Individualism as a discursive strategy of action: Autonomy, agency, and reflexivity among religious americans

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This paper reconceptualizes "individualism" as a discursive strategy of action through which everyday Americans attempt to manage the cultural dilemma of engaging in externally imposed social obligations within a broader individualistic culture. While classic formulations have treated individualism as a strong cultural force directing actors toward voluntaristic and privatized lives, my analysis - grounded in an inductive analysis of 17 qualitative studies of religious Americans - finds individualism working primarily as a discursive strategy, through which actors frame their participation in activities influenced by external authority and communal obligation in ways that emphasize their own agency and autonomy. This revised conceptualization suggests that American individualism may not be as "deep" or powerful as is often assumed. More generally, it offers a novel approach for conceptualizing and further studying the dynamic relationship between broadly "national" and more local and communal cultures.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)173-199
Number of pages27
JournalSociological Theory
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jun 11 2015



  • agency
  • culture
  • individualism
  • religion
  • strategy of action

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Sociology and Political Science

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