Individualism in Social Science: Forms and Limits of a Methodology

By Rajeev Bhargava | Go to book overview

1
Forms of Methodological Individualism

Strands in Methodological Individualism

Existing formulations of methodological individualism are loose and obscure, more a mixed bag of interconnected doctrines than a coherent thesis making a sharply focused claim. Even so, some rough consensus on its central idea exists; namely that a plausible and non-trivial version of the doctrine must involve at least the claim that all social phenomena are to be explained wholly and exclusively in terms of individuals and their properties. According to one recent exponent, methodological individualism is 'the doctrine that all social phenomena--their structure and their change--are in principle explicable in ways that only involve individuals--their properties, their goals, their beliefs and their actions'.1 Similarly, for a commentator who put the matter more crisply than others in a once-explosive debate, methodological individualism is 'a prescription for explanation, asserting that no purported explanations of social (or individual) phenomena are to count as explanations, . . . or as rock-bottom explanations, unless they are couched wholly in terms of facts about individuals'.2

These writers seem to emphasize that methodological individualism (MI) is only an explanatory doctrine (EI) and needs distinguishing from, for example, ontological individualism (hereafter cited as 01) which states that only individuals and their properties exist with which all social entities and properties can be reductively identified. It is also often argued that there is no logical connection between these views and a related doctrine, which I shall call semantic individualism (hereafter cited as SI), according to which the meaning of words that refer to social entities or sentences which contain social predicates can be reduced to the meaning of words that refer only to individual entities or to sentences containing only individual predicates. If this is so, a methodological individualist is exclusively an explanatory individualist and need not be

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1
Elster ( 1985b: 5).
2
Lukes ( 1973a: 122).

-19-

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