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American Dream

Definition of American Dream

(noun) In the United States of America, the notion that through determination and hard work, anyone can achieve success.

Etymology of American Dream

  • Term coined by James Truslow Adams (1878–1949) in The Epic of America (1931) as follows:
    • “If, as I have said, the things already listed were all we had had to contribute, America would have made no distinctive and unique gift to mankind. But there has been also the American dream, that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position” (Adams 1931:404).
    • “[T]he American dream that has lured tens of millions of all nations to our shores in the past century has not been a dream of material plenty, though that has doubtlessly counted heavily. It has been a dream of being able to grow to fullest development as a man and woman, unhampered by the barriers which had slowly been erected in the older civilizations, unrepressed by social orders which had developed for the benefit of classes rather than for the simple human being of any and every class. And that dream has been realized more fully in actual life here than anywhere else, though very imperfectly even among ourselves. It has been a great epic and a great dream. What, now, of the future?” (Adams 1931:405).

American Dream Pronunciation

Pronunciation Usage Guide

Syllabification: a·mer·i·can dream

Audio Pronunciation

– American English
– British English

Phonetic Spelling

  • American English – /uh-mAIR-uh-kuhn drEEm/
  • British English – /uh-mE-ri-kuhn drEEm/

International Phonetic Alphabet

  • American English – /əˈmɛrəkən drim/
  • British English – /əˈmɛrɪkən driːm/

Usage Notes

  • Plural: American Dreams

Related Quotations

  • [D]iscrimination creates a terrible irony: the very discrimination that invalidates the American Dream for many Americans creates conditions that seem to validate it for others, enabling them to embrace it so fervently. By excluding entire categories of people from equal access to opportunity, discrimination has reduced competition and increased the chances to get ahead of others, who often mistakenly conclude that their own success is based exclusively on their own individualmerit‘” (McNamee and Miller 2013:18).
  • “Equally as important as the invidious barriers to opportunity that remain entrenched in our society are the legitimized, ostensibly meritocratic requirements built into the entire notion of bureaucratic credentialism. [Randall] Collins (1979), for example, has persuasively demonstrated how educational institutions have supported professionalization through the proliferation of programs, degrees, and certification schemes that have been used by government, business, and other organizations to increase for formal credential and licensure requirements for many positions. In effect, those already in positions of influence and status have quietly agreed to raise the minimum requirements for employment” (Hauhart 2016:265).
  • “In the image of the American Dream, America is the land of opportunity. Presumably, if you work hard enough and are talented enough, you can overcome any obstacle and achieve success. No matter where you start out in life, the sky is ostensibly the limit. According to the promise implied by the American Dream, you can go as far as your talents and abilities can take you” (McNamee and Miller 2013:1).

Related Videos

Additional Information

Related Terms


Adams, James Truslow. 1931. The Epic of America. Atlantic Monthly Press.

Hauhart, Robert C. 2016. Seeking the American Dream: A Sociological Inquiry. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

McNamee, Stephen J., and Robert K. Miller, Jr. 2013. The Meritocracy Myth. 3rd ed. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Works Consulted

Bruce, Steve, and Steven Yearley. 2006. The SAGE Dictionary of Sociology. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

Jary, David, and Julia Jary. 2000. Collins Dictionary of Sociology. 3rd ed. Glasgow, Scotland: HarperCollins.

Macmillan. (N.d.) Macmillan Dictionary. (https://www.macmillandictionary.com/).

Merriam-Webster. (N.d.) Merriam-Webster Dictionary. (http://www.merriam-webster.com/).

Oxford University Press. (N.d.) Oxford Dictionaries. (https://www.oxforddictionaries.com/).

Princeton University. 2010. WordNet. (https://wordnet.princeton.edu/).

Random House Webster’s College Dictionary. 1997. New York: Random House.

Wikipedia contributors. (N.d.) Wiktionary, The Free Dictionary. Wikimedia Foundation. (http://en.wiktionary.org).

Cite the Definition of American Dream

ASA – American Sociological Association (5th edition)

Bell, Kenton, ed. 2013. “American Dream.” In Open Education Sociology Dictionary. Retrieved May 24, 2024 (https://sociologydictionary.org/american-dream/).

APA – American Psychological Association (6th edition)

American Dream. (2013). In K. Bell (Ed.), Open education sociology dictionary. Retrieved from https://sociologydictionary.org/american-dream/

Chicago/Turabian: Author-Date – Chicago Manual of Style (16th edition)

Bell, Kenton, ed. 2013. “American Dream.” In Open Education Sociology Dictionary. Accessed May 24, 2024. https://sociologydictionary.org/american-dream/.

MLA – Modern Language Association (7th edition)

“American Dream.” Open Education Sociology Dictionary. Ed. Kenton Bell. 2013. Web. 24 May. 2024. <https://sociologydictionary.org/american-dream/>.