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Definition of Utilitarian Individualism and Collectivism

Definition of Utilitarian Individualism and Collectivism

Definition of Utilitarian Individualism and Collectivism

A number of sociologists and cultural psychologists claim that the United States is a predominantly individualistic country. This article uses a unidimensional index of individualism and collectiv- ism to analyze one of the most debated sociopolitical issues in America: gun ownership and gun control. It tests the hypothesis that the wide- spread gun ownership in the United States and prevailing attitudes toward gun control represent competing individualistic and collectivistic cultural traditions, respectively. The findings indicate that the index is one of the predictors of gun ownership and of attitudes about gun permits.


Keywords: individualism; collectivism; gun ownership; attitudes toward gun control


Many social and political controversies in America center on the tension between protecting individual rights and fulfilling the needs and interests of larger com- munities. This struggle between individualism and collectivism has been a focal concern of many prominent sociologists, including Bellah et al. (1985), Lipset (1990), and Putnam (2000). Each of them contends that American collectivism has been steadily declining as Americans focus more and more exclusively on their own self-interests. Although the concepts of individualism and collectivism are well established in sociological literature, few quantitative sociological studies actually examine their implications (Gouveia, Clemente, and Espinosa 2003). This article constructs and applies an index of individualism and collectivism to exam- ine gun ownership and gun control in the United States.

The focus of this research is on utilitarian individualism, the component of indi- vidualism related to self-reliance—a value that is deeply rooted in American his- tory and is associated with limited responsibility toward collectivity. The concept of utilitarian individualism, named as such by Bellah et al. in 1985, finds its roots in the sociology of Emile Durkheim (1893/1964, 1897/1951). The antithesis of


Direct all correspondence to: Katarzyna Celinska, PhD, Violence Institute of New Jersey, University of Medicine & Dentistry of New Jersey, 151 Centennial Avenue, Piscataway, NJ 08854;




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Sociological Perspectives


, Vol. 50, Issue 2, pp. 229–247, ISSN 0731-1214, electronic ISSN 1533-8673. © 2007 by Pacific Sociological Association. All rights reserved. Please direct all requests for permission to photo- copy or reproduce article content through the University of California Press’s Rights and Permissions website, at DOI: 10.1525/sop.2007.50.2.229.


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self-reliance is collectivism, which espouses sharing resources with others and, if necessary, relying on the government for fair and just distribution of collective resources. These two concepts are incorporated in this article into a single index, which treats extreme values of individualism and collectivism as opposite ends of a continuum.

In response to the lack of studies that assess quantitatively cultural dimensions of gun ownership, this construct of individualism and collectivism is employed as a predictor of gun ownership and attitudes toward gun control in America. In fact, gun ownership and the values of individualism have been bound tightly together throughout American history (Lipset 1990). In addition, literature and rhetorical debates suggest that the attitudes against gun control regulations among gun owners are one of the exceptions to the pattern that self-interest does not affect policy preferences (Wolpert and Gimpel 1998). Thus, using the con- struct of utilitarian individualism and collectivism might be especially appropri- ate for assessing their impact on attitudes toward gun control and, possibly, gun ownership.



The Concept of Individualism and Collectivism


Durkheim (1893/1964) made the concept of individualism and collectivism a focus of his discussion of the relationship between society and the individual in capitalistic, industrialized economies. He demarcated two types of solidarity to describe differences between “primitive” and “modern” societies and to chart the evolutionary changes that capitalism brought about for the relationship between the individual and the collectivity. Mechanical solidarity, which characterized “primitive” societies, absorbed the individual into community. In contrast, organic solidarity underlies societies characterized by industrialization, urbaniza- tion, growing population, and a specialized division of labor. The strong emo- tional bonds that tie people into the collective within “primitive” societies are replaced in modern, industrial societies by relationships of interdependence and a cult of individualism.

Although Durkheim (1897/1951) held a sanguine view of individualism, he also feared its excesses: anomie that occurs when the individuals’ socially defined needs exceed their means and egoism that results when individuals focus exclu- sively on their own needs and detach from the larger group. He traces egoism directly to the weakening of collective social bonds:


If the individual isolates himself, it is because the ties uniting him with others are slackened or broken, because society is not sufficiently integrated at the points where he is in contact with it. These gaps between one and another indi- vidual consciousness, estranging them from each other, are authentic results of the weakening of the social fabric. (p. 281)


Thus, for Durkheim (1897/1951), anomie and egoism are interrelated. He states, “The egoist should have some tendency to nonregulation; for, since he is detached from society, it has not sufficient hold upon him to regulate him” (p. 288). According


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to Besnard (1993), Durkheim argued that a drive toward industrial prosperity might expand to all social institutions. As a result, anomie becomes chronic, structural, and institutionalized, manifesting in society’s culture and dominant value system.

This concept of chronic anomie was adopted by a number of theorists, most importantly by Robert Merton (1957), who suggested that in the United States anomic conditions are prevalent and individualism is encouraged by cultural val- ues, as represented by the American Dream. Merton’s ideas about anomie, the American Dream, and individualism were further extended by Messner and Rosenfeld (1997) in


Crime and the American Dream


. They define the American Dream as “commitment to the goals of material success, to be pursued by every- one in society, under conditions of open, individual competition” (p. 164). They believe that American society is in a permanent state of anomie in which competi- tive individualism and weak social institutions lead many Americans to actively resist any institutional controls. Messner and Rosenfeld claim, “Americans are deeply committed to individual rights and individual autonomy” (p. 63). As a result, individualists tend to distrust government and oppose both governmental regulations and limitations on individual rights.


Characterizing Individualism and Collectivism


Although individualism and collectivism are sociologically conditioned traits that have been shown to directly affect attitudes and behavior (e.g., Triandis et al. 1995), the number of sociologically rooted quantitative studies examining these values is limited (Gouveia et al. 2003). Instead, the conceptual and empirical development of individualism and collectivism has occurred largely within a cross-cultural psychological framework.

Triandis et al. (1995) conceive of collectivism and individualism as a set of beliefs, norms, values, attitudes, and roles that are shared by people who speak the same language and live in the same geographical region during a particular historical time. In general, studies affirm the Durkheimian framework that indi- vidualistic tendencies are more prevalent in more advanced capitalistic econo- mies and political democracies (e.g., Fine 1993). Whereas early researchers tended to agree that countries clearly err on the side of either individualism or collectiv- ism, more recent scholars have argued that national cultures tend to combine ele- ments of both— individualism and collectivism (Gudykunst et al. 1996). McAuliffe et al. (2003) found that one’s behavior depends and is motivated by the groups’ norms, which could be either individualistic or collectivistic irrespective of the national culture label.

In general, individualistic persons are defined as emotionally independent or “detached from community,” and they tend to be self-contained, autonomous, and self-reliant (Bochner and Hesketh 1994; Jeffries, Schweitzer, and Morris 1973; Triandis et al. 1995). They are likely to value self-direction, power, and personal achievement (Ryckman and Houston 2003). On the other hand, those who hold collectivist orientations seem to be tightly integrated into their communities and let the needs of the group supersede their own interests (Bochner and Hesketh 1994; Triandis et al. 1995).


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Definition of Utilitarian Individualism and Collectivism


Following Bellah et al.’s (1985) conceptualization, utilitarian individualism is defined here as pursuing one’s material goals in a self-reliant fashion. Thus, utilitarian individualism is closely associated with the values advanced by industrialized, capitalist democracies (Durkheim 1893/1964). In addition, util- itarian individualism is a centerpiece of the American Dream and an impor- tant cause of chronic anomic conditions in the United States (Merton 1957; Messner and Rosenfeld 1997). The second aspect of utilitarian individualism and the consequence of a strong belief in self-reliance is opposition toward govern- mental efforts to equalize citizens’ economic position, to limit private business, and to build strong social programs that provide assistance to the most disadvan- taged. In brief, “equal opportunity for all and special treatment for none is the individualistic creed” (Fine 1993: 56). Lipset (1990) agrees and points out that the United States is exceptional in that it has the lowest level of support among devel- oped nations in providing assistance to the disadvantaged.

In contrast, utilitarian collectivism values group or community interests over self- interest as demonstrated, for instance, by a willingness to share material resources with others outside of one’s immediate family. Those components of collectivism have been defined by Jeffries et al. (1973) as cooperation—working together with others to achieve common goals—and collective responsibility—feeling responsible and providing assistance to others who are disadvantaged and in need.




This study examines whether the widespread gun ownership in the United States and prevailing positive attitudes toward gun control represent competing indi- vidualistic and collectivistic cultural traditions, respectively. The importance of individualism is evident in the historical tradition of gun ownership in the United States, the enduring profile of typical gun owners, and the subcultural behavior and values of some gun owners. On the other hand, the tendencies to control widespread gun ownership and to rely on government to provide security can be viewed as expressions of collectivistic values.

Legal gun owners, across time periods and data sources, possess several distin- guishing attributes. Research suggests that legal gun owners are more likely to be White, male, and Protestant and from small towns and rural areas of the South (e.g., Dixon and Lizotte 1987; Wright and Marston 1975). A typical gun owner is also married and a Republican (Adams 1996). Gun ownership increases with age (Lizotte and Bordua 1980) and is highest among the middle aged (T. W. Smith 2001). Although Adams (1996) and T. W. Smith (2001) both find that gun owner- ship rates increase with income, T. W. Smith finds that education is a poor predictor of gun ownership. The traits of the typical gun owner—White, male, Protestant, middle class, and Republican—are also associated with individualism, an issue to be discussed later.

Although explanations of legal gun ownership vary, gun owners offer two prin- cipal justifications: defensive and recreational purposes. The research suggests that the majority of firearms are owned for recreational purposes (which includes


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sporting, hunting, and collecting), although the “hunting heritage” is declining (Spitzer 2004). Lizotte, Bordua, and White (1981) add that those who own guns for recreational use can be distinguished from other gun owners as they constitute a separate “sporting gun culture.” The “recreational subculture” is transmitted intergenerationally and is positively associated with both Southern residence and defensive gun ownership. Thus, it seems plausible that this type of gun owner- ship, so closely related to the “frontier heritage,” is also strongly associated with the values of utilitarian individualism: self-determination and self-reliance.

Another large category of weapon ownership comprises individuals who own guns for defensive purposes. Adams (1996) identifies two theoretical explanations of defensive gun ownership: acute fear of crime and past victimization experience as well as lack of faith in collective security. The first explanation has received mixed support (see, e.g., DeFronzo 1979 on the reciprocal relationship between fear of crime and weapon ownership). On the other hand, the second explanation finds broader support (Adams 1996; D. A. Smith and Uchida 1988) and can be viewed as an expression of individualistic values. These two explanations of defensive gun ownership, of course, may be mutually reinforcing.

Some sociologists link higher rates of weapon ownership in the South to higher violent crime rates in that region (Brennan, Lizotte, and McDowall 1993). One argument holds that a Southern subculture is characterized by the promotion of violent attitudes and behavior ( e.g., see D. Cohen et al. 1996 for a description of “Southern culture of honor”). An alternative interpretation is that structural forces, such as economic inequality and relative deprivation, cause both high gun ownership and violent crime rates (Dixon and Lizotte 1987). High rates of gun ownership in the South may also be rooted in higher levels of individualism. Thus, individualism may be a common thread in all explanations of gun ownership.

The present study is the first to empirically assess the link between individual- ism and collectivism, and gun ownership. However, different types of gun owner- ship overlap, making it impossible to select one category and analyze it separately. Although the impact of individualism on gun ownership may be contingent on the type of gun ownership, the impact of individualism on attitudes toward the toughening of gun control should be relatively unambiguous. It is proposed here that those who oppose gun control tend to hold individualistic views and by opposing any limitations on gun ownership, they seek to protect their own self- interest, that of their families, and the interests of those with whom they closely affiliate, associate, or identify. Opposition to gun control may also reflect individ- ualists’ philosophical opposition to expansive, intrusive government, irrespective of their gun owner status.

If opposition to gun control is rooted in America’s enduring tradition of indi- vidualism and support for gun control is rooted in equally entrenched collectivis- tic strains of American culture (Bellah et al. 1985), gun control attitudes should show stability over time. Indeed, E. Smith (1996) reports that according to selected public opinion polls, attitudes toward gun control have been stable since the 1960s. Support for gun control measures, especially gun permits and banning assault weapons, has always been high, whereas a stable, vocal minority has


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vehemently opposed gun control. In brief, females, liberals, and residents of urban areas, especially in the Northeast, are more likely than their counterparts to be proponents of gun control measures (Kleck 1996; T. W. Smith 1980). The evi- dence with respect to whether a person’s social standing affects attitudes toward gun control is contradictory (see T. W. Smith 2001 vs. Kleck 1996). The ownership of guns remains the strongest predictor of attitudes toward gun control laws (Kleck 1996). The typical opponent of gun control measures, like the typical gun owner, is a White Protestant male who lives in a rural region outside of the Northwest (T. W. Smith 1980).

Heated rhetorical debates invariably follow proposals to strengthen the control of guns. The battle lines in this debate mark the divide in American culture between individualistic and collectivistic values.

Its opponents frame gun control as an infringement of individual rights as pro- tected by the Second Amendment to the Constitution. They claim that the amend- ment grants law-abiding citizens the right to own firearms as a defense against intrusive government (Kates 1994).

On the other hand, the proponents of gun controls take a more collectivist posi- tion. First, they argue that the Second Amendment was meant not to preserve individual rights but rather to protect the states from an intrusive national gov- ernment (McClurg 1992). The Supreme Court supports such an interpretation (Spitzer 2004). Second, the proponents of gun control also emphasize the public safety benefits of limiting access to guns.

Whether stricter gun control serves the common good with respect to public safety is subject to intense debate. Proponents of gun control measures believe that widespread ownership of guns leads to higher violent crime rates (Bellesiles 2000; Stark 1990). Therefore, additional restrictions on the distribution of guns would provide a safer environment. Opponents of gun control measures counter that guns are used often for self-defense, which deters some potential criminals from committing crimes in the first place. Therefore, impeding the access of law- abiding citizens to guns threatens to increase crime (Kleck 1996; Lott 2000).


Studies Linking the Gun Issues with Individualism and Collectivism


Some researchers of gun attitudes and behavior have posited an important role for the values of individualism and collectivism. McDowall and Loftin (1983) argue that some people arm themselves because they believe the government is not able to provide protection. McDowall and Loftin depict gun ownership as an “individual security measure with the expected benefits accruing for the most part to the gun owners and their household” (p. 1157). Adopting a Durkheimian- Mertonian framework, they argue that individuals who do not rely on law enforcement for providing protection (thus abandoning institutionalized collective means) purchase guns to achieve the individualistic goals of protecting themselves and family—even if collective security might suffer. To lend moral legitimacy to their individualistic motives, gun owners frequently evoke the rhetoric of protec- tion and individual rights, citing the Second Amendment of the Constitution. Thus, the opponents of gun control measures focus on securing their individual


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rights even if the collectivity could benefit from restrictions of the distribution of guns.

In 2000, Cooke and Puddifoot found and reported that women in the United States were more likely than those in the United Kingdom to view guns as expres- sions of freedom and independence, whereas the U.K. women perceived guns as representing violence. However, neither group believed that guns deter crime. When one considers that most Americans believe that gun control measures would benefit society as a whole (McDowall and Loftin 1983) and that gun own- ership does not deter crime (Cooke and Puddifoot 2000), one might conclude that there is possibly a cultural explanation of gun ownership in America. In addition, the primacy of gun ownership as a predictor of opposition to gun control measures suggests that self-interest, a core component of utilitarian individualism (Wolpert and Gimpel 1998), plays an important role in sustaining opposition to gun control measures.

More recently, Vizzard (2000) suggests that the conflict over gun control measures is “a conflict over ideas, values, perceptions, and most of all, the role of govern- ment” (p. 5). Specifically, he holds that the pivotal divide is between collectivistic and individualistic perspectives. Spitzer (2004) adds that the controversy around gun issues is fundamentally a clash between the individual rights of gun owners and the public collective interest in controlling crime (which he also calls a secu- rity dilemma). Not surprisingly, gun control opponents seem to perceive any restrictions on gun ownership as invading their individual liberty (McClurg 1992). McClurg (1992) states, “With respect to gun control, the conflict is one between community and individual rights” (p. 110).

Furthermore, contemporary anomie theorists have made a connection between anomic conditions in America, which are rooted in excessive individualism, and its high rate of gun ownership and gun violence. Messner and Rosenfeld (1997) assert that “an adequate explanation of gun-related violence must account for those qualities of the cultural ‘rules’ that make Americans unusually willing to deploy the means of final resort in dealing with perceived threats and interper- sonal disputes” (p. 23).

Although many have theoretically linked gun attitudes and behavior to indi- vidualism and collectivism and research on the predictors of gun attitudes and behavior is consistent with research on correlates of individualism and collectiv- ism, no study has directly measured the association between individualistic or collectivistic values and gun-related attitudes and behavior. The present study is the first to empirically assess the link between individualism and collectivism, and gun ownership and attitudes toward gun permits.





To assess the importance of individualism and collectivism in predicting gun ownership and attitudes toward gun control, data from the 1972–1998 General Social Survey (GSS), available from the Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research, was employed (Davis and Smith 1998). The GSS is the only


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survey data set that combines items related to individualism and collectivism in their utilitarian sense (see Burns 1992; S. M. Cohen and Liebman 1997; Marchant- Shapiro and Patterson 1995; T. W. Smith 1980), legal gun ownership, and attitudes toward gun control issues. In addition, the GSS is nationally representative and contains the relevant control variables indicated by prior research. Accordingly, the GSS remains the most popular data source in studies on gun ownership and attitudes toward gun control (e.g., Dixon and Lizotte 1987; Kleck 1996; O’Connor and Lizotte 1978; Wright and Marston 1975).

The GSS uses a multistage, stratified probability sample of clusters of house- holds (Davis and Smith 1992). Data are collected annually (with several excep- tions) and are representative of English-speaking adults at least eighteen years old. Reporting rates differ by age, and the best coverage is obtained for adults between the ages of twenty-five and sixty-four. Davis and Smith (1992) report that the response rate is high, ranging from 73.5 percent to 79.4 percent over the years. To gain precision with larger sample size and to generalize the findings, the authors suggest using multiple years in statistical analyses.




This research uses two samples from the GSS-compiled file. It uses the 1984 through 1998 waves of the GSS, excluding years when the surveys were not con- ducted (1985, 1986, 1992, 1995, and 1997). The sample consists of 7,174 individu- als. A subsample comprising 1,191 participants from the 1984 survey wave is used for initial analysis of the index of individualism and collectivism (I-C Index 1). The 1984 wave was the first and only year in which the GSS includes all nine core questions that compose the I-C Index 1. The proxy of the I-C Index 1, the I-C Index 2, represents the latent variables of individualism and collectivism based on four questions from the 1984 through 1998 waves.

The concepts of individualism and collectivism are multidimensional, and researchers frequently include a range of different items in their constructs. Some scholars situate collectivism and individualism on opposite sides of a continuum (Triandis et al. 1995). Very recently, however, Ryckman and Houston (2003) and Gouveia et al. (2003) argue that a multidimensional conceptualization of individ- ualism and collectivism is preferable to a unidimensional index. However, this study employs a very specific and narrow economic/utilitarian meaning of these cultural values, and therefore a unidimensional index is appropriate.

Individualism and collectivism are indexed in this study as a single continuous variable, with the lowest score indicating extreme collectivism and the highest score indicating extreme individualism. All items of the I-C Index 1 and the I-C Index 2 contain Likert-type scale responses. The I-C Index 1 extends the scale of individualism proposed by Burns (1992) in his article on predicting political ori- entation. Notably, Burns used two items from the 1984 GSS data—“one’s own efforts don’t count” and “personal income not determined by work”—to repre- sent the latent variable of individualism. Other three items available only in the 1984 sample are as follows: “should government reduce income differences?” “government should insure jobs and stable prices,” and “responsibility of government


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