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individual in society: To what extent are individuals the product of society?
The idea of 'the individual' has become such an accepted construct in modern life it is easy to forget that the idea of an isolated, all-important private and individual 'self' is a relatively new development in human sociological thought. Even today, human beings define themselves, not simply as individual selves, but as persons who must function within particular social contexts of family, work, and school. Quite often, when one asks 'who am I,' one's societal roles of child or parent, worker or employee, or student formulate one's answer. But although societal ideals and ideas have produced the modern notion of the individual as an isolated, psychologically contained essence, this idea has grown so powerful that even as societal institutions of church and education continue to shape the collective, individual persons now seek a sense of empowerment and actualization in their working, personal, spiritual, and societal lives outside of conventional societal norms.
Thus, individuals are affected by the roles society places upon them, but because one of these contemporary roles is 'an autonomous individual,' the individual is both a product of society and seeks to individually shape society and stand outside of its confines. But it is a worthy caveat that even the individualistic practice of psychology and psychoanalysis, although it may be seen as one of the first creative responses to such a development of a concept of 'an individual' located in society, suggested that society created mechanisms to ensure social control of individual human instincts. Freud stated that the individual's will did not operate outside of the society of the family. At the root of familial, controlling mechanisms Freud believed was the prohibition against incest and hence the evolution of the Oedipal complex within the human mind. The collective, shaping needs of society for order and limits upon human desires spawned the incest taboo and stifled the individual's desire to continually supplant his father's role.
But rather than focusing on the so-called Freudian family marriage, it is also possible to see the individual as a product of cultural societal influences as well as personal influences. As counseled by Ian Marsh, one must be aware of the contribution sociology can make to an understanding of social change, as unlike the relatively static family marriage scenario outlined by Freud. Marsh implies that the individual's sense of class, place in society, ability to mobilize him or herself, can all affect his or her individual sense of self-worth.
Because society is in flux, growing more diverse and fast-paced in modern contexts, the individual must speed his or her own tempo up in professional life, or put off marriage in his or her personal life, to make one example, to meet continued cultural challenges. Even if one thinks it will make one happy to be richer than one's neighbors, the status of wealth is a culturally and socially set norm.
Thus, there is always a fusion of the need to function in society and to achieve a sense of empowerment as individual, in the modern construction of psychological and social health. In other words, rather than merely seeing the individual as set of societal obligations and nothing else -- where once one was merely one's relational role or profession in society, as either a son or a farmer -- an individual today is perceived as having rights beyond family and function. But to achieve personal happiness often means meeting the norms and needs of one's family, peer group, and even one's nation and group identification.
After Freud, later sociologists attempted to achieve a more creative balance between the needs of the individual in past, family oriented primitive cultures and today's atomized yet still collectively generated modern life. Durkheim, although influenced by Freud saw human societal constructs as what made the human individual unlike other animals. Humans were not satisfied with mere biological satiation but strove for social approbation as well as survival. In fact, the more one human had, the more that person seemed to want, the father of sociology wrote.
It follows from this natural insatiability of the human animal that his desires can only be held in check by external controls, that is, by societal control. Society imposed…[continue]
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