individuation & togetherness in social formation

Individuals in communities strive to maintain and develop their own, unique cultures, and appropriate technologies, architectures, politics, and economies. At the same time, they strive for belonging across a range of orders of social organization, from, for example, the family to the team and the fraternity to the neighborhood and the workplace to the nation to the international communities of small businessmen, capitalists, workers, worshippers, women, men, homosexuals, heterosexuals, whites, people of color, migrants, and so on.
How do states balance the issues and problems arising from people’s linked and contradictory needs to belong and to maintain community autonomy? In addressing this question, it makes sense to look at how states, institutions, and communities balance the issues and problems arising from facilitating immigration and promoting distinctive cultures, languages, religions, and identities, while working to build a sense of togetherness as a nation with historical and distinctive ideological, social, political, and economic commitments and aspirations.
American partisans have argued that liberal Anglo-America possesses a model approach to the problem of balancing belonging and independence. An approach that other countries may emulate, the liberal, Anglo-American answer to the problematic is to incorporate people into a system of competition framed by inequality, fueled by what liberal academic figurehead Francis Fukuyama has labeled flatteringly “the drive to stick out.” It might more succinctly and less flatteringly be referred to as a Lotto Mentality, for the adherents, exceptionalists all, statisticians decidedly second, assume that they will come out on top in the US’s patronage system.
Yet the liberal answer is a weak evasion, weighted too heavily on the side of independence, glibly eliding the need for togetherness. Only the elite feels hierarchy as unproblematic togetherness. Conflicts and contradictions devolve out of competition framed by inequality, anomie and alienation flourish, the problem of balancing belonging and independence stubbornly remains, burned in the flesh and experience of every minority, every woman, every worker in American society. It remains a problem for the state and its institutions. And as Swedish researchers have shown, the requisite predisposition for finding inequality functional is cultural. Americans have it in spades; Swedes among others are less enamored of inequality.
The American consensus is advanced by the curiously asociological American economic sociology of immigration, in which it is discovered that the market and networks of interethnic competition provide the optimal conditions for the incorporation of multicultural immigrants. As well, experts of journalism promote the notion of American optimality. As pundit Christopher Caldwell noted in his February 5, 2006 New York Times essay “Islam on the outskirts of the welfare state,” other political-economic approaches, such as Swedish social democracy, falter in their management of this tension.
Caldwell argues that social democrats fail to grasp that some populations, like Muslims, cannot appreciate democracy and can never be assimilated into an overly-egalitarian society. “(Sweden’s) newcomers understand perfectly well what this system erected in the name of equality is and have decided it doesn’t particularly suit them,” he offers by way of explaining for the Swedes the roots of the conflicts over belonging and community autonomy in Sweden.
In this asociological American view, immigrants and their progeny are black boxes hardwired to devalue equality and democracy and overvalue strife and violence. Implicitly, only a system that does not place too much emphasis on equality and democracy, such as an Anglo American liberal society, is fit to properly manage such a species of people as Muslims.[1]

Yet, apart from a sensationalist newspaper story here and there, much social science evidence points not toward immigrants’ rejection of equality, but at discrimination, structural adjustment, and isolation as sources of minority immiseration in a society that has developed a refugee-oriented immigration policy and pro-autonomy multicultural programs since the 1970s. How does a society wrestle with the essential tension between assimilation and community autonomy, between belonging and independence, between different forms of solidarity and individual development?



[1] The American pundit scoffs at structural explanations developed from empirical data demonstrating discrimination in the labor and housing market, and, not surprisingly, he ignores the fact that many of Sweden’s immigrants, including Iranian-Swedes, are pro-democratic escapees from the repressive, right-wing regimes that Anglo-American military and intelligence adventures have promoted around the globe. Indeed, Sweden has been frustrating American efforts to get Swedes to turn over “their” Muslims, and Caldwell’s rhetoric is not likely innocent of this contemporary diplomatic conflict.
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