Thursday, January 31, 2013

Methodological individualism versus methodological holism

Methodological localism emphasizes two ways in which actors are socially embedded. Actors are socially situated and socially constituted.
Socially situated. In any given situation individuals are embedded within a set of social relations and institutions that create opportunities and costs for them. They have friends and enemies, they have bosses and workers, they have neighbors and co-religionists, they have families. All of these relations and institutions serve to constitute the environment within which they make plans and perform their actions....
Socially constituted. The second form of social embeddedness is deeper and more persistent. The individual’s values, commitments, emotions, social ideals, repertoires of action, scripts of behavior, and ways of conceiving of the world are themselves the products of a lifetime of local social experiences. Individuals are socialized throughout their childhoods and adult lives into specific ways of thinking and acting, and the mosaic of these experiences serves to constitute the moral, emotional, and practical characteristics of the individual’s social-cognitive system. The way the individual thinks about the social world is itself a feature of his/her social setting. Moreover, the mechanisms of socialization—schools, religious institutions, military experience, playgrounds, families—are themselves concrete social phenomena that are amenable to empirical sociological investigation, and they too are locally embodied....
These two aspects of embeddedness provide the foundation for rather different kinds of social explanation and inquiry. The first aspect of social embeddedness is entirely compatible with a neutral and universal theory of the agent -- including rational choice theory in all its variants. The actor is assumed to be configured in the same way in all social contexts; what differs is the environment of constraint and opportunity that he or she confronts....
The second aspect, by contrast, assumes that human actors are to some important degree "plastic", and they take shape in different ways in different social settings. The developmental context -- the series of historically specific experiences the individual has as he/she develops personality and identity -- leads to important variations in personality and agency in different settings. So just knowing that the local social structure has a certain set of characteristics -- the specifics of a share-cropping regime, let us say -- doesn't allow us to infer how things will work out. We also need to know the features of identity, perception, motivation, and reasoning that characterize the local people before we can work out how they will process the features of the structure in which they find themselves. This insight suggests a research approach that drills down into the specific features of agency that are at work in a situation, and then try to determine how actors with these features will interact socially and collectively.
If both actors and structures differ substantially across social settings, then there are many possible pathways that interactions and processes can take.
Understanding Society
Social embeddedness and methodological localism
Daniel Little | Chancellor, University of Michigan at Dearborn

Daniel Little's methodological localism is a weak form of methodological individualism, the strong form being methodological atomism, or the view that by everything can be known about a group by examination of the individuals alone, apart from their relations. 

My own view is that of methodological holism, toward which the concept of being "socially constituted" points. 

Methodological holism is based in the assumption that societies are complex adaptive systems rather than mechanical ones. This is different from methodological collectivism, which holds that everything can be known about a system, including the elements, by examining the system alone, apart from individual elements.

Most social scientists reject methodological atomism and collectivism, and focus on either methodological individualism or holism. Generally the disagreements are over "microfoundations." Methodological individualists insist on strong microfoundations, while methodological holists emphasize context.

Methodological holism recognizes that individuals in human societies are related through reflection, reflexivity, and reciprocity as individuals, and interconnected through social, political, and economic institutions in such fashion that their behavior is interdependent. 

In addition, cultural beliefs, traditions, and rituals provide the contexts and sub-contexts in terms of which individuals relate not only to others but also to themselves. Individuals are not only embedded in context in the sense of being situated, but also their worldview, language, customs, values, norms, preferences, attitudes and so forth are constituted by context. Not only are individuals different across contexts, but also individuals change (adapt) as context shifts, resulting in emergence that is not predictable based on prior data.

The stronger the methodological individualism, the more a priori assumptions can be. The greater the methodological holism, the more a posteriori assumptions must be in order to make space for adaptation and emergence. 

See, for instance, Methodological Individualism vs. Holism by Carl Ratner, Director, Institute for Cultural Research and Education.

1 comment:

Unknown said...


"Methodological holism recognizes that individuals in human societies are related through reflection, reflexivity, and reciprocity as individuals, and interconnected through social, political, and economic institutions in such fashion that their behavior is interdependent."

I'd turn this round, and say that our behaviour is interdependent and we do that in a potentially infinity of different ways. This can include the effects of being reflexive. But we also pay taxes and that doesn't absolutely require reflexivity etc. just simply paying over the money with little but the technical adding up and the paying over of money to the state.

What we do do is learn. Learning is a pretty strong capacity for doing old things over and over again, and doing new things for the first time e.g. because we respond sometimes to commands/demands as one of the infinitude of ways of being interdependent. Tuatara don't do this.

And importantly, we can also be taught or develop reflexivity - but some people don't do reflexivity as sure as tuatara don't live by command. Which then makes it difficult to describe the 'mechanism' of social relations as uniquely requiring reflexivity in order to work. As you can see I don't think individual people have a set of ways of thinking, dispositions, or a presumed inner life that ensure for example, that we pay our taxes or the many other interdependent things we do. And surely some of us don't pay our taxes, although that doesn't make us tuatara either.

Describing social relations this way makes it much easier to theorise what we can observe as 'historical emergence''. We think, decide, learn and do etc. - in no necessary order and in varying amounts! You then ask the question (many times over) how then do we do this - and get descriptions of the many and potentially unlimited ways that we observe this happening. Institutions of course, yes. But we set them up in ways that rule us or guide us. We have learnt how to create institutions just like we learnt how to smelt iron. But they are non the less emergent features of our interdependence. Which leads us back to tuataras, and to historical times when we had no institutions nor smelting. And exactly because our history is emergent we can also lose these very same institutions, smelting and tuataras, never to be seen again.