Political and Methodological Individualism

18 July 2010 at 3:23 pm 8 comments

| Peter Klein |

Further to Nicolai’s post, it is also widely believed that methodological individualism — the chief explanatory principle of economics and rational-choice sociology and political science — implies or justifies political individualism or, even worse, some kind of metaphysical or ontological individualism. “But people are social beings!” cry the critics. Well, sure. Methodological individualism is simply the view that social phenomena should be explained, or understood, in terms of the values, beliefs, plans, and actions of the individual that make up the social whole. It makes no claims about the ultimate source of these values and beliefs, the degree to which people are influenced by society, etc. It is a principle of explanation, nothing more.

Here’s a plain statement from Schumpeter, the guy who coined the term “methodological individualism” (okay, he used methodische Individualismus, and borrowed the concept from Weber), writing in 1908:

[W]e must strictly differentiate between political and methodological individualism, as the two have virtually nothing in common. the former starts form the general assumption that freedom, more than anything, contributes to the development of the individual and the well-being of society as a whole and puts forward a number of practical propositions in support of this. The latter is quite different. It has no specific propositions and no prerequisites, it just means that it bases certain economic processes on the actions of individuals. Therefore the question really is: is it practical to use the individual as a basis and would there be enough scope in doing so, or would it be better, in view of specific problems and the national economy as a whole, to use society as a basis. This question is purely methodological and involves no important principle. The socialists can answer it in terms of methodological individualism and the political individualists in terms of their social concept of things, without getting into conflict with their convictions.

See also the Mises quotes discussed here.

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“De Gustibus Non Est Disputandum”? Misc Academic Links

8 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Rafe  |  18 July 2010 at 5:55 pm

    How often do those old chestnuts have to be put in the fire? One critic of Popper claimed that you have to take the context into account as well as the individual factors. A fair point except that Popper’s case for MI was spelled out in the context of the approach that he called “situational analysis” or “the logic of the situation”.

    A few decades ago there was a protracted debate about MI between protagonists of MI and others, mostly anthropologists who used kinship structures to argue that MI could not work without appealing to supra-individual factors. This is reported in Ian Jarvie’s 1973 book “Concepts and Society”. It was one of those debates that reached no conclusion and did not change anyone’s position.

  • 2. michael webster  |  18 July 2010 at 6:28 pm

    Graham Allison’s book on the Cuban Missile crisis is one of the best examples of rational choice theory without assuming methodological individualism.

  • 3. Nicolai Foss  |  19 July 2010 at 1:25 am

    Michael: So, what does Allison’s book assume, in your opinion? And what is the entity that then engages in rational choice in Allison’s analysis?

  • 4. Nicolai Foss  |  19 July 2010 at 1:26 am

    Rafe: O&M has indeed often featured discussions of MI. See this: http://organizationsandmarkets.com/?s=methodological+individualism

  • 5. Nicolai Foss  |  19 July 2010 at 1:26 am

    Peter: Is methodological individualism without ontological individualism meaningful?

  • 6. Rafe  |  19 July 2010 at 6:44 am

    Sociology students have to discuss something, so they discuss things like “is the individual or the collective the basic unit of sociological analysis?” or “Is there an essential tension between the individual and society?” or “does the individual or the group have ontological priority” or “society begins with the negative – discuss” Dont laugh at the last topic, that was the theme for a whole third year semester with Sartre’s “Being and Nothingness” as the text.

    It depends what you mean by ontological individualism, but I won’t try to put words into Pete’s mouth.

  • 7. Peter Klein  |  19 July 2010 at 12:17 pm

    Nicolai, I guess it depends on how one defines OI (and what you mean by “meaningful”). I think someone could reject OI — holding that social or collective entities have an existence apart from those of their constituent individuals — but that collectives don’t think, act, choose, etc. and that one can’t build social theory without MI. I’m only saying that commitment to MI doesn’t imply belief in OI, at least in some strong version.

    But hey, let’s leave these angels-on-a-pin discussions to our sister blog. ;-)

  • 8. michael webster  |  19 July 2010 at 12:32 pm


    Here is the book’s blurb on their 3 model analysis of the Cuban Missile crisis.

    “The analyst looking to Cuban missile crisis through the lens of “rational actor model” conceives of governmental action as a “choice” made by a unitary and rational nation or national government. In this model, national government is treated as if it is an “individual” identifying problem, producing solution alternatives and picking one of those alternatives up whose result would satisfy the expected utility function of the nation best based on the “purpose” of the nation. The rational actor model analyst generates hypotheses, for example, about why the Soviet Union decided to send nuclear missiles to Cuba: to defend Cuba, rectify the nuclear strategic balance, or provide an advantage in the confrontation over Berlin? The virtue of the model comes from its power of explanation especially in case it is able to expose the “purpose” of the nation/state. So all the puzzling pieces of the relevant issue under question are to be tied into a coherent and satisfactory story.

    The rational actor model falls short of fully understanding of the issue under question in that it does not take account of other equally important considerations. Admittedly, the rational actor model neglects the organizational processes and capabilities that structure the issue or problem under question, and, limit or extend the policy alternatives available to “rational” policy actors. In final instant, it is manifest that policy executives have to decide policy alternative from the “menu” that current organizational technologies and capabilities write. In organizational behavior model, the analyst investigates, for example, the standard operating procedures (SOP) of government organizations in order to understand which policy alternatives are available to political actors and which one is chosen and why. So, the organizational behavior paradigm closes the gaps of the rational actor paradigm.

    Finally, the governmental politics model conceives of governmental policy under question not as a rational actor choice or organizational output but as a “resultant” of bargaining along regular circuits among players positioned hierarchically within the government. In this model, the political actors and their intentions, positions and interests, their relative power, the action channels through which the political actors input and exert their influence, decision rules and similar matters stand to the fore in analysis.

    The three models, according to Allison and Zelikow, are complementary to each other. “Model I fixes the broader context, the larger national patterns, and the shared images. Within this context, Model II illuminates the organizational routines that produce the information, options, and action. Model III focuses in greater detail on the individuals who constitute a government and the politics and procedures by which their competing perceptions and preferences are combined” (p. 392). Rather than giving different answers to the same question, each of the three models illuminates one corner of the issue and contributes to our understanding. By integrating the factors identified under each lens, the authors argue, explanations can be significantly strengthened.”

    Here is Joseph Heath on MI, it is a useful read because Heath points out the main uses for MI, how game theory revitalized MI, and he gives a good explanation of what MI is with non MI examples.

    My own view is that game theory took a very bad turn by focusing unduly on non cooperative game theory at the expense of cooperative game theory. This being a direct result of MI.

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