Individualism in Social Science: Forms and Limits of a Methodology

By Rajeev Bhargava | Go to book overview

4
Methodological Individualism: Intentionalism

EI-4 appears to be an amazingly simple doctrine, stating merely that all social phenomena must be explained in terms of individuals and their properties. It is simple because it has modest requirements of formal validity. It rejects explanatory reduction and needs to incorporate neither laws nor a deductive structure in its explanatory form. It demands only explanatory statements, at best a well-knit narrative wherein individuals play the pivotal role on the grounds that they alone are explanatorily relevant. Actions are the most typical property of individuals in terms of which social phenomena are explained. This is ontologically grounded in the conviction that all social phenomena are a result of human action. Together with this ontological input, EI-4 provides us with what I believe is the most plausible formulation of MI.

EI-4 distinguishes itself from other formulations of MI purely by its explanatory form and from non-individualist strategies by its ontological character as well as its explanatory form. Exponents of EI-4 generally decry the non-individualist for possessing neither the correct explanatory form (for relying on say, the D-N model) nor the correct ontological ingredients (for overlooking or poorly grasping the active dimension of humans). Advocates of this version admit that the study of large-scale social structures is important but go on to argue that the only way to prevent their reification is to view them as a consequence of action. Rejecting the view of human beings as passive recipients of external forces, they seek to restore autonomy to human beings. This brings into focus an irreducible notion of agency, one that need not be subsumed under any physical law. MI is, then, seen as a programme for the rehabilitation of the active subject, of 'bringing men back in', for reminding us that men and women make their own history.1 In sum, the principal argument for MI states that if one is a committed methodological humanist--and what else can one be in studying human affairs?-- then one just has to be an individualist. The reason is fairly simple. All

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1
See Homans ( 1973), Hayek ( 1973), and Boudon ( 1981, ch. 1). Also most of the works of Elster cited in the book.

-126-

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