Independent (adjective) as well as related noun independence and adverb independently are important terms because of the significant claim they convey in fields including politics, law and finance; they are also important words in wider social debates concerning individuality and individualism, the nature of relationships and affiliation to social groups, beliefs and values of different kinds, and orientation towards social norms. The difficulty created by independent, however,is that the word’s meanings are strongly affected by its contexts of use, and crucially altered by the referent being described. The result is that independent can be applied to either inanimate or animate entities, and can be exploited to suggest positive or negative qualities not inherent in its core meaning.
The unrevised OED entry for independent suggests that the word was formed in English from an established adjective dependent by a derivation process which also created French indépendant. First attestations of these forms in each language are found around the same time, in mid 16c; the related noun and adverb forms appear a little later.
In earliest attestations, independent is used to describe abstract entities such as causes, power or faith, which are ‘Not depending on something else for... existence, validity, efficiency, operation, or some other attribute; not contingent on or conditioned by anything else’. This neutral sense remains frequent, for example in the word’s most common collocation as a modifier in British and US English, independent variable(s), a phrase particularly associated with technical registers. For this use, an intriguing example can be found of how technical use diffuses into wider contexts, picking up on other, more recent meanings of independent as it does so, in the title of a 1975 psychology book, Woman: Dependent or Independent Variable?.
OEDquotations for the neutral sense of independent show that when the word is first found in English it is applied to groups, states and nations with a narrower but still neutral meaning: ‘Not depending upon the authority of another, not in a position of subordination or subjection; ... self-governing, autonomous, free.’ This more specific meaning continues into current use, and accounts for the large number of recent attestations in political writing, often with reference to ideologically-charged notions that are not necessarily geographical (as had been typical of earlier uses): an independent Jewish nation or independent Arab states.
By late 17c independent, however, had also begun to be used with narrower scope to refer to either individuals or groupings, states or nations. Several related strands of meaning developed.
Initially, independent in this 17c development referred to material needs, especially financial status: an independent gentleman, or person of independent means, was financially self-sufficient and in this respect not reliant on others. This material-support sense continues into current use, although it is now clearest when specified by a modifier such as financially or economically. Either individuals or households (or larger groups) can be described in this way.
A second sense, more limited to individuals, also emerged in parallel, in phrases like independent minded and having an independent spirit. This meaning relates to opinions and attitude rather than physical or material needs. The OEDgives the definition ‘Not depending on others for the formation of opinions or guidance of conduct; not influenced or biased by the opinions of others; thinking or acting, or disposed to think or act, for oneself’. It is interesting, however, to compare entries for this sense in modern, synchronic dictionaries. Both Collins Cobuild and the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary mention ‘confidence’ as a defining feature of this meaning. Such independence is also often presented as gradable, and a value to aspire to, with self-help books and internet sites full of advice on how to become more independent, particularly in relationships: for example Oprah Winfrey’s website asks in one of its articles, ‘Is Independence the Key to Happiness?’
In many cases, pointing up the modern complexity of independence, emotional and financial independence are not clearly distinguished from one another in discussions of personal circumstances and relationships, or they are seen as closely connected. Unsurprisingly, much of the guidance and self-help discourse concerned with independence is addressed to women. Evidence from large linguistic corpora provides evidence for this: in both British and US English, the phrase independent woman has become much more frequent than independent man, though only since the 1980s. The shift in relative frequency is most marked in US English, where independent woman is now more than five times as common as independent man (which was much more frequent in earlier periods, though generally referring in those earlier uses to financial status).
In the complex contemporary terrain of independence, too much as well as too little of the quality can be perceived as a problem. Some publications (for example a Daily Mail article on Pippa Middleton, November 2011) have warned women against becoming too independent, since potential partners may find this characteristic threatening and it can prevent women from being ‘wife material’. The idea that independence can be an inappropriate quality for women is not of course new in itself: in Mansfield Park (published 1814), Sir Thomas complains to Fanny about ‘that independence of spirit which prevails so much in modern days, even in young women, and which in young women is offensive and disgusting beyond all common offence’. Yet being fiercely independent is not exclusively associated with women; it is also a perceived characteristic of young people of either sex, as well as others who need to assert their independence because of a lack of power of some kind. Widening application of independent and independence in these contexts strengthens a related, more positive sense which increases in use from the 1980s referring to physical abilities rather than emotional state, particularly associated with the elderly: being able to live independently means staying in one’s own home, perhaps with family or professional support, rather than moving to sheltered accommodation or into a care home. (In earlier periods, ‘independent living’would have meant having money.)
In the political sphere, a distinct use of independence is found: an independent candidate is one without affiliation to an organised political party. Such independence includes – in some perspectives, requires – financial separateness, while also implying independent-mindedness: independent candidates should be free to make their own decisions without reference to a party line. Political independence may however also be a feature of parties and political objectives, and different nuances in the term may become entangled. During the 2014 UK council elections, for example, one successful UKIP (United Kingdom Independence Party) candidate, Malcolm Pritchard, was widely reported as offering to ‘look at independent policy because there is no whip in UKIP… We are all independents’. UKIP’s ‘independence’ commitment as a party concerns its aims: to challenge alleged national subordination to the European Union; but that political concept of independence is linked in the popular imagination both with individual autonomy and with unreserved freedom of opinion. Councillor Pritchard freely asserted his opinions and challenged kinds of interdependence and affiliation by winning the seat from his own daughter, in part on the platform of accusing her of electoral fraud.
The interlocking political meanings of free opinion and agency can shade into a meaning of ‘non-governmental’, not government-controlled, in contexts where independent is applied to organisations. The phrase independent schools (denoting fee-paying schools in the UK) exploits positive connotations available with this kind of use, since the phrase avoids the elitism of private (or public) school and at the same time implies a certain kind of freedom and free thinking (compare recent use of free school, denoting a type of state-funded school outside the control of local authorities).
Facts or results which are independently verified are in most modern social systems considered more trustworthy and secure than those which are government-produced or commercially sponsored. In a promotional culture, scepticism in this regard is often taken to require separation between those making a claim and those providing the evidence for it. Emphasis on the idea that ‘independence’ allows honest opinion and judgement is accordingly often accentuated in references to NGOs, thinktanks, and consumer research (even where the research in question may have been specifically commissioned), by use of phrases such as independent body or independent enquiry. The separateness signified by claimed independence in these contexts implies impartiality and lack of bias, and is used to support the authority or legitimacy of findings even where there may be little consensus on what the criteria of independence should be or how such independence can be demonstrated in any given case.