To what extent is Dumont’s distinction between sociocentric and egocentric societies relevant to understanding individuality as a form of social action?

photo of people holding each other s hands

In this essay, I contend that whilst the use of Dumont’s distinction between a sociocentric and egocentric society is a relatively useful paradigm for understanding individuality as a form of social action, its relevance is somewhat diminished by the author’s assertion that a sociocentric (or pre-modern) society is the foundational base to which inordinate amounts of pressures are exerted from competing individualistic demands. Using the experiences of the Argentinean Movement of Unemployed Workers (also called the Piquetero movement) as the empirical basis, I contend that this paradigm gains greater relevancy if viewed from a counter perspective of situating individualistic society as the inevitable and necessary nucleus of holism. Furthermore, I assert that a modern society – or egocentric one as Dumont claims – (1986), is one in which the desire for autonomy and independence fuels the shaping of the outer sociocentric realm (rather than destroying it) and by so doing, is driven not by a “non-social, moral being” (Dumont 1986), but rather by individuals forced to pursue individualist social action within and through a labyrinth of social complexities. 

Louis Dumont, in his work Essays on individualism: modern ideology in anthropological perspective, contends that because of the overwhelming prevalence of Christianity, supported by philosophical teachings, societies developed towards a more conceptual view of society whereby the individual was placed more at the centre of its basis. Indeed, Dumont argues these evolving concepts included seeing individuals both as separate human entities, as well as via concepts involving values. That is, an entity to which we could attribute various values.

During this transition, Dumont argues, the changing concept of the individual has seen societies move to a position whereby they forcibly support an ideology that values autonomous and independent personage, inevitably leading to an “essentially non-social, moral being” (1986). Furthermore, this, in turn, segregates societies into distinct categories according to their preferences; for the society that supports this aforementioned individual is to be considered one in which individualism prevails. At the other end of this spectrum, Dumont sees the society that preferences its collective needs to be one in which holism dominates.

Dumont describes the relationship between these two entities as “two concentric circles, the larger one representing individualism in relation to God, and within it a smaller circle standing for acceptance of worldly necessities, duties and allegiances” (Dumont 1986). Since the ‘outer circle’ of individualism is constantly exerting pressure upon the foundational basis of holism, Dumont asserts, in a somewhat pessimistic and doomsday tone, that inevitably, a society should transition from holism to individualism but that this evolution can only lead to the implosion of holism whereby societies will find themselves filled only with “inworldly individuals” (Dumont 1986) who cannot separate themselves from society and its vagrancies in order to gain wisdom; an action – which Dumont argues philosophical thinkers through the ages have advocated – transcending to a higher level of understanding and wisdom.

I certainly do not seek to argue with Dumont’s proposed origins for the perceptions of individuals within societies; that being that “as opposed to modern society, traditional societies, which know nothing of equality and liberty as values, which know nothing, in short of the individual, have basically a collective idea of man…” (Morris 1991). For surely, these concepts have developed over centuries of modern societal construction. Neither do I find fault with Dumont’s assertion that a degree of abstinence or removal from societal afflictions is necessary to adequately engage in thoughtful reflection. Indeed, it would be hard to argue that any degree of wisdom could ever be claimed by an individual who has not substantially distanced him or herself enough from society to gain an adequate perspective of its intricate workings. Moreover, I contend that Dumont’s basic distinction between a sociocentric society (or what he calls “holism”) and an egocentric (or individualistic) one, does indeed provide a useful paradigm from which to assess a society’s changeable nuances in its relationship between individual agency and the contrasting and sometimes competing demands imposed on these same individuals by both formal and informal structures.

I do, however, question Dumont’s representation of how these two concepts of the individual and their resulting societies relate to each other. Whereas Dumont expresses the idea that the sociocentric society sits as the foundation to the counter individualisation of society (upon which are placed inordinate pressures), I argue that it actually exists as the antithesis to this model. That is, for any sociocentric society to exist, let alone function, it is first necessary for a nucleus of individualism to prevail. That is, in the quest to promote the health of the outer sociocentric ‘membrane’, the individualistic core must periodically but inevitably question, challenge, and revolt against perceived structural and socially constructed constraints. In this way, the inner individualistic society does not outgrow or push out the surrounding holism, but seeks only to shape it so the latter can continue to protectively shield its subordinate individualistic society.

Whilst this action is indeed a way of satisfying the need for individual autonomy and independence, thus creating a sense of permeating agency throughout the overarching society, I contend that, unlike Dumont’s assertion that a promotion of individualism is directly attributable to the creation of a “non-social, moral being” (1986), the active pursuit of individualistic goals improves a person’s physical and emotional wellbeing and is a pursuit which cannot be done in isolation nor in a moral vacuum as, ironically, true individualism essentially both benefits and relies upon the conviction and contributions of others. Indeed, this pursuit of individual ideals is not done with an absence of moral character or guidance, but rather through the supportive actions of others who seek to benefit from increased perceptions as well as the realities of experiencing greater autonomy and independence. Furthermore, contrary to Dumont’s argument that religion promotes a sense of individualism by devaluing the world (1986), I assert that the conception of a so-called ‘egocentric’ society as the foundational base for a sociocentric one only serves to nurture the individual’s value of having a sociocentric society envelop this. Indeed, the development of individualism has evolved, not with a deliberate attempt to devalue the world, but rather as a necessary reaction to the increased complexities and pressures placed upon individuals to ‘find their own way’ through a myriad of social rules and regulations. As Beck argues, “people are now expected to take their lives into their own hands and to pay a market price for services they receive” (2002).

To demonstrate this contention, I refer to the creation in Argentina of the Movement of Unemployed Workers (El Movimiento de Trabajadores Desocupados) or MTD for short. This organisation of individuals was formed in response to the dire Argentinian economic crisis of 2001, and the resulting degradation of both individual and collective social conditions. The members are drawn predominantly from poorer, industrial parts of greater Buenos Aires (Chatterton 2005) and seek to gain ‘work, dignity and social change’ (2005) through the practical challenging of “neoliberal economics, the mobility of transnational capital, corporate mergers, financial and currency speculations and privatisation” (2005). Whilst certainly not the only group to mount challenges against the ravaging economic and social effects of global disrupters including automation, globalisation, and increased productivity (Avent 2016), the MTD differs from other Argentine social movements in that they do not want to acquire political power and influence and wield it as they see fit, but rather, they want to change the actual social landscape (Dinerstein 2003) both at individual and collective levels. They do this through the prioritising of “providing services, making food and shelter, selling locally-made products, educating themselves, and organising collectively against the state and capital” (Chatterton 2005). They also use the direct form of action of blocking roads so the economic trade routes of the affluent are severely disrupted. It is at these roadblocks – where all members are present – that they negotiate with their antagonists – as opposed to a select group negotiating on behalf of others in a distant city office. This is one of many ways in which the group organises itself around a horizontal and inclusive structure.

From an organisational perspective, the Movement of Unemployed Workers prefers to operate within an individualised and locally autonomous framework. In this way, they believe, the organisation can provide a more bespoke and timely response to the needs of local neighbourhoods, rather than defer decisions to a distant, centralised authority. Whilst some of their functions, including publicity and finances, are indeed filtered through to and managed by a central representative, the bulk of decisions are made by the local members using a roundtable forum for decision-making and discussion which seeks complete inclusion.

From the perspective of understanding individuality as a form of social action, the formation and resulting actions of this particular group, emphasise the fact that the individual’s need for autonomy, dignity, and independence is actually the fuel for the desire and motivation to protect their concept of a sociocentric society. Indeed, it is the fear of the fragmentation of their social world that prompts them to act from individual incentives, which are then articulated through collective action. As Beck argues, “the compulsion to lead a life of one’s own and the possibility of doing it, emerge when a society is highly differentiated… they are forced to take into their hands that which is in danger of breaking into pieces” (2002). Considering Dumont’s distinction between a sociocentric and egocentric society then, I argue that these two forms of society share an indelible bond to both protect and support each other. The support of the sociocentric societal elements can be observed in the MTD’s members’ actions through acts of cooperation and the consideration shown for the needs of others besides their own. Collaborative and inclusive undertakings of discussion, decision-making and emergent actions all contribute to help individuals attain their own autonomous desires. It is true that, as Dumont suggests, the members of this modern Argentine society have the subjective values of liberty and equality (Morris 1991) foremost in their minds and, as a result, are firmly committed to the attainment of a perceived ideal in which their society supports and nurtures its constructive individualisation. But to this end, the individualisation of society does not refer to a mindless, non-social quest for individual gratification that occurs in a vacuum. Rather, this case from Argentina demonstrates the desire for individuals to pursue a “structural, sociological transformation of social institutions and the relationship of the individual to society” (Beck 2002). Additionally, the Movement of Unemployed Workers seeks to shape and change the sociocentric society that envelops them to again assert the individual as a valued member of society and “an empirical agent, present in every society, in virtue of which he is the main raw material for any sociology” (Dumont 1986).

In conclusion, the Argentine case of the Movement of Unemployed Workers demonstrates that, contrary to Dumont’s assertions of individualistic pressures placed upon the existence of a sociocentric society, the opposite is true. That is, the complexities of social restrictions and norms, along with dramatic changes in technological advancement, and the effects of globalisation and increases in productivity (Avent 2016), have all contributed to the involuntary individualisation of societies. As a result, modern societies have evolved to become “the ground of self-direction in morals and an inspiration to personal religion.” (MacDougall 1912), as well as encompassing greater levels of precariousness from which individuals feel compelled to protect their basic desire for autonomy and independence. This essay argues there are pressures from established sociocentric constraints that compel individuals to attempt to mould this enveloping framework so society may thrive; to truly support the individual both as an important contributor, as well as an autonomous ideal. In this way, the Movement of Unemployed Workers is searching for a “utopia of dignified work that does not rely on state policy… instead, the state and policy are mediations of the autonomous struggle for the prefiguration of a better society” (Dinerstein 2014). To this end, the concept of the individual in modern society is indeed encapsulated, as Dumont suggests, in values of liberty and equality, but is pursued as a social being rather than the alternative Dumont predicts.


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