From the individual to the social and back again

In my last post, I explored my recent considerations regarding different understandings of individualism. From a market neoliberal approach, society is built from individuals and nothing but individuals — we are the sum of the characteristics brought to society by individuals and nothing more. From a capability approach, we start with the individual as the most ethical way to assure equity and justice in development work. But unlike the ontological individualism view of neoliberalism, the ethical individualism which the capability approach practices allows for the possibility of emergent properties when individuals exist together in society — the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Why might we need to look beyond just the individual when working to foster community through development work? A few years back I was struggling a bit with high cholesterol, and especially the LDL or bad cholesterol. This in spite of an active lifestyle, healthy diet, and high HDL or good cholesterol. I also was experiencing some mild depression and fatigue. Fortunately, rather than treating these symptoms as separate illnesses, I had a general practitioner that excelled at diagnostics. Probing further, he found out I also was increasingly sensitive to cold temperatures and had some unexplained weight gain. After some lab work, I was diagnosed with hypothyroidism. Recognizing that my many individual body parts were part of a greater whole, my doctor dug to find the root cause affecting different parts of my body in different ways, rather than treating the ailments of each different body part as a separate problem.

Our development work fostering community may often include a focus on the individual because of concerns of equity and justice. Resources, including educational and biological, differ from person to person. An example used in connection to the capability approach to distinguish resources, capabilities, functioinings (those things we value being and doing), and utility is that of the bicycle. From the Deneulin and Shahani edited introduction to capability approach:

A bicycle provides a good example of how these different concepts relate. A person may own or be able to use a bicycle (a resource). By riding the bicycle, the person moves around town and, we assume, values this mobility (a functioning). However, if the person is unable to ride the bicycle (because, perhaps, she has no sense of balance or is not permitted to ride), then having a bicycle would not in fact result in this functioning. In this case, the access to the resource coupled with the person’s own characteristics (balance, etc.), creates the capability for the person to move around town when she wishes. Furthermore, let us suppose that the person enjoys having this capability to leap upon a bicycle and pedal over to a friend’s house for lunch – thus having this capability contributes to happiness or utility.

We often start with the individual to assure equity and justice for all, something that can be obscured when we start with small or large groups of constituents. But individuals do not exist in isolation from other humans or from the environment.

Randy Stoecker’s recent writings has brought to my attention the concept of sociological imagination as first proposed by C. Wright Mills in his 1959 book The Sociological Imagination. When only one person is experiencing a problem, the cause may likely exist within the individual. But when many people experience similar problems, the problem is more likely social in nature. Last year I attended a conference reflecting on 20 years of addressing the digital divide. One presenter highlighted the shift from 1964 and President Lyndon Johnson’s declaration of a war on poverty — a demonstration of a sociological imagination that the cause may be social as much as individual —  to that which occurred as part of the social welfare reforms of the Reagan and Clinton presidencies. In deed, if not in name, the Regan and Clinton reforms put more of the blame on the individuals and thus became a war on the poor as opposed to poverty.

CDC social-ecological model

The U.S. government has proposed a social-ecological model that explores “the complex interplay between individual, relationship, community, and societal factors” that may contribute to being the victim of, or to perpetuate, violence. The individual level looks at biological and personal history factors. The relationship level looks at how “a person’s closest social circle — peers, partners and family members — influences their behavior and contributes to their range of experience.” The community level “explores the settings, such as schools, workplaces, and neighborhoods, in which social relationships occur.” The societal level looks at broader societal factors such as social and cultural norms, and “the health, economic, educational and social policies that help to maintain economic or social inequalities between groups in society.” While the CDC has proposed this model specifically related to violence and violence prevention, I believe it might be a valuable starting point to generalize to other issues that step from individual, relational, community, and societal issues.

I’ve come across the concept of social ecology in a wide range of readings over the past few years. Rather than a single conceptual model, a variety of people have explored the ways multiple human-based social systems — where social is used expansively to include institutions, politics, economics, cultural norms, etc. — intersect with each other and with the more-than-human. As proposed by an early explorer of social ecology, Dave Taylor, issues are explored at multiple levels, including the “macro level, the micro level, and the meso level applied, for example, to individuals, small groups, organizations, neighborhoods and geographical regions.” Taylor further suggestions six underlying principles of social ecology:

  • Identify a phenomenon as a social problem
  • View the problem from multiple levels and methods of analysis
  • Utilize and apply diverse theoretical perspectives
  • Recognize human-environment interactions as dynamic and active processes
  • Consider the social, historical, cultural and institutional contexts of people-environment relations
  • Understand people’s lives in an everyday sense

Murray Bookchin further suggests:

What defines social ecology as social is its recognition of the often-overlooked fact that nearly all our present ecological problems arise from deep-seated social problems. Conversely, our present ecological problems cannot be clearly understood, much less resolved, without resolutely dealing with problems within society. To make this point more concrete; economic, ethnic, cultural, and gender conflicts, among many others, lie at the core of the most serious ecological dislocations we face today — apart, to be sure, from those that are produced by natural catastrophes.

Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote from the Birmingham Jail in 1963:

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.

In his speech Beyond Vietnam, King expanded this further to recognize poverty in the ghettos of the U.S., the riots occurring there, the gross levels of money spent for the war in Vietnam, and the killing of innocent lives there were all connected in clear ways.

In his landmark work, A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold’s concluding chapter, “A Land Ethic“, states:

All ethics so far evolved rest upon a single premise: that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts. His instincts prompt him to compete for his place in that community, but his ethics prompt him also to co-operate (perhaps in order that there may be a place to compete for).

The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land.

Our current sermon series at Twin City Bible Church is about [re]building the church. We have been reminded that in most cases when the Bible says you, it means you all. Today’s sermon by Norman Hubbard on Nehemiah chapters 2 and 3 also put this community concept into the context of the work of God. I appreciate Allen Wakabayashi’s book Kingdom Come: How Jesus Wants to Change the World that points out a new kingdom of equity and justice is being built on earth. In Shalom: The Bible’s Word for Salvation, Justice, and Peace, Perry Yoder further clarifies that the whole of the Bible leads towards a growing understanding of this deep concept of shalom, right relations with God, with others (including nature), and within ourselves. God’s wrath occurs almost always when systems of injustice are allowed to exist among his people, when gross inequities are allowed to exist and certain groups of people are oppressed. In his sermon today, Norm made current the exploration of Nehemiah’s working within God’s plan to step up and leave behind a comfortable life to go himself to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem to ask what we need to be stepping up to bring into existence as part of God’s new kingdom. But Norm also noted that chapter 3 is a description of all the people who contributed a small part. It wasn’t done as an individual work, but as a corporate work. We work with our neighbors and our community. In response to a statement that the greatest commandments are love God and love your neighbor, Jesus is asked “Who is my neighbor?” This is when Jesus shares the parable of the good Samaritan. In this case, the neighbor was a stranger of a different religion, and indeed two religions that often left people on non-speaking terms.

As I reflect on these and many other parts of my Christian faith tradition, I am coming to realize that today’s framing economic and political philosophy within the U.S., market neoliberalism with its core belief in ontological individualism — that all of society can be explained and built by looking always and only at individuals — is diametrically opposed to that faith. I do not think it a coincidence that since the 1980’s great political will has been bent on bringing about a neoliberal government within our country and in parallel we have become a nation of immense inequality and increasing oppressions. Not the blatant oppressions of oppressive regimes which we spend great sums of money to defeat, but the subtle oppressions that divide and conquer, and which bring about the existence of things like the new Jim Crow.

The whole of the Christian faith is based on us being one body with right relations with God and our neighbor who may indeed be our enemy. It allows for ethical individualism. It is in opposition to ontological individualism. And I strongly believe it therefore must stand in strong opposition to neoliberalism. We can work to treat our many social symptoms is separate social ills, or we can work to identify the root. And I believe the root today is neoliberalism and ontological individualism.

For me community is a utopian ideal that we actively work towards today, but that is something that won’t be complete yet for some time to come. It is a state of equity and justice within a broader social ecology sense. We work at an individual level to assure equity, but we do so recognizing we are a “network of inescapable mutuality”. It isn’t particularly a place in which everyone agrees or in which everyone is best friends forever. Indeed, conflict and difference are often starting points for understanding an issue more deeply if we can learn to dialog effectively across difference. It is difficult for me to conceive how to truly do this when it requires we overcome limits imposed on us by language, culture, history, and conceptual understanding. But I know from both an intellectual and spiritual level that my calling is to work directly within this negotiated space between individual and community so as to bring about shalom in which every person has the agency and capability to achieve all that they value being and doing within a greater sense of human and more-than-human as a single social ecology working towards the common good.

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About mwolske

I'm a Senior Research Scientist in Community Informatics at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science, University of Illinois.
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