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Beyond Individualism and Centralization

Dennis R. Fox


American Psychologist, 41, 231-232 [Comment]

My 1985 article "Psychology, Ideology, Utopia, and the Commons" elicited two responses in the same journal, one of them pretty critical. This is my short comment in response.

Note: This version may not exactly match the published version!

One of the goals of my original article (Fox, 1985b) was "to participate in the crucial process of exposing our own basic assumptions to constructive peer criticism" (p. 49). I appreciate the many thoughtful responses sent directly to me, and I am glad to have stimulated a brief dialogue in this journal. I do regret, however, that Samuelson, Messick, Allison, and Beggan (this issue) do not straightforwardly discuss the nature and impact of their own ideological perspective. Their Comment--particularly when viewed in comparison with that of Stern (this issue)--strengthens my argument concerning the degree to which unacknowledged assumptions affect psychological interpretation.

Samuelson et al. apparently object to my view that "researchers often agree, explicitly or implicitly, with the conclusions of Hardin and Heilbroner: In our modern, technological, complicated world, a tragedy of monumental scope is inevitable unless we resort to increased centralized governmental power" (Fox, 1985b, p. 49). I went on to ask "why do most social scientists not even discuss the conclusions drawn by those dissenting from the centralized-state approach?" (p. 52), and I cited the study of Messick et al. (1983) as one in which "researchers generally do not even take decentralist autonomous-community solutions into account" (p. 52). In short, I was accusing mainstream researchers not so much of consciously focusing "exclusively" on centralized approaches, as Samuelson et al. (p. 2) put it, but of generally ignoring the whole issue, thereby contributing to the perception that decentralized solutions are not even worth investigating.

Stern, whose suggestions for empirical research are a welcome complement to my argument, points out that the commons literature's generally centralist tone is "obscured . . . by proposals for solutions that appear [italics added] individualistic" (p. 1). Part of the obscurity, I think, comes from confusion over the difference between individualistic approaches, centralized approaches, and decentralized approaches. Thus, Samuelson et al. repeatedly refer to individualism and decentralization as if they are the same thing, totally ignoring, for example, the vast differences between an individualistic self-oriented free-for-all, in which isolated individuals take into account only what is best for themselves, and a cooperative federation of autonomous communities, in which individuals are rooted in the mundane mutuality of everyday interdependence. The important point here is the crucial role played by the existence of a real community, without which a psychological sense of community is impossible and the tragedy of the commons inevitable (see, in a related context, Levine, 1983, in press).

In claiming that most psychologists oppose centralization, Samuelson et al. argue that "the majority of empirical studies have focused on individual approaches to solving commons dilemmas" (p. 2). They are apparently satisfied with the assumption that "people faced with a commons dilemma can solve it through independent, voluntary changes in individual behavior, without resort to centralized decision making structures" (p. 3), and they conclude that "long-run, permanent solutions to social dilemmas . . . will require both individual and structural approaches" (p. 7). Unfortunately, they identify these approaches simply as "voluntary self-restraint among group members" and "establishment of superordinate authority" (p. 4), neither of which includes the option of decentralized, ongoing, small-group community.

This simple individualistic-centralized dichotomy, with its appeal to those steeped in the American value system, is exactly what I was objecting to in the study by Messick et al. (1983). It would be more useful (and less ideologically confining) for researchers to provide decentralized alternatives to both rampant individualism and centralized authoritarianism, alternatives based on small groups in which there is "free communication among group members over a period of time" (Stern, this issue, p. 6). Such free communication was noticeably absent not only in Messick et al. (1983); it was absent as well in all three of the published studies Samuelson et al. cite as examples of a research program that has "explored alternative, non-centralist solutions to social dilemmas" (p. 4). Furthermore, Samuelson, Messick, Rutte, and Wilke (1984), while identifying important cultural differences between American and Dutch subjects, presented those subjects with the same dichotomized free access-authoritarian leadership choice as in Messick et al. (1983); the studies by Messick and McClelland (1983) and Kramer and Brewer (1984), although very interesting, did not directly deal with the centralization issue and thus are not particularly relevant to this discussion.

Samuelson et al.'s objection to my characterization of much social psychological research as implicitly centralist might be more convincing if they did not go on to explicitly conclude that "More authoritarian solutions may be necessary in the short run in order to preserve the existing global commons for future generations" (p. 7). They note in a matter-of-fact manner that, "While coercive, centralized-state solutions may seem objectionable to many, they should be judged within the broader context of the potential ecological disasters that we face today" (p. 7). These and similar statements--such as Samuelson et al.'s (1984) observation that "our subjects seem to make the sensible choice that regulation is preferable to depletion" (p. 102)--seem to me to place Samuelson et al. firmly in the Hardin-Heilbroner camp, despite their apparent discomfort with that position.

Observers can reasonably disagree about the relative dangers of growing social dilemmas on the one hand and growing centralized authoritarianism on the other. As I indicated in the original article, my own view is that our desire to resolve environmental crises should not panic us into prematurely and unnecessarily resorting to solutions that will do greater damage to the lives of individuals, particularly since so much of what we take to be "inevitable" social dilemmas is in fact created by a variety of changeable cultural factors (see also Edney, 1981; Roberts, 1979). Samuelson et al. would have been more reassuring if they had discussed exactly who will impose the authoritarian solutions they see as necessary, and exactly how those "short-term" solutions can be prevented from becoming the long-term status quo. There are important value differences here, and the priorities of those "who are committed to maintaining the social system essentially in its current form" (Fox, 1985b, p. 48) may not match the priorities of those who would welcome radical change in order to better meet their social, psychological, and physical needs.

Turning to the kind of decentralized society I see as necessary in order to attain a better balance between individual autonomy and psychological sense of community, Samuelson et al. say that I assume "most people would prefer to live in small, autonomous communities" such as kibbutzim and communes, and that at the same time I am ready to "deny people the right to live in large, anonymous communities where few demands are placed on them" (p. 6). I did not say most people would now prefer life in communes; in fact, I discussed reasons that a decentralized society would be "unappealing" (p. 53) to many. The point is that psychologists, who are well-suited to assess the mental health outcomes of different settings, should be in the forefront of those who insist that our current society is detrimental to psychological well-being. The fact that many people would choose to retain their anonymity and isolation is a symptom of a society gone wrong, and psychologists should be wary of considering that choice to be a healthy one. We must become more willing to proclaim clearly that an alternative society would better suit our needs, and then move on to investigate noncoercive methods of bringing that alternative about. (For recent discussions of problems associated with individualism, isolation, and materialism in American life, see Bellah et al., 1985, and Wachtel, 1983.)

The problems of population increases and intercommunity cooperation pointed out by Samuelson et al. are indeed serious ones, requiring much research at least partly along the lines suggested by Stern. As I noted, there is "no guarantee that even a significantly decentralized society would be able to resolve the entire multidimensional complex of global and individual problems, because the obstacles are immense, and no single approach will be totally successful" (p. 49). All solutions have accompanying problems. The decentralist approach at least has the virtue of moving beyond a single-minded focus on saving the environment--which it does have the chance of doing at least as well as alternative approaches--to allow for the equally important possibility of fulfilling human needs and values.

Samuelson et al. note that "In the 'real world' face-to-face communication is likely to be the exception rather than the norm, especially in social dilemmas involving large numbers of strangers" (p. 4). Their conclusion seems to be that face-to-face communication is irrelevant to their research program. My conclusion, in contrast, is that research must explore how face-to-face communication in the real world can be increased, and how the problem of "large numbers of strangers" can become a thing of the past. Such a conclusion is in keeping with the benefits of long-term, comprehensive, even "utopian," change, along the lines suggested by the many anarchist and decentralist psychologists and political theorists I cited (see also Fox, 1984b). Consequently, Stern's advocacy of a "social psychology of solidarity" and of evaluating change efforts "in terms of their effects on community" (p. 7), his suggestions for empirical research to resolve expected problems, and his earlier focus on small-community management of commons dilemmas (Stern, 1978; Stern & Gardner, 1981) strike me as more optimistic and potentially liberating than does a narrow, defeatist focus on the supposed inevitability of the here-and-now. The real promise of social psychology is to be found in the creation of new possibilities of social life, not in the technical manipulation of people in the current cultural context.

Perhaps the most crucial point is that psychological debate cannot be divorced from political ideology. Those who take comfort in the safety of established "objective" procedures are often the least aware of how their own underlying assumptions affect their research problems, their methods, and their conclusions. It is important to make explicit our own political perspectives and value priorities and to take clear stands on the range of controversial issues that affect our work, as I have tried to do in my original article and elsewhere (Fox, 1983, 1984a, 1984b, 1985a, 1985b, in press--a, in press--b). Inevitably, psychologists who want society to move in a direction that is positive for people as well as for the planet must consider more closely the intertwined complexity of their politics, their theories and methods, and their professional and personal lives.

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Bellah, R. N., Madsen, R., Sullivan, W. M., Swidler, A., & Tipton, S. M. (1985). Habits of the heart: Individualism and commitment in American life. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Edney, J. J. (1981). Paradoxes on the commons: Scarcity and the problem of equality. Journal of Community Psychology, 9, 3-34.

Fox, D. R. (1983). The pressure to publish: A graduate student's personal plea. Teaching of Psychology, 10, 177-178.

Fox, D. R. (1984a). Alternative perspectives on the pressure to publish. Teaching of Psychology, 11, 239-241.

Fox, D. R. (1984b, August). Four reasons for psychologists to advocate anarchism. Paper presented at the meeting of the American Psychological Association, Toronto.

Fox, D. R. (1985a, May). Achieving ideological change within psychology. In T. Trabasso (Chair), Psychology, ideology, and social change. Symposium conducted at the meeting of the Midwestern Psychological Association, Chicago.

Fox, D. R. (1985b). Psychology, ideology, utopia, and the commons. American Psychologist, 40, 48-58.

Fox, D. R. (in press--a). Psychology and controversy: Points for discussion. Contemporary Social Psychology.

Fox, D. R. (in press--b). Technology, productivity, and psychological needs. In J. W. Murphy & J. T. Pardeck (Eds.), Technology and human productivity.

Kramer, R. M., & Brewer, M. B. (1984). Effects of group identity on resource use in a simulated commons dilemma. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 46, 1044-1057.

Levine, B. L. (1983). The tragedy of the commons and sense of community: Toward a theoretical integration of experimental commons simulations. Unpublished manuscript, George Peabody College of Vanderbilt University, Nashville.

Levine, B. L. (in press). The tragedy of the commons and the comedy of community: The commons in history. Journal of Community Psychology.

Messick, D. M., & McClelland, C. L. (1983). Social traps and temporal traps. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 9, 105-110.

Messick, D. M., Wilke, H., Brewer, M. B., Kramer, R. M., Zemke, P. E., & Lui, L. (1983). Individual adaptations and structural change as solutions to social dilemmas. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 44, 294-309.

Roberts, A. (1979). The self-managing environment. London: Allison & Busby.

Samuelson, C. D., Messick, D. M., Allison, S. T., & Beggan, J. K (). Comment on Fox. American Psychologist,

Samuelson, C. D., Messick, D. M., Rutte, C. G., & Wilke, H. (1984). Individual and structural solutions to resource dilemmas in two cultures. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 47, 94-104.

Stern, P. C. (1978). When do people act to maintain common resources? A reformulated psychological question of our times. International Journal of Psychology, 13, 149-158.

Stern, P. C. ( ). Toward a social psychology of solidarity. American Psychologist,

Stern, P. C., & Gardner, G. T. (1981). Psychological research and energy policy. American Psychologist, 36, 329-342.

Wachtel, P. L. (1983). The poverty of affluence: A psychological portrait of the American way of life. New York: Free Press.

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