Thursday, November 1, 2012

Methodological individualism today

Is it possible to draw a few conclusions on the topic of methodological individualism after dozens of years of debate? (Lars Udehn's Methodological Individualism: Background, History and Meaning is a great study of the long history of the debate over this issue. It is unfortunate there isn't an affordable digital edition of the book. Joseph Heath's entry on the subject in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy gives a very good overview; link.) Here is Jon Elster's formulation of the concept in Nuts and Bolts for the Social Sciences (1989):
The elementary unit of social life is the individual human action. To explain social institutions and social change is to show how they arise as the result of the actions and interaction of individuals. This view, often referred to as methodological individualism, is in my view trivially true. (13)
Max Weber is often identified as the modern originator of theory of methodological individualism. (Weber's student Joseph Schumpeter was the first to use the concept in print.) Weber's reason for advocating for MI derived from his view of action as purposive behavior, and his view that social outcomes need to be explained on the basis of the purposive actions of the individual actors who constitute them. So MI began with a presupposition about the unique importance of rational-intentional behavior in social life. Weber insisted on a rational actor foundation for the social sciences. And this prepared the ground for a joining of forces between methodological individualism and rational choice theory.

The emphasis on methodological individualism sometimes reflected a strong disposition towards eliminative reductionism with respect to social entities and properties: the early twentieth century exponents like J.W.N. Watkins wanted to find logical formulations through which social terms could be eliminated in favor of a logical compound of statements about individuals. And what was the motivation for this effort? It appears to be a version of the physicist’s preference for reduction to ensembles of simple homogeneous "atoms" transported to the social and behavioral sciences. This demand for reduction might take the form of conceptual reduction or compositional reduction. The latter takes the form of demonstrations of how higher level properties are made up of lower level systems. The conceptual reduction program didn't work out well, any more than Carnap's phenomenological physics did.

In addition to this bias derived from positivist philosophy of science, there was also a political subtext in some formulations of the theory in the 1950s. Karl Popper and JWN Watkins advocated for MI because they thought this methodology was less conducive to the "collectivist" theories of Marx and the socialists. If collectivities don't exist, then collectivism is foolish.

Another phase of thinking was more ontological than conceptual. These thinkers wanted to make it clear that social things, causes, and structures depended on the activities of individuals and nothing else. Another way of putting the point is to say that social entities are composed of ensembles of individuals and nothing else. Their concern was to avoid the social analogue of vitalism -- the idea in the life sciences that there is some special "sauce" of life activity that is wholly independent from the molecular and physical structures that make up the organism. Essentially this crowd wants to hold that the properties of the whole are fixed solely and completely by the physical structures that make it up. The theory of supervenience pretty well captures this ontological position: no differences at the upper level without some difference at the lower level. (This position doesn't imply its converse statement: if two physical systems differ then their upper-level systems must differ too. This is the point of multiple functional realizability.) The position does rule out some forms of emergentism, however. The idea of microfoundations comes into this line of thought. If we make a claim about the structural or causal properties of an upper-level thing, we need to be confident that there are microfoundations that would show how this feature comes about. In the strongest case, we need to actually provide the microfoundations.

There is another important stream of MI thinking that derives from a set of ideas about how higher-level facts ought to be explained: they should be explained on the basis of demonstrations of how the upper-level entity is given its properties by the organized system of elements from which it is comprised. This is essentially what the analytical sociologists seem to demand, by insisting on the logic of Coleman's boat. This approach privileges a certain kind of explanation--constructive or compositional explanations.

There is one aspect of the tradition that I haven't mentioned yet: the idea that we can carve out the individual as separate from and prior to the social -- a view sometimes referred to as "atomistic". In classical physics the analogous claim is supportable. Sodium atoms are homogeneous and interchangeable. But it is not plausible in the human world. Social facts intertwine with the mind and actions of individuals all the way down. So from the start, it would seem that the program of MI should be formulated in terms of reduction from the big-social to the small-social, not the non-social.

So what kinds of social claims do these various formulations rule out?

All of them rule out spooky holism, those social theories that claim that social entities exist that are wholly independent of the features of individuals.

Several of them rule out strong emergentism -- the view that there are social properties that could not in principle be derived from full knowledge about the states and properties of the constituent individuals.

They by and large rule out explanatory autonomy for the social level. This is the idea that there might be fully satisfactory causal arguments that proceed from statements about the properties of one set of social factors and the explains another set of social outcomes on this basis. (The ontological thesis does not have this implication.)

As Heath argues in his SEP essay, they rule out macro-level statistical explanations and what he calls micro-level sub-intentional explanations.

In my view, the only claims about methodological individualism that seem unequivocally plausible today are the ontological requirements -- the various formulations of the notion that social things are composed of the actions and thoughts of individuals and nothing else. This implies as well that the supervenience claim and the microfoundations claim are plausible as well.

But to concede that x's are composed of y's does not entail the need for any kind of reductionism from x to y. And this extends to the idea of explanatory reduction as well. So methodological individualism does not create valid limits on the structure of social explanations, and meso-level explanations are not excluded.

So it seems as though we can now draw several conclusions about the field of methodological individualism. The ontological thesis is roughly true, but it is compatible with a range of different ideas about within- and cross-level explanation. So reductionism doesn't follow. The micro-level can't be a hypothetical pre-social or non-social individual. Finally, there is no reason to associate the plausible core of MI theory with one specific theory of action, the rational-intentional theory. As pragmatist sociologists are now arguing, there are compelling theories of the actor that do not privilege the model of conscious deliberative choice.


Anonymous said...

There is an interesting recent article on the different meanings ascribed to methodological individualism by Geoffrey Hodgson.

Alex said...

Why does the relationship have to be one-way? Economists went all the way down this road in the quest for the microfoundations of macrophenomena, but as a fine blogger said, it's exactly as true to say that the individual actors have macro-context as it is to say that the macro-context has micro-foundations.

Max said...

Methodological individualism cannot deal with structure (institutions) and holism cannot deal with agency. IMHO, social science needs to move beyond methodological individualism vs holism towards a third way: relationism. The fundamental unit of analysis should neither be the individual nor "social facts" but the relationship between them, or between individuals/groups of individuals (organizations).

Charles Tilly has written a lot about this issue. This is also a good book:

Arabica Robusta said...

I agree with Max about the poverty of the structure/actor dualism ( I suggest that instead of taking an economic view of reality (which methodological individualism seeks to do), we should take an ecological or geographical view in the sense that we must recognize that the individual cannot somehow think and act separately from the environment. The relationship is reflexive rather than unidirectional. Individuals do not exist apart from environment/space.

Tom Hickey said...

Methodological individualism doesn't deal well with institutionalism,, e.g., in economics. While it is true that it is individuals that create institutions and potentially can change them, institutions are like habit structures in individuals. They tend to take over the host and direct the host down paths that the host doesn't necessarily choose to go. This is a very powerful meso level and can also rise to the macro level though cultural adoption.

Hegel's Zeitgeist is not some metaphysical entity, for instance, as collectivists would like to make out. But rather it is an identifiable cultural force or impetus resulting from habitual mindsets that find coordination in terms of informal unstated rules but they can also be formally stated rules, even legislated ones.

A broad culture is composed of many sub-cultural groups, usually based on affinity of individuals. There is nothing mysterious about cultural trends. We speak of them all the times and advertisers and political strategists know a great deal about them and use this knowledge to gain advantage. There are no "spooks" involved, since it makes sense to speak of a collective mindset or even a type of level of collective consciousness in terms of individuals that make up groups without specifying any particular individuals. They are known anonymously through their coordinated effects, which is generally all historians have to deal with, for instance, in examining similarities and differences.

Reductive methodological individualism has been the bane of economics, to the point that some even deny the validity of doing macroeconomics at all. I know of no one serious who denies at the elementary nature of the individual. Nor do I know anyone serious that thinks there are metaphysical entities at work at the level of holism. The controversy is really among those who think that society is an aggregate of individuals, and those who see societies are systems in which the elements are individuals standing in relationship, where the relationships are also determinative of the nature of the system and its behavior. Given findings in psychology, the life science and the social sciences, it would seem that the systems view is the only view that is tenable empirically — and that entails micro, meso and macro levels and effects.