personal heroes, religion, and transcendental metanarratives

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Personal Heroes, Religion, And Transcendental Metanarratives


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    Personal Heroes, Religion, and Transcendental Metanarratives Author(s): Douglas V. Porpora Source: Sociological Forum, Vol. 11, No. 2 (Jun., 1996), pp. 209-229Published by: SpringerStable URL: 14-08-2015 09:17 UTC

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  • Sociological Forum, Vol. 11, No. 2, 1996

    Personal Heroes, Religion, and Transcendental Metanarratives Douglas V Porporal

    With the increased sociological interest in popular culture, many studies have examined the hero types lauded by the media from situation comedies to movies, books, and magazines. Few studies, however, have examined who, if anybody, actual individuals identify as personal heroes. To the extent that the hero identification of individuals has been examined at all, it has generally been the hero identification of children and adolescents that has been studied. The study of heroes is important because heroes are one indicator of who we are and what we stand for That is partly what motivates the recent attention to the media's identification of heroes. Yet while the media represent a very visible aspect of culture, who individuals privately cite as their heroes is, although less visible, just as much a part of who we are as a culture. Accordingly, this paper reports on findings from two telephone surveys conducted in Philadelphia that, among other questions pertaining to the meaning of life, asked adults over 18 whether they had any heroes and if so who those heroes were. The tendency to identify with heroes was found to be related to transcendental concerns with the meaning of life and to religiosity. Overall, the patten of findings discloses an unstudied dimension of cultural disenchantment. KEY WORDS: personal heroes; religion; transcendental metanarratives; moral meaning; iden- tity.


    Do people today have personal heroes-figures with whom they iden- tify as personifications of their values and ideals? If so, who are these he-

    'Department of Psychology, Sociology, and Anthropology, Drexel University, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19104.


    0884-8971/96/0600-0209$09.50/0 e 1996 Plenum Publishing Corporation

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  • 210 Porpora

    roes, and what do they tell us about the values and ideals of the individuals who identify with them? While considerable scholarly attention has been paid to the macrocultural heroes promoted by the media, there has been little research on whom, if anybody, individuals identify as heroes at the microcultural level.

    In the absence of data, conventional wisdom has been divided on the extent and nature of personal hero identification in contemporary society.2 Some commentators (Becker, 1973; Fishwick, 1983) assume a universal need for heroes. Others (Glicksberg, 1968; Schlesinger, 1968) lament mod- ernity's putative loss not just of heroes but of the whole larger sense of heroic calling often associated with hero identification. Still others (e.g., Boorstin, 1968; Lowenthal, 1943) believe personal hero identification has largely devolved into empty "celebrity worship."

    Which of these views is correct, if any? The research presented in this paper represents an initial exploratory attempt to find out. Specifically, two phone surveys were conducted in 1993, one in April and one in October. Each survey (n = 277 and n = 350) asked a random sample of Philadelphia residents whether they have heroes and, if so, who their heroes are. On the basis of the data collected, this paper will examine (1) how prevalent personal hero identification is; (2) the types of heroes identified by those who have them; (3) who is more or less likely to have personal heroes; and (4) what light the nature and extent of hero identification sheds on contemporary values and ideals at the micro, individual level of analysis. It turns out that personal hero identification is bound up with broader phe- nomena relating to religion and transcendental metanarratives. Thus, as will be seen, each of the four aspects of hero identification that will be examined bear on these broader phenomena as well.

    Heroes have been studied more by scholars in communications, folk- lore, and American studies than by sociologists, perhaps because until, fairly recently, sociologists have neglected the study of popular culture. It ought to be noted at the outset, therefore, that hero identification need not imply either hero worship or a "big-man" theory of history (Schlesinger, 1958; Schwartz, 1985), although Carlyle (1895) and Hook (1943), with whom the notion of heroes is often associated, were committed to both. One may have personal heroes without worshiping them. In such capacity, heroes are like moral beacons. They function in much the same way as, according to Eliade (1959), sacred space and sacred time function for homo religiosus. For homo religiosus, sacred time and sacred space center the

    2According to the New American Dictionary, the word hero is now gender neutral and can refer to women as well as men. Hakanen (1989a), moreover, confirms that female respon- dents in particular hear the word "hero" as gender neutral. Thus, throughout this paper, the single word hero is used to designate both male and female heroic figures.

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  • Personal Heroes 211

    profane world around them. Similarly, heroes function to center the world of moral space. They signal to what one is called or committed.

    The word hero comes from the Greek heros, meaning "God-person," the person charged with the charisma of the holy and sacred, the very ground of being (Hakanen, 1989b). It is from their connection with what Tillich (1952) refers to as the ground and core of our being that heroes derive their charismatic power to inspire (Weber, 1947). Thus, heroes are not simply role models but charismatic role models (Fishwick, 1983). As such, a person's heroes are better conceptualized not as idols of worship, but as an idealized reference group. One seeks to stand with one's heroes rather than to be one's heroes in actuality, and heroes thus are one mecha- nism we use to tell ourselves what it is we stand for. For those who have them, then, heroes are an important inner marker of identity. They are a part of the landscape of the soul.3

    Considerable scholarly attention has been paid to the identity and na- ture of the heroes presented to us by the media (e.g., Bell, 1983; Hubbard, 1983; Miller, 1986; Rollin, 1983). While there have been some studies that ask actual individuals who their heroes are, the individuals questioned are usually children and adolescents (e.g., Balswick, 1982; Hakanen, 1989a). Only a few previous scholarly studies have examined hero identification among adults. One (Gardiner and Jones, 1983) examined hero identifica- tion among prominent figures in education and government. This study found that such public figures often cite other public figures-both living and dead-as personal heroes, public figures such as Anton Chekov, Meri- wether Lewis and William Clark, Winston Churchhill, and John Kennedy (whose Profiles in Courage likely identified his own heroes). For those who had them, the heroes identified symbolized such values as humility, integ- rity, dedication, vision, and courage. Presumably, by identifying with such heroes, public figures seek to embody the same virtues themselves-or at least appear to others as seeking to embody them. Do ordinary adults not in public life have personal heroes? That question never seems to have been asked directly, and, accordingly, we do not have an answer.4

    3People with personal heroes frequently have multiple heroes, forming what Keen (1994: 233) in describing his own heroes refers to as a "pantheon." Each personal hero may be thought of as a charismatic role model. Where multiple heroes cohere for a person, as they seem to for Keen and Beiting (1994), they may form an idealized reference group.

    4In the only scholarly attempt to answer this question, Patterson and Kim (1991) asked a large random sample of adults whether they thought there are any living heroes in America, and found that only 30% of the population said yes. Unfortunately, we cannot determine from this question, worded as it is, whether the other 70% of respondents identify with his- torical figures no longer alive, whether they identify with non-American heroes, or whether they just have no personal heroes at all.

    Since 1947 the Gallup organization has annually asked about the man or woman "living today" whom respondents most admire. The cumulative results since then were analyzed by

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  • 212 Porpora


    Why study heroes? For several reasons. First, our selves are con- structed not only through their locati