Individualism and alienation
Social groups are generally defined as groups of two or more people who interact on a regular basis and share similar expectations or identities. Social categories describe collections of individuals who have at least one attribute in common but do not necessarily interact (e.g. gender, race, ethnicity, religion are examples of attributes that define social categories). Between social categories and social groups we find the social aggregate, which is defined as a collection of people that share the same space and time but do not necessarily interact, at least not more than it is necessary – except in superficial ways, as they do not have anything else in common except the time and space that they share (e.g. the crowd at an event – a football match, a concert etc.).
Since forever, human beings have lived together, in smaller or larger social groups. Being part of a group had and still has a multitude of advantages, from security to identity. As human beings, we would not be able to define ourselves, to have a clear identity, in the absence of other human beings. We always define ourselves in comparison with others. I define myself in comparison with the people around me, a group defines itself in comparison with an opposite group, a country in comparison with another country, and so on and so forth.
Nowadays, with the appearance of the internet and social media, with the development of technologies (the mobile phones to name just one), with the professional life being more and more related to multinational companies with very strict values and rules, there is a general tendency of switching from collectivism to individualism. Collectivism refers to the fact that the group is more important then the individuals who define it. Individualism on the other hand states that each individual is acting on their own, making their own choices, and when interacting with the group they do it as individuals.
This change towards individualism is understandable in the context of the 21st century. We try to define ourselves as unique human beings, with unique skills, attributes, desires and so on. But it is not so easily done, as we cannot define ourselves if we do not oppose our identity to something else, to someone else’s identity.
Individualism, social media, smart technologies, corporations, they have all induced feelings of alienation. From a sociological point of view, the term alienation refers to the feelings of powerlessness, meaninglessness and estrangement as a result of not being able to find fulfillment in one’s life (professional and / or personal). In the context of the world that surrounds us, it is becoming more and more difficult to not feel (at least a little bit) alienated. Because of this, people are trying to find solutions and reinvent themselves and their immediate surroundings. Examples are multiple, both positive and negative.
In South Korea for example, the group pressure is immense (Hofstede Insights shows that South Korea has a very low score for individualism -18 - compared, for example, with US – 91 ); South Koreans work very long hours and are pressured to take part in group activities after work. When they do not abide to these social rules, they are ostracized by both their employer and their peers. Based on the information described in the beginning of the article, one can define the social network South Koreans are part of as a mix between social group and social aggregate. Social group because the individuals that form the group interact outside work; social aggregate because it seems they are somehow “forced” to do so. Not abiding these social pressures would mean they would be considered pariah, and somehow alienated because of this.
The new trend in South Korea is Solo YOLO. Young, single people are tired of the pressures that come from both the family side and the professional groups they are part of. And in order to stand up to these strict norms, young single Koreans have decided to stay single and enjoy more “me” time. Although this is not an easy thing to do in South Korea, more and more of them are into what is now called Solo YOLO (solo combined with you only live once). They eat alone, travel alone, watch movies alone and so on and so forth. They live an individualistic lifestyle, in order to stand up to the norms they do not agree with, and also to define themselves differently.
The question is, do they still feel alienated? Have they been able to find a purpose in their lives? Exiting the social aggregates they were part of and creating a new social category (with the main common attribute of enjoying “me” time) have solved anything?
If they do not feel alienated anymore, it is probably also because now their movement is recognized (more or less) by society; or at least by businesses, who have started to come with different offers made specially for the Solo YOLO movement (from diners to credit cards). Their individualistic lifestyle makes them part of a social category they agree with, identify with, and is recognized by the others. In other words, it makes them part of a collective.
The only conclusion I can take is that defining yourself, finding an identity that fits you, is not something that is easy to do. It does not matter if you are part of a social group you agree with, or part of a social aggregate you do not agree with. It’s good to have an individualistic lifestyle and define yourself through it, but it seems to be impossible to do it outside of a collective, or without comparing it to something (or someone) else. As Aristotle said, the human being is a social animal. And as Erich Fromm described in his book Escape from Freedom, freedom brings uncertainty and anxiety, while lack of freedom brings certainty and comfort. For the purpose of this article, replace freedom with individualism, and lack of freedom with collectivism. What do we get? And is it correct? Well… it is for sure a good question!
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