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Posted October 20, 2004

Book: Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life
Authors: Robert N. Bellah, Richard Madsen, William M. Sullivan, Ann Swidler, and Steven M. Tipton
University of California Press, Berkely, CA, pp.355

An Excerpt from the Jacket:

What are the habits of the heart that move us, the beliefs and practices that shape our character and give form to our social order? From angles that are at once panoramic and wonderfully close up, this extraordinary book unfolds the deepest dreams that Americans share. “Habits of the Heart” is a phrase first used by Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America, published just one hundred and fifty years ago. That the issues Tocqueville explored are still alive in America today is part of the message of Habits of the Heart.

Here is a book that reveals the self-understanding of Americans as a people and as a nation, that explores the traditions Americans use to make sense of themselves and their society. It shows how our fierce individualism, which creates self-reliant heroes like cowboys and hard-boiled detectives, also undermines our capacity for commitment to one another.

Across the sweep of America’s cultural history and in intimate stories of individual lives, Habits of the Heart explores the ways in which we see ourselves. Wives and husbands, managers, psychotherapists, local businessmen, and civic activists tell how hard it can be to commit yourself to others if you believe that “in the end you’re really alone, and you really have to answer to yourself.” But Americans also speak movingly of love — of practices of commitment and communities of memory which bind them to others.

This passionate sensitive exploration of American life weighs the balance between private attachments and public involvement. Today, when we are more dependent upon one another than ever before, Habits of the Heart demonstrates the costs of remaining trapped in a language of individualism.

Habits of the Heart goes to the cultural roots of our disappointments, public and private. From conversations with hundreds of their fellow citizens the authors discern the major contending American traditions an seek to revive a genuine argument among them. Habits of the Heart helps us to reappropriate our heritage in order to meet the challenge of remaining a democratic people.

An Excerpt from the Book:

Freedom is perhaps the most resonant, deeply held American value. In some ways, it defines the good in both personal and political life. Yet freedom turns out to mean being left alone by others, not having other people’s values, ideas, or styles of life forced upon one, being free of arbitrary authority in work, family, and political life. What it is that one might do with that freedom is much more difficult for Americans to define. And if the entire social world is made up of individuals, each endowed with the right to be free of others’ demands, it becomes hard to forge bonds of attachment to, or cooperation with, other people, since such bonds would imply obligations that necessarily impinge on one’s freedom.

Table of Contents:

1. The pursuit of happiness

2. Culture and character

Part One: Private Life

3. Finding oneself

4. Love and marriage

5. Reaching out

6. Individualism

Part Two: Public Life

7. Getting involved

8. Citizenship

9. Religion

10. The national society

11. Transforming American culture