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methodological individualism

  The view that all social events are fully explained by reducing them to the beliefs and actions of only individuals, and the relations among those individuals. For the methodological individualist, all macro-scale social entities are ultimately decomposable to the beliefs and actions of indecomposable individuals (cf. structuration theory). society, therefore, is treated as a chimera, something that appears real but which is not. As a perspective, methodological individualism is usefully contrasted with, on the one hand, approaches that accentuate the importance and reality of trans-individual social structures (as found, for example, in structural Marxism; cf. Marxist geography), and approaches that deny the autonomy of individual human subjects altogether (as found, for example, within post-structuralism).

Philosophically, methodological individualism justifies its position on the grounds that a real explanation is one that explains by reducing phenomena or events to their most fundamental constituent elements. The model here is natural science, which typically explains by reducing phenomena or events to their most basic cause, for example at the atomic or subatomic level. A similar general approach, suggest methodological individualists, is required for the human world where what is fundamental is individuals and their beliefs, desires, intentions and reasons. All social aggregates and their relationships must be correspondingly reduced to them.

In spite of its seemingly greater explanatory purchase, methodological individualism typically presumes that individuals are governed by the singular motive of rational choice. Because of this association with the rationality postulate, methodological individualism is found most readily in neo-classical economics (and its spatial counterpart regional science), and more recently in analytical Marxism. Also because of that same association, as well as its broader derogation of the social, it is subject to vigorous criticism. (TJB)

Suggested Reading Elster, J. 1989: The cement of society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Levine, A., Sober, E. and Wright, E.O. 1987: Marxism and methodological individualism. New Left Review 162: 67-84. Przeworski, A. 1985: Marxism and rational choice. Politics and Society 14: 379-409.



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