After touring America in 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville observed what sets America apart from other countries is the sense of individualism that pervades all of American society. What Tocqueville saw in the emerging American society was a “a calm and considered feeling which disposes each citizen to isolate himself from the mass of his fellows and withdraw into the circle of family and friends; with this little society formed to his taste, he gladly leaves the greater society to look after itself.” Tocqueville believed an individualism that leads people to be “shut up in the solitude of his own heart” could be detrimental to communal life and may even threaten democracy itself.
Scholars and critics have long lamented the fragmentation and disintegration of social life associated with individualism. Most recently, this can be seen in Robert Bellah’s Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (1985) and Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (2000). Jeanne Choy Tate’s volume follows this tradition in lamenting the impairment individualism has wrought on American society, namely that it places people in silos and prevents us from learning from other cultures. To be sure, individualism has indeed produced an ethos of ingenuity, resourcefulness, and entrepreneurship that characterize American culture. However, Tate suggests we need to look beyond these things in order to challenge “the myth of the independent individual.” Central to Tate’s argument is that we do not exist as solitary individuals whose personhood and psyche are fixed and impermeable. The self—its formation and development—is predicated on the other. In other words, our self emerges and evolves in relationships with others. Tate also points out the formation of the self is dependent on intergenerational relations and interactions with those who came before us. The issue, then, is that the individualism underlying our American society and culture hinders the development of the self. To return to a more organic way of being, Tate suggests that we need to look toward ethnic and faith communities as examples of intergenerational spaces in which values are passed on. These communities are vital correctives to individualism since they provide space where learning and healing can occur. Here, Tate relies on Chinese American faith communities and their emphasis on intergenerational relationships as a counter to American individualism.
What sets this volume apart from other works examining the detriments of individualism is that Tate relies on existing literature on childhood education and child psychology research to explicate the development and formation of personhood. In the span of seven chapters, Tate demonstrates how personhood arises out of the dyad relationship between the self and the caregiver, that from birth our being is formed in relations with those who care for us. In explaining this process, Tate foregrounds the caregiver, a role that has been relegated to the private sphere by American society. Tate suggests the importance of care and the role of the caregiver should be brought into mainstream conversations regarding social collectivity and the values we find important in cultivating community. Interspersed throughout these chapters are also seven vignettes and reflections from the author’s own life as she wrestles with her own identity and encounters with various cultures. Most powerful is the retelling of Tate’s encounter with abuse and the vital importance she assigns to the intergenerational faith community in the healing and restoration of the self and its relations with others.
While it does not break new ground, Something Greater is an excellent volume that reiterates the power of community and the role intergenerational relationships can play in breaking our dependence on ourselves.
Steve Hu is a PhD student at UC Santa Barbara.