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Types of individuality

Against the backdrop of the complex notion of individualization used in sociological discourse, it is necessary to develop sharper instruments for pursuing historical inquiries. Instead of asking which degree of individuality had been achieved, it seems to be more useful to inquire into the forms of individuality supported by concepts, practices, or institutions that are important for processes of individualization. In an earlier work (Riipke 2013), I proposed differentiating between five types of individuality that would ultimately shape the detailed description of any long-term processes that might be addressed as individualization (or its opposite, de-individualization). They are presented here in a modified form as pragmatic, moral, competitive, expressive, and reflective individuality.

These types are not necessarily correlated. Pragmatic individuality, the fact that people are forced by circumstances to act on their own instead of simply following tradition, points to situations of disembeddedness that are due to a temporary or permanent rupture of social bonds (as in the case of migrants, travellers, and survivors) or to a sharp division of labour. Such situations were experienced by the large number of emigrants in ancient Mediterranean societies. This led to the establishment of traditions that were adopted by a diaspora, the invention of traditions in the form of new cults, the offering of religious services by small entrepreneurs, and, ultimately, the exercise of choice on a much larger scale than had hitherto been seen below the highest echelons of society (Scheidel 2003 for demography; Noy 2000; Riipke 2014, 35-52). In present-day South Korea, processes of detraditionalization characterized by the concept of ‘second modernity’ (Beck and Beck-Gernsheim 2002) have led to ‘pragmatic individuality’ among females who are trapped and overburdened by family and social duties (Kyung-Sup and Min-Young 2010). Consequently, they escape by refusing to have more children, ending or not even entering marriage (ibid., 540), pursuing 'practical' rather than 'ideational individuality’, or individualization without individualism (ibid., 542). One might hypothesize about the consequences of this for their religious behaviour, as they may be expected to drop out of traditional patterns of religious practices or join new groups. Usually, such developments are barely reflected in religious terms by the practitioners. Earlier religious practices and beliefs would not have prepared people for the consequences of such migrations or, in the Korean case, family ruptures. It is, rather, the preparation for journeys taken after death for which written or learnt instructions are provided by religious specialists.1 This is hardly helpful for this-worldly migrants.

Moral individuality involves the ascription of responsibility to persons for their own behaviour, for example through concepts of sin and punishment as well as that of law. The very idea of personhood is related to this ascription of responsibility, from its ancient, Greek and Roman, roots onwards (Cancik 2002; Gill 1988). Standing in contrast to the concept of privatization, in antiquity moral standards were those of others and would include judgments about social obligations, often to the point of negating individuality. Specific duties were stressed rather than universal rights. And yet an obligation for the individual to participate in rituals in person might already be indicative of such a moral individuality that transcends mere prohibitions on behaviour. Such social obligations could entail specifically religious consequences. In numerous instances, people have claimed that their close personal relationship with a deity forced them to adopt standards of behaviour that were in conflict with societal standards. This is illustrated by the phenomena of ascetism, of martyrdom in ancient Judaism and Christianity, and, in contemporary India, of Dalit movements based on bhakti that strive to gain social recognition (see Riipke and Spickermann 2012 for further examples).

Martyrdom or, on a larger scale, monasticism also exemplify competitive individuality. This is the wish to be distinct, a wish that is often, in aristocratic societies for instance, combined with a struggle for social recognition and superiority that typically establishes norms towards which other social groups would seek to orient themselves. Individuals, in this sense, should strive to become exemplary. The life of such distinct personalities would be narrated as examples, thus adding a further incentive for the individual endeavour. The aim is not individual difference but, rather, perfection in fulfilling a social or religious role, whether as Roman priest, a Christian martyr, or a male rabbinic Jew (Fonrobert 2013). Fulfilment of this goal nevertheless remains a personal feat. Individual differences would have been noticed by close contemporary observers. They would be evaluated against a discursively constructed common ethos that would stress the commonwealth. In distinction to privatized or 'implicit religion' (for the development of the concept see Bailey 1990, 2009), visibility of performance is important for competitive individuality and can sometimes be perpetuated in material form. Donations in the form of votives, or the founding of temples and churches in Southern India or medieval European cities, could result from this impetus (Appadurai and Appa-durai Breckenridge 1976; Jaritz 1980; Schleif 1990).

Expressive individuality was at the heart of the investigations of Robert Bellah and his team into American individualism (Bellah 1985). Bellah’s work showed that people felt legitimized and encouraged to present a very specific image of themselves, to express their individuality in material and behavioural form. This behaviour clearly goes beyond just striving to be better at fulfilling social norms. It could also be a part of a private ‘sacred cosmos’ created by the very individual and diverse appropriation (to speak with Certeau 1984) of institutionalized religious traditions. American anthropologist Meredith McGuire (2008) has delineated everyday religious life on such a basis, but demonstrative forms of renunciation or mysticism can be found in Indian, West Asian, and medieval European contexts.

Finally, reflective individuality demands the formation of an individualistic discourse, an individualist ideology, so to speak. Again, such reflections on the self or on individual human nature - for example in the Stoic notion of oikeiosis, according to which each person should learn about and adapt to his or her physical and social nature (Engberg-Pedersen 1990; Trapp 2007, 109-114) -could be informed by normative concepts of social roles, usually produced by and adapted to elites. Such concepts of the Self can further be combined with concepts like the ‘soul’ (frequently employed in antiquity; Bremmer 2002) or the ‘inner person'. Imagined communication with the divine, or the presence of the divine in or for oneself, could be of great importance in religiously stabilizing such subjective individuality, and its expression could lead to visible processes of individualization.

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