In This Article Methodological Individualism

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Textbooks
  • Anthologies
  • Origins of Methodological Individualism
  • Austrian Methodological Individualism
  • Behaviorism and Social Exchange

Sociology Methodological Individualism
by
Lars Udehn
  • LAST MODIFIED: 19 December 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0092

Introduction

From the start, there have been, in philosophy and the social sciences, a number of debates about the proper way to analyze social phenomena. One of the most hotly debated issues concerns the role of individuals in the definition and explanation of social phenomena. According to one camp, variously called methodological holists or methodological collectivists, the actions of human beings can only be understood and explained in terms of the social wholes in which they are implicated. Social phenomena, therefore, should be at least partly explained in terms of these social wholes. According to another camp, it is the converse: social wholes can and should be explained in terms of the actions of individual human beings. The reason for this is that social wholes are apparently made up of human beings and are caused by their actions. The latter view is usually called methodological individualism (MI), but sometimes methodological atomism, because it conceives of human individuals as the “atoms,” or parts, of society. MI appears in various guises. Strictly speaking, it is a rule for the analysis of social phenomena, but quite often it is stated as an ontological thesis about their cause and nature, and sometimes as an epistemological thesis about knowledge. MI has developed in constant opposition to methodological holism and is difficult to understand fully without its opposite. It is possible to identify three waves of MI in the history of social science. The first wave was from the end of the 19th century to the beginning of the 20th, when the social sciences were established as academic disciplines. In this period, MI was represented with the Austrian school of economics. The second wave occurred during and after World War II, when the methodological issue became associated with the ideological battle between individualists and collectivists. In this period, MI was defended, above all, by Karl Popper and his followers. The third period was the latter three decades of the 20th century, when the rational choice approach increasingly gained ground and spread from economics to the other social sciences. Economics has always been the stronghold of MI, whereas the other social sciences have been more holistic. It is not correct, however, to identify MI with rational choice. In sociology we have seen an ambitious attempt to reduce the discipline to behaviorist psychology.

General Overviews

Although the literature on MI is by now enormous, there are few comprehensive overviews. Writers on the subject have been more interested in taking part in the debate than in writing about it. There are some overviews in German, covering both individualism and collectivism but limited to the first two waves of MI. The best is Vanberg 1975, which gives a good account of both traditions in classical economics and sociology. For an overview of the more recent development of MI in sociology, see Opp 2009. In English, Infantino 1998 traverses much the same ground as Vanberg 1975. The most comprehensive overview is Udehn 2001, which attempts to cover everything of importance that has been written on the subject. For those seeking a short guide, Dray 2006 and Heath 2010 may be recommended. Overviews of social holism are even more rare, but Phillips 1976 is a good introduction to this tradition.

  • Dray, William H. 2006. Holism and individualism in history and social science. In The encyclopedia of philosophy. 2d ed. Vol. 4. Edited by Donald M. Borchert, 441–448. Farmington Hills, MI: Macmillan Reference USA.

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    Good introduction to the debate between the two camps. Originally published in the first edition from 1972

  • Heath, Joseph. 2010. The Methodological individualism. In The Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta.

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    Useful introduction to MI, focusing on Max Weber, Friedrich A. von Hayek, Karl Popper, and Jon Elster.

  • Infantino, Lorenzo. 1998. Individualism in modern thought: From Adam Smith to Hayek. Routledge Studies in Social and Political Thought 13. London and New York: Routledge.

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    Comprehensive and informative, if somewhat odd, guide to individualism in social science. Despite the title, this book is equally about the collectivistic tradition in sociology.

  • Opp, Karl-Dieter. 2009. Das individualistische Erklärungsprogramm in der Soziologie: Entwicklung, Stand und Probleme. Zeitschrift für Soziologie 38.1: 26–47.

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    A good presentation of the individualistic research program in sociology by one of its main representatives.

  • Phillips, Denis C. 1976. Holistic thought in social science. Stanford, CA: Stanford Univ. Press.

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    A good introduction to the holistic tradition in philosophy and the social sciences.

  • Udehn, Lars. 2001. Methodological individualism: Background, history and meaning. Routledge Studies in Social and Political Thought. London and New York: Routledge.

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    Comprehensive guide to the individualist tradition, from the beginning of the social sciences until the end of the 20th century. Argues that there are several different versions of MI and makes a distinction between strong MI and weak MI.

  • Vanberg, Viktor. 1975. Die zwei Soziologien: Individualismus und Kollektivismus in der Sozialtheorie. Die Einheit der Gesellschaftswissenschaften 17. Tübingen, West Germany: Mohr.

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    Good guide to the two traditions in classical sociology. Sides with the individualist tradition.

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