Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Meaning of Methodological Individualism Explained

Methodological Individualism is a widely used method in the social sciences , arguing that all social phenomena -structure and changes- are in principle explicable by individual elements, ie the properties of individuals , such as their goals , their beliefs and your actions. Its defenders see it as a philosophy-method destined to the explanation and broad understanding of the evolution of the whole society as the aggregate of the decisions of individuals. In principle it is a reductionism , that is, a reduction of the explanation of all the large entities with references in the smaller ones.


Methodological individualism denies that a collectivity is an autonomous decision-making organism , and demands that the social sciences base their theories on individual action.  This idea has also been used to attack, among other ideas, historicism , structuralist functionalism , 'sociologism' or the belief that the functions of social class , gender roles , or ethnicity as determining factors of individual behavior .


Methodological Individualism and Reductionism

The reductionism of methodological individualism is a rational reductionism , since as the goal of science is to explain reality by means of laws, it is necessary to summarize the chain of causes and effects .

This reductionism, from this perspective, is not an end in itself but a means both to give a more detailed explanation, and to better understand what happens when we go from the macro to the micro and from shorter to longer periods of time.


Intentional explanations

Methodological individualism uses intentional explanations to understand individual phenomena. Intentional explanations are formed by the individual actions of agents. Thus then, a collective action can be explained by distributing the purposes and goals of the group in each of the agents. The fundamental thing about intentional explanations is the specification of the goal, that is, the situation that the group wants and for which the action is carried out.


Some of these explanations are based on the 'rational' maximization of individual utilities or cost-benefit , as is the case of the neoclassical school ; others maintain that rational individuals act to satisfy their most important needs, however these needs cannot be valued numerically, and depend on subjectivity , as indicated by the Austrian school .  The most developed intentional explanations are found in theories like praxeología  or rational choice theory . 



To explain individual behavior, we start from the characteristics of individual action, but as a methodological consideration and not as an assumption about human nature ; it does not presuppose selfishness , not even the rationality of individual actions. Methodological individualism does not necessarily imply political individualism either, although a formulation on methodological individualism could show hypotheses about the relationships of individuals towards society that are favorable to individual freedom and contrary to collectivism .

Methodological Individualism is sometimes confused with ontological individualism ( atomism ) according to which society is the sum of individuals and is nothing more than the sum of its parts. However ontology is about existence while methodology is about explanation. Methodological individualism is alert to premature reductionisms or excessive simplifications that could give rise to arbitrary explanations.