, of truly ‘loving union’, was the precursor for modern traditional family values, as the industrial revolution was for modern mechanised society. As the former shaped family tradition, the latter set the stage for what would become the modern ‘individual’, as it is known today. As J. W. Childers (2001,80) observes, ‘the doctrine of individualism seemed to emerge as the soul of industrial culture’ .

The Victorian era, was ‘shaped by the growing power of the bourgeoisie’ (Plunkett, 170); this rising middle-class and their growing wealth, came to vie for influence with the aristocratic classes, as economic power looked to overtake hereditary privilege in terms of societal ‘clout’. Increasing meritocracy gave individual endeavour new credos. The growing force of Capitalism stressed the importance of private property and individual wealth, in leading to a better society. This contention persists today.

For example, in a modern economics text book: ‘Wealth leads to individualism, and poverty leads to collectivism’ (De Mooij 2010, 135). Growing urbanisation led, also, to increasingly insulated family units, the origin of the so-called ‘nuclear family’. As all this capital-driven individualism transmuted avarice from vice to virtue, the deleterious effects on ‘traditional family values’ were unavoidable; this is largely because society overall was changing in ways that would render the ‘traditional’ somewhat obsolete.

The days of alchemy were in their last throes, to be finally supplanted by chemistry; as was astrology to fall to astronomy; Creation to evolution, and so on. In the face of so much fundamental transformation, the old traditions were inevitably at risk. The emergent industrial world also meant that, like today, family relations began to be deeply influenced by workplace relations (Kirkpatrick Johnson 2005, 352). Nevertheless, in the U. K. Queen Victoria, ‘was a pillar of family values’ (Plunkett, 170).

The monarch utilised modern technology such as; photography, to promulgate a specific representation of herself and her family as ‘ordinary’, ‘traditional’ people. This created a potent paradigm of the traditional family to which others could aspire. Thus was deliberately ‘constructed’ as an ideal of tradition. Whether this ideal tallied with reality is not as important as the idea itself; for this symbolic gesture, toward a contrived ‘English family tradition’, anticipates modern day mass-produced ideological media.

As late as the eighties, Mitchell (2010, p47) states that Margaret Thatcher explicitly urged a return to ‘Victorian values’. One hopes Thatcher did not literally wish to revive the bigoted, disenfranchised, pseudo-scientific, repressed, racist, and colonialist ideals on which Victorian values hinged; it is the spurious, idealised paradigm of morally upright, industrious ‘Great’ Britons upon which she presumably gazes back, through rose-tinted imaginings of British history (Mitchell 2010, 47).

The precedent set by Victoria is that which prevails today, wherein a national myth is propagated at the expense of true rendition. Thus modern society on the one hand vaunts high ‘individualism’, material possession, and personal wealth as the cultural apotheosis, while, on the other, adverting the rectitude of traditional family values. Thus, in Britain, ‘the family is revered and the popular media are dominated by debates about the falling standard of British parenting’ (Storry 2002, 126).

An inherent aradox underlies the above: the materialistic consumerism revered by late capitalism implicitly endorses a self-centred individualism that cannot rightly co-exists with the collectivist leanings of ‘traditional family’, as either a pre-modern blood alliance, or a modern love-based family unit. Modern society insistently thrusts a materialistic, individualistic, consumer ideal in people’s faces and then complains that people are not upholding the traditional family values which that ideal refutes.

Moreover, modern pervasive media, the dominance of the screen, and ubiquity of the internet, mean that individuals have more means of remaining isolated than ever before, more ways to be ‘individualistic’. Even still, the myth prevails; research suggests young men in the U. K. hold ‘firmly onto romantic notions of traditional family values and the male breadwinning role, even though many can now speak the language of equal opportunities and women’s rights’ (Arnot 2002, 193).

The problem is how to reconcile these traditional notions with the un-traditional realities of modern society. The answer is simply to evade reconciliation, by means of obfuscation. The raging greed and individualism unleashed by Thatcher’s deregulatory policies had very little to do with the mythic Victorian virtues she espoused. The true product of her policy was more American Psycho’s (1991) Patrick Bateman, than the improbably virtuous Nell Trent from Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop (1841).

Although ‘tradition’ is tethered to its epoch and moves accordingly, there are undeniably strains of consistent precept identifiable in traditional family values; sanctity of marriage, heterosexual coupling, productive, patriarchal, child-producing units, and the like. Modern society, wherein marriage is ever less ‘sanctified’ and sex for reproduction hardly the norm, is surely at variance with ‘traditional family values’ (not that this is necessarily a bad thing). The truth is that modern capitalist society is geared against the caring collective endeavour that traditional family values entail.

The trend, Vern L. Bengtson and Ariela Lowenstein observe, is to ‘roll back the state’ and ‘thereby release resources for individualism and free enterprise’ (106). The removal of state provisions for the under-privileged, the increasing privatisation of education, the obsessive materialism of the modern U. K. is not compatible with traditional family values. Nevertheless, it is doubtless that the true, individualistic tenor of modern society will continue to be glossed over with the mythical and idealistic family paradigm, of what daily appears an increasingly spurious ‘tradition’.

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Individualism and Family Values. (2017, Jan 22). Retrieved May 25, 2019, from
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