against methodological individualism

According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry (by Joseph Heath) methodological individualism “amounts to the claim that social phenomena must be explained by showing how they result from individual actions, which in turn must be explained through reference to the intentional states that motivate the individual actors.” I find that I have written three blog posts that are critiques of methodological individualism from different angles. That makes me–I guess–an opponent of it.

In against methodological individualism, or why neighborhoods are not like broccoli, I proposed six reasons why not to treat the neighborhood in which a person lives as a variable that we can assign to the individual person as a causal factor. The neighborhood in which a person lives is neither straightforwardly the result of any individuals’ choices nor a factor that helps explain their actions. Rather, neighborhoods should be thought of as having their own place in causal models. The theorist who inspired these thoughts was Robert Sampson.

In more to life than individual attributes, I argued that we should study mechanisms, processes, and episodes as phenomena that we can generalize about and model, both as causes and consequences. If we always only try to understand rioters as individuals, we will miss what we could learn by studying riots as episodes. The theorists who inspired those thoughts were Doug McAdam, Sidney Tarrow, and Charles Tilly.

And in is social science too anthropocentric? I offered a short review of Brian Epstein’s¬† The Ant Trap:¬†Rebuilding the Foundations of the Social Sciences. One of the conclusions of this book is: “facts about a group are not determined just by facts about its members.” For instance, it is a fact about the Supreme Court that it upheld the Affordable Care Act, but that fact was not determined by the opinions and votes of 9 members. Many other factors came into play, including the actions of the individuals who had created, constituted, limited, and chosen the court.

Many would agree with these points, none of which are original to me. But still a lot of social science is methodologically individualistic, especially the research that is meant to influence policy. In quantitative studies, often the data is a matrix with an individual in each row and a variable in each column. Instead of individuals, the rows may be cities, zip codes, years, or events like crimes or purchases. Still, those are really means or counts that describe groups understood as aggregates of individuals. (For instance, the poverty rate in a zip code is the proportion of the resident individuals who are poor.) And qualitative research is very heavily about what person A, who has descriptive characteristics X and Y, says about topic P in context C.

I think we are missing much that we could learn if we treated not only groups, but places, episodes, and other phenomena as causal.

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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