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Methodological individualism is a widely-used term in the social sciences. Its advocates see it as a philosophical method aimed at explaining and understanding broad society-wide developments as the aggregation of decisions by individuals. It has also been regarded as a form of "methodological reductionism,"[1] a reduction of the explanation of all large entities by reference to smaller ones. The term was originally coined by Joseph Schumpeter (1908, 1909).

Laszlo Garai considers that the methodological individualism is epistemologically rooted in the mode of thinking of the social psychology as compared with that of general psychology: while this latter accords the intra-individual phenomena it investigates to the intra-individual mechanism of the brain the inter-individual phenomena studied by the social psychology has not been accorded to an adequat inter-individual mechanism. Garai presented his theory of such a mechanism in his keynote paper on the International Conference dedicated to the 100th anniversary of Lev Vygotsky. [2]

Methodological individualism does not imply political individualism, although methodological individualists like Friedrich Hayek and Karl Popper were opponents of collectivism. Detaching methodological individualism from political individualism, Max Weber's position, argued at the start of the twentieth century that if a properly-functioning communist regime were to arise, it too would have to be sociologically understood on methodological individualist principles. But the conflation of methodological with political individualism (i.e., liberalism of the laissez-faire variety) is common, by friends and foes of the former alike.

Importantly, there are different formulations of the term and some of the differences have crucial implications (Udéhn 2001, 2002, Hodgson 2007). It is sometimes confused with ontological individualism, with statements such as "society consists of individuals", or the "whole" is nothing but the "sum of its parts" (atomism). Ontology is about existence. Methodology, by contrast, is about explanation.

Even in methodological terms there are serious ambiguities. Some accounts are unclear whether methodological individualism means (a) explanations in terms of individuals alone, or (b) explanations in terms of individuals plus relations between individuals. The Nobel economist Kenneth Arrow (1994) proposes that the narrower version (a) is not achieved in practice.

On the other hand, the broader version (b) would be rejected by very few social scientists. In version (b) "relations between individuals" amount to social structures (by prominent definitions of "social structure"). Hence version (b) amounts to the rule that explanations should be in terms of both individuals and social structures. The question, then, is why this should warrant the description of "methodological individualism", as social structure is an equally vital part of the story (Hodgson 2007).


Social science

Methodological individualism denies that a collectivity is an autonomous decision-maker, and demands that the social sciences ground their theories in individual action. The idea has also been used to attack, among other ideas, historicism, structural functionalism, and the roles of social class, gender roles, or ethnicity as determinants of individual behavior. The idea that advertising affects individual tastes has been seen as contrary to methodological individualism.

One early version of methodological individualism can be seen in the writings of Thomas Carlyle, in which human history is seen as a collection of the biographies of heroes. (See philosophy of history.) William James tried to free methodological individualism of Carlyle's elitism. He wrote that "communities change from generation to generation" due to not only "the Grants and the Bismarcks, [but also] the Joneses and the Smiths." Grant and Bismarck were the heads of governments of the U.S. and Prussia respectively when James wrote those words, but they are balanced in this passage by the anonymous Joneses and Smith, who also throw their stones and have their says in the communities' development.



It is claimed that methodological individualism is an essential part of modern neoclassical economics, which usually analyzes collective action in terms of "rational", utility-maximizing individuals. This is the Homo economicus postulate. In this view, the structure and dynamics of most economic institutions can be explained using it.

However, methodological individualism does not require that the utility function of each individual may be known. In Mises' praxeology, for instance, rational individuals are held to act on their most important needs first, but individuals don't necessarily have a numerical value for each of their needs.

One alleged example of methodological individualism in economics was the criticism of the Historical School's promotion of statistical analysis by the Austrian School of economics in the Methodenstreit.


In sociology, Jon Elster (among others) is well-known for following this lead: "The elementary unit of social life is the individual human action," he argues. "To explain social institutions and social change is to show how they arise as the result of the actions and interaction of individuals. This view, often referred to as methodological individualism, is in my view trivially true."[3]

See also


  1. ^ Healey, Richard. Holism and Nonseparability in Physics: Methodological Holism. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2008-10-10.
  2. ^ Vygotskian implications: On the meaning and its brain. Proceedings, No. 3. Pre-published: The brain and the mechanism of psychosocial phenomena. Journal of Russian and East-European Psychology. 31:6. 71-91.
  3. ^ Elster, Jon (1989), Nuts and Bolts for the Social Sciences, page 13, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.

Further reading

  • Kenneth J. Arrow (1994). "Methodological Individualism and Social Knowledge," American Economic Review, 84(2), pp. 1-9.
  • Kaushik Basu (2008). "methodological individualism," The New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics, 2nd Edition. Abstract.
  • Friedrich A. Hayek (1948). Individualism and Economic Order.
  • _____ (1952), The Counter-Revolution of Science: Studies in the Abuse of Reason.
  • Heath, Joseph (2005), "Methodological Individualism", Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Edward N. Zalta (ed.), Eprint.
  • Hodgson, Geoffrey M. (2007) "Meanings of Methodological Individualism", Journal of Economic Methodology 14(2), June, pp. 211–26.
  • Harold Kincaid (2008). "individualism versus holism," The New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics, 2nd Edition. Abstract.
  • McClamrock, Ron (1991), "Methodological Individualism Considered as a Constituive Principle of Scientific Inquiry", Philosophical Psychology.
  • von Mises, Ludwig, "The Principle of Methodological Individualism", chapt. 2 in Human Action, Eprint.
  • Karl Popper (1945), The Open Society and Its Enemies.
  • Karl Popper (1957), The Poverty of Historicism (earlier published as articles in the journal "Economica").
  • Joseph Schumpeter (1908) Das Wesen und der Hauptinhalt der theoretischen Nationalökonomie (München und Leipzig: Duncker und Humblot).
  • Joseph Schumpeter (1909) "On the Concept of Social Value", Quarterly Journal of Economics, 23(2), February, pp. 213–32.
  • Udéhn, Lars (2001) Methodological Individualism: Background, History and Meaning (London and New York: Routledge).
  • Udéhn, Lars (2002) "The Changing Face of Methodological Individualism", Annual Review of Sociology, 28, pp. 479–507.


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