Methodological Individualism

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Methodological individualism is a philosophical method aimed at explaining and understanding broad society-wide developments as the aggregation of decisions by individuals (and a version of individualism in general). In the most extreme version, the “whole” is nothing but the “sum of its parts”. It has also been described as “reductionism”, a reduction of the explanation of all large entities by reference to smaller ones.

Social Science

Methodological individualism is opposed to, for example, the comparison of experimental and control groups of individuals, because individualism denies that a collectivity is an autonomous decision-maker, and demands that the social sciences ground their theories in individual action. The idea has also been used to attack, among other ideas, historicism, structural functionalism, and the roles of social class, gender roles, or ethnicity as even partial determinants of individual behavior. Even the trivial idea that advertising affects individual tastes has been seen as contrary to methodological individualism.

One early version of methodological individualism can be seen in the writings of Thomas Carlyle, in which human history is seen as a collection of the biographies of heroes. William James tried to free methodological individualism of Carlyle’s elitism. He wrote that “communities change from generation to generation” due to not only “the Grants and the Bismarcks, [but also] the Joneses and the Smiths.” Grant and Bismarck were the heads of governments of the U.S. and Prussia respectively when James wrote those words, but they are balanced in this passage by the anonymous Joneses and Smith, who also throw their stones and have their says in the communities’ development.

Methodological individualism is an essential part of modern neoclassical economics, which usually analyses collective action in terms of “rational”, utility-maximizing individuals. This is the so called Homo economicus postulate. In this view, the structure and dynamics of most economic institutions can be explained using it. One example of methodological individualism in economics was the criticism of the Historical School‘s promotion of statistical analysis by the Austrian School of economics in the Methodenstreit.

In sociology, Jon Elster (among others) follows this lead: “The elementary unit of social life is the individual human action,” he argues. “To explain social institutions and social change is to show how they arise as the result of the actions and interaction of individuals. This view, often referred to as methodological individualism, is in my view trivially true.” (Elster, 1989, 13)

Strictly speaking, methodological individualism is not an argument for political individualism. At least, this was Max Weber’s position, who argued at the start of the twentieth century that if a properly-functioning socialist regime were to arise, it too would have to be sociological understood on methodological individualist principles. However, the conflation of methodological with political individualism (i.e., liberalism of the laissez-faire variety) is common, by friends and foes of the former alike. When this is done positively, it is often asserted that the precepts of methodological individualism are a matter of mere commonsense.

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