Tiny heroes, big symbols: small groups, values, and the proliferation of heroes in America

Newby, Brian
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University of Delaware
Recent sociological research has suggested that the social type of the "hero" has changed in contemporary American culture. These studies have suggested two possible conclusions to this change: that there are too many heroes and therefore the word has no meaning, or that heroes have been replaced with victims, leaving no heroes left in American culture. While both sides offer theoretical explanations for these conclusions, neither has attempted to empirically analyze how the word is being used. This study begins with the premise that neither conclusion is accurate. Instead, it is suggested that the dilemma sociologists have in determining whether there is a proliferation or deficit of heroes stems from the lack of a cogent definition of the word "hero." Pulling from various sociological studies on heroism, this study proposes that heroes are symbolic characters that are made the subjects of reputational claims. It is these claims that proliferate, not necessarily the heroes themselves. By analyzing how heroes are constructed by claimsmakers in social and traditional media, it is possible to understand the myriad ways heroes are constructed. In a culture predicated on individualization and democratic ideals, anyone can make a claim about a hero, and anyone can become a hero. The plethora of possibilities offered by this conclusion explains why there appears to be too many heroes and not enough of them at the same time.