How individualized are the Dutch?

Paul de Beer

Amsterdam Institute of Advanced Labour Studies (AIAS)

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Paul de Beer (1957) is Henri Polak professor of industrial relations at the University of Amsterdam; he is affiliated with the Amsterdam Institute of Advanced Labour Studies (AIAS) and De Burcht (Dutch Centre for Industrial Relations). He studied econometrics at the University of Amsterdam and in 2001 took his Ph.D from the University of Amsterdam.

The research for this paper was funded by Stichting Instituut Gak.

How individualized are the Dutch?


Individualization is often considered to be one of the most important social-cultural trends of the last decades. According to author’s like Ulrich Beck, Scott Lash an Anthony Giddens, it is one of the defining characteristics of late or ‘reflexive’ modernity. However, there is not much empirical research on the phenomenon of individualization. This paper examines the empirical evidence for a trend of individualization in the Netherlands. Three alleged consequences of the individualization process, viz. detraditionalization, emancipation, and heterogenization, are confronted with Dutch data. Only the hypothesis of detraditionalization is confirmed by the data. The emancipation hypothesis is, however, unambiguously refuted by the available data, while the data are not conclusive with respect to heterogenization. Hence, the empirical support for the individualization trend is much weaker than is often supposed.

Keywords: individualization, late modernity, detraditionalization, emancipation, heterogenization
How individualized are the Dutch?

1. Introduction

The process of individualization is by many regarded as one of the most important social-cultural developments of the post-war period. For the most part, however, the growing literature on individualization lacks a firm empirical underpinning. Most authors on individualization, among whom renowned sociologists as Beck, Giddens and Bauman, restrict themselves to describing some broad, general trends which, in their opinion, should suffice to show that a process of individualization is taking place. This approach makes it rather difficult to judge the importance of the individualization process, and indeed, whether there really is a process of individualization going on. In this paper we will present the available evidence for the existence of an individualization trend in the Netherlands.

There are good reasons for focusing on the Netherlands when studying the phenomenon of individualization. Individualization has been a hotly debated issue in the Netherlands for the last ten years or more. In 1998, the Social and Cultural Planning Office of the Netherlands (SCP), a government agency which conducts research into the social aspects of all areas of government policy, published its bi-annual Social and Cultural Report, named 25 Years of Social Change. In this report the SCP concluded, on the basis of extensive descriptions and analyses of numerous social and cultural trends over the last 25 years, that these trends are most aptly characterized by the term ‘individualization’.

Moreover, in international comparative research the Netherlands stand out as one of the most progressive and liberal countries. In Inglehart’s well-known studies of postmaterialist values, the Dutch are one of the world’s most postmaterialist people. In 1987, the Netherlands and West Germany were the only countries in which the share of postmaterialists in the population exceeded the share of materialists (Inglehart 1990: 93). Three years later, the percentage of postmaterialists in the Netherlands exceeded the percentage of materialists even by 26 points (Inglehart 1997: 157). Although adhering to postmaterialist values should not be equated with being individualized, there are some similarities between the two concepts. For example, Inglehart relates postmaterialist values to “nonphysiological needs, such as those for esteem, self-expression, and aesthetic satisfaction” (Inglehart 1990: 68), which clearly centre on the individual. According to Inglehart, the Netherlands also score very high on a ‘postmodernization’ scale, which comprises ‘individuation’ as one of its main elements (Inglehart 1997: 81).

In his study of cultural differences between countries, Hofstede classified the Netherlands as one of the most individualised countries, together with the United States, Australia, the United Kingdom and Canada (Hofstede 1991). Besides, Hofstede claims that the Dutch people are also characterised by a small power distance and by a ‘feminine’ culture, which puts most emphasis on the quality of life instead of on material success. Hence, if one wants to find a pronounced trend of individualization, the Netherlands seem to be a good place to start looking for it.

In order to test the occurrence of a process of individualization empirically one must, of course, first define individualization. Because of the widely diverging interpretations of individualization, this is certainly more than a cursory exercise. Hence, the first part of this paper will be devoted to a discussion of different interpretations of individualization. We will argue that individualization can be characterised by a combination of three trends, viz. detraditionalization, emancipation and heterogenization. Detraditionalization means the loosening of ties with traditional institutions like the family, the church, trade unions and political parties. Emancipation means an increasing freedom of choice for the individual. Heterogenization means a growing diversity in people’s life choices.

In the second part of this paper we examine whether these three trends can be traced in the Netherlands. Our empirical research is partly based on secondary analyses of available statistics and partly on our own analysis of two surveys among the Dutch population. We find that there has been a marked trend of detraditionalization in the Netherlands over the last decades, but that there is much less evidence for a trend of emancipation and a trend of heterogenization. Contrary to what the emancipation thesis suggests, people’s attitudes and behaviours appear easier to predict today than they used to be twenty years ago. And, instead of a clear heterogenization trend, we find an undulating motion of rising and falling heterogeneity.

2. What is individualization?

Far from being a recent development, as is sometimes suggested, individualization was in fact one of the main issues with which the founding fathers of social science were concerned. Emile Durkheim, Georg Simmel and Max Weber all studied the influence of the industrialization process on social cohesion and solidarity and the changes in the bond between individuals and community that took place in their time, i.e. around the turn of the previous century. For example, the gradual transformation from mechanic solidarity to organic solidarity, which Durkheim described in The Division of Labour in Societu, can also be called a process of individualization. Durkheim argued that one of the consequences of the increasing division of labour is “a greater independence of individuals in relation to the group, which allows them to vary at will” (Durkheim 1893/1997: 229). Traditional, strong ties with the family, the ethnic group or the tribe, were replaced by weaker ties with anonymous industrial organizations and governmental institutions, which the individual, to a certain extent, was free to choose. In Philosopy of MoneySimmel emphasized the role of money in replacing the dependency of individuals on concrete others, with whom one often has emotional ties, by a generalized dependency on anonymous persons, with whom one has a purely objective relationship: “The general trend, however, clearly is in the direction to make the subject, to be sure, dependent on the actions of ever more people, but less dependent on these persons as such” (Simmel 1901/1989: 394). Simmel argued that this resulted in a strong increase in individual independence, which he indeed named ‘individualization’.

However, recently some authors claim that the present process of individualization differs in important aspects from the processes described by Durkheim and Simmel. While the transformation that took place in the last part of the nineteenth and the first part of the twentieth century, is often called a process of modernization, at present, these authors contend, modernity itself is undergoing profound changes. According to Beck, Giddens and Lash we are entering a new phase, which they call late modernity, reflexive modernity or second modernity (Giddens 1991; Beck, Giddens and Lash 1994; Beck and Gernsheim 2002). They claim that individualization is one of the defining characteristics of this new phase of modernity. As Beck and Beck-Gernsheim formulate it: “To put it in a nutshell – individualization is becoming the social structure of second modernity itself.” (Beck and Beck-Gernsheim 2002: xxii) Although Giddens seems to shun the term individualization, he, too, emphasizes the changing role of the individual in late modernity.

Although these authors stress the overriding importance of individualization for the present phase of modernity, it is not easy to derive a clear definition of individualization from their writings. E.g., Beck and Beck-Gernsheim (2002: xxii) write: “So – to give a simple definition – ‘individualization’ means disembedding without re-embedding.” Bauman (2002: xv) states: “‘individualization’ consists in transforming human ‘identity’ from a ‘given’ into a ‘task’ – and charging the actors with the responsibility for performing that task and for the consequences (also the side-effects) of their performance”. These ‘definitions’ do not easily translate into a formalization of individualization that lends itself to empirical testing. Hence, we will try to infer some concrete elements from the discussion of individualization by the authors mentioned.

To start, individualization should clearly be distinguished from individualism. While individualism is commonly understood as a personal attitude or preference, individualization refers to a macro-social phenomenon, which may – but just as well may not – be related to changes in the attitudes of individual persons. Moreover, individualism is sometimes also interpreted as an ideology, supported by a few and abhorred by many, while individualization, though also capable of unleashing strong reactions of approval or disapproval, is primarily an objective category, a ‘social fact’, to use a Durkheimian term.

Beck, Bauman and Giddens emphasize that individualization is not a process that originates from a conscious choice or even a preference of the individual himself. To the contrary, Beck and Beck-Gernsheim point out: “individualization is a social condition which is not arrived at by a free decision of individuals. (…) people are condemned to individualization” (Beck and Beck-Gernsheim 2002: 4). Bauman states concisely: “individualization is a fate, not a choice” (Bauman 2002: xvi), while Giddens (1991: 81) says: “we have no choice but to choose.”

These remarks underline the fact that individualization is not closelyconnected to individual attitudes or preferences with respect to freedom of choice. According to these authors, individualization is in fact imposed on individual citizens by modern institutions. The welfare state, in particular, has replaced many traditional institutions, like the family, the local community, church and class, as the defining collectivity of people’s identity. Hence, a first interpretation of individualization is that it refers to a process of ‘detraditionalization’: the gradual loss of adherence of individuals to traditional institutions. E.g. Beck and Beck-Gernsheim argue that “the post-war development of the welfare state brought with it a social impetus toward individualization of unprecedented scale and dynamism. (…) a break in historical continuity released people from traditional class ties and family supports and increasingly threw them onto their own resources and their individual fate” (Beck and Beck-Gernsheim 2002: 30). This does not mean that the traditional institutions vanish into thin air, but they loose their strong hold on the individual. They still live on, but more or less like “zombie categories” (Beck and Beck-Gernsheim 2002: 27). About the nuclear family, Beck contends: “To be sure, families are still to be found, but the nuclear family has become an ever more rare institution.” (Beck in Beck, Giddens and Lash 1994: 8)

A second implication of individualization that can be derived from the writings of these authors is emancipation, i.e. a declining influence of institutions on individual attitudes and behaviour, resulting in a greater freedom of choice. Beck and Beck-Gernsheim state this quite clearly: “traditional guidelines often contained severe restrictions or even prohibitions on action (…). By contrast, the institutional pressures in modern Western society tend rather to be offers of services or incentives to action” (Beck and Beck-Gernsheim 2002: 2, 3). Further on they say: “Individualization liberates people from traditional roles and constraints” (Beck and Beck-Gernsheim 2002: 203). Giddens argues: “The self is not a passive entity, determined by external influences; in forging their self-identities (…) individuals contribute to and directly promote social influences that are global in their consequences and implications.” (Giddens 1991: 2)

Although the interpretation of individualization as emancipation is related to the previous one, the two are not identical. On the one hand, it is conceivable that people get more freedom of choice even though they remain attached to the same, traditional institutions. On the other hand, people could loosen their tie with, for example, their family or a church, but still be strongly influenced by the values and norms of these institutions. Hence, detraditionalization and emancipation do not necessarily imply each other. Therefore, in our empirical analysis, we will examine detraditionalization and emancipation separately.

A third implication of individualization, which seems to follow logically from emancipation, is growing heterogeneity or heterogenization. If people do no longer appeal to traditional institutions for guidelines for their conduct, and increasingly make their own choices, they will most likely make different choices. This was already a central thesis in Durkheim’s The Divison of Labor in Society, as is clear from the quotation above. In Beck’s words, “standard biographies become elective biographies, ‘do-it-yourself biographies’, risk biographies, broken or broken-down biographies.” (Beck and Beck-Gernsheim 2002: 24) This means “the end of fixed, predefined images of man. The human being becomes (…) a choice among possibilities, homo optionis.” (Beck and Beck-Gernsheim 2002: 5) If the standard biography is replaced by an elective biography, as Beck puts it, then one would hardly expect these biographies to become more alike.

Although closely related, heterogenization and emancipation are not the same. Heterogenization may also result from other trends than emancipation, for example, the influx of immigrants from other cultures. And even if people are free to make their own choices, it cannot be ruled out a priori that they will nevertheless largely make the same choices. To give an obvious example, if people’s religious affiliation becomes less important in explaining their behaviour, the behaviour of, e.g. Catholics, protestants and non-religious groups might become more alike instead of more diverse. Hence, we will have to test heterogenization separately from emancipation and a fortiori from detraditionalization.

3. Methodology: how to test for individualization?

In order to determine whether there is a process of individualization going on, we have to test empirically the occurrence of the three implications of individualization discussed in the preceding section. I.e., we have to look for empirical evidence for detraditionalization, emancipation, and heterogenization. In this section we will discuss the indicators that can be constructed to perform these tests.

Detraditionalization means that people’s ties with traditional institutions are loosening or even disappearing. An obvious indicator for detraditionalization is therefore the trend in the membership of traditional institutions. Naturally, we have to confine ourselves to the membership of institutions for which data are available. As a consequence, we will focus on the membership of the nuclear family, of churches, of trade unions and of political parties. Although these institutions only constitute a small part of the numerous traditional institutions that might be subject to a process of detraditionalization, they are perhaps the most typical examples of these institutions, which are often mentioned in discussions on this aspect of individualization. Hence, if individualization is indeed characterized by a process of detraditionalization, this should certainly show itself in a declining membership rate of these four institutions.

It is harder to find a suitable indicator for emancipation. Although it may seem clear what increasing freedom of choice means, it is far from evident how it should be measured. Simply counting the number of options from which people can choose might seem an obvious measure, but this is easier said than done. What kind of choices are relevant and how do we weigh different choices? It would not be very plausible to consider the number of brands of detergent on sale in the supermarket an appropriate indicator of freedom of choice. But then, by what criterion should one determine which choices are important and which are not?

To circumvent this problem, we will follow a different course. We will not look at the input of freedom of choice, i.e. the set of options from which one can choose, but at the outcome. That is, we will measure to what extent the attitudes and the behaviour of individual people are determined by their objective characteristics. To be more precise, increasing freedom of choice or emancipation is supposed to mean that people’s attitudes and behaviour will be progressively less predictable by personal characteristics like gender, age, religion, and educational attainment. Hence, as a measure for freedom of choice we will use the proportion of explained variance (R2 for short) for regression analyses of various attitudes and behaviours. If these proportions show a downward trend during the last decades, then thiscorroborates the hypothesis that freedom of choice is indeed growing.

Of course, this strategy still forces us to determine what attitudes and behaviours will be considered. We will make the most practical choice by focussing on those attitudes and those behaviours that are measured in a number of periodical surveys among the Dutch population.

As we pointed out before, increasing freedom of choice does not necessarily mean that people’s attitudes or behaviour will become more diverse. Hence, we will perform a separate test for heterogenization, i.e. increasing diversity of people’s behaviour. In constructing an indicator for heterogeneity we have to distinguish between behaviour that can be measured numerically, i.e. on a cardinal scale, and behaviour that can only be measured nominally.

In the case of numerically measured behaviour, we can simply use one of the many measures of dispersal used, e.g., to measure income inequality. We will use the coefficient of variation, which is calculated as the ratio of the standard deviation and the mean of a variable. Two kinds of behaviour that can be analysed in this way are the age at which a person marries and the age at which a woman gives birth to her first child.