Sociologist Derber Finds Attention Unhealthy Pursuit

Sociologist Derber Finds Attention Unhealthy Pursuit

Updated book examines the negative aspects of individualism in society

By Kathleen Sullivan
Staff Writer

Prof. Charles Derber (Sociology)

Television programs like "How to Marry a Multimillionaire" and "Big Brother" represent more than the latest trend in viewing habits, says Prof. Charles Derber (Sociology). These and similar shows offer evidence, he said, "that we have begun to restructure our culture - including even our politics and economy - around the idea of attention as a glittering ultimate recognition and reward."

Derber examines this rampant push for personal recognition in his recent book Pursuit of Attention: Power and Ego in Everyday Life, a significantly updated second edition of his book of the same title published two decades ago.

The popularity of that first book had prompted the publisher, Oxford University, to approach Derber about putting together a new volume, he said. Retracing his steps, Derber says he found the issues that had begun to percolate in American society 20 years ago are now an even greater cause for concern.

"At that time, Americans were entering a period of self-preoccupation and a self-involvement so overwhelming that they were losing the time and empathy to relate to other people," he said. "These trends seem to only be intensifying today. The rise in a temporary and overextended work force, the demands of balancing of work and family, the emergence of a celebrity culture all serve to reinforce people's focus on their own needs.

"The 'Me Phenomena' continues under increasing pressure and stress in everyone's daily life."

As social animals, humans have a basic need to be seen or recognized by others, says Derber. In recent years, the breakdown of traditional family and work relationships has forced many Americans to seek attention through more extreme measures, creating a phenomenon of self-absorbed, hyper-individualistic behavior.

Excessive consumerism, the proliferation of cellular phones, scanning the Internet for occurrences of one's name - known as "ego-surfing" - confessional novels and trashy talk shows are all manifestations of this competitive thirst for attention, according to Derber.

People who do not turn to television or the Internet may use "conversational narcissism" to gain attention, he says. These people use "obsessional patterns of calling attention to themselves" in conversations with colleagues, friends or family members. In his book, Derber gives examples of responses designed to subtly turn dialogues from one point or person to another.

While individualism has its good points, Derber says it can foster a self-involvement and hyper-individualism that is evident in a society obsessed with celebrities, preoccupied with beauty and image, and greedy for fame and fortune. Left unchecked, Derber said, this pursuit of attention can lead to "dehumanizing behavior that subtly alienates us from one another and turns daily interaction into a veiled competition for recognition and respect."

Derber's antidote for the "destructive forms of competition and egoism in American life" lies in a move to a more civil society that values "community, empathy and attention-giving."
People and the marketplace both need to change their ways, according to Derber. "We have to decide finally that people are more important than profits and that there are basic community standards and human rights which corporations all over the world must respect."


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