Mind Playing Tricks: Individualism, Upward Mobility, and the Commitment to Self-Determination Among the Urban Poor
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
The ethos of the American Dream offers a popular and straightforward prescription for success: Work hard, rely on yourself before others, avoid bad choices, and prosperity will follow. It is a decidedly optimistic, largely undefined, and intensely individualistic promise with serious implications for Americans’ views on achievement and upward mobility. For all of these reasons, the validity of this ethos has come under attack. Philosophically, it is seen as illusory, ambiguous, and unrealistically demanding of individual exceptionalism. Sociologically, it is admonished for being too dismissive of structural constraints, systemic inequalities, and the value of relationships, social embeddedness, and mutual dependence. For the urban poor - facing down long histories of marginalization, reputations for cultural backwardness, and the harmful effects of concentrated poverty – the individualistic character of the American Dream poses an intriguing question: Does adherence to this ethos signify an assertive, “no excuses,” agency-affirming commitment to self-determination, or does it signify a seductive but quixotic pipe dream that allays feelings of failure, stagnation, and a lack of exposure to broader social contexts? This dissertation examines the concept of individualism among residents of a low-income, long disadvantaged urban community. Using participant observation and ethnographic fieldwork, I explore not just the meaning(s) of individualism but also its logical utility, or rationale as I call it, for explaining why and how so many residents insist that their efforts and good character will pay off - despite the abundance of evidence and public discourse that seem to suggest the contrary. On topics such as work ethic, employment, status, life chances, and social mobility, I observed residents of diverse backgrounds and social standings discussing their confrontations with community pitfalls, their aversions to contribute or succumb to surrounding misfortunes, and their visions of self-actualization in which their prospects were not seen as determined, shaped, or even limited by their experiences in the community. I deliberate upon these discussions to submit a view of individualism that is more heterogeneous than in the contemporary literature and that more accurately attests to the agency, aspirations, and rationality of a too often discredited population.
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Bryerton, Will, "Mind Playing Tricks: Individualism, Upward Mobility, and the Commitment to Self-Determination Among the Urban Poor" (2014). LSU Doctoral Dissertations. 204.