Article

Methodological Individualism

Lars Udehn

in Sociology

ISBN: 9780199756384
Published online December 2012 | | DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0092
Methodological Individualism

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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.

Article.  12646 words. 

Subjects: Sociology ; Comparative and Historical Sociology ; Economic Sociology ; Gender and Sexuality ; Health, Illness, and Medicine ; Population and Demography ; Race and Ethnicity ; Social Movements and Social Change ; Social Stratification, Inequality, and Mobility ; Social Theory

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