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Understanding American Values

In this fascinating exploration of American culture and character, sociologist Claude Fischer draws on historical, psychological, and sociological data to paint a detailed portrait of American culture—“the collection of shared, loosely connected, taken-for-granted rules, symbols, and beliefs that characterize a people."

Being characteristically American, according to Fischer, means—among other things—“insistently independent but still sociable, striving, and sentimental.”

He takes the notion of American individualism and makes it more useful by introducing “voluntarism” (not volunteerism), the principle that people feel free to choose their goals and how to achieve them. For Fischer, voluntarism has two key elements:

“The first core assumption of voluntarism is that each person is a sovereign individual: unique, independent, self-reliant, self-governing, and ultimately self-responsible. The second core assumption is that individuals succeed through fellowship—not in egoistic isolation, but in supportive, freely-chosen communities.”

According to Fischer, “American character is built on a foundation of self-reliance, it pervades American society." The emphasis is on ‘be yourself and find your own way.’” Self-Reliance is “the valuation of the individual and the individual's freedom of choice, including freedom to choose how they present themselves.”

And Americans view communities as choices they make, be it neighborhood, family, or religion. As Fischer notes, “You can wake up any morning, look in the mirror, and say, ‘I'm tired of being Catholic. I think I'll be an Episcopalian,’ or, ‘I think I'll be Buddhist for a while.’"

And with more Americans moving to densely populated cities, what will the effect be on American culture? The answer, according to Fischer, is counter-intuitive, that we will increasingly idealize the imagery of rural America:

"The more urban American society becomes, the more it romanticizes the rural. For much of human history, rural equaled backward, equaled poor, equaled dangerous, equaled stupid, whether we're talking about China or other parts of the world. The U.S. was different, it developed a romantic notion of rural life.” 

Fischer takes the long view American culture, believing that perceptions of big, abrupt changes are misleading. He is more interested in continuity across centuries. It’s why Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (1836) still feels relevant today.