Thoughts on methodological individualism

The methodological focus of social science on aggregate-level phenomena as the principal objects of research has significantly complicated the task of understanding the social world. Collective explanations of aggregate-level phenomena, such as the state, government, or the political system brush the majority of social activity, which occurs between individuals. Furthermore, aggregated approaches tend to reify large-scale phenomena as natural social experience. A strong refutation of holist explanations of social phenomena exists in the form of methodological individualism, which begins from the empirical position that the individual is the most basic unit of analysis. Methodological individualists often point to everyday social interactions, such as negotiations between employer and employee, the behavior of legislators, or of social movement entrepreneurs, all of whose behavior is not captured by or explicable in terms of aggregate phenomena. Methodological individualists argue that individuals can exist without groups, but not vice versa, and therefore any social phenomenon can be fundamentally investigated in terms of individuals. However, a strong methodological individualism creates its own distortions of the social world, in which individuals interact without the mediation of institutions and other collectivities. I argue that a methodological individualism that also allows for secondary causality by collectives yields a realistic and feasible research approach.

Methodological individualism considers the individual as the basic object of social scientific inquiry. Its basic approach is to explain social phenomena – such as movements, institutions, and government – in terms of aggregated individual behavior and decision. Methodological individualism is not a monolithic school of thought. Rather, it can be divided into a range of approaches, from the unsocialized, self-interested individual as the basic unit of social phenomena to variants that acknowledge the existence and importance of culture and institutions (Udehn 2002).[1] Udehn argues that methodological individualism is more a collection of approaches and assumptions about epistemology, ontology, and methodology than a consistent, unified school of thought. Udehn distinguishes between strong and weak methodological individualism, and even further disaggregates these into five distinct versions – the social contract, general equilibrium theory, social individualism, institutional individualism, and structural individualism. The first three are considered strong methodological individualism, treating individuals as independent of institutions and, if constrained, only by social and cultural ties. The fourth and fifth allow that social institutions and structures exist a priori, and therefore exogenous, to individuals.

If we approach a social subject from either of the first two variants, what Udehn terms natural individualism, we have to treat it as a purely instrumental phenomenon. These perspectives regard the individual as asocial, acting aggressively and exclusively in their self-interest. Social movements become problematic in this perspective not because they become instrumental, but because it is dubious how they could even develop as instruments. For example, a natural individualist might allege that a revolutionary’s identity means nothing to her except as she can style and use it to her advantage. While this is a reasonable proposition, it becomes problematic because this identity must mean something to someone in order for her to use it instrumentally. If everyone exists in the Hobbesian state of nature, and social phenomena mean nothing to anyone, how any become useful in any form is inexplicable.

Social individualism, the third variant, is distinctive because of its focus on culture. The Austrian School, which articulated this version of individualism, distinguished it from previous ones by emphasizing the role of customs and culture in the lives of individuals. This is not to say that social institutions or group phenomena exist independently of individuals. What social individualism does is make society and culture epiphenomenal (Udehn 2002: 487). This subjectivist twist of social ontology moves one closer toward the possible utility of social movements in an instrumentalist paradigm, because this approach acknowledges that individuals attach meaning to social ties and culture.

Moving from strong to weak forms of methodological individualism may be much more useful. Both institutional and structural individualist approaches are distinct from weaker versions in that they consider institutions as potentially exogenous to individuals. That is to say that institutions can exist a priori to individuals, but they need not necessarily. For example, consider culture as an institution. If one adhered to strict interpretations of natural individualism, culture could not exist a priori to individuals, which is plainly untrue. Culture is not causal for individuals, but individuals are born into cultures. Of course, individuals produced culture, but once created culture develops an ability to survive independent of any single individual.

In the final analysis, it really depends on which type of methodological individualism is in question as to how politics is understood, both ontologically and epistemologically. However, methodological individualism does generally make much easier certain propositions about social order by emphasizing the role of agency, which heavily structural approaches reject or downplay. Pragmatic individualist approaches go beyond the spiral of Geertz’s thick description and allow the researcher to explore the everyday lives of subjects to determine how social phenomena are constituted in their own terms.

The presupposition of social science-imposed order is one that inherently reveals a fundamental misunderstanding about how complex and interesting the world really is. I believe the task to approach the social world in such a way that does not arrogate order in ways that it does not actually exist, that acknowledges the complexity and wonder of human society, and that attempts to locate order, power, and interaction as it exists in the real world.


[1] Lars Udehn. 2002. “Changing Face of Methodological Individualism.” Annual Review of Sociology 28: 479-507.

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