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Analysing And Understanding Methodological Individualism Philosophy Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Philosophy
Wordcount: 1791 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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“The search for Mechanisms is an important task for social theory, but conceiving that task as one of reduction sets tasks for the social scientists that are both unnecessary and apparently unattainable”. Explain.

“Methodological Individualism was introduced as a methodological precept for the social sciences by Max Weber, most importantly in the first chapter of Economy and Society (1968 [1922]). It 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.”(Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).

The field of Social Sciences has a long ancestry of the debate between Methodological Individualism and Methodological Holism. The former finds evidence in the contention of the social scientists like Weber, Popper, Kincaid and many others. However the major critics of the doctrine include Goldstein, Durkheim and other social scientists.

This paper aims to discuss the various criticisms and objections raised by supporters of Explanatory thesis of Methodological Individualism, to elaborate the charges and explain the justifications provided by defenders of Reductive thesis of Methodological Individualism.

Methodological Individualism

According to Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, the phrase methodische Individualismus was actually coined by Weber’s student, Joseph Schumpeter, in his 1908 work Das Wesen und der Hauptinhalt der theoretischen Nationalökonomie. The first use of the term “methodological individualism” in English was again by Schumpeter in his 1909 Quarterly Journal of Economics paper, “On the Concept of Social Value” (Udehn 2001, 214). However, the theoretical elaboration of the doctrine is due to Weber, and Schumpeter uses the term as a way of referring to the Weberian view.”

The doctrine of Methodological Individualism has its roots very deep down in history of Social Sciences. There were many proponents of this doctrine and each of them conceived it in a different way, however they commonly supported the fact that Social Phenomena should be explained in terms of individuals. It consists of the major five theses:

The ontological thesis – All social entities are merely aggregate compounds of individuals. This thesis was majorly propagated by Steven Lukes. In his paper, “Methodological Individualism Reconsidered”, Lukes states that Methodological individualism is a prescription for explanation, asserting that no purported explanations of social or individual phenomena are to count as explanations unless they are couched wholly in terms of facts about individuals.

The meaning thesis – All social concepts must be definable in terms of concepts referring only to individuals, their relations, and their behavior.

The explanatory thesis

The regulative thesis

The law-reduction thesis

However within the field of Methodological Individualism we further find two diverse strands of social scientists that base their theory on the Inductive and Deductive methods of Logic.


The strings of application of Deductive method can be seen in J.W.N.Watkins paper, “Historical Explanation in the Social Sciences”. He states that according to the principle of Methodological Individualism, “the ultimate constituents of the social world are individual people who act more or less appropriately in the light of their dispositions and understanding of their situation”. (Martin, 1994:442). His theory forms a part of the Reduction and Regulative thesis as he held that all the social theories must be compatible with certain set of principles.


One of the major proponents of the doctrine of Methodological Individualism was Harold Kincaid. In his paper “Reduction, Explanation and Individualism”, he puts forward his views about the doctrine and defends numerous objections raised against it.

For Kincaid, “Methodological Individualism is the thesis that no large-scale social events are explained until we have deduced an account of them from statements about the dispositions, beliefs, resources, and interrelations and individuals.”(Martin, 1994:498). He criticized the reductionists claim that all Social Phenomenas must be explained in terms of individuals by reducing them to individualistic terms. Thus his theory is more Inductive than Deductive.

In his Paper he considers the various reductionist claims made by individualist:

Social theory referring to social entities, events, etc., is reducible to theory or theories referring only to individuals;

Such reduction is perhaps not possible now but is in principle possible; and

Reduction requires law like co-extensionality between the primitive predicates of social theory and some predicate in the reducing theory.

He argues that the reductionist thesis seems false because of the three empirical obstacles to reduction:

Social predicates or kinds are typically multiply realizable in individualistic terms

Individualist descriptions of behavior often do not uniquely determine their social description (they are context-sensitive)

So called individualistic accounts typically end up presupposing various facts or truths about social entities.

He thus advocates that Methodological Individualism must be a thesis about explanation rather than a thesis about reduction. He claims that “some reference to individuals is a necessary condition for any full explanation of social phenomena”. He supports this claim by the following arguments:

He holds that there is “closeness” between the social and individual levels because much of our knowledge about social entities comes from the observations of individual activities.

Many social predicates (like “needs”, “interests”, etc.) apply equally and paradigmatically to individuals.


Raimo Tuomela in his paper “Methodological Individualism and Explanation” defends the prospects for reduction by criticizing the arguments presented by Kincaid in “Reduction, Explanation and Individualism”. His criticisms fall under three broad categories:-

Prospects for successful reduction- Toumela claims that social scientists have been successful in demonstrating that how social predicates can be constructed from individual predicates. She claims that groups can be constructed out of individual roles which in turn can be constructed from individual norms.

Supervenience guarantees adequate individualist explanation- Toumela argues against the claim that “explanations in terms of supervenience bases are bound to leave unanswered questions about patterns appearing at higher levels”. (Kincaid, 1998). She holds that this argument is inherently flawed because it begs the question by assuming that there are questions about social kinds to be answered. She states “The basic issue in the debate is merely the truth or falsity of this proposition”. (Toumela, 1990:100)

The Eliminativist defence- Toumela defends reduction by arguing that no irreducible theories referring to social entities will, or can, be adequate.


In his defence Kincaid give several arguments in his paper entitled, “Eliminativism and Methodological Individualism”. He frames his reasons against the three arguments provided by toumela.

1) Prospects for successful reduction- Kincaid claims that the individualistic “reconstructions” of social predicates to individualistic predicates fall far short of providing reductions. He argues that by knowing that social groups are norms and norms are roles one does not ensure the definition of social concepts like “class”, “peer group” etc. He holds that Toumela’s defense does not contribute towards explaining social phenomenas in individualistic terms. He puts forward the following examples to show that certain social concepts are irreducible:

Generalizations about bureaucracy and its relation to other social institutions.

Generalizations about the behavior of firms, house-holds and non-profit organizations.

The work from anthropology of small-scale societies relating warfare’s, existence of elites, religious institutions etc.

The reason why these concepts are irreducible is that they are defined functionally- in terms of their effects, roles, causes etc. This makes it difficult to capture them at lower individualistic levels.

2) Supervenience guarantees adequate individualist explanation- Kincaid argues that the basic issue in the debate of Methodological Individualism is not the mere truth or falsity. He further argues that supervenience fails to support reduction because:

Scarcity of ways to delineate all the possible supervenience bases.

It prevents reasonable definition for individual predicates by showing that the relation between the reduced and reducing predicates is many-to-many.

The supervenience base may be described in a way as to suppose the reduced theory.

3) The Eliminativist defence- Kincaid opines that eliminativist defence of individualism is not plausible as:

Eliminativist as a general doctrine threatens to rule out the individualist programme.

Kincaid claims that the various apriori arguments that have been advanced in the literature to show that irreducible macro-level theory is inadequate are improbable.


Thus from the above discussion it is clear that there is no clear consensus in the field of Methodological Individualism as to whether it must be described as explanatory or reduction thesis. Further investigations and researches in this direction are necessary if some progress have to be made in this field. Thus Kincaid’s claim that “The search for Mechanisms is an important task for social theory, but conceiving that task as one of reduction sets tasks for the social scientists that are both unnecessary and apparently unattainable” still remains debatable in spite of numerous efforts made in this direction to refute and prove the claim


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