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Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life

3.87  ·  Rating details ·  848 ratings  ·  54 reviews
Meanwhile, the authors' antidote to the American sickness—a quest for democratic community that draws on our diverse civic and religious traditions—has contributed to a vigorous scholarly and popular debate. Attention has been focused on forms of social organization, be it civil society, democratic communitarianism, or associative democracy, that can humanize the market an ...more
Paperback, 376 pages
Published May 13th 1996 by University of California Press (first published 1985)
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3.87  · 
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 ·  848 ratings  ·  54 reviews

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Nov 25, 2009 rated it did not like it
This multi-authored sociological study, first published in 1985 and updated in 1996, posits a common core belief among Americans, “the belief that economic success or misfortune is the individual’s responsibility, and his or hers alone.” This individualism “values independence and self-reliance above all else.” I thought about this recently after experiencing Verdi’s early opera, “Ernani,” in which the governing virtue was honor, little thought or spoken about today in our country and culture. C ...more
Katya Littleton
Apr 29, 2007 added it
Recommends it for: people who want to bore themselves to death
Shelves: 2007
This book made me want to bash my head in. Boring, repetitive, and I was forced to finish it for class. If the bookstore doesn't buy it back, I'm setting it on fire and laughing maniacally.
Bob Prophet
Sep 16, 2010 rated it really liked it
Shelves: favorites
As a former student of sociology with intense curiosity about modern social/political/economic phenomena, I really enjoyed this book and would probably give a copy as a gift to student friends. What I especially liked was the ending where the six (3 pairs) American visions of the public good are outlined, ending with the Administered Society vs. Economic Democracy, neither of which sound pleasant.

I especially like how this analysis unfolds from a "classical republican" perspective and maintains
Jan 26, 2014 rated it really liked it
A canonical text of American sociology in the 1980s, sure to be at the center of reading lists about the 1980s. A quintessential examination of the mental space of middle class white America, in the late Cold War years, the book is a curiously normative document framed as a piece of positive sociology. Its immense popularity stems probably from precisely this balancing act, as well as the great learning wrapped up within Bellah's mellifluous if curiously relaxed and at times repetitive prose. De ...more
Chris J
Aug 17, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
One of those rare examples of academic writing that escaped to the hoi polloi. The title comes from a phrase used by Tocqueville in his observations of American culture. Bellah, et al., examine modern therapeutic culture and how it contrasts with the deepest, in some ways subconscious desires of society and ideas of the "good life."
In 1985 I'm certain this was paradigm-shifting stuff and I'm also certain it inspired much of the reappraisals of modernity as well as those committed,long-standing p
The gist: Individualism (whether economic or spiritual) cannot provide meaning, however worthy the freedom it offers may be. Nor can the weak forms of association found in "lifestyle enclaves," inhabited as they are only by similar people who join seeking personal fulfillment. A meaningful life can only be lived in a community, sustained by tradition and by service to others.
John Henry
Nov 19, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: my-library
To become a missional community in our culture, we need this instruction from a cultural anthropologist's view. This book outlines how Americans are living as products of their surrounding culture. It helps us see the forest through the trees.
Dan Gorman
Jun 17, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction
Thought-provoking read! Robert Bellah and his coauthors argue that individualism, both in capitalistic/utilitarian and personal-expression ways, has run amok. Our participation in civic life is declining across the board, income inequality's soaring, and free-market solutions aren't cutting it. What we need, according to the authors, is a revival of solidarity and communal spirit. This doesn't negate individualism; rather, citizens should recognize something greater. The authors cite "Biblical r ...more
Jan 13, 2014 rated it did not like it
Bellah (et al) are primarily concerned with discussing the inevitable overlap of private and public life in American society. Based on 200+ interviews with a representative population of white middle-class America, Bellah draws the conclusion that, as much as Americans are focused on attaining self-reliance and individualism, individualism (i.e. private life) is most meaningful when it is complemented by engagement with society (i.e. public life). He asserts, “individuality and society are not o ...more
Apr 27, 2009 is currently reading it  ·  review of another edition
I am intrigued. More and more lately, I find myself questioning my lifelong premise that there is a particular purpose for my life, and that it is my duty to discover and fulfill that purpose. One may even be hard pressed to prove conclusively that there is any particular purpose, at all, to our individual lives. It may be that my life has whatever purpose and meaning I choose to assign to it. I'm not particularly comforted by that, but now that I have made it through the Preface to the 2008 Edi ...more
Oct 25, 2012 rated it really liked it
This is an exceptional sociological examination of American society. The authors use Democracy in America as an interpretive horizon for the evolution of American Society in the late 20th century. Where de- Tocqueville's America was politically and socially engaged, the socio-economic factors that have emerged in the last 40 years have worked to undermine communal opportunity. The authors provide a nice balance between case studies and social science. An exceptional read.
Derek Wright
Oct 04, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: favorites
Enlightening and shocking and overwhelming. One gets every indication this is a sociological masterpiece. The opposite of a 'light summer read', yet spending the summer underlining, circling, and contemplating the sentences in this book was as demanding as it was satisfying. There is too much to summarize here, but one day, maybe.
Margaret Sankey
Sep 22, 2014 rated it liked it
1985 sociological study which offers some genuinely profound insights into how Americans talk themselves into narratives of self-made people and idealized small towns, although markedly biased by its date (amazingly, women were starting to not see men as "permanent meal tickets" and small town companies were civic minded and hadn't off-shored all the jobs yet).
John Wise
Apr 01, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: culture, education
Next to De Tocqueville, an excellent work on American culture.

The Appendix contains an extremely helpful explanation of the difference between research universities and traditional colleges. Research universities have increased the material prosperity of America, but have impoverished America culturally.
May 14, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Remains one of my favorites; really sharp analysis of American life and individualism.
Jun 29, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Every American should read this book. It perfectly explains why our society has reached the current fractious, even destructive point it has.
Apr 15, 2019 rated it it was ok
I had to read this book for one of my classes, so I had to slog my way through it. The premise of the study, an attempt to reconcile American individualism with a need to connect to a community was interesting. I actually learned a lot about the human experience in America and the roles that religion, therapy, and politics play in creating a cohesive community. I found the ideas that were presented to be interesting, but the writing was why I gave this book two stars. The writing was dry, and th ...more
John P. Mueller
Aug 14, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Relevant for Our Times

Using interviews of a wide cross section of people, Bellah dissects the problems we face in the post-modern world, relates them to the findings of Tocqueville ~150 years earlier, provides historical continuity and context with the development of the US and finally offers an approach for change that would need to be of the magnitude of the civil rights movement. It really blew my mind, in a good way.
This book was part of a Sociology of Culture graduate class. I am an atheist and generally tend to loathe how religion separates us from one another, and the message that I got from this book was that religion is a wonderful thing that is necessary to hold society together. I found that very depressing.
Mar 29, 2012 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: students of sociology
Recommended to Landon by: class assignment
Sociological study...with a focus upon Christianity and American individualism...not my style. This was a class assignment, and the sociology in the book is quite the turn-off. It is dryly written and unengaging, for the layman. It provides the reader with analysis of all of America's problems in regards to individualism, but offers no solutions - highly frustrating.
Jun 10, 2013 rated it liked it
This is a good book, but it is an old book. It is very insightful for 1985, unfortunately I think that society has changed quite a bit since then. I'm not saying that their findings are contradicted, but rather complicated, by more recent shifts.
Feb 28, 2012 rated it did not like it
I could not get through this book. The whining, self-centeredness, and limited scope of types of people included made the generalizations impossible to stomach. It is probably best loved by children of the 60s, or people who spend their time trying to "find themselves."
Oct 06, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: undergrad-reads
I had to read it for my Civic Engagement & Social Action class. Since I do go to a Catholic university I thought it was appropriate for my school and he actually came to my school and spoke to our community about religion and other topics in sociology.
Sep 23, 2010 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2010-reads
This is pretty dense book to read, almost as bad as a textbook. But worth it. I loved the ideas about community and the way the authors talked about American values such as independence and how people validate their idea of service. If you can stay with it to the end, this book is worth reading.
Dec 14, 2013 rated it it was amazing
I skimmed this book and referenced it heavily for an undergraduate research project. The book was given to me and is signed and endorsed to me by my academic advisor. I have long been plagued by guilt for never actually reading it cover to cover. Now I have.
Feb 23, 2016 rated it really liked it
(I totally didn't read the conclusion but I was done in the way that mattered)
this was actually not bad but I realize the only chapters that held my interest were the ones about failing marrige, therapy, and religion so idk
Tim Eby-mckenzie
Timeless work, really. Bob Bellah, et al, really hit the nail on the head. Excellent anthropological analysis. Practical application.
Mar 25, 2012 rated it really liked it
A good examination of, to put it in very simple terms, the problematic place of individualism in American life. Wish I had read the latest edition, though.
Lindsay Campbell
Sep 05, 2007 rated it liked it
Recommends it for: Americans
Dissects the culture of American individualism. Great precursor to Putnam and others' work on social capital.
Oct 16, 2008 is currently reading it
So far, I have paralysis by analysis. I am hoping it goes away soon by "this is what it all means ending." I am not hopeful though.
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Robert N. Bellah was Elliott Professor of Sociology Emeritus at the University of California at Berkeley.

Bellah graduated summa cum laude from Harvard College with a B.A. in social anthropology in 1950. His undergraduate honors thesis on “Apache Kinship Systems” won the Phi Beta Kappa Prize and was published by the Harvard University Press. In 1955, he received a Ph.D. from Harvard University in S
“What people need to accept is that it is there responsibility to communicate what they need and what they feel, and to realize that they cannot expect someone else magically to make them happy. People want to be made happy, instead of making themselves happy” 5 likes
“If other people don't meet your needs, you have to be willing to walk out, since in the end that may well be the only one way to protect your interests.” 4 likes
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