Individualism: Two research ideas

I have decided to leave academia. Therefore, I want to share two research ideas that I have been unable to pursue, and which may be worthwhile to explore further. A list of references is posted below; it should at least point you in the right direction. Those who read Swedish may also be interested in my book Vi är alla individualister [”We are all individualists”].

What is individualism?

In short, individualism is a social pattern in cultures. Individualist cultures are more common in Western societies which are characterized by loose and analytical social relationships. This is opposed to the tight and traditional relationships that are more common in many other parts of the world.

In moral and political philosophy, individualism can be understood as the view that the single person should be the basic unit of moral and political analysis (Blackburn 2008, “individualism”; Lukes 2006 [1973]; Nussbaum 1999, p. 59). Individualism is central to liberalism, which grants extensive rights and liberties to individuals. A study of individualism as such moves the analytical starting point one step back by identifying reasons for and against considering the individual’s interests at all in moral and political matters.

The debate on individualism in philosophy

My first research idea is to analyze (a) how normative arguments for and against individualism have developed over time, and (b) how they are reproduced, and refined, in contemporary philosophical literature. It may be suitable to focus on arguments from the publication of John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice (Rawls 1971) and forward, as the book marks a breaking point in contemporary political philosophy.

This involves conducting a historical survey of moral arguments for and against individualism. The term “individualism” entered moral and political debate when conservative intellectuals responded to the French revolution (Lukes 2006 [1973]). During the 19th century, both conservative and socialist critics argued against the purported individualist understanding of humans as socially unencumbered beings (Burke 1790; Daniels 2011; Marx 1859).

In contemporary philosophy, the notion of individualism is often associated with the debate between liberals and communitarians in the 1970s and 1980s. The publication of Rawls’s A Theory of Justice triggered a response from communitarians. Building from Aristotle and Hegel (Gutmann 1985), communitarians argued that liberals neglected the social and metaphysical nature of human beings. For instance, Michael J. Sandel argued that liberals misunderstand “the fundamentally ‘social’ nature of man, the fact that we are conditioned beings ‘all the way down’” (Sandel 1998 [1982], p. 11). Similarly, Alasdair MacIntyre argued that “what is good for [him] has to be good for one who inhabits” his particular social roles (MacIntyre 1984, p. 220).

The debate between liberals and communitarians faded away in analytical philosophy in the 1990s (Bell 2020; see also Taylor 1991a, 1991b), but the communitarian arguments have recently resurfaced in conservative and nationalist political theory (Deneen 2018; Tamir 2019) and public debate (Halldorf 2018; Kvarnero 2020). What is more, so-called relationalists have reformulated the critical position against individualism. Developing their arguments mainly in theories of personal autonomy, they emphasize the social embeddedness of human beings and the need to consider social factors in analyses of autonomy (Oshana 2015). For instance, Rachel Haliburton has argued that bioethical conceptions of human beings should be constructed taking embodiment and narratives into consideration (Haliburton 2013). Following this line of thought, Jennifer Nedelsky has argued that social relationships ought to be moved from “the periphery to the center of legal and political thought and practice” (Nedelsky 2012, p. 3).

Proponents of individualism have argued that critics have misconstrued the individualist position; individualists do not conceive of human beings as socially unencumbered beings (see, e.g., Hayek 1948; Mises 1951; Smith 2013). Various individualists have proposed social conceptions of humans. For instance, in 1930, John Dewey (whose political philosophy I believe can be interpreted as individualist) wrote that it is “absurd to suppose that the ties which hold [individuals] together are merely external and do not react into mentality and character, producing the framework of personal disposition” (Dewey 1999, pp. 40–1).

More recently, individualists have argued that human beings are “deeply influenced by parents, siblings, peers, culture, class, climate, schools, accident, genes, and the accumulated history of the species” (Dworkin 1988, p. 36) and that they are “deeply connected to external factors in their self-identifications, cognitive structures, values, and the like” (Christman 2009, p. 30). I have previously argued that individualism’s abstract individual should be understood as a representational model that can be fitted with purpose relative properties enabling theorists to solve normative problems (Ahlin Marceta 2021a). Such arguments should be collected and analyzed to produce a complete overview of the historical developments in the debate.

A defense of individualism

My second research idea is to analyze (a) which value conflicts related to individualism appear in social and political contexts, and (b) develop a conception of individualism that can be defended morally, taking real-world conditions and feasibility constraints (Valentini 2012) into consideration.

This involves surveying and analyzing state-of-the-art social scientific research on individualism. 19th century scholars studied individualism as a social phenomenon (Durkheim 1969 [1898]; Pyyhtinen 2008; Tocqueville 2010 [1840]), and early 20th century scholars coined the term methodological individualism to describe their approach to economics and the social sciences (Heath 2020; Weber 1978 [1921]). However, it was first in the 1960s that social scientists conducted elaborate empirical investigations of individualism using reliable research methods.

As a social phenomenon, individualism is now commonly analyzed as a social pattern in cultures where humans have loose and analytical relationships to each other and are motivated to act by their own preferences and rights, as opposed to collectivist social patterns where humans have tight and traditional relationships and are motivated by the group’s interests (Triandis 1995, 2001). Individualism is increasing globally (Santos et al. 2017) but is most prominent in the West (World Values Survey n.d.). It permeates Western political institutions and many of its sub-political contexts such as, e.g., medical practices (Magnus 2020).

Pessimists argue that individualism is socially fragmentizing, enables populism, and erodes meaning (Tamir 2019), and that it leads to increasingly authoritative states and societies with no moral direction (Deneen 2018). Optimists argue that individualism is positively related to democracy (Gorodnichenko and Roland 2020), low corruption (Mažar and Aggarwal 2011), economic growth (Gorodnichenko and Roland 2017), gender equality (Davis and Williamson 2019), reduced loneliness (Swader 2019), perceived happiness (Diener et al. 2009), and that it is better suited to tackle environmental problems (Cai et al. 2019), among other things. Such empirical studies should be taken as input to normative ideals of individualist social patterns, making those ideals fact sensitive. The relation between idealization and fact sensitivity should be central to the complete analysis.


Ahlin Marceta, J. (2021a). Constructing the Abstract Individual. Erkenntnis. DOI:

—. (2021b). An Individualist Theory of Meaning. The Journal of Value Inquiry. DOI:

Bell, D. (2020). Communitarianism. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved (2021-06-28) from: URL

Blackburn, S. (2008). Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy. Oxford University Press.

Burke, E. (1790). Reflections on The Revolution in France. Retrieved (2021-06-28) from: URL

Cai, M., Murtazashvili, I., Murtazashvili, J., & Salahodjaev, R. (2019). Individualism and Governance of the Commons. Public Choice. DOI:

Daniels, E. (2011). A Brief History of Individualism in American Thought. In Forsyth, D. R., & Hoyt, C. L. (Ed.). For the Greater Good of All: Perspectives on Individualism, Society, and Leadership (pp. 69–84). Jepson Studies in Leadership Series. Palgrave MacMillan.

Davis, L. S., & Williamson, C. R. (2019). Does Individualism Promote Gender Equality? World Development. DOI:

Deneen, P. J. (2018). Why Liberalism Failed. Yale University Press.

Dewey, J. (1999). Individualism Old and New. Promotheus Books.

Diener E., Diener M., Diener C. (2009) Factors Predicting the Subjective Well-Being of Nations. In Diener E. (Ed.) Culture and Well-Being. Social Indicators Research Series, vol 38. Springer.

Durkheim, E. (1969 [1898]). L’individualisme et les intellectuels. In Lukes, S. Durkheim’s ‘Individualism and the Intellectuals.’ Political Studies 17(1), 14–30.

Dworkin, G. (1988). The Theory and Practice of Autonomy. Cambridge University Press.

Gorodnichenko, Y. & Roland, G. (2017). Culture, Institutions and the Wealth of Nations. Review of Economics and Statistics 99(3), 402–416.

—. (2020). Culture, Institutions and Democratization. Public Choice. DOI:

Gutmann, A. (1985). Review: Communitarian Critics of Liberalism. Philosophy & Public Affairs 14(3), 308–322.

Haliburton, R. (2013). Autonomy and the Situated Self: A Challenge to Bioethics. Lexington Books.

Halldorf, J. (2018). Gud: återkomsten. Libris förlag.

Hayek, F. A. (1948). Individualism and Economic Order. The University of Chicago Press.

Heath, J. (2020). Methodological Individualism. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved (2021-06-28) from: URL

Kvarnero, J. (2020). Politik efter Gud – Återkomsten. Libris förlag.

Lukes, S. (2006 [1973]). Individualism. ECPR Press.

MacIntyre, A. (1984). After Virtue. University of Notre Dame Press.

Magnus, D. (2020). The Limits of Individualism: Potential Societal Harms from the EAP for Convalescent Plasma. The American Journal of Bioethics 20(9), 1–3.

Marx, K. (1859). Outline of the Criticism of Political Economy. Retrieved (2021-06-28) from: URL

Mažar, N. & Aggarwal, P. (2011). Greasing the Palm: Can Collectivism Promote Bribery? Psychological Science 22(7), 843–848.

Mises von, L. (1951). Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis. Yale University Press.

Nedelsky, J. (2012). Law’s Relations: A Relational Theory of Self, Autonomy, and Law. Oxford University Press.

Nussbaum, M. (1999). Sex and Social Justice. Oxford University Press.

Oshana, M. A. L. (Red.). (2015). Personal Autonomy and Social Oppression: Philosophical Perspectives. Routledge.

Pyyhtinen, O. (2008). Ambiguous Individuality: Georg Simmel on the “Who” and the “What” of the Individual. Human Studies 31(3), 279–298.

Rawls, J. (1971). A Theory of Justice. Harvard University Press.

Santos, H. C., Varnum, M. E. W., & Grossman, I. (2017). Global Increases in Individualism. Psychological Science 28(9), 1228–1239.

Sandel, M. J. (1998 [1982]). Liberalism and the Limits of Justice. Cambridge University Press.

Smith, G. (2013). The System of Liberty: Themes in the History of Classical Liberalism. Cambridge University Press.

Swader, C. (2018). Loneliness in Europe: Personal and Societal Individualism-Collectivism and Their Connection to Social Isolation. Social Forces 97(3), 1–29.

Tamir, Y. (2019). Why Nationalism. Princeton University Press.

Taylor, C. (1991a). The Ethics of Authenticity. Harvard University Press.

—. (1991b). Cross-Purposes: The Liberal-Communitarian Debate. In Rosenblum, N. L. (Ed.). Liberalism and the Moral Life (pp. 159–182). Harvard University Press.

Tocqueville, A. (2010 [1840]). Democracy in America: Volume II. Liberty Fund.

Triandis, H. C. (1995). Individualism & Collectivism. Routledge.

—. (2001). Individualism-Collectivism and Personality. Journal of Personality 69(6), 907–924.

Valentini, L. (2012). Ideal vs. Non-Ideal Theory: A Conceptual Map. Philosophy Compass 7, 654–664.

Weber, M. (1978 [1921]). Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology. Roth, G., & Wittich, C. (Ed.). University of California Press.

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