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Individualization has emerged as a central theoretical construct to characterize recent transformations within society and the life course. Although it drives an increasing amount of research, there are considerably divergent definitions, operationalizations, and interpretations of this popular construct. It has been used as both an explanatory factor driving social change and as an outcome at the individual level. Applications range from studies of large macrolevel societal changes (see Pollack and Pickel 1999) and social class inequality (see Kohler 2005), to the psychological level of self-actualization and identity formation (Côté and Levine 2002). In spite of the fact that individualization is increasingly included systematically in the field of life-course studies, there has been little progress toward a shared understanding of the concept. This ambiguity may lie in the “intentionally ambivalent” definition provided by contemporary individualization theories (see Beck and Beck-Gernsheim 2002), the polymorphous nature of individualization itself, or in the inherent ambiguity this theory offers vis-à-vis the relationship of the social structure to institutions and the individual (Zinn 2002).

Original publication





Book title

Contested Individualization: Debates About Contemporary Personhood

Publication Date



61 - 79