Methodological Individualism in Sociology Research Paper

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Methodological individualism in sociology refers to the explanatory and modeling strategies in which human individuals (with their motivations) and human actions (with their causes or reasons) are given a prominent role in explanations and models. Social phenomena are viewed as the aggregate results of individual actions. Explanation thus proceeds from the parts to the whole: individual action has an explanatory primacy in relation to social facts, society’s properties, and observed macroregularities. Among the problems associated with this methodology, the following three are of special interest: (a) how should individual characteristics be selected and connected? (b) does the relevance of individualism as a methodology depend on the way models and theories are used?, and (c) how should individualistic social science take individual cognition into account?

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1. Individualism and the Form of Explanations

1.1 Giving Primacy to Individuals

While the constitution of sociology as an autonomous discipline has involved the recognition of a separate layer of ‘social facts,’ methodological individualism, which presupposes the existence of social facts as an explanandum for social science, is not alien to the sociological tradition, as exemplified by the work of Weber, Pareto, and others. A general feature of individualistic explanations is that individual motivations, preferences, reasons, propensities, or individual characteristics generally speaking figure explicitly in the proposed models and explanations, together with the description of relevant technological and natural circumstances.

Methodological individualism has gained influence in the twentieth century through the work of such authors as Mises, Popper, and Hayek, but its emergence is traceable to the debates in nineteenth century Germany and Austria about the nature of explanation in history, the status of economic theory, and the respective scientific roles of nomological explanation and particular understanding. It is associated classically with the requirement of a real understanding of the motivations of the social actors themselves (as illustrated by Simmel 1900, Weber 1922).

This methodology can be contrasted with several types of nonindividualistic methods (Boyer 1992). It is violated by those theories which rely on the operation of impersonal forces (such as nature, mind, history, progress, or destiny), and by ‘holistic’ explanations in which the properties of collective entities (such as nations, classes, social groups, or society as a whole) or unconscious forces are given an independent explanatory role.

Methodological individualism is compatible with ontological holism about collective entities, in the following sense: individualistic social scientists may recognize the existence of social entities (such as ‘cultures’ or ‘traditions’) which are irreducible to individual component parts. But they postulate that only individuals have goals and interests, and that these have explanatory value with respect to human conduct. They reject or reinterpret the notion of collective belief. Finally, they recognize that the social set-up can be transformed through the action of individuals. This makes methodological individualism hardly compatible with the more deterministic versions of historical materialism, although it is congenial to some Marxian themes, in particular Marx’s criticism of the belief in the historical effectiveness of abstract notions of man, society, and consciousness.

1.2 Individual Moti ation

Some individual characteristics should figure in the explanans in an explicit manner. But which are the relevant ones? The selection should allow the theorist to reconstruct some basic facts about the choices of reasoning agents, and formulate those relationships which are considered useful for explanation or prediction. Both cognitive factors (such as beliefs or probability judgements) and volitional ones (desires or preferences concerning states of affairs) play a decisive role. There is some uncertainty, however, in the determination of the appropriate concepts of beliefs and preferences. In particular, should they be revealed by introspection, or in actual choice?

Behavioral social scientists insist that they should be inferred from actual choices, but most social scientists hypothesize in a bolder way. In particular, the Popperian version of methodological individualism emphasizes the crucial importance of a reconstruction of the knowledge available to the agents themselves. Elucidation of this situation-relative knowledge gives the social scientist a clue to the appropriate behavior of the actors (Watkins 1970, Popper 1972). If we turn to the goals of the actors: should their preferences be confined to (narrowly conceived) self-interest, for example a combination of pleasures across time? This would be empirically unconvincing. It is then tempting to distinguish several types of action: self-interested action and action out of respect for norms or values, for example. But such a contrast is rather uncertain in many empirical situations. Correlatively, it appears difficult to disentangle the economic dimension from other aspects of human action (Demeulenaere 1996).

1.3 Rationality Assumption and Equilibrium

Should the social scientist consider any kind of beliefs, desires, and choices? It would seem awkward to leave unused our knowledge about rational action. Several criteria of rational choice can be used. One basic requirement is the existence of a complete and transitive ranking of social states of affairs which, combined with beliefs about uncertain events, yields a ranking of actions. More specialized criteria involve specific relationships between beliefs and evaluative judgements, as exemplified by the classical expected utility formula for choice under risk or uncertainty.

It can hardly be assumed that flesh-and-blood individuals are perfect optimizing entities in all circumstances: given the drastic limitations on our information-processing capabilities, the bounded rationality assumption is more realistic (Simon 1982). In many models, agents seem to be confined to singleexit situations: individual goals and the characteristics of the situation are the important explanatory inputs (Latsis 1972). In most real-world cases, however, individual attitudes in the gathering and use of incomplete knowledge are crucial explanatory factors. In Simon’s words, a shift is needed from substantive to procedural rationality. This shift in emphasis has been decisive since the 1970s.

This psychological orientation could be (and has been) resisted for the following reason: sociological explanations of aggregate social facts are not supposed to capture all the idiosynchrasies of the actions of existing individuals, but only the central tendencies in individual action, among which we should undoubtedly count the tendency to act rationally through the selection of appropriate means in a purposeful manner (Goldthorpe 1998). It can thus be argued that sociology, as part of empirical science, should neither restrict itself to the elucidation of the logical consequences of the interaction of ideally rational agents nor try to replicate the psychological functionings of particular agents.

In practice, sociologists can hardly focus on social situations exclusively or psychological processes exclusively. Stylized models of both are required. In some situations, however, a more complex treatment of psychological processes is required. The two imperatives of psychological relevance and situational analysis are complementary in a deep sense, since the rational agent’s adaptive cognitive strategy in the face of incomplete knowledge must depend on the characteristics of her incomplete-knowledge situation. In most social contexts, the reasons for action of distinct individuals are not independent from one another, and the hypothesized relationships between individual preferences, beliefs, and actions assume the form of an equilibrium. This was brought out neatly in Cournot’s analysis of imperfect economic competition. In the definition of equilibrium concepts, the interrelationships between the predicted social facts and individual reasoning are made clear. In some cases, however, the predictive value of equilibrium concepts (such as ‘Nash equilibrium’ in which each agent’s action is the best response to the actions of others) appears to presuppose a fairly sophisticated coordination mechanism for individual expectations, or even sociologically or culturally determined common focal points. This suggests that some preexisting irreducibly ‘social’ facts might have independent explanatory value after all (Janssen 1998).

2. Methodological Indi idualism and the Contrasting Uses of Social Theory

Models and theories may have several uses. How does this plurality affect the significance of methodological individualism? The relationship between positive and normative uses of theories should be considered. Of equal importance is the level of description at which theory-based inferences and predictions are formulated.

2.1 The Individualistic Point of View and Normative Thinking

Scientific commitment to methodological individualism for explanatory purposes implies no particular normative criterion. In particular, as Popper noted, an individualistic understanding of social life need not lead to underrate the importance or value of altruistic feelings or other-oriented interests generally speaking: ‘What really matters are human individuals, but I do not take this to mean that it is I who matter very much’ (Popper 1945).

Nevertheless, most normative criteria presuppose an individualistic description of social life. For example, the usual criteria of freedom and responsibility have no clear significance unless social life is understood with a view to the causal powers of persons, portrayed as autonomous units of evaluation and action. It thus appears that common normative views implicitly rely on an individualist explanation of social phenomena. It is also the case, at a more fundamental level, that some kind of individualistic description of social life is involved in the formulation of many evaluative criteria. Most equality or efficiency criteria can be applied only if we are able to ascertain that definite states of affairs are experienced by distinct individuals. Individualism, here, stands for an understanding of social life according to which the separate lives and experiences of the individuals (rather than social groups) are the loci at which things of value are to be found.

2.2 Individualism and the Levels of Description of Complex Social Facts

Several explanations might appear relevant and informative at different levels of description. The projected inferential and predictive uses of social theory would thus appear decisive for the relevance of individual-based descriptions and explanations of social life. As a matter of fact, the very notion of sociology as a separate discipline is sometimes understood in a holistic manner because sociology is supposed to describe and explain complex ‘social facts’ which cannot be described and explained adequately at the microlevel of individual action.

In Durkheim’s classic study of suicide, for example, individual conduct is understood on the basis of the social characteristics which account for the scientifically relevant individual characteristics. Thus individual propensities to suicide can only be explained by referring to the state of society as a whole, in particular its degree of ‘integration’ or cohesiveness.

‘Egoist suicide’ is characterized by the attitude of individuals who give a particular importance to their own personality or destiny (their individual self) in the face of social rules or collective identity (the collective self), and the empirical frequency of such an attitude is explained by the degree of social integration.

The irreducibly holistic dimension in Durkheimian sociology is the belief in the independent explanatory value of ‘macro’ notions with respect to observed individual conduct. If we turn to rules and institutions, this means that individual agreements cannot be treated as independent explanatory factors. Individualistic theorists, however, try to explain rules and institutions by focusing on the circumstances of individual rational choice (as in Olson 1965, Coleman 1990).

Durkheimian explanation can be reinterpreted in individualistic or interactionist terms to some extent, by focusing on the psychological dimension of complex microsociological patterns of interdependencies that aggregate into macroproperties such as ‘integration.’ Given the parallelism between the two levels of description, the choice between an individualistic perspective and a holistic one should depend upon the projected use of theory: do we intend to describe macro phenomena, or do we try to understand micro interactions and their aggregate effects? The relevance of methodological individualism is clearer in the second case.

3. Individual Cognition and Social Explanation

Individuals are reasoning entities: they develop elaborate cognitive structures—even social theories— about their own action and interaction. How should individualistic social science take this into account? Arguably, any kind of rational action involves cognitive operations to some extent. This is true of instrumentally rational actions, after the pattern of ‘logical actions’ in Pareto’s sense, since the adequate association of ends and means is only possible on the basis of some representation of the world, and some reasoning about it. Sometimes the goal and its relationship with the available means are obvious, so that the cognitive process will not figure prominently in the proposed explanations. In other cases, the interesting part of the explanation is the cognitive process itself.

The explicit treatment of this cognitive dimension appears to be the best response to the critique according to which individualistic models rely on an arbitrarily simplified account of human action as instrumentally rational action. It is useless to deny the importance of instrumental, means-end reasoning in social interaction. But much is to be gained by paying attention to the cognitive processes through which agents frame their choices (Fillieule 1996). Cognitive sociologists also explore the inner logic of argumentative strategies (Boudon 1990, Bouvier 1999). A challenging dimension of the theorist’s work is to reconstruct the intrinsically convincing reasons which are intermingled with mistaken beliefs, in a manner which results in seemingly irrational behavior. Of particular interest are the processes through which individual agents evaluate and adjust their own goals, and select the norms of behavior they are willing to accept as binding. This could bring new significance to the classical Weberian notion of axiological rationality, now understood as a special dimension of a general theory of cognitive rationality (Boudon 1995, 1998, Mesure 1998, Saint-Sernin et al. 1998).

This implies that rationality requirements are applied to the actor’s goals, beyond the instrumental adequacy of the means to the goals. These are strong requirements, but they are motivated by an effort to gain a better fit between theoretical predictions and observed social facts. For instance, a long-standing puzzle in individualistic political studies is the so-called ‘paradox of not voting’: since individual voting in general elections has small disadvantages and no clear causal effect, why do people vote? A particular line of individualistic inquiry starts from the idea that most people are able to understand the basic justifications of certain norms (such as ‘citizens should vote’). Explicit treatment of individual cognition is a valuable goal, but it raises a number of questions concerning the precise drawing of the dividing lines between the building blocks of individualistic sociological explanation: between individual characteristics and natural facts on one hand, and between individual characteristics and social relations on the other hand.

At some level of description, individual action is a series of natural (neural and external) states of affairs. It thus appears that individual ‘good reasons’ are screened off by the natural causes of behavior, which are a proper object of inquiry for natural science, and methodological individualism in its classical versions might appear misleading because it treats individual good reasons as ultimate explanations of action.

Psychological processes are implemented in the human brain by neurons, but this does not imply that the ‘ultimate’ explanation of social phenomena is to be found at the neurophysiological level, or at the molecular level. Science is constructed in layers, in such a manner that it includes both higher level theories which work at the macrolevel appropriate to the macrophenomena to be explained (such as sociological theories) and other theories which show how the higher level objects and relations can be accounted for at the level below (Simon 1997). The hierarchical relationship between two classes of phenomena does not automatically imply that explanation should proceed from the lower level to the

higher level.

At a certain level of description, individual action is the sequel of an intention which can only be depicted in a certain language, using definite mental categories. Arguably, language, categories, and meanings are social objects. Hence it might appear appropriate to consider human actions as understandable only on the basis of pre-existing rules, or ‘institutions’ in Mauss’s sense—acts or ideas which people find before them as pre-existing facts. This radical holism draws our attention to the constitutive role of social norms with respect to the meaning of actions—undoubtedly an important feature of many social situations. This feature can find a place in individualistic explanations, once we allow for psychological motives which depend on complex, holistic representations of social interaction, along the lines of institutional individualism (Agassi 1975). As a matter of fact, most social rules are not just given as ‘facts’: they are agreed upon, or rejected, by individuals.

Individualistic explanatory and predictive strategies rely on a sharp distinction between the choice problems of individual actors, on the one hand, and social institutions, regularities, and norms on the other hand. On this account, the emergence and stability of social regularities, social norms and institutions should be explained on the basis of the underlying individual reasons. This creates an opportunity for the application of both classical rational-choice models and elaborate theories of individual cognition.


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