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Individualism and Marriage: Ideal Types for Making Sense of the Relationship between Self and Sacrifice

Abstract

The question of how the individual and group relate is one that has long interested social theorists. Changes in family form and structure in the contemporary West resituate this question in a contentious public debate regarding how the prevalence of new family forms may contribute or be deleterious to the well-being of individuals and families. Sociological discourse on marriage and the family generally tends to mirror this debate by dichotomizing individualism and commitment and self and marriage, resulting in an obfuscation of our understanding of the forms and styles in marriage. In order to clarify and advance this discussion, we show how individualism and commitment are mutually required in a modern world. We follow this by outlining a logically-derived typology that, along with a committed individualist and a group conformer, includes two intermediate types: a self-regulator and a relationship negotiator. We empirically demonstrate the utility of these types by showing how they correspond with the ways that interviewees talk about marriage in six local congregations, and we suggest various social factors that may particularly impact the development of local marriage cultures. These types provide a theoretical frame for understanding how individualism and commitment are intertwined and require each other.

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Notes

  1. More nuanced approaches include Beck and Beck-Gernsheim (2002, 2013, 2015) and Giddens (1991, 1993).

  2. Religion is one of two major social institutions (the other is law) that historically have provided significant support for marriage in the United States (Cherlin 2010); therefore in religious settings we can potentially see models of marriage more purely than in many other settings. In addition, unique ways in which American Christianity has valued both marriage and individualism is a smaller picture of the larger U.S. culture. It results in a setting where tensions between these two cultural models are heightened, potentially generating—and allowing us to view—a broad range of ways in which individualism and marriage combine.

  3. Because of this perception of marriage as something that will last, we use “marriage” as shorthand for a “lifelong marriage commitment” throughout this paper.

  4. Other marriage scholars are less dualistic in their approaches, but their work has not been widely discussed or used in the U.S. literature on the family (Beck and Beck-Gernsheim 2013; Beck and Beck-Gernsheim 2015).

  5. Cherlin builds on the chronological progression seen by earlier family scholars, adding the contemporary individualized or expressive marriage to the institutionalized marriage and the companionate marriage (Burgess and Locke 1945; Cherlin 2004; Cherlin 2010). In the individualized marriage, commitments are not tied to economic security or strong gender roles and there is instead a shift from roles to self. People “look inward to see how they are doing” and pursue personal growth throughout adulthood (Cherlin 2010, 90). In this model of marriage, each individual is free to sever ties that apparently lack the ability to help them grow or achieve personal fulfillment, similar to Hackstaff’s (2010) conceptualization of divorce culture where marriage is a contingent option and divorce is a gateway.

  6. Simmel (1907) makes a similar argument in The Philosophy of Money.

  7. Though our data comes from congregations in the Midwest of the United States, it is hasty to assume that they would be more conservative than congregations in other regions. Catholic churches in the Midwest are not more conservative in terms of religious beliefs than their counterparts in the North and South regions (Konieczny 2013) and mainline and evangelical Protestant churches are only slightly more conservative (Chaves 2004). Thus it is probable that what we see here may have similar parallels in other areas of the United States.

  8. This does not necessarily mean non-religious groups, though some might be that way. Future applications of these types might in fact find something similar to what we have found here among the many atheists and secular humanists who value a moral system and community (Ecklund 2010).

  9. In a certain way, relationship-negotiators are strongly akin to what Cherlin describes as the modern American ethos or attitude toward marriage, which he calls expressive or individualized marriage. However, instead of his conceptualization of marriage and individualism as two cultural schemas that people use situationally, relationship-negotiators’ individualism is fully integrated into their marriage relationship. Marital obligations and the benefit of love and support can provide structure that bolsters personal growth, but if a conflictual relationship cannot be adequately negotiated, it is terminated. Cherlin points out that this strong emphasis on choice can lead to more ended relationships because a vigilant self-carer should always be watching for these places where a relationship no longer grows them, and thus this type may be more accepting of no-fault divorce than other types.

  10. Previous scholars have established that commitment and individualism are integrated in some circumstances where it is not about jumping back and forth between two different types (Beck and Beck-Gernsheim 2015; Giddens 1993). Our work, then, is to establish more pure types of individualism and commitment in order to see how congregational forms contribute to these cultures.

  11. Men and women equally used other-focused and self-focused orientations to marriage, encouraging our conclusion that this mixture of types was due to a local marriage style rather than gender differences.

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Acknowledgments

We would like to thank David Smilde, Becca Hanson, and the anonymous reviewers of Qualitative Sociology. We would also like to thank Omar Lizardo, Elizabeth McClintock, Rory McVeigh, Christian Smith, Erika Summers-Effler, as well as the participants of the Research and Analysis in Sociology of Religion workshop at the University of Notre Dame for their feedback and comments. Funding for this research was provided by The Institute for American Families, the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at the University of Notre Dame, and by the Jack Shand Research Grant of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion.

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Correspondence to Karen Hooge Michalka.

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Michalka, K.H., Konieczny, M.E. & Ellis, E. Individualism and Marriage: Ideal Types for Making Sense of the Relationship between Self and Sacrifice. Qual Sociol 40, 287–310 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11133-017-9357-8

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Keywords

  • Marriage
  • Self
  • Individualism
  • Dualism
  • Local culture