Dr. Val FarmerDr.Val
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Individualism Hurts Rural Communities

August 2, 2004

Why do relatively few people in rural communities bear the burdens of sustaining community life for the many? What motivates them?

Why do others stand on the sidelines? Why do older leaders who have served and served have problems finding replacements from the next generation?

In his book, "Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life," sociologist Robert Bellah describes the competing value systems that shape contemporary society. He explains the cultural traditions that define personality, achievement and the purpose of human life along with differing views on success, freedom and justice.

The independent citizen. The dominant value in the early years of our country was that of "independent citizen."

This value, drawing on biblical and republican traditions, emphasized moral living and citizen participation in community affairs. This value fit autonomous, small scale communities where work, family and community were intertwined.

Today, we find examples of civic duty and social commitment in rural communities. The leaders are generally self-employed business owners whose clientele is from the town and the immediate surrounding area.

This short list of leaders also includes farmers, self-employed craftsmen, and other business people and professionals. These are people whose economic well-being depends on a healthy economic bottom line in the community.

Self-interest and community service become one and the same. Good business depends on the support of the community. Their own success depends on how much they are trusted in the community.

By giving selfless service to the community, they work for the long-term viability of the environment that sustains their enterprise.

To harm the town would be to harm oneself. Community leaders understand public interest and recognize the self-serving nature of special interests, even their own.

Community service is not a calculated or manipulative effort. The self-interest aspect of community leadership becomes unconscious or lost amid the joy of community participation.

Friendships evolve while in working together. It's fun. It's a time of spontaneous, trusting friendliness and fundamental generosity. Serving the town is even easier when one's family grew up there and when most of one's friends and relatives are within the community.

Utilitarian consumerism. A second value present in American life is the chance for the individual to get ahead on his or her own initiative. Bellah calls this "utilitarian consumerism."

This is a life devoted to personal ambition and consumerism. The ideal is to experience the rewards of ambition while fending off the insecurities and fears of being a loser in a competitive society.

Bellah states, "The American dream is often a very private dream of being the star, the uniquely successful and admirable one who stands out from the crowd of ordinary folk who don't know how.

"And since we have believed in that dream for a long time and worked hard to make it come true, it is hard for us to give it up, even though it contradicts another dream we have - that of living in a society that would really be worth living in."

Expressive individualism. A second form of individualism, Bellah calls "expressive individualism."

For some, a life devoted to the pursuit of material interest leaves too little room for love, human feeling and a deeper expression of self.

This value emphasizes finding meaning in the cultivation of the self and intense relationships with others.

Success has to do with having a life rich in experience, strong feelings, self-fulfillment, intrinsic work and a sensual enjoyment of places, people and of one's own body.

People with this value enjoy passionate pursuits outside of work. They gravitate to groups of friends with similar lifestyle interests.

Bellah believes that many people are locked in a split between a public world of competitive striving and a private world of providing meaning and love that makes the competitive striving bearable.

How a community gets short-changed. People with an expressive and utilitarian focus to life take the functional organization of society for granted.

They also fail to realize how some activities of common worship, traditions, community life, community memory and working toward social good are important in shaping a satisfying life.

They feel free to pursue their own goals without making commitments back to the community. In their single-minded, self-creating pursuits, people ignore social obligations and commitments. In fact, the inability to make and keep commitments is one of the main problems in modern society.

When rural leaders wonder why getting people involved in community life is so hard, they can look at the power of competing cultural values within the rural community itself.

The media carries unrelenting messages of individualism. Small towns become more and more economically integrated with the larger economy.

The pool of civic-minded citizens in small towns shrinks as the dominant values of individualism pervade our culture. It is sad because as communities suffer, individuals will eventually suffer.