Catalonia: Social Potential and Individualism

Maria-Àngels Roque

Anthropologist. European Institute of the Mediterranean. Barcelona

Behaviour is linked to values and to collective representations, and these representations are in turn connected to a specific history. In the dynamics of a society, values change over time, the result being that within the realm of collective identities, various lifestyles that add to the complexity become apparent. Catalans’ values have indeed changed over time, allied, however, to a history, a collective memory and an identity which, despite the rapid pace of social change during the 20th century, has remained strong and has been able to embrace the new times and new players in society, as well as values that aid the development of the individual and the advancement of society. When we talk of countries without statehood, we do so from the anthropological perspective; when we talk of countries with statehood, it is from the perspective of sociology.

Similarly, the identity of a country without statehood is seen from the point of view of ethnicity, whereas a country with statehood is seen from the point of view of cosmopolitanism. Cosmopolitanism has been an evident feature of Catalonia for many years now. The Mediterranean has fostered the union and fusion of Catalan culture with all the other cultures around it, and has given Catalonia a central role as a nexus between science and technology, a role that has continued to the present day, strongly influenced by the appropriation of technology in the social field of the construction of values. Modern-day societies are complex and need to be analysed from numerous different viewpoints with different variables.

It was for this reason that we wanted to participate in the European Values Study—and to produce a sample specific to Catalonia—which enables values to be measured and compared. In 1990, the Catalan Institute of the Mediterranean (Generalitat de Catalunya) promoted and sponsored a specific sample for Catalonia, continuing its line of work in studies of an international and comparative nature.

Ten years later, the third European Values Study (EVS) was conducted between 1999 and 2000. In 1999, two surveys were conducted, one for Spain and the other for the Basque Country and Navarra. In the spring of the year 2000, a survey on the values in Catalonia was begun within the framework of this third EVS. The survey in Catalonia benefited from a comparison with data from the Spain survey, gathered in 1999, and from a comparison with the data from the same survey conducted in Catalonia ten years earlier. Twenty years and more have passed since Ronald Inglehart put forward the hypothesis that the priorities of western values were changing: he suggested that there was a move away from materialistic values to post-materialistic ones. In other words, rather than prioritising physical possessions and security, people were beginning to lay the emphasis on belonging to a group, on self-expression and on quality of life.

In the ten years from 1990 to 2000, this evolution towards post-materialism advanced a little in Catalonia, although the real change took place in 1990, as prior to this date the number of materialists was twice what it is today, and the levels of post-materialism recorded were lower than today. But the advance of postmaterialism has suffered a series of setbacks since then. In the Catalonia of 2000, a trend in the evolution of the country’s system of values was noted: there has been a rise in individualism, as the individual is accorded more importance than society; it is considered that individuals are responsible for their own lives; and it is believed that each person should concern themselves with their own affairs and pay very little attention to what others do, which can lead to a certain isolation. Freedom is valued more highly than equality, with 45% support as compared with 38% who deemed equality to be a priority.

In addition, there is greater permissiveness towards behaviour in private life or within the family, such as divorce, abortion or euthanasia. The level of permissiveness towards divorce in 2000 was 6.74, whereas ten years earlier it was just 5.5; similarly, the figure for abortion was 5.48, but had stood at just 4.55 in the 1990s; and lastly, the Catalans of 2000 were more likely to approve of euthanasia, with a score of 5.36, than those of 1990, when the figure was 3.93. There has also been a rise in permissiveness towards sexual freedom, prostitution and adultery (for example, homosexuality scored 5.84 on the scale, whereas it had been just 3.53 in 1990). The voluntary nature of signing up to the Catalan model, which implies a concept of dynamic identity and a praxis of interculturalism in which the individual can define himself based on different references of belonging, was essential in the construction of this model.

Tolerance is an essential value and is linked, once again, to the individual, and Catalonia reveals itself to be an identity network in which individual citizens can place themselves and reformulate themselves strategically as subjects rather than as objects in a stagnant cultural tradition. The voluntary adoption of Catalan culture over and above affiliation reinforces the egalitarian model, which in the imaginary construct of the country is complemented by individualism and a positive stereotype of the work ethic, in which the possibility of upward social mobility is legitimised by individual effort, with seny, balanced deliberation, as the defining virtue. The divide between Catalans of Catalan descent and Catalans from other backgrounds is a fundamental datum when it comes to understanding and analysing Catalan society. In some instances, they present themselves as two distinct communities with major differences between them, to the extent that on occasions arithmetical means resulting from the sum of these two subcultures reveals notable deviations.

The most significant of the aspects that differentiate the groups are in general based on the fact that the values that predominate amongst those born outside of Catalonia are the more conservative ones to do with security and the economy. Those born in Catalonia hold values that are more closely linked to the urban world and which are more in keeping with modern-day life. Nevertheless, emigrants have an enterprising spirit by virtue of having decided to move elsewhere: the emigrant goes out in search of personal change and usually adapts to the model that he seeks, even though divisions may exist. In the 1981 survey, Spain and Italy showed themselves to be more dissatisfied than their neighbours to the north.

Low levels of satisfaction with life itself are almost always linked to a negative approach to society as a whole. In contrast, the scores for all these values in the 1990 survey were much higher amongst Spanish society, which has gradually moved towards the levels of European indexes. Catalan society showed itself to be a little more optimistic than Spanish society as a whole in 1990, as it was more satisfied on the issues of health, family, money and control of its own destiny. These values, which were already high in 1990, when 85% of Catalans declared themselves to be very or quite happy, rose in 2000 to 90%, again higher than Spain as a whole (86%). Similarly, the average level of satisfaction with one’s life rose over ten years from 7.25 to 7.37, and the feeling of satisfaction and freedom at work had also grown, in particular as regards freedom at work, from 5.03 in 1990 to 6.91 in the survey conducted in 2000.

When it came to ranking the basic aspects of life, the family was selected as the most important aspect (99% of the population thinks that it is quite or very important, the same percentage as in 1990), followed by work and social relations with friends and acquaintances, and free and leisure time. Religion and politics, values that we might describe as more universal and of an ideological nature, and hence more selective, come last in the ranking. It is interesting to compare these results with those of ten years ago, not in relation to a change in the order of importance of these issues but in the degree of importance accorded to them. In 1990, 94% of Catalans described work as very or quite important, but this figure fell to 88% in 2000; free time also declined in perceived importance from 87% to 82%; religion fell from 41% to 29%; and politics also dropped from 21% in 1990 to 19% in 2000. The objective of the order is certainly a priority, but always within the limits established by the flag of a freedom that is not under threat.

Work was no longer as important as a central aspect in each person’s life, though it is not hoped that it will decline in the future. In other words, work is viewed as necessary but it is not the most important issue in each person’s life. This decline in the importance of work is particularly notable amongst young people and those aged up to 44, students and the self-employed, those with upper and advanced educational qualifications, those of upper and average social status, unwavering leftwingers, the indifferent rather than the agnostic and non-believers. Thus, the rejection of work is as much to do with ideological rationalisation as the discharging of those already in place. It would seem, from this, that not only has the volume of work or employment risen (activity and employment rates), but that there has also been an increase in its quality and in the satisfaction to be derived from it.

This explains why work is not seen as a distressing burden (because of its importance) or as a source of worry (due to its absence), and hence it has been displaced— as regards its ideal or moral consideration—to a certain degree as a central element of people’s lives. The most important aspects of a job are deemed to be that it should be interesting, useful for society, well paid (80%) and that it should offer security (67%), not that it should be suited to one’s personal capabilities. Satisfaction at work goes hand in hand with satisfaction in life, both of which were higher amongst Spaniards as a whole and Catalans ten years ago. Even the sense of personal happiness is higher in Catalonia. In contrast, freedom in decision-making at work is rarer, as autonomy within a working organisation is difficult for most people to attain. It is understandable in part that a working organisation should need some discipline, some authority.

There is a rise of three percentage points (from 32% to 35%) in the view that it is necessary to follow the orders of a superior even when you don’t agree with them, though there is also a rise in the proportion of those who think that you should only follow orders if you are convinced that they are justified (up from 45% in 1990 to 47% in 2000). A sense of well-being (satisfaction and freedom) depends on the kind of job one has, as is to be expected, meaning that it is found most notably amongst the male population and the selfemployed. In the Catalan case, work is viewed as less emotionally involving, reflecting the fall in its central role in people’s lives. Work is no longer the justification of one’s life but an everyday occupation; its former functions to do with the identification of our place within society, the construction of our identity and our integration into society are no longer as important as they once were. Work is no longer viewed as such a central part of people’s lives, but instead as a personal and social need.

The individualistic approach is reflected by the fact that more than half of those surveyed declared that each person should concern themselves with their own affairs and not those of others, an aspect that presents a greater Catalan tendency towards privacy, unlike the results found amongst Spaniards, who are much more individualistic yet not without a sense of civic commitment. Belonging to voluntary associations and helping as a volunteer in their activities is one form of social involvement as well as an expression of one’s own individuality. As levels of membership of associations and volunteer work have traditionally been low in Spain, Spanish society did not find it difficult to follow the general western postmodern trend of limited enthusiasm for joining associations, regular militant activity, constant payment of membership fees and regular and everyday voluntary work.

A (re-)emergence of activities and associations was noted in 1994: in every case, these were attempts to rediscover the roots of the land and local history, putting forward an emotional community with feelings. Even so, a fall in association rates, which had always been low, can be seen as the association movement fell from 30% to 22% in Catalonia in 2000. The most important of these associations are sporting, cultural and recreational organisations. Then come those of an ideological nature, political and religious associations and trade unions. Those to do with professional adaptation and public welfare (health and the environment) are in the minority. The associations with the lowest memberships are those related to social movements, the defence of human rights, Third World development and local charitable activities. The fact is that the new forms of solidarity, Third World aid and human rights, have gained considerable support, have raised aid and have even mobilised people locally, but they have not moved people to join or participate in associations.

The level of collaboration is higher than that of simple involvement. It would seem that people are prepared to help, but without involving themselves to any great degree with the beneficiaries of their aid: they are prepared to help but in an indifferent manner, because the main motive in contributing to improving the conditions of life of others is the moral duty to help, rather than the general interest of society or any sense of compassion or personal interest. The lack of interest in and indifference to politics has developed as part of a wider decline in interest in ideology, an absence of political debate and the disappearance of the big stories. Moreover, we have since the mid 1990s witnessed a considerable weakening of social movements (pacifists, feminists, pro human rights, etc.), which in some cases have no goals or objectives relevant to the present-day situation.

Many of these movements have been supplanted by NGOs, volunteer organisations and Third World aid groups, as described earlier. There are, however, other stages for political confrontation, though those involved do not recognise this to be so. I am referring here to the politics of lesser causes and microstruggles at a sectorial or labour level, or in a particular local or regional ambit. One example of this is the increasing mobilisation of people participating in irregular or unconventional political action at specific times and in certain situations, something that is now of remarkable importance, as we have been able to observe in recent events. People are much less reticent when it comes to taking unconventional political action of all kinds, including signing a petition, occupying buildings and factories or taking part in unauthorised strikes. As regards unauthorised strikes, for example, 50% of Catalans say that they would never become involved, whereas in 1990 63% of Catalans and 59% of Spaniards said they would never take part.

Even so, Catalans’ interest in politics has risen in comparison with ten years ago and is higher than the Spanish average, and hence is closer to European levels. In the year 2000, 30% of Catalans declared that they were very or somewhat interested in politics, as compared with 27% of Spaniards or 35% of Catalans in 1990. Thirty-eight per cent of Catalans consider that they are not in the least bit interested in politics, compared with 42% of Spaniards or 52% of Catalans in 1990. Internal differences have obviously occurred within the Catalan population, and groups or segments of society do not all express themselves in the same way: some are interested or involved, others less so.

Very often, these differences are structural characteristics that have developed in both Spain as a whole and in Catalonia, and even in Europe. There is a post-materialistic priority that stands out in Catalonia today in comparison with Spain as a whole and with the Catalonia of ten years ago, and that is the determination to increase citizens’ participation in the important decisions made by the government. Similarly, there has been a notable rise in Catalonia’s tendency to undertake unconventional political action: the Catalan potential for such action has increased in the last ten years and is much more advanced than that of Spain as a whole. The particular feature of Catalonia is the autonomous, independent configuration of the groups and segments on the ideological spectrum, which further demonstrates the decline in interest in ideology in Catalan society. In this process, the extremes, which are in the minority, are almost pure groups that resemble each other due to the similarity in their attitudes, whereas groups and segments that occupy the middle ground, which are in the majority, adopt conventional approaches.

As we find in the postmodern world, with its fragmentation of values, however, values are chosen in some instances à la carte and vary depending on the time and the circumstances. The complexity surrounding our lives makes any one-dimensional perspective that always follows the same course impossible. As a result, it sometimes seems that two opposites are defended at one and the same time. An example of this is the assertion that experts should be the ones who govern, a viewpoint that brings the social prestige of experts and specialists into direct conflict with the lack of prestige of politicians, who are ‘merely’ politicians. Catalan society has a high degree of confidence in institutions and apparently slightly more confidence than it had ten years ago, to the extent that the level of Catalan confidence in institutions is now similar to that of Spain as a whole.

Overall, we find a rise in Catalan confidence in institutions, which now stands marginally below the level of Spain as a whole and above its own level of ten years ago. The high level of satisfaction with democracy and the confidence in institutions do not, however, prevent or contradict a similarly significant rise in the range of unconventional political action, but as a complement to the system in the increasingly important realm of public opinion and its expression in the media to draw public attention, to bear witness to something, to protest and to influence decisions. The education system has improved in people’s eyes, as it now has the confidence of 63% of the population, whereas in 1990 it was 60%.

Next come the health system, with 62%, and social security, which has seen a rise in confidence from 38% in 1990 to 58%. Catalans’ confidence in the police, the armed forces and the Parliament also rose in the period from 1990 to 2000, whereas the justice system, the European Union, the Church and the press have all lost ground, with much lower percentage levels of considerable and/or quite a lot of confidence responses than in 1990. With regard to relations with people from other cultures, Catalans are much more restrictive and pragmatic than Spaniards as a whole: a higher percentage of people believe that people should be allowed to enter the country in accordance with the available jobs, a view that is also held in relation to internal migration.

Sixty-two per cent believe that companies should employ firstly Spaniards and only secondly foreign workers when jobs need filling; in 1990, 74% supported this viewpoint. Sixty-three per cent of Catalans, though only 48% of young Catalans, also believe that immigrants should renounce their own habits and customs and adopt those of the host society, a trend that is very different to the Spanish sample, of whom only 38% agree with this viewpoint. In contrast, whereas 56% of those surveyed were of the view that people should be allowed to come if there are available places (in Spain, this figure stands at 52%), we also find that 27% believe that strict limits should be placed on the number of foreigners who are allowed to enter (in Spain, this figure stands at 21%), and only 10% are in favour of allowing in anyone who wants to come (in Spain, 18%). The differences between young people and adults may be to do with greater indifference towards immigrants as a collective, as young people are much more individualistic.

A comparison with the results obtained in Catalonia ten years ago highlights other important changes that have occurred. Firstly, we can see a notable rise in the local identity linked to the locality where people live as a form of resistance to a possible homogenisation of reality, because the place where people live is the closest and most ‘real’ territorial level in which individuals act and in which they generally have their main home, and where their closest circle of friends, family and other social acquaintances is to be found. In 1990, just 22% considered themselves to be above all from the locality where they lived, but in 2000 this percentage had risen to 48%; and whereas 19% defined themselves as first and foremost a Spanish citizen in 2000, in 1990 this percentage stood at 43%.

There is a general distrust of other people in general, but not of specific individuals, who are usually those with whom we have a closer relationship, in many cases in our everyday lives within the locality where we reside. In contrast, over the course of these last 20 years, the Spanish sense of identity in the strict sense has been declining in importance, whereas the regional/autonomous community identity has been rising, though it is the co-existence of both identities that has marked the general tendency of the identity in Catalonia. In comparison with the Spanish population as a whole, the Catalan population reveal fewer sentiments connected to a sense of local belonging (town or city) and tend more often to name Catalonia as their geographical place.

A sense of belonging to Catalonia and to Spain is distributed equitably. A pronounced sense of local identity has developed because of the heightened sensibility towards people’s local and regional roots within the phenomenon of globalisation itself, compensating by means of particularism for the universalism of globalising flows. To sum up, a comparison with the data gathered in 1990 shows a clear tendency amongst Catalan society to abandon extreme attitudes and for the most part to adopt the position of a shared identity. In 1990, we can see that 36% of the population felt solely Spanish and 19% solely Catalan, whereas these figures had dropped to 9% and 6% respectively in 2000.The percentages for a shared identity (Catalan and Spanish, though to different degrees) rose from 42% in 1990 to 85% in 2000.

The Catalan identity is strong, dynamic and adaptable rather than static and closed. Lastly, it should be noted that the Catalan language is named relatively infrequently as a requirement in the Catalan identity, as the Catalan cultural model has traditionally accorded great importance to the language factor as a fundamental sign of social integration: 59% accord greater weight to living and working in Catalonia; 53% to the desire to be Catalan; and 17% consider that speaking Catalan is a necessary condition for someone to be considered Catalan.


Catalan society is strong in some aspects that can aid the formation of social capital. That is to say, it fosters conditions that favour co-operation and social integration, higher levels of social confidence and less segregation, and it accords great importance to primary groups and to interpersonal relations while reacting against the uniformity of globalism, which lies at the root of the emergence of localism. Furthermore, its attitudes towards equality and democracy, founded on greater egalitarianism, are positive.

These exercises in active solidarity are motivated by moral and emotional (individual) reasons rather than by the interest of society (social justice). Also worthy of mention is Catalan society’s capacity for mobilisation around alternative political action, not as a means to mitigate possible failings in democracy but to complement the system and to draw public attention, to make its voice heard and to influence decision-making, an attitude that is clearly related to the emergence of post-materialist values. The Catalan society of today is a satisfied, individualistic and secular society with a large dose of pragmatism, permissiveness and tolerance, and it has a marked sense of its distinct cultural identity but shows no sign whatsoever of political tension. These characteristics may in some respects seem contradictory, but we should remember that when we are talking of principal traits or trends or positions adopted by the majority, Catalan society, like any other, is not a homogenous reality but is full of subtle variations.