Link to the University of Pittsburgh
Jesus College, University of Cambridge

Keyword: Independent

The adjective independent as well as the 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 toward 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 OED entry for independent suggests that the word was formed in English from an established adjective dependent in mC16; 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 “[n]ot depending on something else for its existence, validity, efficiency, operation, or some other attribute; not contingent on or conditioned by anything else.” This neutral sense remains frequent, for example in one of the word’s most common collocations 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 psychology book, Woman: Dependent or Independent Variable? (1975).

OED quotations 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. From the US Declaration of Independence in 1776, independence has been a much desired political goal. For much of C20 this focused on the struggle of colonial nations to emancipate themselves from their imperial masters. In C21 many struggles for independence have involved the breakup of established nation-states, as for example the movements for independence in both Scotland and Catalonia. The United Kingdom Independence Party uses independence to mean secession from the European Union.

By lC17 independent, however, had also begun to be used with narrower scope to refer to individuals. Several related strands of meaning developed. Initially, independent in this C17 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 OED gives 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.” Entries for this sense in modern, synchronic dictionaries show “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, 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. Much of the guidance and self-help discourse concerned with independence is addressed to women. Evidence from large corpora provides evidence for this: in both British and US English, the phrase independent woman tends to be much more frequent than independent man, though only since the 1980s. The shift in relative frequency is most marked in US English. Independent man tended to be 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. Tabloid publications regularly warn 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 new in itself: in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park (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, as well as others who need to assert their independence because they lack power of some kind. Widening application of independent and independence in these contexts strengthens a related, more positive sense that increases in use from the 1980s referring to physical abilities rather than an 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 politics a distinct use of independence is found: an independent candidate has no affiliation to an organized 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.

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 organizations. The phrase independent schools (denoting fee-paying schools in the UK and US) 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 in the UK a type of state-funded school outside the control of local authorities).

A particular cultural sense developed in the American film industry, because its beginnings were closely tied to a monopoly on distribution. From 1908 films produced outside this monopoly were called independents. This use gained importance in the late 1960s as economic independence was linked to a particular cultural stance. The Sundance Film Festival was founded in 1978 to celebrate and support independent films. Often shortened to indie, the term is also used in the music industry to contrast with the big four record labels: Universal, Sony, Warner, and EMI.

Facts or results that 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, verification 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 judgment is accordingly often accentuated in references to NGOs, think tanks, and consumer research (even where the research in question may have been specifically commissioned), by use of phrases such as independent body or independent inquiry. 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.