MHC professor on the rise of individualism

Kenneth Tucker

Interview by Keely Savoie

As a social theorist, Ken Tucker, the Helen P. Bibbero Professor of Sociology, studies social movements and mass communications, and explores questions such as, What is the nature of the modern Western world? What social processes characterize our modern life? Recently, his work has focused more tightly on the relationship between individualism and trust in social institutions.

“Contemporary American language of self is the current focus of my research,” Tucker said. “I’m especially interested in issues around cultural power. Who has the power, how are culture and power intertwined — and I don’t just mean the people who have a lot of political and economic power.”

Author of four books (and co-author of one) and numerous articles, his most recent article, in the American Journal of Cultural Sociology, is titled “The political is personal, expressive, aesthetic, and networked: Contemporary American languages of the self from Trump to Black Lives Matter.”

Tucker spoke recently about the issues of individualism in the United States, and Americans’ changing relationships with institutions, including in his classroom.

The American culture feels increasingly fractious and disparate. Is there anything good about that, or is it just stirring chaos?

I think it's both, and it doesn’t matter whether we think it’s good or bad because there’s no going back. We’re going to go forward with these languages of individualism. Any kind of social movement or political party that wants to be successful is going to have to incorporate these languages of self. It's a very tall order.

I would put it in two ways. Individuals are responsible for their own fate in a world where you no longer have traditional signposts telling you how you should live, where you don't have social safety nets ensuring that people can survive. I also think people understand their fates and their lives in increasingly individualistic terms — and they embrace that.

But individualism is not just, “Leave me alone, I'll do whatever I want.” Individualism has many varieties. In expressive individualism, for instance, people want to express who they are. Any social movement or political party is going to try to have to speak to people where they are. They have to take into account this individualism.

You have said that one way to understand this is as a direct result of the loss of confidence in institutions that Americans have traditionally held.

If you're thinking about the future, institutions too have to change so that they allow people to feel like they are being heard, that the institutions are responding to who they are. There's been a decline of voluntary institutions, however, neighborhood institutions like unions, rotary clubs, PTAs. People just aren't volunteering to kind of create this sense of community that maybe they had in the 1950s. Many people know more about celebrities than they know about their next-door neighbor.

But what's really distinctive about our era is that it's not just these voluntary institutions that are in crisis. All major institutions are experiencing a crisis of trust. According to the Pew Research Center, two-thirds of Americans think that the media, especially news media, have a negative impact on the country. Forty to 45 percent of Americans think marriage is an outdated institution. We're at the highest point in people being religiously unaffiliated. This is most obvious in politics. The most striking indicator of this is that in 1958, 73 percent of Americans believed that the government could be trusted to do the right thing most of the time. Now the corresponding number is 18 percent.

In the context of this decline and institutional crisis, people are forced to rely on themselves more and more. This has always been the case — America has a long history of individualism. But with the decline of the social safety net, with people taking responsibility for their own education, with the decline of staying in the same job for decades, well, now you're a free agent, you're responsible for deciding your own career.

You’ve been at Mount Holyoke since 1990. How have you seen your students change over the years? How have you changed your teaching?

Students have always been expected to participate in class, especially in a subject like sociology. We're talking about these kinds of issues around race and class and gender. But the demands for the expectations of participation have really increased, and there’s an expectation that what students experience in their everyday lives should be incorporated in the classroom.

This is reflected in their work. Students want to see videos, they want to see interesting presentations. They want to be able to present these things themselves. Related to this is the enormous diversity and multiculturalism that you see now in classrooms. One of the most dramatic changes has been the growth in diversity, both domestically but also internationally, with all kinds of students. Professors have to become more nimble and respond to different interests and experiences of students.

I think my teaching has changed in that I try to incorporate students even more than I used to in the past. I encourage them to be as creative as possible in their presentations. I assign a diversity of readings that speak to what they might be going through. I don't have any assumptions that there will be unity around a particular issue.

I still teach the traditional subjects. I teach a sociological theory course where we read Karl Marx, Max Weber, Émile Durkheim — 19th-century European thinkers who formed the foundation of sociology. Every sociology department in the country teaches these guys. But my approach to them has changed, so that now I talk about how they would relate to contemporary issues.

For example, Karl Marx is known as a theorist of social and economic inequality and a critic of capitalism, a founder of communism. But in the context of the Occupy Wall Street movement that began in 2011, I started talking about how Marx could be helpful in understanding how the rhetoric of the one percent versus the 99 percent became so powerful. How we shouldn't just associate Marx with existing communism, that he’s also a critic of social inequality who might point us in some new directions about how we can reform or change capitalism.

Professors have to be self-reflective about how they’re teaching what they’re teaching. When we discuss topics and readings, I say, “I’m a white male who has a privileged position and that’s going to influence the way that I understand this work. So you should keep that in mind.” Now that doesn’t mean that anything goes. I’m still the professor. My students still have to make good arguments for their positions.

What I’ve noticed about Mount Holyoke is the quality of the teachers and the seriousness with which they take teaching. They’re such exceptional teachers. The faculty here take teaching extremely seriously and they’re good and smart. It’s one of the many reasons I advocate not only liberal arts colleges in general, but Mount Holyoke in particular.

Find your voice. Apply.