Methodological Individualism

Authored by: Petri Ylikoski

The Routledge Companion to Philosophy of Social Science

Print publication date:  December  2016
Online publication date:  December  2016

Print ISBN: 9781138825758
eBook ISBN: 9781315410098
Adobe ISBN: 9781315410081


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Ideas about social scientific explanation lie at the core of debates about methodological individualism (MI). The spirit of MI is captured in a definition by Jon Elster:

[A]‌ll 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.

(Elster 1985, 5) For many individualists, like Elster, the basic idea of MI, when properly understood, is obvious and almost trivial. However, in equal measure, for many opponents the doctrine is an obviously wrong and unnecessary limitation for social scientific theorizing. The main task of this chapter is to explain how this state of affairs is possible. Much hangs on how MI is formulated. It might be that David Ruben is still right:

[M]‌ethodological individualism has never been stated with enough clarity and precision to permit proper evaluation.

(Ruben 1985, 13)
However, there is much more at stake than abstract issues about social explanation. Strong emotions are associated with the label ‘methodological individualism’. It is connected to other highly charged but obscure notions like reductionism and political individualism. Reductionism is often believed to have strong implications for disciplinary autonomy and is thus highly loaded with disciplinary politics. For some social sciences ‘methodological individualism’ (without any precise definition) has become a part of disciplinary identity. In economics, a denial of methodological individualism simply signals lack of understanding of economics. In contrast, for many sociologists, supporting methodological individualism still signals an anti-sociological attitude that overlooks many crucial aspects of social reality. Politics proper come into the picture, as it is often suspected that methodological debates about individualism are covert means to challenge or push political views like Marxism or liberalism. While the issues of identity and politics are important for understanding the debates about MI, I will set them aside in this chapter and focus on philosophical issues at the core of the debate.

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