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De-Homogenizing American Individualism: Socializing Hard and Soft Individualism in

Manhattan and Queens

Author(s): Adrie Suzanne Kusserow
Source: Ethos, Vol. 27, No. 2 (Jun., 1999), pp. 210-234
Published by: Blackwell Publishing on behalf of the American Anthropological Association
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/640657
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Socializing Hard
Manhattan and

Theories of the Western self are often based on a generic individualism based on the American upper-middle-class, and attempts to find sociocentric elements within our midst often
constitute the stereotyping of the working class as conformist
and women as relational. In speaking about their childrens' self,
parents from different social classes in Manhattan and Queens
use different images and metaphors. These descriptions are explored here, and it is suggested that three different styles of individualism exist alongside sociocentric socialization practices:
hard offensive, hard defensive, and soft offensive. However, the
way parents in each community move from one (individualistic) socialization practice to the other (sociocentric) differs greatly.
n recent years, anthropologists have questioned the depiction of the
Eastern self as solely sociocentric in its orientation, suggesting that
conceptions of self1 are not as bipolar as we think, and that a sociocentric orientation does not exclude an individualistic one.2 Although a
few anthropologists have begun to question very thoroughly the oversimplification of the Western concept of the self (Ewing 1990; Holland and
Kipnis 1994; Kleinman 1986; Spiro 1993; Stairs 1992; Stephenson 1991), a
reverse Orientalism (an Occidentalism, so to speak) exists in which the
Western self is often flattened into a supposedly uniform and rather generic
individualism. The problems of using the imprecise category of the West is
sometimes acknowledged, but usually limited to a footnote, as when Becker

? 1999,American

De-HomogenizingAmericanIndividualism* 211

Clearlythe Westernself is partiallymisrepresentedin this monolithic depiction. The

very concept implies a homogeneitythat simply cannot account for variationsin gender, generation,geographicallocation, and ethnicity. [1995:3]

Often anthropologists who claim to describe the self of the West are really
describing middle-class America, drawing heavily from literature which
focuses on the United States, as if it were representative of the rest of the
West (Abu-Lughod 1986; Becker 1995; Danforth 1989; Erchak 1992; Lutz
1988; White and Kirkpatrick 1985). For example, Becker writes:
AlthoughI could often substituteAmericansociety (i.e., U.S.A.),for convenience sake,
I use Westas a generalcategoryto referto developednations with shared democratic,
capitalisticvalues in Europeand NorthAmerica.[1995:64]

Similarly, Lutz says:

WhereI do not specify a more precise locus foremotion beliefs (e.g., everydaythought,
Americanacademic ideas, etc.), I am hypothesizinga widely sharedAmericanethnotheory of basically ProtestantEuropean,middle-classbackground.[1988:55]

Later on in her work, she writes of Ifaluk versus "the Western perspective
on emotion," "Western cultural discourse," "Western theories of human
nature and emotion both academic and lay," "the ideological and objective
conditions of life in the contemporary West," "Western thinking," and the
"Western approach to language" (Lutz 1988:209-225; see also White and
Kirkpatrick 1985). These ethnographic references about the Western self
are based on studies of middle-class Americans, such as Quinn's (1982)
study of American understandings about marriage, and Schachter and
Singer's (1962) study of determinants of emotional states among Americans.

A related problem with the notion of a Western conception of self is
the way in which individualism is treated as if it had the same meanings
and uses for all groups. For example, Markus and Kitayama (1994) speak
of the independent self of North America and much of Europe. The different aspects of individualism that are given at various times throughout the
article include self-reliance, a preference for being alone, boasting, self-advertisement, an inner sense of owning opinions, assertiveness, and, finally,
the idea that the self should be consistent across cultures. The notion that
some groups might espouse different constellations of these aspects and
that these might constitute different types of individualism is not explored.
As we know, individualism has many different strands, meanings, definitions, and forms, which are taken up differently by various individuals,
local worlds, and subcultures. Individualism is a large enough public symbol to include a multitude of meanings. Its power lies precisely in its ambiguity and plasticity, in the ways different groups can espouse and use its

212 * ETHOS

different elements and meanings to fit their local context. David Potter
(1973), writing of American individualism in the 20th century, noted that
many theorists falsely assume that all of the different concepts we place
under individualism-such as self-reliance and nonconformity-necessarily go together. Taking up the same theme, Bellah et al. state, "[I]ndividualism has come to mean so many things and to contain such
contradictions and paradoxes that even to defend it requires that we analyze it critically" (1985:142). It is a word "used in numerous, sometimes
contradictory, senses" (1985:334). There are, Bellah says, "different
modes [of individualism] even within the vocabularies of each individual"
Clearly what is needed is an unpacking of the homogenous, monolithic term individualism itself. This can be accomplished by exploring
the different meanings and uses of individualism in different groups. Do
different subcultures and social classes practice and experience one strain
of individualism more than another? How and why has one subculture
strategically selected certain components of individualism and not others,
and what does this reflect about the socioeconomic terrain and the local
worlds in which its members live?3

One of the challenges in defining individualism within an individualistic society is to avoid the temptation to start stereotyping again, reon a smaller scale
creating the East/West bipolar homogeneity-only
within the West. In comparing a generic West to the more relational Eastern conception of self, often efforts to de-homogenize American individualism consist of very briefly pointing out sociocentric groups in our midst
(as opposed to actions, concepts, or discourses that all Americans share
and practice at various times). There is usually a perfunctory sentence or
two, or perhaps a footnote referring to women (most often Gilligan [1982]
is cited), or to the working class as representing more sociocentric, relational, or conformist components of American culture (Becker 1995;
Derne 1992; Lutz 1988; McHugh 1988). These attempts usually constitute
little more than a few stereotypical references to a conforming working
class or to other-oriented, relational women.
While the attempt to find a certain sociocentrism in the West is much
needed, moving beyond stereotypical, essentialist depictions of the working class and women is vital. The continued glossing of certain groups as
"conformist" or "connected" only seems to bring us back to the bipolar
reality we were trying to avoid in the first place. When initially making
brief references to sociocentric strains in our midst, perhaps we should
further explore whether it is women as a category who are necessarily

De-HomogenizingAmericanIndividualism? 213

across the board "other-oriented," and whether it is the conformist working class that provide the sociocentric element in our culture. Perhaps it
is time to acknowledge that in all groups, both individualistic and sociocentric orientations exist, but in differing styles and ratios, depending on
the local worlds they inhabit.
The question of individualism has been a central theme in writings on
American culture and character. Recent scholars who have written on the
topic of self and identity in America note sociocentric and conformist
strains in our midst,4 as well as in our past.5 As Wilkinson (1988) and
Hewitt (1989) have noted, for the last 50 years, studies on American character have focused on the American attraction to both individualism (see
Bellah et al. 1985; Lasch 1978; Sennett 1976; Slater 1976) and a sense of
connection to others (Hollan and Wellenkamp 1996; Lindholm 1988,
1990; Riesman 1950, 1964; Varenne 1977).
Kohn (1969) was among the first to write of differences between working- and middle-class parental values. He pointed out:
[T]he highertheir class position, the more highlythey value self-directionand the less
highly they value conformityto externallyimposed standards.[1969:71]

And yet, despite Kohn's conclusion, each social class has too often
been saddled with stereotypes about conformity versus self-direction
which hardly illuminate the varying individualistic and conformist styles
present in all groups.6
Holland and Kipnis (1994), in their analysis of American conceptions
of embarrassment, provide a rich nondichotomous analysis by pointing to
the ways in which, in some contexts, such as embarrassment, the two
orientations coexist. They write:
It is only when we acknowledgeboth the sociocentric and the egocentricthat we can
understand the dialectic within the American cultural model of embarrassment.

Waters (1990) also writes of the ways in which ethnicity is a symbol

used by Americans to simultaneously fulfill two equally important needs
of community and individual uniqueness, pointing to the presence of both
individualistic and sociocentric strains in one symbol. She writes that ethnicity can accommodate Americans' need to feel unique, as well as their
need to belong to something larger than themselves. It is within this more
complex approach to American identity that my own research is centered.

I began fieldwork in Manhattan and Queens hoping to contribute to
the de-homogenization of the Western concept of self by exploring the
complexities and subtleties of conceptions of the child's self, particularly

214 ? ETHOS

among white American parents and teachers of preschool-age children

from different social classes and communities. Working in three communities, I discovered that parental conceptions of the child's self did not
reflect bipolar class constructs (a solely conforming working-class and a
self-directed upper-middle class), nor was one generic brand of individualism sufficient to characterize them all. Even among what Kohn would
describe as the most self-directed, there was a fair amount of sociocentric
socialization of children, just as there was a great deal of individualistic
talk among the working-class parents.7 In all three communities, parents
and teachers were concerned with socializing their children in values of
individualism and sociocentrism (although the way they coexisted differed
in each community), just as in all three communities, different types of
individualism existed. Individualism(s) arise in local worlds. This paper is
a description of the three New York communities' different styles of individualism, as well as a discussion of how both sociocentric and individualistic strains coexisted in two of them. In no way am I suggesting that
these individualisms as I have broken them down exist as Platonic Forms
in other geographical areas of the same class background. They are unique
to the particular worlds from which they grew. Nor does complexifying
individualism mean we have to descend into some solipsistic hole, in
which there is no such thing as individualism.
The three communities I studied were: Carter Hill, a predominantly
white, upper- to upper-middle-class community on the upper east side of
Manhattan; South Rockaway, a racially mixed, lower-working-class community in Queens; and Beach Channel, a predominantly white, Irish, and
German upper-working-class community in another part of Queens.8 Unlike Beach Channel and Carter Hill (communities that were, with few exceptions, all white), South Rockaway was racially mixed. (In the interest
of controlling the race variable for all three communities, I interviewed
only white parents in South Rockaway). Half of my research involved
studying the verbal and nonverbal socialization9 of the self-concepts
among white four-year-olds in four preschools in the Manhattan and
Queens area of New York.10 This involved a microanalysis of the ways
cultural and class construction of the self were embedded in everyday discourses and social interactions between teacher and child, daily preschool
activities, ideology, spatial set up, and discipline. The other half of my field
work involved extensive semistructured interviews with the parents of
these children. In talking to parents, great efforts were made not to question them directly about the concepts of individualism and sociocentrism,
but to see what images, stories, phrases, and metaphors arose when they
spoke about the children in response to more indirect questions about
child-rearing beliefs and methods. I was interested in learning to what
extent the same type of individualism was actually valued and socialized

De-HomogenizingAmericanIndividualism* 215

among parents from different socioeconomic backgrounds, as well as exploring the local meanings and ultimate concerns that shaped this rather
large and generic public symbol. I was also interested in how well sociocentric and individualistic discourses coexisted-that is to say, in the
process of socializing their children, did parents act as if the two orientations were antagonistic, threatening, or mutually reinforcing each other?
I lived in the New York area from 1993 to 1995, spending approximately three months in four preschools, observing one preschool at a time.
In the mornings I observed preschool interactions between teacher and
child, and teachers between other teachers (as they spoke about the children). In the afternoons I interviewed the parents of the children at these
preschools. I interviewed 30 parents in the Queens area and 31 parents in
Manhattan. Although both mothers and fathers were interviewed, the vast
majority of my talks were with mothers. In the Queens communities, fathers were said to be either busy working, sometimes holding down two
different jobs, or not to be interested or "good at" being interviewed about
their children. Carter Hill fathers were much more open to being interviewed, but even here approximately 70 percent of my interviews were
still with mothers. Thus, in this paper I focus on how mothers talk about
their children. All of the teachers I interviewed and observed in all three
communities were female. A tape recorder was used (with permission) to
record the interviews, which were then transcribed and visually coded (for
common images and metaphors through extensive, repetitious readings).
Since many of the mothers were home with their children during the interviews, I was also able to observe behaviors used by the parent when
interacting with the child (such as tone of voice, methods of discipline).
Interviews were semistructured, with the same set of questions used for
all (teacher interview questions differed somewhat). Most lasted from one
to three hours. Some of the interview questions were used as springboards,
intended to generate an initial discussion and further questions. Questions
asked included: Why did you send your child to preschool? What are the
most important things for children to learn in preschool? What are the
most important qualities of a good preschool teacher? What are some of
your favorite things about your child? What are some of the qualities you
most/least want your child to develop? Tell me a story about a time you
were proud of your child. What is one of your favorite things to do with
your child? Why? What qualities make a child get into trouble today?
What qualities will it take for your child to get a good job or be successful
in today's world? How do you discipline your child and why? What is privacy to you? Does a child need it? Why or why not? What is creativity to
you? Does a child need to learn it? What are some of your fears for your
child? Questions were also asked about the importance of praise and
choice for the child.

216 ? ETHOS

As I shall elaborate below, my interviews and observations of interactions between adults and children suggested three distinct styles of individualism in the three different communities I studied. I will refer to these
as hard defensive, hard offensive, and soft offensive individualism. I refer
to the individualism of South Rockaway and Beach Channel mothers generally as hard individualism, compared to the soft individualism of the
Carter Hill upper-middle-class mothers in Manhattan. One of the main
differences I found among these three different styles of individualism was
reflected in the mothers' conceptions of the child's self as a singular unit
against the world (South Rockaway defensive individualism), or as a singular unit opening out into the world (Carter Hill and Beach Channel offensive individualism).

of HardIndividualism
Metaphors, images, and phrases used by mothers and teachers arose
from the specific local worlds in which they lived. Different terrains necessitated weaving various strands of the public symbol of individualism into
personal and community narratives. Hence, individualistic styles were
highly adaptive to these varying environments, each one preparing the
child for dealing with various levels of violence. Nowhere was this more
evident than in South Rockaway. It was not uncommon to hear gunshots
coming from the projects just one block away from the observed preschool. In the early morning light, as I walked down the street from the
subway stop to this preschool, I stepped on garbage and broken crack vials.
Every now and then a bruised prostitute appeared guarding her street corner. Doors were shut, shades drawn. Many mothers spoke of "the street"
as corrupt and dangerous, full of bad and bored kids with not enough parental guidance and "nothing better to do than smoke, steal, and drink."'1
This was the terrain in which South Rockaway individualism developed.
For South Rockaway mothers and teachers, individualistic values could
not be extricated from this tough environment (gangs, drugs, an unsafe
neighborhood, racism, and violence); a difficult past (child abuse, alcoholism, drug addiction, and divorce); and a belief that the future held struggle
and hardship. Many of the mothers were divorced, on welfare, exhausted,
overcoming drug or alcohol addiction, and "just barely getting by."
Hence, individualism in the form of "not relying on anyone else," "not
trusting anyone but yourself," self-determination, and keeping to oneself,
was often seen as a way of surviving the rigors of a bad system, a system
that could not be trusted. Standing up for oneself arose out of experiences
of being pushed around "too much." Some mothers said they'd had
enough, they were standing tough against the world. These were strong
women, without husbands, raising and supporting kids on welfare, exhibiting a strength and resistance that was palpable in their voice and body.

De-HomogenizingAmericanIndividualism0 217

For these women, individualistic values were woven into discourses about
how they had made it through various difficult events. Theirs was a philosophy of the lone individual standing tough against a world that threatened to undo her, knock her down. Individualism's raison d'etre was
usually an attempt to deal with something "tough," perhaps the most common word used by these mothers. Many spoke as if rough times (hard
work, low wages, little vacation, separation, loss, loneliness, being jilted)
or "things not going your way" were inevitable. Children need to learn the
"hard truth"-they weren't always going to get what they wanted. They
needed to "buck up."
For these mothers the world was not described as a soft, easy, accommodating place. This meant raising a certain type of child, one wellpracticed in a "mind your own business" protective style of individualism.
Mothers implied that these tougher boundaries were better able to keep
out the negative influences of "the street" (prostitution, violence, drugs,
alcohol) or "the group" (peer pressure, gangs). These boundaries should
not be porous enough to be broken or trespassed. As one quite protective
mother said of her four-year-old son:
If you don't have your own self-awareness,then anyone can get inside of you and
change you. People can, if you don'tbelieve in somethingstrongenough, then you can
be converted.

Another mother, who was planning on moving out of South Rockaway

because of the violence, spoke of the importance of values:
[T]he most important one, perseverance,is also something, to be strong and to be
tough,makesure that you go throughall the things. [She sighs]Ach! Thereare so many
things, I don't knowwhat to say, prejudice,racism,murders,selfish andgreedypeople.

Independence, self-reliance, minding one's own business, and a dogged

self-determination were the traits that would help their children buck up,
toughen, harden, and keep going through some challenging situation that
would arise, when "things don't go right for them." One mother, a nurse,
spoke of "weakness and a following nature" as the behaviors that would
get her son to eventually try drugs. She also linked independence with an
increased ability to say no to drugs. "Being independent enough to say no,
with being the odd man out" would help him say no to the drugs to which
he would eventually be exposed.
Parent-child interactions during my South Rockaway interviews (as
well as at pick-up and drop-off times at school) suggested that much of the
thickening and toughening of the boundaries of the self occurred through
techniques such as humor, teasing, instilling a "get over it" attitude
through the use of a loud, strict voice in discipline. 12Mothers and teachers
did not always respond immediately and gently to distress signals or pleas
for attention from the child. At home, there was also a fair amount of open
encouragement and praise of independent acts done without help from

218 0 ETHOS

anyone. Independence was also linked with self-defense. During one interview, one mother said:
I hate when they bicker. I hate it when they don't stand up for themselves. That bothers
me. I have one child who whines. She'll keep coming to me as opposed to defending
herself. I don't want her to come running. I'm like, defend yourself and fight it out, get
over it. It happens, this is going to happen and you don't need to turn to me every single
time something bad happens.

In marked contrast to the other populations I studied, during my interviews with these mothers I also noticed there was little effort to "save
face" in the presence of the child. Mothers simply acted annoyed, bored,
or disinterested in the child without any apparent fear that this too might
be detrimental or damaging to the child's self-esteem. Aside from images
of toughness, hardness, and density spoken in reference to the child, during interviews, South Rockaway mothers also used metaphors and images
of war and fighting, e.g., "defend yourself," "fight it out," "okay, big guy,
just try and knock me down," or of protection, e.g., "love many, trust few,
always paddle your own canoe" and "mind your own business." The word
"tough" was often part of a constellation of other words and phrases such
as "isn't a pushover," "speaks her own mind," and "stands her ground,"
which portrayed a solidity to the self of which the parent was quite proud.
Words and phrases with connotations of softness, fluidity, hyper sensitivity and bending (e.g., spoiled, fresh, whiny, prissy, soft, complaining,
weak-minded) were used in interviews in reference to qualities the mothers would not tolerate in their children. One mother, in speaking about her
"mushiest" child, said, "Youshouldn't pay too much attention to any emotion and you shouldn't baby them too much, give them too much praise.
You don't want them to be too soft." Mothers also stated that there should
be limits on praise lest the child become too "full of himself," or "puffed
up." Such overconfidence might lead the child to stray into areas where
she could get hurt.
For some of the South Rockaway mothers, the process of assisting in
the child's ultimate survival also seemed to involve placing sturdy moral
blocks and pillars within the selfs domain. These were thought to give the
child a backbone, a foundation, a solid skeleton that would not be swayed
by dangerous social forces. The child should be given what I refer to as the
architecture of the self, which is built by instilling principles, family, structure, consistency, discipline, strong values, and the lesson of hard work.13
Many of the mothers spoke about values and morals as the sturdy foundation they could fall back on in hard times. During one interview, one South
Rockaway mother said:
You have to give them a very strong background, principles, give them meaning, values,
values, strong values about everything, you give them principles that you have to rely
on, and you draw the line for them, if they have that, they know where they're going,
where they're coming from.

De-HomogenizingAmericanIndividualism* 219

Certain practices I observed, such as teasing the child, were widespread in South Rockaway preschools, but were rarely practiced in Carter
Hill or Beach Channel preschools.14 Teasing for the South Rockaway
teachers seemed to be a way of both blunting and toughening the edges of
the child's self, as well as fostering a certain healthy retaliation on the part
of the child. In their teasing, teachers tried to spark the defensive part of
the child's self, to ignite the child just enough to "talk back." When talking
back was invited, the child learned that it was important not to get completely trampled on, not to act "wimpy." Teachers jokingly goaded the
child with comments of greater and greater annoyance, shock, or criticism, trying to get a response that aroused the self into a stance of defense
and pride. For example, one teacher said, "So Peter, [she laughed] you
gonna start wearing that shirt to bed, or what?" Peter squirmed a little and
blushed. She then asked, "What, you allergic to other shirts, heh, is that
it? [she laughs]. What's the matter, the cat got your tongue? Peter?" Peter
squirmed some more, his smile getting wider. "Oh I see, you don't like to
talk anymore." Peter bumbled out, "It's my baseball shirt," in a slightly
defiant tone. The teacher gives him a look, as if to say, "Okay, I can deal
with that reply, you're off the hook." In similar dialogues, children were
taught a contained pride and self-defense, sticking up for themselves while
also knowing the teacher always ultimately had the upper hand.

Beach ChannelMothers:Metaphorsof Gettingto the Top

Most of the socialization practices that toughen the self among the
South Rockaway mothers were also practiced by the Beach Channel mothers.15 However, the strands of individualism Beach Channel mothers
tended to focus on were more the self-assertive, self-determined aspects
than the protective, defensive, independence, and self-reliance strands
South Rockaway mothers emphasized. Unlike the South Rockaway
phrases of "staying put," "standing your ground," "keeping up your pride,"
and "not letting others get under your skin," Beach Channel mothers developed a more offensive individualism which I refer to as hard offensive
Unlike South Rockaway, Beach Channel is a fairly safe and neat town
on an island in Jamaica Bay, a community of which its residents are very
proud. Individualism (and the images and metaphors that reflected and
inculcated this individualism) does not bind itself to violence and poverty,
because violence and poverty are not prevalent here. Mothers in Beach
Channel (all of them white) exist in a slightly higher income bracket than
in South Rockaway. They viewed themselves as the hard-working community that made something of itself, surrounded by very dangerous and lowclass areas. In contrast to South Rockaway, where gunshots could be heard
and prostitutes could be seen, in Beach Channel children played on the

220 ? ETHOS

streets, mothers spoke to each other from their windows, and the American flag was displayed outside a number of houses. Beach Channel mothers all seemed to know each other, looked out for each other's children,
and were somehow all related through a third or fourth cousin. Many of
them spoke of three generations that had lived in Beach Channel. These
mothers were not ashamed but quite proud of how far they had come.
They spoke at great length about their houses, boats, and pension plans,
and about how successfully they were taking care of their families through
hard work. Many of them had civil service jobs and spoke negatively about
their lower-class neighbors on welfare.
In general, these mothers spoke much more openly and positively
about their children's achievements in sports and in academic work. Their
values of individualism were oriented towards "going for it," toward success and achievement rather than protection and survival. Hence, images
and metaphors commonly used among the Beach Channel mothers consisted of football metaphors and images of movement and momentum,
such as Superman and rockets blasting off. Other commonly used phrases
were "stepping out," "putting your best foot forward," and "testing the
waters." Success was often linked to hard work, self-confidence, tenacity,
good grades, and sports. One mother talked of the importance of self-confidence, and how her children should believe the sky's the limit:
I think children today are being taughtthat you can achieve anythingif you put your
mind to it, being from a lower-classor middle-classblue-collarfamily you could turn
yourself into an upper-classwhite-collarfamilywith no problem.Kidsnow are being
taughtto reallystrivefor the ultimate,whereaswe were taught,don'tget too confident
in yourself because you don't want to fall on your face ... they shouldn't be taught
enough is enough. I want my kids to definitelystrive for everythingthey can possibly

A more offensive individualism was seen as that which helped one to gain
success and achievement in life, to build momentum in order to arrive and
stay "on top" of a recently reached status or level of success. Yet there was
a hardness and toughness to their talk about the child's entrance to the
world, as if the child had to have a tough skin to break into new socioeconomic domains. One mother said:
We have a saying in our house: "Whenyour mind says stop, your heart says go." I get
it mixed up a lot, but you know.Youwant to give up, maybein your heart,you can give
that little bit of extra.

When I asked her how this helped a child later on in life, she replied:
Well, you'llgo out and go afteryour goals. If you know that you'renot afraidto try and
that you can achievejust about anythingyou try, then I guess there's no limit to what
you can do. You can have any dream at all and go for it. Youhave to break away and
makeyourselfindependentto be able to accomplishthings.If somebody'salwaysdoing
it for you, you'renot going to be able to do it on your own.

De-HomogenizingAmericanIndividualism* 221

The boundaries of the self were still described as hard, but with offensive
rather than defensive trajectories. "Breaking away" independently with a
lot of self-determination would help them reach success. Individualism
thus had more of a pioneering sense about it, that their children could
forge into domains usually inhabited by the middle and upper-middle
class. There was a certain feistiness to these mothers in regard to their
children-the feistiness of mothers who, having climbed a certain distance
up the economic ladder, had gained momentum and wanted to keep going.
They saw themselves as wealthier than their parents and hoped their children might be wealthier than themselves. Claudia Strauss (1992) points
to the success values associated with upward mobility articulated by bluecollar men in Rhode Island. These men spoke of the importance of goals
and hard work, of "whatever your mind can conceive, you can achieve."16
Aggressive, outbound individualism led by the gravitational pull of goals
and the sweat of work and determination also reflects what Beach Channel
mothers felt their children needed. One Beach Channel woman spoke of
her aggressive and outgoing child, and praised her for speaking her mind.
She felt they needed that in today's world, "that way other people don't
step all over them. They'll get their ideas across."
Certain Beach Channel mothers seemed especially conscious of their
rise in social standing. For these mothers, individualism was situated in an
attitude of having "gotten out" or "made it." They were determined to stay
at the level they had reached. Individualistic values such as leadership,
stepping out, self-confidence, perseverance, and self-determination got
them there and were going to help the next generation stay afloat-or
better yet-attain the next level. One mother spoke proudly of the fact that
she had been to college. "I want my children to go to college, to be somebody, to be leaders not followers, to have minds of their own." To ensure
this, she put them in a private Catholic school with parents who were "on
top of' school and work, people she described as "just good families."
Beach Channel children were described more like Superman or Nike
ads. Mothers wove phrases such as "try things out," "get a lot more out of
this world," "break away," "go for your dreams," and "the road less traveled" into their general discourse on the importance of being self-determined, persevering, self-confident, and courageous-really "going for it"
because "the sky's the limit." For them, progress would not be a delicate
process, nor would the parents constantly be there to help the child
emerge. A good optimistic attitude and forward momentum were key.
They spoke less about assisting the child through this process with emotional encouragement and empathy, and more about getting their child
into good schools, with good teachers, good coaches, and good teams.

222 ? ETHOS

of SoftIndividualism
Although Carter Hill mothers lived in New York City, crime, drugs,
gangs, and violence were not a major part of their daily lives-because
they had the material means to protect and insulate their children from
the violence of the city, these worries were not of primary concern. All of
the mothers I interviewed lived in an area that was quite safe. Most often
the buildings had doormen and security systems. Furthermore, most of the
Carter Hill mothers' experiences of "the city" consisted of other equally
affluent parts of Manhattan. Places like the Bronx or Harlem were not areas
thought of as part of "the city," nor did they ever think to frequent them,
except perhaps to go to a baseball game in the Bronx. Children could be
taken to and from places by the baby-sitter, thus guarded by an adult at
all times, and cabs were often taken instead of the subway. Most of them
had either a live-in baby-sitter or one that came every day until the mothers came home from work. This allowed the mother to work full- or parttime if she wanted, or enabled her to get out of the apartment to do errands
and meet friends. Live-in baby-sitters were usually older immigrant black
women, or young women trying to get through college. They received
room and board and a small stipend in return for their services. Most mothers (again, all white) I interviewed were investment bankers, accountants,
lawyers, educators, journalists, or arts administrators. All of the mothers
had a college degree and some of them had advanced degrees (M.B.A.,
M.A., J.D., and Ph.D.). Although Beach Channel and South Rockaway differed in the types of hard offensive or defensive individualism they socialized, neither of them could be described as practicing a soft psychologized
individualism, in which self-confidence and assertion of the child's unique
feelings were paramount. In Carter Hill, of all the strands of individualism,
appreciating and developing the child's psychological uniqueness (personality) and individuality was perhaps most strongly emphasized and linked
to success and happiness. Self-confidence, believing in yourself and having
a true pride in what makes you unique, would help the child "do anything!" or "take on the world!" Carter Hill mothers brought to child raising
what Tipton (1982) refers to as "psychologized individualism," stressing
the importance of the child's cultivation of emotions and the development
of a good "sense," or knowledge, of the feeling self as crucial foundations
for being happy and successful. Talk of autonomy, uniqueness, individuality, and self-confidence were intertwined with talk of the importance and
rights of the psychological self (emotions, feelings, desires, tastes, personality) to emerge and be the best it can be. Children must fully acknowledge
and honor their emotions and desires so that they can find the right societal outlet for them. The energy of true desire, authentic preference, and
unique feelings and tastes will naturally motivate them to be good at what
they love. If they do not know and have confidence in their unique feelings

De-HomogenizingAmericanIndividualism* 223

and preferences, they will have little momentum to carry them forward in
a quite competitive society. Hence, an individualistic and independent
child was felt to be a happy child, insofar as independence was proof that
feelings were not being stifled or blocked. Happiness came about when
psychologized uniqueness was able to flow freely.
For Carter Hill mothers and teachers, the goal was to puff the delicate
layers of the child's self out, so that the child could open out into the world
and realize his or her full potential. Raising an individualistic child was
akin to gently assisting the child in emerging, unfolding, flowering, and
self-actualizing his or her own unique qualities, thoughts, and feelings.
Thus, the self of the child was not to be tight, dense, vigilant, and ready for
obstacles, but loose and willing to pour itself into the world. It was thought
to be a delicate process insofar as any large, clumsy, or harsh interference
might stunt the unfolding of the unique self. Parents and teachers must
take care to gently unfold the child's character without getting in its way.
One of the most common metaphors used to speak of this unfolding process, was that of the child as a "flower" (used both as verb and noun), in
which images of growing, blooming, and blossoming were invoked.
Many of the mothers in Carter Hill felt that children who were assertive, unique, creative, willful, and who didn't "back down," had "traits that
would work well for them," although they were a pain to deal with sometimes. Time after time, indirect references to how their children would be
successful in the world were made with respect to the child's particular
stubborn assertion of will, impulse, feeling, or personality. One mother
described the very same traits that were described by South Rockaway
mothers as "fresh" and "out of line" in an exhausted yet ultimately pleased
My daughter is Attila the Hun, very charming, impulsive, creative, [she laughs]-it'll
work well for her . . . she is not an amenable child, she's wonderful, empathetic, yet
stubborn as can be, strong willed, then again that's what we sort of wanted.

Some of the practices of soft individualism involved the encouragement of

what was seen as the child's need for psychological (not just physical)
privacy, a high stress on the importance of words in expressing feelings
and articulating desires, attempts at saving face (and voice) in front of the
child, and the reduction of the power differential between parent and
child. One mother said:
I treat her like an adult too much I think [she laughs], like telling her the truth no
matter what. It gives her a certain status in the family, makes her feel like she's on an
equal footing, her feelings are important as anyone else's.

Unlike many South Rockaway and Beach Channel mothers who did not
seem to feel that a power hierarchy in which mothers were positioned above
children was damaging to the child in any way, Carter Hill mothers often
expressed discomfort with this power differential. Many of the mothers

224 * ETHOS

spoke about the importance of treating the child like you would an adult,
with the same respect and "on equal footing." One teacher asked me,
"How would you feel if you never had any power?" Another teacher noted
how it seemed demeaning to treat the child as simply part of the group, as
simply a girl, a daughter, a three-year-old, or any other wider social role
the child had, which was akin to treating them "like a herd."
As with the parental practice of soft individualism, in Carter Hill preschools, efforts were made to help the child's self unfold, to allow for feelings and thoughts to emerge and flower in their own unique way. Certain
practices were engaged that contributed to this loosening process, practices such as saving face in front of the child, leaning down to speak at the
same level as the child, letting the child wear the clothes he or she wanted,
disciplining through suggestion and explanation rather than command,
and qualifying discipline with apology.
In contrast to South Rockaway and Beach Channel, among Carter Hill
teachers, discipline was rarely in the form of a direct command ("Stop
that!"). Usually, a somewhat hesitantly phrased, polite question was used
in its place, giving the appearance of allowing the child to decide what he
or she wanted to do (e.g., "Do you really think you should be doing that?").
Use of a question also created a situation in which the adult was seemingly
considering the thoughts and opinions the child had given in answer to
such a question. Nonetheless these questions were taken by the children
as commands. They knew it was not a real question, but rather a command
in the form of a well-phrased, polite question. For instance, "Sit down!"
becomes, "Would you like to sit down now, Jenny?" The teacher would
then wait for the child's answer. She could never rush this time, and in this
way the child was given a more active role in the discipline process, a
period of time when she controlled the situation in silence. Until the child
had formulated an answer, the teacher respected this space. Often much
time was spent with the child in this question and answer mode in which
the teacher was trying to gently orient the child towards the "right"answer
without issuing a stern command. This was again an attempt to enable the
child to discover the answer on her own, which fostered a feeling of empowerment and control while at the same time maintaining discipline.
Like the South Rockaway and Beach Channel mothers who spoke of the
importance of sturdy values and morals, Carter Hill mothers spoke of
these, but always with the fear that too much structure might inhibit,
block, or stifle the natural expression of the child's own unique feelings.
The difference lay in the way they wanted these values to sit in the
child-not like bone, but rather, like cartilage. Cartilage does not act as
the main architecture of the self. (This ultimately should come from the
child's personal take on the world.) Furthermore, unlike bone, cartilage is
somewhat malleable.

De-HomogenizingAmericanIndividualism? 225

My research revealed not only that individualistic styles differed, but
that sociocentric practices coexisted alongside these various styles, and
that depending on what community I was in, the manner in which they
coexisted was quite different.

as Threat
to Developing
Perhaps I began to best understand the way individualism coexisted
with sociocentric practices among Carter Hill mothers when I sat in on a
weekly Parent Guidance Workshop consisting of about ten mothers who
gathered in the living room of one of the participants along with a social
worker specializing in parenting. Role playing was often done involving a
certain scenario between parent and child reenacted in the group. Usually
this was done to promote a child-centered philosophy, so that the parent
could feel what it was like to be in the child's shoes. The goal was to raise
a child who was in touch with his or her feelings and acted on these feelings, and yet still accommodated certain societal constraints. Mothers
were very aware that socialization of soft individualism must coincide with
socialization of sociocentric values. Their challenge was to work within the
constraints of group life (good manners, basic politeness, kindness to others, and the importance of a certain amount of group activity in the life of
the child) while still helping the child "flower" to the fullest. The child's
potential must be reached while remaining a polite, kind, considerate, and
socially acceptable member of society. This was seen as a difficult balancing act for many of the mothers to achieve, and most of the sessions were
devoted to talk about how to attain one (soft individualism) within the
constraints of the other (sociocentric values). This theme of achieving full
expression within limits was the core concept with which mothers wrestled.
Carter Hill talk of individualism often existed alongside talk of the
importance of the group. The ultimate goal of these mothers was to fit such
individualism into the sociocentric elements that were required by society. The truly successful child would get nowhere without an ability to get
along with the group and a well-developed sense of what was socially appropriate. To say these mothers all wanted completely uninhibited children would not be accurate. When I asked them what was most important
for the child to learn in preschool, most of them replied that it was learning
how to get along with the group.17 Traits such as shyness and gentleness
were appreciated and encouraged, as long as children retained an innate
confidence and belief in themselves.

226 * ETHOS

As mothers taught their children not to be rude, or how to be polite,

they must also give them privacy (space to unfold), respect, empathy, and
ample choices. They must "mirror"the feelings of the child. As the social
worker said at one point, "What we want to do is help children feel comfortable with who they are, but then set limits on the way they express it,
which is a difficult process." Mothers were faced with how to impose a
morality and discipline on feelings and impulses that were legitimate simply because they were seen (tautologically) as the unique property of the
child, "because they were hers."
One woman, Janet, told a brief story about her daughter Danielle,
three and a half, not wanting to have a play date with a friend's child. The
counselor recommended taking Danielle aside and saying:
"Iknowthis is a pain for you, you didn'tinvite her over, but she's a guest in our house,
and for an hour I need you to help."Then you'revalidatingtheir feelingswhile you're
simultaneouslyshowing her there are certain respects that must be given to others.
That'sjust what it means to live in our society!

In both Beach Channel and South Rockaway, the socialization of hard
individualism could occur side-by-side a strong emphasis on hierarchy,
respect, authority, and cooperation with others without the subsequent
checking to see if they had stifled the child's creativity or unique feelings.
Hence, whereas the switching from one mode of socialization to another
was often done for Carter Hill mothers with a sense of reluctance, hesitation, or guilt, for the Beach Channel and South Rockaway mothers, such
switching was done nonchalantly, without guilt or worry. Unencumbered
by the fear of jeopardizing the healthy self-reliance and self-determination
they sought to instill in the children, sociocentric socialization was spontaneously woven in and out of the socialization of hard offensive and defensive individualism. This could be seen in the ways the mothers in
Queens switched easily from discourses on the importance of respect for
elders and the established hierarchy ("Don't be fresh to me, young man;
I'm the one who's in charge here, not you") with hard individualistic forms
of socialization. This could also be seen in the ways mothers had no difficulty calling their children by their social role or group status, ("You boys
get over here," "Hey kids, get off that bicycle") whereas Carter Hill teachers tended to avoid lumping the individual into some generic group status.
Beach Channel and South Rockaway mothers also had no trouble introducing discourses of hierarchy and respect for adults side-by-side with a
sense of pride in their child's individual accomplishments. During one of
my visits to a Beach Channel home, the father cursed his son for continuing to watch TV and not standing up when I walked into the room. "Who

227 * ETHOS

do you think you are? Stand up and say hello to the lady-don't sit there
like a bum," he said incredulously to his son, and then continued to speak
about what a hard worker he was and how great he was at baseball. After
this sociocentric discipline, not once did any shade of doubt, worry, or
guilt cross his face as to whether his son had been embarassed or wounded.
Nor was there any subsequent checking to see if he was "okay" after such
discipline occurred, or any attempt to build the child's self-esteem back
up with words of comfort (practices which were common among Carter
Hill mothers and teachers). During my interviews I was able to witness
many parent/child interactions (especially the conflicts that arose when
the child wanted attention during the interview and the parent wanted to
focus on my questions). What was especially revealing about these interactions were the varying ways in which mothers handled the child's repeated interruptions. Carter Hill mothers seemed to be worried about
hurting the child's feelings if they were told they could not join us, so
sometimes the child would be invited to crawl onto their lap and "join us,"
even after the parent had repeatedly asked the child to not bother us while
"we're busy." Or the child would be periodically given attention to sustain
her sense of belonging by the parent asking his or her opinion on some of
the questions I asked. South Rockaway mothers often yelled at the child,
asking, "Where are your manners, can't you see I'm talkin' with this
woman here? Go watch TV." Children were not invited into the adult activity, and no visible signs of guilt were detected in the mother's voice,
body, or speech.
Through witnessing these interactions, it became clear to me that, not
only did the South Rockaway and Beach Channel mothers differ in how
much tougher they wanted the child to become, they also had a different
notion of the level of resilience they were starting with when compared to
the Carter Hill mothers. South Rockaway and Beach Channel mothers
seemed to view certain forms of tough discipline as not bothering the child
at all, since the basic core of the self was viewed as tougher to begin with
than the self conceptualized by Carter Hill mothers. In this way, the starting points in their conceptions of the basic substance of the self were quite
Thus, for both Beach Channel and South Rockaway mothers, a toughening, hardening, and thickening of the boundaries of the self was part of
the socialization process, although for different reasons. In contrast, for
Carter Hill mothers, the socialization of soft individualism involved a more
fluid, delicate conception of the boundaries of the self, in which the child
was encouraged to loosen the self, express feelings, unfold, and open out
into the world. Among Carter Hill mothers, soft offensive individualism
was practiced. Mothers often used images of the importance of encouraging the child to open up, share feelings with the world, emerge, and bloom.

228 ? ETHOS

As already noted, the most popular image for the child was that of a delicate flower in the process of blossoming. Here we see the importance of
developing the child's soft nature-unique feelings, emotions, desires, and
opinions. Images of fluidity and opening up were accompanied by fear of
hurting the child's delicate skin, and by notions of the importance of gentle
assistance to help the child's unique self emerge. It is through uniqueness,
emotional self-confidence, creativity, and knowledge of the domain of the
psychologized self that the Carter Hill child will become happy and successful. While boundaries of the child's self among the Queens mothers
should be hard and dense (again, although each gave different reasons),
for Carter Hill mothers, those boundaries should be relatively fluid and

My research pointed to the ways mothers and teachers in South Rockaway, Beach Channel, and Carter Hill took up individualism and used its
various strands in ways that correlated with the specific needs, values,
beliefs, and ultimate concerns of their local worlds. In this way, the child
was socialized into the various orientations of soft or hard individualism
practiced in each community. Individualism was differentially woven into
metaphors of opening or tightening up, of Superman or the charismatic
artist, of density or fluidity. These metaphors seem to reflect the mothers'
concept of the nature of the child's self, be it delicate or hardy, as well as
the offensive or defensive trajectory children should take as they developed. Sociocentric elements coexisted alongside practices which fostered
hard offensive, soft offensive, or hard defensive individualism. However,
among Carter Hill mothers, practices that fostered sociocentrism were
seen as a threat to the child's individuality and therefore were often practiced with hesitation or subsequent checking rituals. Among Beach Channel and South Rockaway mothers, sociocentric and individualistic forms
of socialization were nonchalantly used simultaneously without the fear
that either one would be harmful to the development of the other.
Insofar as my research pointed to two different kinds of hard individualism in South Rockaway and Beach Channel, I was able to complexify and
de-homogenize the stereotype of a conformist working class, thereby
avoiding a re-creation of another rigid bipolar dichotomy within America.
I was also able to de-homogenize and complexify individualism as it existed in the two working-class communities I studied, insofar as each community espoused different individualistic styles: what I refer to as
defensive and offensive individualism. Whereas images of thickening, increasing density, protecting, and remaining safe were common for both
South Rockaway and Beach Channel mothers, Beach Channel mothers

De-Homogenizing American Individualism * 229

spoke of hardening the self, enabling children to burst through to a higher

socioeconomic level. South Rockaway mothers, on the other hand, spoke
more of surviving, defending oneself or family, and staying put. In South
Rockaway, a hard self could deflect the dangers that came its way. In
Beach Channel, offensive images of stepping out, putting one's best foot
forward, Superman, and building momentum were common. A thick skin
was needed- not for protection from danger, but for surviving the rough
weather on the way up the socioeconomic ladder. Hard work, good grades,
strong values, sports, and discipline would help the child break through to
success and escape lower-working-class status. Here are the beginnings of
pride and an offensive emphasis, while the notion of toughening and thickening the boundaries of the self through specific individualistic practices
is retained.


Acknowledgments. I would like to thank ProfessorsRobertLeVine,CharlesLindholm,
and KatherineNewmanfor their helpfulsuggestions,encouragement,and advice,both during and afterthe fieldworkprocess.ArthurKleinmanand ByronGoodalso helped me in my
critiqueof the homogenousWesternself by givingme a solid groundingin the fieldsof medical and psychiatric anthropologywhile I was at Harvard,for which I thank them both as
well. I also acknowledgeinsightfulcomments by RobertLair, Suzanne Kusserow,and William J. Lewis. Researchwas supportedby the LeopoldSchepp Foundationand by a Mellon
Grantfrom HarvardUniversity.
1. Lest the reader become confused by what I mean by self, I am alwaysreferringto a
parent'sconceptionof the child'sself. This includeswhat Spiro(1993:114) describesas "the
self-representationor the mental representationof the attributesof one's own person as
they are known, both consciouslyand unconsciously,to the person herselfor himself."
Duringmy interviews,mothers spoke about their own conception of the child's self as
they saw it, as well as how they hoped it would develop. None of these descriptionsis a
"true"reflectionof the phenomenologicalexperienceof the children'sselves. As such, these
conceptions include aspects of one's culturallyconstitutedmilieu and habitus, which may
or may not reflectthe phenomenonologicalrealitiesof the child'sself.
2. For examples of this, see Conklinand Morgan1996; Derne 1992; Elvin 1985; Ewing
1990; Hollandand Kipnis1994; Khare1984; Kleinmanand Kleinman1991; Lamb1997; Lin
1988; Lindholm 1997; Markusand Kitayama1994; McHugh1988; Mines 1988; Murray
1993; Oxfeld 1992; Rosenberger1992, 1989; Spiro 1993; Stairs 1992; Stephenson 1991;
3. This sort of unpackingcan be accomplishedthroughan approachto self, which Csordas (1994) refers to as "culturalphenomenology,"whereby theories of the self always remain tethered to the phenomenologicaland embodiedexperiences of the specific cultural
phenomenon under study. If, too often, the self is described without reference to any
concrete phenomenologicalbase, Csordas, in his detailed account of symbolic healing
among Catholic Charismaticsin NorthAmerica,points to the need for more of a balance
between the methodologicaltwins of phenomenologyand semiotics (1994:ix). For other

230 ? ETHOS

phenomenological approaches in anthropology, see also Desjarlais 1992; Good 1993; Jackson 1996; Kapferrer 1997; and Kleinman and Kleinman 1991.
4. See Gilligan 1982; Hewitt 1989; Hochschild 1979; Lykes 1985; Riesman 1950; Sampson 1988; Varenne 1977; and Wilkinson 1988.
5. See Berger et al. 1973; MacIntyre 1984; Sennett 1976; Trilling 1972; and Turner 1976.
6. Social psychologists, such as Triandis (1995) and Kagitchibasi (1987) also focus on the
coexistence of individual and group loyalties and the problems with placing them in bipolar
7. By sociocentric models, I mean teaching the child to identify with the group, one's
social role as brother, sister, or daughter, student, or one's place in a hierarchy. The focus of
my particular observations was on the practice of individualism and sociocentrism. I take
the practices of individualism to be any verbal or nonverbal encouragement of the child's
independence, individuality, uniqueness, privacy, personal expressiveness, personal rights,
self-assertiveness, self-reliance, and self-confidence. I was also interested in sociocentric
practices. These I take to be any verbal or nonverbal encouragement and identification of
the child's self with his or her social role, the group, group activity, cooperation, empathy,
conformity, and knowing one's place in a hierarchy. I was interested in these practices as
they are manifested in three main areas: emotions and feelings; creativity, art, and play; and
morality, discipline, and rules.
8. For the purposes of my study, social class position was broadly based on the occupation, education, and income of the mothers of the children at the preschools where I observed. In no way do I see these three factors as dictating one's class position, but as
generally corresponding to class status.
9. I use Wentworth's (1980) definition of socialization to refer to the process by which
members of a culture display rules to, or in the presence of, a novice. This can be done
consciously or unconsciously, through everyday talk and discipline and through narrative,
linguistic, cognitive, educational, and emotional mediums.
10. I chose to observe four-year-olds because more advanced and complex dialogue could
take place, enabling the researcher to study the cultural and class values embedded in
teacher's explanations and responses when children made a comment, responded to a question, talked back, talked to themselves, and so forth. This could not be done with infants.
Mothers of four-year-olds still feel they have tremendous influence over the development of
their childrens' selves. In addition, the mothers' wishes and desires for appropriate behavior
tend to be more obvious than with infants.
11. Analysis is based on comments made in interviews, except where stated otherwise.
Words and phrases in double quotes represent words spoken by the mothers and teachers
12. Analysis of these practices is based on general observation of interactions between
mother or teacher and child, rather than explicit statements made in interviews.
13. Observations and analysis I have made about the architecture of the self are based on
interviews with these mothers. Words used by the mothers themselves, however, are placed
in quotes.
14. For a similar analysis of working-class teasing practices as a way of teaching children
how to stick up for themselves, see Miller 1986.
15. I observed some of these practices at preschools, whereas others were spoken of during interviews with mothers.
16. It should be noted, however, that one of Strauss's main points is that cultural models
differ not only in extent, but also in the kind of directive force they give. She states, "American success values, though endorsed by four of the working men I talked to, motivated the
actions of only one of the men who stated them" (1992:217).
17. For more on what American mothers want their children to learn in preschool, see
Tobin, Wu, and Davidson 1989.


American Individualism ? 231

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